Kings in Grass Castles

The Duracks and the East Kimberley

During our stay two months ago at Lake Argyll and Kununurra we could not help but be impressed by the stamp the Durack family had placed on the entire East Kimberly area. After all it was the last week before a Federal election and we were in the electorate of Durack (Australia’s biggest – might be the world’s largest).

Nestled amidst the gullies and dwarfed by the landscape sits the homestead from Argyll Downs, relocated here before the flooding of the property by the damming of the Ord River to form Lake Argyll

We hiked across the stony gullies and ridges to visit the Argyle Downs homestead, relocated to the bank of the Lake Argyll when the Ord River Dam flooded the enormous property, which was the gem in the Durack cattle empire. I photographed the homestead and the graveyard, little realising the impact that these viewings would have on me over the next two months.

I purchased a small paperback “Pilgrimage – a journey through the life and writings of Mary Durack” compiled by the daughters of Dame Mary, and so much enjoyed the poetry , short stories and newspaper writing that I downloaded the audiobook of “Kings in Grass Castles”. Over the next 8 weeks, listening to an hour each day of driving we were enthralled by this story of her family and the history of squatting in three states and the Northern Territory.


The wide verandahs and stonework, built by Patsy Durack show the character of the building designed for the oppressive climate of the East Kimberly

It chronicles three generations of the Durack families travels from famine-bound Ireland, through servitude in NSW to owning property first near Goulburn, then droving their cattle via unmapped trails to Coopers Creek in Queensland. Finally, in Patsy Durack’s old age (Mary’s Grandfather), to be amongst the first white people to settle in the East Kimberly. They squatted on million’s of hectares of properties South of Wyndham to across near Hall’s Creek – the top of Australia.


Handmade furniture transported by cart from Goulburn NSW, used for twenty years at Coopers Creek in Queensland and then bought across the trackless paths used by the cattle driven from Queensland to the unexplored grassy plains of the Kimberley

Listening to this story gave me such an admiration for this generation of pioneers and the sacrifices they made to settle this amazing land. They were seen by those in the settled southern regions as land hungry, rapacious squatters – rich men. In reality they fought drought, flood, disease, loneliness with none of the comforts of wealth. Months, sometimes years in the saddle droving cattle into places which  had never even been explored. Within three generations their Castles of Grass were lost to drought, disease, the tyranny of distance and the vagaries of the early developing Australian economy.


Here lies PUMPKIN (member of the Boontamurra tribe of Coopers Creek) who from boyhood served Patrick Durack of Thylungra, Western Queensland, following his sons to the West in 1887 and rendered faithful friendship and devotion to the day of his death in 1908. Erected to his memory by MP Durack 1950


The most significant personal learning was about the complexities of the relationships between white settlers and the aboriginal people in the places they lived and the controversy this issue raised between different settlers and between people in the settled southern areas and the wild northern areas as to how to deal with the violence between the indigenous “owners” of the land and the new comers with technology like rifles and horses to wreak havoc on those who dared spear their cattle or repel their advances.

The story of Pumpkin, told in brief on his tombstone showed a better way. Pumpkin was buried with Patsy Durack’s religious medals, the most significant gift this deeply religious Irishman could leave him and wearing the gold watch given to the man Patsy described as his best and most faithful friend – a full-blooded aboriginal man.

You are the earth, Your face the face of ages,

Not of one birth, But of a timeless changing;

From soil to seed, from bird to beast

From rock to river and from sea to sky

Since lofe began your cycle has not ceased

And while your country lives you do not die

Mary Durack – 1936 “To an Ord River Aborigine – On His Walkabout”





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