The Overlanders

Mr William N.M. MacDonald, owner of Fossil Downs Station was to have written this story, but while we were reading his promise to do so an aircraft of the Royal Flying Doctor Service with doctor and nursing sister from the Australian Inland Mission was speeding him to hospital. We wish him a complete recovery.

A journey of nearly 4000 miles across the Australian continent by three MacDonalds to establish the first cattle station in the Kimberley Plains of Western Australia is one of the epics of the pioneering days.

These pioneers were the sons of Donald MacDonald a native of Skye who with his wife and three sons emigrated to Australia in the latter half of last century. The MacDonald family settled in Tuena near Coulburn in New South Wales and built up a prosperous cattle station.

Donald MacDonald, however, decided to move his stock overland to new country in the Kimberleys in the northern part of Western Australia a distance of some 4000 miles. The family were ready to move when in 1882 the father was thrown from his horse and killed.

His sons Donald, Charles and William determined to carry on and set out with four helpers to drive 1000 Shorthorn breeding cows and 100 horses. They crossed into Queensland without mishap, but then their good fortune deserted them for they encountered one of the worst droughts in the history of the State. With their cattle dying they struggled on to a waterhole where they were compelled to squat until September 1884. They then pushed on further north and by taking fencing jobs raised money to rebuild their herd.

When the expedition again encountered drought-stricken country the four helpers left. The three brothers carried on into North Queensland. Swimming their herd across rivers infested by crocodiles, once fighting off an attack by aborigines they reached the fever-ridden lagoons of the Northern Territory. There Charles MacDonald became ill, and, to save his life, Donald took his brother to Darwin for medical attention leaving William to struggle on along with the herd, flow sadly depleted by red-water fever.

William MacDonald eventually reached Western Australia and with the assistance of a helper drove the cattle across the plains to the junction of the Margaret and Fitzroy Rivers.

Some months later in 1885 he was joined by his two brothers who had travelled south by sea and the three of them set about establishing a cattle station at Fossil Downs. Ten years later their courage and endurance began to bear fruit.

Today Fossil Downs is one of the finest cattle stations in the North-West and the ZV5 brand of Fossil Downs stock has been seen as far afield as Java, Singapore, Brisbane, Adelaide, Kalgoorlie and Perth. Nearly 1000 bulls have been sold from Fossil Downs in recent years to improve the quality of Northern beef herds and the station has for many years bred Poll Shorthorns. In 1934 Fossil Downs was the first station to transport cattle by motor truck – over 230 miles of un-constructed road. In 1950 a new era was inaugurated with the transport by air of 20 bulls from the station. This flight of more than 100 miles delivered the consignment in 32 minutes against the three weeks droving trip. Fossil Downs now has special loading facilities for any type of freighter aircraft.

In 1957 the Government of Western Australia and the Western Australia Historical Society erected a memorial to commemorate the pioneers including the MacDonalds. At Fossil Downs, the end of that memorable trek is marked by a cairn, a plaque and one of the original waggon tyres.