I’ve known Jimmy Wavehill for a few years now. People call him “that handsome man” or “that famous man” and Jimmy won’t deny either – though he is usually pretty modest about his long life with the horses and cattle and country to the west and south of Katherine in the Northern Territory where he was born and has lived his long life.

I caught up with Jimmy at Timber Creek earlier this year. This is part one of his story – here he talks mainly about his early life travelling around country with his father and working on stations in the NT’s western districts.

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My bush name is Nowandja. I was born near Katherine at Low Level in about 1941, before the Japanese bombed Darwin and Katherine. I was born in the bush. My mother, her name was Little Minnie, put me in the coolamon, carried me ‘round in the coolamon. My father was called Left-hand Charlie. His blackfella name was Mulyungarni. They were from Daly Waters and Newcastle Waters. They used to be travelling together before I was born. 

When I was a little boy I used to hear the elders, you know, just talking. That used to go into my brain when I was growing up. Those stories came into my brain then. Then I was thinking, “Oh, well, that is good. When I grow up I just want to do things just like my father does.” 

I can speak and hear Mudbura, Jingili, Alawa. I never been to school. It was Welfare time then. They didn’t chase me around. I was learning in the stock camp. I don’t know reading and writing English. I can spell my name but I can’t read and write. I was travelling with my father. I was only a little boy. We started from Nutwood Downs Station and we got to Maryfield Station and they were mustering the cattle, branding and all that.

My father used to do the bronco horses and roping all the cleanskins and take them to the bronco yard. They used to make rope and catch ‘em up. Brand ‘em, cut balls and horn and everything. I was watching and learning all the time. My father was a top man with a horse and with cattle.

One head stockman he had two Blue Heeler dogs and he said to all them elders, you know “I don’t need them camp dogs around – they might spoil my dogs. I don’t want you mob playin’ with my dogs.” No kids been there, only myself. Everyone was off working. Anyway, I went out and was playing with those two dogs. That head stockman seen me and he came out from the yard and smacked me hard on the bum. I was crying and crying. My father was in the bronco yard and my father saw what that bloke done to me.

So he took that bullock to the bronco panel and roped it off and got off the bronco horse and gave it to another bloke and he went and talked to that head stockman “Hey, why you done that to my son?” That head stockman said “I told you I didn’t want that kid to play with my dogs.” He said “What, you taking the place for your son?”

My dad said “Yeah, that’s the only son I’ve got.

That head stockman and my father had a good go in the yard. He wanted to beat my father but my father been too good for him.

After my father knocked that bloke out he got a rope and jammed that bloke in the bronco panel. He made that head stockman squeal. (laughs)

My father and I pulled out from there. Got his swag, put me in the saddle-bags and we went walking towards Larrimah way, there was an Aboriginal camp there, the compound for the Aboriginal people that used to work for the army. My father got a job there and he used to work with the Army at Gorrie near to Wubaluwan now.

That place was good. The Army used to treat us well,  real good tucker.

After the war my father took me to Darwin at Berrimah. Later we went back to Larrimah for work.

There were still a lot of Army, a lot of Americans camped everywhere at Larrimah then. After my father finished work there we went to Mataranka then we went to Maranboy. You can still see where the old army camp was and all the old mines. Later we went to Barunga and we were staying then we all ran out of tucker there – we were starving for a feed. I was still a kid then.

I been get my knowledge then.

Then two men found my father and we went to Old Delamere Station and I grew up there. My father put me in the stock camp on the station. That was my first job. I was learning how to ride a horse and how to muster cattle.

Those old people used to tell us “Young fella, go out and get us a killer (beef).” Some of us used to be riding colts, you know, quiet ones … but we forgot all about that killer. We used to just go out to the river, on the sand. We’d put all the bush on the side and get on the rough horse with the spur and spur him up good way you know, so he would buck good way. We used to get thrown everywhere – but on the sand. That’s the way we used to learn to fall off a horse properly (laughs).

After that we been really good – good cattlemen, good horsemen. I never got broken leg or arm nothing. I learned how to fall off good way.

I had a lot of rough horses. I heard stories from Wave Hill about us stockmen at Delamere. They used to say that us mob at Delamere can handle those rough horses. They used to send those horses, real wild ones, you know? Nobody been ride them for three years or so and they used to send them to Delamere for us. We’d be arguing with each other over who would get the roughest horse! (laughs)

I was good on a horse. I’d do it with my feet, turn that horse when he tried to buck me off and then get back on again. I learnt that all from my Dad. He’d tell me to get on the horse. He’d say “Don’t back out, get on that horse and learn something!

I was at Delamere nearly nine years – I was a grown man by then.

I got initiation at Willeroo. At holiday time they came and got me and put me in the ceremony, made me a man at Willeroo.

I worked through all that country. My foot-track is all through that country. I foot-walked from Delamere to Willeroo and all over.

That Vestey mob, they was real tough people. They didn’t like we in those days. They could be cheeky bastards, they used to fight with us and we used to fight back.

They sold Delamere and we took a mob of horses from Delamere through to Victoria River Downs station (VRD) and from VRD to Mount Sandford and then to Limbunya Station. From Limbunya we took those horses over to Waterloo Station.

When we had to sell those horses at Waterloo we was really crying for that horses. We used to like those horses, they were just like a father for us. We used to learn from those horses, they used to buck and jump and we worked hard with them and make them real quiet. They were really like family, real mates for us. I miss those days. All my mates.

Later I went to Wave Hill and we stayed there. Then the manager wanted me back at Manbulloo Station, so I went back there. I was married up by then. I only got married one time, it was at Vestey’s time.

That Vestey’s mob used to be run-amuck for Aboriginal girl – all them white fellas – stockmen, ringers and all.

My wife was going to marry one half-caste bloke from Queensland, but she left that old fella. Me and her used to love each other, you know, real friends. After that I went to that half-caste bloke and we been arguing and arguing. I pulled that girl off that bloke and me and that bloke had a big rip.

I grabbed that girl and came into the bush. Her family had heard that story and they came and told me and my wife “You two can go – she can go with you and live with you.” Her father and mother said that to me and my wife.

After I got married traditional way. We had two kids to start with. My eldest is in Kununurra and another one is at Kalkaringi. We had two while I was working there at Wave Hill. Then when we went to Limbunya we had three blokes born at Limbunya. Four really but one been pass away.

And I got three girls – and ten grandchildren – I’m a good bull eh! (laughs)

I want to talk on the tape so I can make my histories and to make my family happy.

Family is just about the most important thing for me.

The other thing that is important is country. I have been in a lot of land claims and native title claims.

They call me Jimmy WaveHill. I’m a famous man!

I’m happy and I feel proud that I can do that good work. I teach a lot of other people, about the right way to behave and all that.

I want to put them through the same school that I been through with my old people – I’m passing on all that knowledge. That makes me feel happy.


Next – Jimmy’s role in the Wave Hill walk-off, his views on the NT Intervention and local government reform …


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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