SETTLED: Dawn McTaggart has finally settled down on a small property on the outskirts of Warwick.
SETTLED: Dawn McTaggart has finally settled down on a small property on the outskirts of Warwick. Jojo Newby

Busy raising a family on the road

WHEN Dawn McTaggart sees a mob of cattle on the road, she gets a feeling of home sickness. The drover's wife raised her four children on the road, travelling in a truck and caravan from camp to camp.

Dawn was born in Moree and, when she was a toddler, her family moved to Goondiwindi; their possessions transported by horse and sulky. She was just a kid when she met the drover's son who would become her husband.

"We knew the whole McTaggart family when we were just kids, growing up in Goondiwindi," she said.

Dawn's father, Leo Girard, managed a property on the outskirts of town. Droving man Hilton McTaggart ran horses on the property, and Dawn would see Hilton and his son, Bruce, catching the horses in the paddock.

It wasn't until a few years later that Bruce and Dawn really got to know each other.

"He was a kid in town and I was a kid out in the bush," she laughed.

I think being on the road taught the kids a lot about life. It certainly didn't hurt 'em. But the best thing I ever could have done was go to school and get an education.

"My mum, Sybil, and Bruce's mother, Mabel, became the best of mates. When we were teenagers, I used to ride out and Bruce would come from town and we'd meet half way.

"We used to go everywhere on the horses."

When asked if there was a spark between the pair as young teenagers, Dawn took a second to answer, but hubby Bruce was quick to chip in from across the room.

"Of course there was," he chuckled.

As a youngster, Bruce would join his father on droving runs and was 10 years old when he quit school to become a drover full-time.

Dawn was nonchalant about the stresses of dating a droving man.

"They just went off to work and they'd come home eventually ... just the same as when you're married to them," she laughed.

In 1964, their first son, Shane, was born. In the following years three more baby McTaggarts - Clint, Jody and Kylie - arrived, and soon they were a family of six.

"We had all our kids before we were married ... we were bad," laughed Dawn.

With more mouths to feed, Bruce once again took to the saddle to make a living, this time with his growing family in tow.

"At one time I had two babies... one would be asleep in the bassinet on the seat, the other would be curled up in a blanket on the floor of the truck," Dawn said. "You couldn't do that any more."

"When we went droving with the kids, we had a 30-foot caravan, a truck and a lot of horses."

Dawn washed nappies for six years straight.

She would get up in the morning and prepare breakfast for the kids.

Bruce would take the horses on the drive, leaving Dawn with directions to the next camp where she would take the truck, caravan, and kids.

"We'd go to the next camp and I'd have to have the fire alight and dinner ready for when the fellas got there," she said.

When she arrived at the camp, Dawn would boil a copper and wash nappies and clothes.

"You could never let the washing get away from ya," she said.

Though she didn't have a washing machine while on the road, Dawn said she did have one trick for drying the clothes.

"We had a mule named Sadie running with our horses, and she just loved the taste of the soapy water," Dawn explained.

"She used to come and suck the soapy water out of the clothes and dry them out good."

Over the years, common household practices presented many a challenge. Dawn recalled one particular droving excursion to Moree.

"I put the clothesline up and strung it out from tree to tree, then went down the paddock and find a big stick to prop it up," she said.

"I put all the nappies on the clothesline. A little while later this big whirly wind come up and knocked me bloody clothes line over."

When Dawn emerged from the caravan, she found that all the nappies had fallen into a patch of bindi eye.

"You couldn't put that on a baby. I had to sit there and pick all those damned bindis out," she laughed.

Looking back on her life, Dawn McTaggart reckons she wouldn't change much if she had a chance to go back.

"I think being on the road taught the kids a lot about life. It certainly didn't hurt 'em.

"But the best thing I ever could have done was go to school and get an education.

"Everything I can do now, as far as reading and writing, is stuff I've taught myself as I've got older. I never walked inside a school until I was 15 ... and then it was for a polio needle.

"We've got a lot of mileage on us but you had to go to work to make a living ... to survive."

Though she's now sold her old saddle, Dawn reckons droving will always be in her heart.

"When I see a mob of cattle on the road, I admit I start to feel homesick for the old days."

 

Seeing Australia from the saddle

By Toni Somes

THINKING back, Bruce McTaggart reckons he spent "four or five years" in the classroom, before leaving school for the stock route.

IN FROM THE LONG PADDOCK: Former drover and saddle bronc champion Bruce McTaggart.
IN FROM THE LONG PADDOCK: Former drover and saddle bronc champion Bruce McTaggart. Jojo Newby

 

He was about 12 when he finally convinced his mum to let him spend his days in the saddle and his nights under the stars.

Of course, her decision was made easier by the fact he was riding alongside his father, legendary Goondiwindi drover Hilton McTaggart.

It was a way of life both men loved.

"My father was born around 1905 and came from the Scone/Muswellbrook area and to Goondiwindi," Bruce explained.

"He used packhorses his whole life.

It was pretty basic going: Everything we needed was carried on packhorses and there were no electric fences or generators.

"He never owned a motor vehicle and he never knew how to drive one."

Instead, the family patriarch made a living mustering on inland stations and droving big mobs of sheep and cattle throughout eastern Australia.

"My mum Mabel didn't go with Dad droving," Bruce said.

"Instead she looked after us kids: I had four brothers and one sister.

"I was the youngest. When Mum and Dad got the perfect kid, they stopped.

"Anyway Mum ran a boarding house in the main street of Goondiwindi, just down from the Queensland Hotel."

Halfway through grade five the youngest McTaggart convinced his mum he'd be better off working than struggling through school.

"I worked alongside Dad for years then.

"There weren't too many kerosene lamps with Dad: If you needed light, there was a campfire, he didn't even carry a torch.

"It was pretty basic going: Everything we needed was carried on packhorses and there were no electric fences or generators.

"And back then we didn't feed or rug our horses and Dad always ran them with the cattle.

"The horses would act as leaders as we moved mobs along."

Later on Bruce would spend years droving with his older brothers, Malcolm and Kevin.

He reckons over the years he has taken different mobs from as far north as Cloncurry right down to Melbourne.

But life on the road wasn't a lonely affair for this affable stockman.

At 16 he had met Dawn Gerard, the Goondiwindi girl who would be his sweetheart and long paddock companion for a lifetime.

"We've been together for a long time and she loved being on the road as much as me," he laughed.

True, his young partner followed him droving: Travelling with their four children in a "30-foot caravan" across the outback.

For most of the year they were on the road "where-ever the work was" then towards the end of the year they would head south rodeoing.

It was a scheduled that proved a success for several of the McTaggart clan.

For Bruce the pinnacle of his rodeoing career was winning the1966 Warwick Rodeo Saddle Bronc title and he still proudly wears the silver belt buckle.

Though he modestly admits his brothers beat him in the arena.

Colin won eight Australian rodeo titles, while Kevin claimed a handful of major titles and did more rodeoing than his brothers.

Yet, as much as Bruce loved competing, it was droving and stock work that paid the bills.

"We saw a lot of the country.

"But Dawn and me struggled for money all our lives: There is no money working in the bush but it's all we knew."

Yet he'd head back to that droving lifestyle in a heartbeat.

Today he's 68 but it's not his age keeping home, it's the after effects of being "smashed right up" in a horse accident a few years ago.

"The last time we went droving was about 1997 when we did some work for Kerry Packer," Bruce said.

"We took delivery of 1800 Brahman cross steers at Kynuna and headed south and there were more journalists and cameras than I have seen my whole life."

Fortunately the media circus ended early when the cattle, which were on the market "as soon as they came out the gate" were sold just after Longreach.

"Young cattle were always the best on the road; you'd struggle the first few days and then they'd be right.

"Older bullocks were territorial and they weren't always keen to leave home.

"But the worst cattle to have droving were tired cattle.

"If they were tired and you camped them for the night, then sometimes it was like they were dreaming and woke up with a fright.

"Then they'd rush and you had hell's own trouble to get them back."



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