Barcaldine Tours: Dunraven Station

Respect for tradition and forward thinking have equal emphasis at Dunraven station, which has belonged to Roberta Doneley’s family for 110 years.

They say you have to go away to appreciate what you have at home. For Peter and Roberta Doneley, who live on Dunraven station near Barcaldine in Queensland’s central- west, it was a group tour to WA’s Kimberley that prompted them to open their home to tourism.

“We had a fantastic trip and saw lots of amazing things,” Roberta recalls. “But there was an underlying sense that even though we were travelling through stations, we weren’t actually learning much about the way the places were run — the nitty gritty details such as carrying capacities, how the livestock were managed and how the owners were dealing with challenges. We remembered having stayed on farm B&Bs in New Zealand and how fondly we recalled the owners showing us around and sharing their lives. So, it wasn’t too great a leap to think of hosting tag-along tours.”

Dunraven Station

Peter, Roberta, their son, Paul, and his wife, Ali, and their baby, George, all have a hand in the tours, which follow a similar format but are tailored to the audience of the day. So while the program includes a visit to an artesian bore, livestock and wildlife encounters and a homemade smoko in the shearing shed, the Doneleys tailor it according to their visitors. If there are children in the group there will be chooks and poddy lambs to feed and an introduction to Rosie the roo. Guests who might be nervous about taking their own vehicles on dirt roads are welcome to jump in a 4WD and be driven by their hosts.

Visitors will be shown the wild dog exclusion fence, which has been a work in progress since 2016. Wild dogs have been a growing scourge of the pastoral industry in recent decades and the Doneleys lost hundreds of lambs, sheep and even calves to them. They’ve completed 80 kilometres of high fencing, a small proportion of which was government subsidised, and they have another 20km to go. But already the statistics are promising, and Paul says the countless hours of fencing in 40-degree heat are beginning to pay off. He’s also involved in a trial of smart tags, which are powered by tiny solar batteries, to monitor sheep behaviour.

Barcaldine Tag Along Tours- Dunraven Station

No subject is off limits. Drought, ground-water management, exclusion fencing, the role of mining in rural economies … what it’s like to share a backyard with your in-laws … Paul, Ali, Roberta and Peter are adamant they try to answer all questions as honestly as possible. Although they didn’t set out to make new friends, or deliberately intend to bridge the city/country divide, both have been unexpected benefits.
“A generation or so ago, everyone in the city had country cousins to visit,” Peter says. “That’s no longer the case, so we hope we’re filling that gap in some small way. We’ve been in drought for the best part of a decade and it’s important to explain to people the impact that’s having on us and on food and fibre consumers in this country. In a good season, we’d run 1000 head of cattle and 12,000 to 15,000 sheep. We currently have 300 cattle and about 3000 sheep.”

The Doneleys also share their rich history, as Dunraven has been in the family since 1909, when Roberta’s maternal great-grandparents, Robert and Fanny Moyse, bought the property from the Coldham brothers, who had owned it since 1890. Prior to that, it was part of a vast holding called Barcaldine Downs. As one of the first sheep stations in the district, it had been settled in 1863 by Donald Charles Cameron, who named it for his family’s property in Ayrshire, Scotland. The station was sold to the Fairburn family in 1877, and a newspaper report from a decade later noted that the station covered an area of 1000 square miles and could comfortably run 250,000 sheep.

Barcaldine Tag Along Tours- Dunraven Station

While it’s not known precisely when the homestead on Dunraven was built, a group of heritage architects headed by Clive Lucas visited and determined that the main structure probably predates the township of Barcaldine, which was established in 1886. Barcaldine earned its place in the history books in the 1890s as the site of Australia’s first labour struggle. A memorial to a ghost gum known as the Tree of Knowledge, where striking shearers met, now looms large over the town’s main street. Features of Dunraven’s homestead include broad circling verandahs and a chapel to one side, which predates the churches in town and was probably used by travelling ministers to bring services to the station’s owners, employees and neighbours. The outbuildings include a meat house and a summer house shelter, which appears to be inspired by a South African rondavel.

Peter grew up at Mitchell and met Roberta when he visited family friends in the Barcaldine district. “At that stage, Mitchell was transitioning to farming and I felt that I’d rather invest in land than machinery,” he says. “So when Roberta and I married, I sold the property at Mitchell to enable us to buy her sisters’ shares in Dunraven.”

Roberta Doneley, Dunraven Station

The couple raised their three children on Dunraven and each was encouraged to pursue careers off-farm to give them a better perspective on whether or not they wanted a future on the land. Alys is a school teacher on the Sunshine Coast and Robert works in construction management in Brisbane. Paul trained as a builder and enjoyed a promising rugby career before returning to Dunraven where he and Ali are now raising George, who is one. Paul continues to accept building contracts as off-farm income is a significant contributor the farm’s viability.

“Every generation has its godsend that makes life easier,” Roberta observes. “For my grandmother, it would have been the motor car, for my mother, it was getting connected to rural power and for me, it was a reliable telephone service. For the current generation, it’s probably the internet, not just because it allows bush people to stay connected and keep up with current technology, but also because it allows a lot of country women to run businesses from relatively remote places.”

Barcaldine Tag Along Tours

When Australian Country visited, a little white garment was hanging on the Hills hoist in the backyard, its delicate lace embroidery in stark contrast to the harshness of parched paddocks on the other side of the garden fence. It was an heirloom christening robe, originally made for George’s great-grandfather, being given a spruce up for his upcoming baptism. It was also a reminder, perhaps, that respecting the past makes it possible to embrace the future. “In 10 years time only 30 per cent of farms will be left for the next generation,” Peter says. “As the time comes for us to hand over to our children, the whole family is doing everything in our power to make sure Dunraven remains viable for George’s generation and hopefully, generations after that.” ac

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By Kirsty McKenzie, photography Ken Brass

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