Pat’s mother said no to million-acre property Fossil Downs

Article by John Thisleton, courtesy of About Regional

When she was a little girl Pat Alford fought like a tiger to land eels she had hooked in Rossiville Weir, west of Goulburn.

“The eels would wrap themselves around the big combungi reeds in the water; it was a hell of a job to pull them off,” she said.

She had an even bigger struggle wrestling information about her family from her parents and grandparents. Each time she asked a question her grandmother Maud gave her the same answer: “Go outside and play.”

Years later she finally learned her father Archie MacDonald had turned down her grandfather, Donald ‘Dan’ MacDonald’s offer of ‘Fossil Downs’, a one-million-acre property in Western Australia, when he married in 1910.

In 2015 mining magnate Gina Rinehart bought Fossil Downs from Annette Henwood, the daughter of Pat’s uncle Bill MacDonald. The sale was for about $30 million.

But in 1910 Archie’s new bride Lillian from Taree who met him while nursing in Sydney, did not want to go to Western Australia. “Mum just didn’t want to go to the Kimberley,” Pat said.

As Pat continued putting together the family’s story she realised Dan MacDonald was a successful gold prospector with a good eye for property. He had convinced his brothers Charles, William and Duncan to undertake what is still regarded as the longest cattle drive in the world from north of Goulburn to Western Australia’s Kimberley ranges.

Pat later wrote: “On 26 March, 1883 the great cattle drive commenced from the Clifford Creek property, Laggan, (north of Crookwell) with Charlie MacDonald as drover-in-charge. Accompanying him were Willie and Duncan MacDonald, Jim McGeorge and Duncan McKenzie. Peter Thompson and Jasper Pickles handled the bullock teams.”

Expecting the drive to take two years, the men took more than three years. Arriving on 3 June 1886, they had travelled 3480 miles. Charlie had 327 cattle and 13 horses which had survived the journey to start their new grazing venture, and Dan continued supplying his financial backing.

Their new station at the junction of the Margaret and Fitzroy rivers was named Fossil Downs due to the marine fossils in the rocks near the homestead they were to build.

Their journey has always been overshadowed by the Duracks’ trek, which left from Goulburn in 1863, heading to Queensland with 400 head of cattle and later, in 1883, a much longer trek of about 3000 miles from southwest Queensland to northeast Western Australia, with men from the extended Durack family herding several groups of 2000 head of cattle. They established Argyle Station, named after the Goulburn parish of Argyle.

The overlanders on both cattle drives are buried at the Mortis Street Cemetery in Goulburn. Friends of Goulburn Historic Cemeteries spokeswoman Heather West said the reason one trek became more famous than the other was simple: the MacDonalds didn’t have an author in the family; the Duracks did. Drawing on the family’s extensive records Dame Mary Durack wrote Kings in Grass Castles which is now an Australian classic and was made into a miniseries for television.

Pat travelled to Fossil Downs with her parents in 1950 and stayed there for 18 months. Having finished her nurses’ training she joined the Flying Doctors Service at Fitzroy Crossing. “In those days, each Indigenous tribe belonged to a station and they were well looked after. They were the most beautiful people you could ever wish to meet in your life,” she said.

Pat says her life would have been completely different had her father accepted Fossil Downs. Instead, Dan MacDonald also bought several properties in Goulburn including Rossiville which her father took over.

“There is Rossiville homestead on the left-hand side of Range Road, which was owned by Count de Rossi. He owned all the land up to Bishopthorpe and beyond,” Pat said. Her grandfather bought a large portion of Comte de Rossi, and also called it Rossiville.

“Dad had a house built there in 1927,” she said. “We made our own fun because we were not allowed to stay inside. We would go down to the weir and make waterwheels, catch frogs and set eel lines. We had our chores as children – fill the woodbox, feed the chooks.”

When Annette Henwood sold Fossil Downs she told The West Australian in May 2015: “I feel an absolute traitor. I never wanted to be the MacDonald who quit.”

Back to top