277. TUCKER, Paddy.
|"That's Paddy Tucker. Fighting him is the same as being thrown into a hessian bag with a pack of wildcats."|
R. G. Kimber. Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography. 214.
Paddy Tucker was another Centralian identity that the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company would have been well advised to hire in the search for Lasseter's Reef, Paddy had fifteen camels and a lifetimes hard earned experience as a cattle drover and duffer, cameleer and prospector, conversant in several Aboriginal languages and a thoroughly practical fellow, able to turn his hand to any kind of bush work. A genial man with, "great wiry strength" and a strong personality, just the man to keep the irascible and sometimes aggressive Lasseter in line.
Tucker, the son of George Tucker, an Owen Springs station hand, and his Aranda Aboriginal wife, Sharnath, was born in the mid 1890's, His older brother and great mate, Jacky, perished on the Finke River in 1906. When ten years old his mother apprenticed him to a stockman to prevent his removal by the authorities to a foster home, the doubtful fate of many half-caste children of the era. It was no ordinary stock work that Tucker learnt, in time his education included "all there was to know about cattle duffing". In 1910 his horizons broadened when he took on the job of horse tailer with a droving plant and travelled widely through northern Australia.
On one of his droving journeys he found a battered school primer and practised the letters of the alphabet on his saddle flap, a fellow stockman had him practise reading from jam tin labels, in due course Paddy was able to enjoy newspapers and books and most important, able to sign his name and know what he was signing. In the company of several white mates he spent a seasons cane cutting in Queensland, followed by a return to droving then as a labourer, unloading trains at Marree. At Marree the opportunity arose to take charge of a camel team with a loading to Alice Springs and Paddy had at last found his calling.
But the days of the cameleer were numbered with the extension of the railway line steadily north to its terminus at Alice Springs, forcing Tucker and his camel team further afield, always travelling with his dingo traps to supplement his income. In 1928 he was in the vicinity of Coniston station when he heard from Aboriginal informants that Fred Brooks had been murdered. Anticipating the bloody reprisals that followed Tucker urged his Aboriginal friends to disperse, but too late for thirty-one of them and perhaps many more. It's difficult to believe that Paddy Tucker would be involved in any punitive expeditions against the Aboriginals.
By 1930 Tucker had added prospecting to his bush skills and in August that year he and James MacDowall applied for a Government grant to prospect land south of the Granites and the Tanami as far as the Western Australian border. They were granted £60, but in a letter to Carrington in September, MacDowall stated that while they had found promising gold in the area, lack of water had forced them back to Alice Springs. At the same time a little further to the south, the first C.A.G.E. expedition was struggling west to Illbilla.
It was difficult times financially for Tucker, with the financial depression and the completion of the railway line to Alice Springs the previous year, there was very little demand for camel transport. Fortunately for Tuckers immediate future, Errol Coote, the new field manager for the Central Australian Gold Exploration Company was looking for a camel team to carry fuel and supplies to Ayers Rock as the base from which to search for Lasseter and his reef. Tucker was recommended by Kramer, the town missionary, and with fifteen camels was hired at £6/5 per week. "It wasn't much of a job ~ but it was a job just the same", Tucker commented years later.
Tucker and Philip Taylor, the company's mechanic and driver, left Alice Springs on the 10th of October, but did not have a good day of it, they had travelled as far as Pine Gap when the under worked camels, "started playing up and slung their loads here there and every where". Tucker insisted that another man was needed in the centre of the string to quieten the frisky beasts. Dick Mulda from the Haasts Bluff country was hired and and the expedition proceeded somewhat more smoothly to Bob Bucks station at Middleton Ponds. On this leg of the journey Tucker noted that, "Taylor was a pretty good man himself. He learnt very quickly.", as Fred Colson had also noticed on the trek to Illbilla. At Middleton Ponds they were delayed for several days waiting for the camel packs and saddles to dry out, and this delay is often cited as the reason for Coote's 'inconvenience' at Ayers Rock where he was stranded for nine days waiting for the camel team.
At Middleton Ponds Tucker and Taylor hired Rolfe Entata and two more camels for their use after Tucker returned to Alice Springs. They were also given directions to Ayers Rock and whether those directions were incorrect, misunderstood or the vague maps of the area not read, they arrived at Mount Conner 5/11/30, Tucker and Taylor climbed the Mount and saw their true destination some 50 miles further west. They set off next morning, low on water, forcing Tucker to ride ahead to check supplies at the 'Rock, if none were available it was the intention to dump the loads and retreat to the nearest supply. Tucker found plenty of clay pan water about half an hour before sunset then moved onto 'Rock looking for any sign of Coote. He found the tracks made by Coote's flying boots and also where the pilot had dragged a stick behind him to mark the trail. Reasonably certain Coote was in the vicinity Tucker started 'yackiaing' to attract Coote's attention, with unintended results. Coote mistook the yackiaing for the calls of the infamous Myalls he had been warned about and promptly hid amongst the rocks for the night.
Not getting a response, Tucker returned along his tracks to meet the oncoming camel team, impressed at the progress they had made in his absence. The party arrived at the 'Rock at about midnight and set up camp on a waterhole. Next morning at breakfast they noticed an apparition emerging from the scrub, "He had something pulled over his face, disguised himself, painted with black charcoal." The apparition was the stranded pilot, mightily peeved at the delay, his misfortunes in general, and possibly the realisation the feared Myalls were the rescue party he had hidden from the night before. Coote explained his circumstances, and the damaged plane inspected by Taylor and repairs commenced, again impressing Tucker with his ability.
Tucker then helped the men set up a semi permanent bush camp, complete with substantial cabbage gum wind breaks, prompting Tucker to give a very clear warning to keep the camp fires well away from the wind breaks, "cabbage gum burns like kerosene". Tucker stayed with the search party for a couple of days then returned to Alice Springs, arriving there eleven days later to find Coote waiting with the news that he had been recalled to Sydney and Tucker was to return to Ayers Rock and pick up Taylor and dump the supplies and fuel at Middleton Ponds. What Bob Buck intended to do with several hundred gallons of aviation fuel is speculative. When he arrived at Henbury station Tucker learnt that Taylor's camp had been completely burnt out and Taylor probably well on his way to Hermannsburg Mission.
Not satisfied with what he had heard at Henbury, Tucker pressed on to Middleton Ponds where Buck more less confirmed Taylor's misfortunes at the 'Rock, Buck emphasising that everything including the fuel was destroyed. But Tucker knowing Buck's reputation and perhaps suspecting that all was not as it seemed with Coote and C. A. G. E. insisted on checking for himself. Three days later Tucker and his mate, Jack Kenney, arrived at Ayers Rock and found the camp destroyed but the fuel dump intact, as well as a note from Taylor, briefly explaining the situation, the note had been added too by a couple of passing prospectors named Smith and Johannsen. The fuel was reloaded and delivered to Buck as per Coote's instructions, a strange transaction indeed. Taylor was in Alice Springs when Tucker returned and learnt that the company intended to carry on the search for Lasseter and his reef from Illbilla, Paddy Tucker's thoughts on the extraordinary mismanagement of the company would have been illuminating.
His contract with C. A. G. E. completed, (although one wonders if he were ever paid his full due considering Philip Taylor's erratic wages) Tucker carried on with his usual bush work, camel transport when anything offered, prospecting at Arltunga, droving, whatever was available, he was not afraid of work and in time purchased a truck. With his wife Topsy he established a comfortable residence in southern Alice Springs. He finally hung up the dingo traps and hobble chains in the mid 1970's and retired to the 'Old Timers Home' in Alice Springs, reflecting on a hard, not overly ruminative but nevertheless enjoyable life. He died in 1979, the 'Centre the poorer for his passing.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
R. G. Kimber, Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography. 213-215. P. A. Scherer, Camel Treks in the Outback. 25-31. Ion L. Idriess, Lasseter's Last Ride. 95,103,118. Errol Coote, Hell's Airport. 177, 181, 182, 185, 186, 226.