Delta Downs Station

Heading out of Cairns, our 4WD loaded with camera gear, first stop Yungaburra on the Atherton Tableland where we plan to meet artist Ian Waldron and prepare for the much longer journey west to Normanton.

"Watching this scene is a way of understanding Ian’s iconic artworks of these events and the daily life on Delta Downs Station"

The next day, it is early on Sunday morning with the sun rising in the misty tropical landscape, we begin our journey to Normanton. The purpose of this journey is to follow Ian as he returns to the Bynoe Art Centre in Normanton.

Writer Katrina Chapman describes Ian’s trips to Normanton and his home country in the First Nations issue of the Creative cowboy magazine creative-i.

“Travelling to Normanton each month for a week, time is divided between the studio and field-trips. Packing up the billycan, tucker-box and art materials and travelling to different locations on country is a break for everyone.  Sometimes time is spent by the Gilbert River drawing and fishing, out on country looking for timber for sculpture or taking photographs. These excursions are times of exchange between artists and mentor, creating space to share culture and life experience. Waldron recognises the importance of being outside the studio to building a relationship with his countrymen and fellow artists”.

Ian Waldron and Andrea Hylands on the road to Normanton

It is precisely these interactions that we wanted to film, Ian with his countrymen and fellow artists from the region. Our time at Normanton and the coastal town of Karumba was hectic and there is much to write about. The drive from Yungaburra to Normanton was also a joy, a day of different climates and landscapes, some dramatic, as we passed through rocky escarpments of great beauty. But all this for later.

This blog is about a day spent at the Aboriginal cattle station, Delta Downs. The traditional owners of the land that makes up Delta Downs and its adjoining and related properties are the Kurtjar people. The cattle properties that form Delta Downs Station cover slightly less than 400,000 hectares and the property runs some 40,000 to 45,000 cattle. The property borders the Gulf of Carpentaria so has a significant coastline.

Katrina writes in her creative-i article:

“Such positivity is evident throughout the history of the Kurtjar people, who despite dispossession and prejudice, have succeeded to achieve amazing things.

Their traditional way of life was disrupted when pastoralists began settling the area in the mid-nineteenth century.  Conflict developed between natives and pastoralists when the later took over the water soaks, which had been dug and used by Kurtjar people for centuries.  The population of the native inhabitants was quickly depleted through shooting, poisoning and forced removal to reserves outside their own country. 

Having effectively established authority, the pastoralists then enlisted the labour of Indigenous people to clear the land and later work on the cattle stations. Kurtjar people maintained a presence in the area and became skilled horsemen and stockmen and valued as domestic labour on the homesteads and outstations. 

In 1982 the Kurtjar Aboriginal Corporation (KAC) had the opportunity to make a bid to buy the 400,000 hectare Delta Downs and were successful despite strong opposition from the Bjelke Peterson Government. Delta Downs was purchased for $1.9 million through an interstate shelf company to avoid problems with the then government…then Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke Petersen labelled it a scandalous waste of money… However, he lost government before he was able to act. 

By 2002 the KAC had repaid the loan to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and the title deeds were handed to them in a special ceremony”.

Stockman Anthony Savo

The turn off to Delta Downs Station and its homestead is on the road from Normanton to Karumba. Once off the main road that runs between the two towns we are on a dirt track and it is some 70 kilometres or so to the homestead, the centre of activity for the station. The country is forested, dry now, but in the wet season lush and green.

The stockmen's quarters and other out buildings

At the stately homestead, a shady and green area with the stockmen’s quarters, a communal kitchen with its large table, there are lots of photos on the walls, and pots of food on the stove.

The hard physical work means people get hungry so appetites are big here, the kitchen is an important place and it reminds me of the kind of kitchen you might still find on a large country estate in England.

Today we have been invited to a muster.

This is both dangerous and skilful work, to begin the station horses need to be brought to the homestead and selected for the muster. This itself is a spectacle with the horses running into the home paddock, the dust rising in clouds around them. All a contrast to the shady green of the homestead gardens.

The muster itself is a combination of old and new, the ringers or stockmen on horseback. There are helicopters too and these back up the men on horseback rising and swooping across the scene below.

I fly out to where the muster of cattle is, at this point a few kilometres from the homestead. In the small mustering helicopter we fly across an ocean of trees, an occasional riverbed with its rocky edges is revealed a hundred metres below. Then we rise up 1,000 metres above the procession below and hover there, still in the warm afternoon air.

From the air the line of cattle appears to stretch forever. The stockmen, natural on horseback, can be picked out from the scene below me by their large hats and the chestnut horses throwing their shadows in the afternoon light as they ride at the rear of the line of cattle below.

Then nose down we fly lower and across the line of animals and humans below us.

Later and back on the ground, Ian, Andrea, the Bynoe Art Centre artists and I watch the cattle finally arrive at the home paddock. The horsemen and cattle emerging from the dust turned to clouds by the hooves of cattle and horses and from the muster helicopters above.

As we sit and drink a cup of tea at the homestead, John the head stockman tells me that this season has not been too bad but the last couple of seasons have been very difficult because of the severe drought. We need a moderate season, not too much rain in the wet season as prolonged floods create a great number of problems too. I do not share my thoughts with John as he has enough to think about today but I suspect that moderate seasons are going to be harder to come by in the future. As I write this blog in Australia I receive an email from my Maasai friends saying that the drought is back in the Rift Valley again and the cattle are dying, let's hope it is not as bad as last time.

Jillaroo Roberta Casey

Watching this scene is a way of understanding Ian’s iconic artworks of these events and the daily life on Delta Downs Station, a series of paintings that began when he was given a set of photographs by his mother, and later more photographs from his uncle. These photos led him to go back to his heritage and investigate the places and ways in which his family lived all those years ago.

Ian visiting his mother's country

You can read Katrina’s article about the art of Ian Waldron in the First Nations issue of creative-i:


Our thanks to the Delta Downs Station, managers Paul and Leanne Edwards, head stockman Arthur (John) Kerr and his team of ringers.

Paul Edwards and John Kerr

SUBJECT: Kurtjar people / Delta Downs Station / Cattle station / Queensland / Ian Waldron / Normanton / Bynoe Arts Centre / Aboriginal art