The real bush telegraph

The following is an excerpt from the book McAllister, written by Jenny Old.

I was getting married. I wrote long letters with my exciting news and counted the minutes until mail day brought replies. I had corresponded with both families and my friends weekly. Their letters were my lifeline. It is these letters which both mothers kept that enable me to recount so many stories for this book.

The trip to collect the weekly mail bag from Inverleigh, thirty kilometres away, was undertaken at the end of a working day. Paul and Rick were less enthusiastic about the mail, but they knew how important it was to me. Still, we enjoyed our visit as we always had questions for Joe, whose experience in the Gulf was extensive and valuable to us. We returned home from these visits with fresh beef, bread, and the precious mail.

Communication in the Gulf was never easy. Thank God for the ABC radio, our only station. Reception was often difficult and scratchy due to adverse weather conditions but we accepted this as part of life in the bush. The ABC was our constant companion in the evenings. “Blue Hills” was a must for our lunch break. We were addicted to the long running saga which broadcast at 1pm daily each week for fifteen minutes. To think I used to tease mum about this programme.

A two way radio was our vital link with the outside world via the Royal Flying Doctor Service based in Mt Isa. I dreaded the day I would be left to send a telegram over this complicated and often temperamental piece of equipment that terrified me. It was only a matter of time.

Every station on the RFDS network had an allocated call sign. Ours being “9QYM McAllister.”

Weekdays from eight thirty until five in the evening, the list of stations with incoming telegrams or “traffic”, was read from the base on the half hour. To receive your telegram you announced your call sign and joined the queue, however long.

“9QYM McAllister,” I would bellow with the button pressed down.

“9QYM McAllister, you are sixth on the list,” the operator would reply.

It could take hours to collect or send telegrams. Obviously nothing was private. At first I found this daunting but I became accustomed to the routine, after all, there was no alternative. The Two Way Radio with a large car battery attached, had prime position in the shed enabling us to hear it easily while doing other jobs.

On one occasion we were attempting to order a Toyota part for our precious, only vehicle. We needed this part desperately. After finally getting the telegram away, we were stunned when Jackie Rice, the head stockman from Inverleigh arrived several hours later. He had heard our telegram on his radio, drove into the station to collect the part we needed. This co-operative goodwill was typical of the spirit of the bush. We were always happy when we could reciprocate in some small way.

In time I was to understand the company the radio provided for people in isolated areas. Many of the wives and children were left at the station homestead for long periods of time while husbands, sons, and stockmen were out in the camps mustering cattle. Each afternoon at the end of the working day, the “chatter session” began. The loudest person with strongest radio won the day. It was a jabber session but I learnt to decipher a conversation with someone, with several other conversations going at the same time.

We heard about rainfall, cattle prices, how mustering was going and who was where. If a station was having difficulty hearing, for example, prices from the sale of their cattle, another stronger station would relay the message. Weekends were the time to enjoy more leisurely chats with friends.

Each morning at 8am the RFDS dedicated a regular half hour for routine medical queries or advice. This was the time to call in and join the list to speak with the doctor. If the medical condition was at all sensitive we had to remember that everyone could hear. Too bad . . . this was a wonderful service and we were very grateful to have it.

Every station was supplied with a free, comprehensive medical chest containing an amazing assortment of medications and supplies. It was on the owners to keep the contents replenished and up to date.

Example, for an infection the doctor might advise, “Bottle number 38, bottom tray, take one tablet three times a day until all tablets have been taken.”

This system would have made nursing training very easy. I was pleased to have the medical chest on hand and having been a nurse I felt confident I could deal with most situations.

In the event of an emergency after hours, we used a small tin whistle to blow a certain way, into the microphone. It would set off an alarm at the Base and an operator would answer the call for help and if necessary, have the doctor on line.

This amazing service was very efficient, except when weather conditions played havoc with reception, a constant source of frustration for the operators and for us.

The entire eighteen years we lived at McAllister the two way radio was our only means of communication. Later there were some upgrades and improvements, but nothing could eliminate the problem of weather conditions and reception.

At twenty-two, Jenny fell in love with Rick Old and went to live and work with him on his property, McAllister, in the Gulf of Carpentaria. There, she faced incredible hardship, living in a hut with not even basic necessities. Her only contact with the outside world was a two-way radio.

In this vast empty landscape, she battled drought, flood, fire, and cyclones. For eighteen years she and Rick struggled to stay on in the Gulf, eventually triumphantly turning McAllister into a thriving oasis.

This extraordinary story of one indomitable Australian woman is told in her own words with skill and humour. A story of the bush people and their generosity, filled with wonderful characters. Most of all, the story of one woman’s love for her man and the adventure it took her on. 

McAllister, the story of Jenny Old’s amazing life in the outback, will captivate and enthrall.

To find stockists, and where to purchase the book online, visit