Peter Severin was only 16 when he arrived on Tieyon Station in the far north of South Australia. Station boss Frank Smith asked him, “Can you ride a horse?” “I’ve never seen a horse in my life,” Peter replied. “But I can ride a bike.” Frank pointed out a young grey mare and told the teenager to get on it. “She’s never been ridden and you can’t ride – so you can learn together.” For obvious reasons, Peter’s nickname after that was Autumn Leaves. But he mastered horse riding and stayed on Tieyon for 12 years; he eventually became the camp boss, with 12 men under him. Frank asked him one night: “What’s your ambition in life?” And the ringer told him that he loved the life of a cattleman so much he wanted to own a station one day. Peter now owns Curtin Springs, a “million acre” property in CentralAustralia. The station is a shining example of how forward-thinking pastoralists are diversifying – it is also a tourist destination and even sells handmade paper.
Peter was born in Adelaide 1928; his mother was a school teacher and his father worked in the Tax Office. He left school in 1944 and went to a stock and station agent to look for work. The boy was sent on the old Ghan up to Abminga siding on the SA-NT border – it was there he met Frank Smith and that meeting would change his life. Sometime later he was sitting around the dinner table at the homestead when Frank suddenly announced: “By the way, son, I’ve just bought you a cattle station and it’s Curtin Springs.” Peter was aghast. He had been through Curtin Springs a few times on trips to see Ayers Rock and, in his mind, “there was nothing there”. Frank said: “You’ll be right, I’ll give you 1400 head of cattle to get you started but you will have to take on the liabilities that come with the sale.” Peter had no idea about finances or accounting and thought “liabilities” meant cattle, but Frank swiftly informed him that it meant the 36,000 pounds debt the previous owner had racked up. Peter was 26 and was earning four pounds a week. For him, the debt seemed a life sentence.
He was also newly married to Dawn, a lovely girl from Adelaide whom he met at the Tieyon homestead while she cared for the station owner’s wife, who was recovering from TB. When Peter, Dawn and their toddler son Ashley arrived at Curtin Springs in 1956 there were some memorable moments. There was an inch of rain on their first day. Peter was excited and said to his wife: “This is all ours, as far as you can see – honey, we’re home.” Dawn shot back: “You’ve got to be joking. There’s nothing here. I’m not stopping.” There was only dirt as far as the eye could see. The previous owners had camped on a soak and lived in shacks. It was far too primitive for Dawn. She didn’t drive – and Peter made sure he always had the vehicle keys with him, just in case she decided to learn. Peter dug a well by hand and found water. That well became the starting point for Curtin Springs. He then built the now-famous Bough Shed, which still stands and offers shelter for the thousands of tourists that pass by.
Peter and Dawn lived under the Bough Shed for three years. Times were tough – as it turned out, that inch of rain was the last for nine years. During the Great Drought in the late 1950s and sixties, Peter desperately tried to save his cattle. Tourism was something new then; Ayers Rock was 105 kilometres down the road and was starting to attract visitors. Tourism pioneer Len Tuit called by one day with a problem – his tour coach couldn’t make it all the way to The Rock without refuelling; passengers used to ride with 44-gallon drums of petrol standing in the aisle. He asked if Peter was interested in refuelling his coach. Curtin Springs also used 44-gallon drums and it was a huge job to syphon fuel into vehicles. So Peter approached Shell, which provided a 1000-gallon, in-ground tank and a pump. That was Peter’s first contact with the tourism industry, which would later become pivotal in the survival of Curtin Springs. While the tourists waited for the refuelling, Dawn began providing tea and fresh scones. A new business was born. Curtin Springs was the first Wayside Inn in Central Australia. Up until 1957, Ayers Rock had few visitors.
Peter and ringers from Tieyon went there in 1950, camped for two days and walked around the base. Peter realised there was no water. Len Tuit was setting up his camp at the base and it was imperative, if tourism was to flourish, that permanent water be found. Peter was commissioned to sink the first bore. He employed his neighbour, Arthur Liddle, and then erected the first windmill. Water was reticulated to Len’s camp. Bill Harney’s house and ranger station came next and Peter even had a hand in the construction of the Boomerang Hotel, one of the first motels. Good concretor’s sand was found at the base on the southern side just near Tuits Camp. Hundreds of tonnes of sand were dug and the pit filled with water and became a temporary swimming hole after rain. That area is now a sacred site known as Mutitjulu Springs. The first airstrip at Ayers Rock was built in 1959. It was cleared by Peter using his axe, Landrover, chain and a piece of log, which was dragged until the surface was smooth enough to do 80 kilometres an hour in the Landrover. The airstrip allowed for the introduction of air services by Eddie “EJ” Connellan. In 1964, Peter had a hand in constructing the chain on the climb up Ayers Rock . He says if it hadn’t been for the development of the tourism infrastructure at Ayers Rock he probably never would have survived on Curtin Springs.
The Big Wet came in 1966 and Peter was able to restock the station with cattle. Most of the 1400 head from Tieyon had died during the drought. Finding ways to survive was second nature to Peter. He was always looking for opportunities. With better roads and vehicles becoming available, local communities were on the move. Aboriginal people would call in and ask Peter if they could get bullock meat for their families. After a lot of negotiations, he built a licensed abattoir on Curtin Springs in the mid-1970s. The meatworks employed seven men. Peter bought a plane and sent fresh meat daily to 14 South Australian and Western Australian communities and outstations, such as Ernabella, Warburton, Wingelina and Warrakurna, for $3.50kg. Other customers included motels at Ayers Rock, private customers in Alice Springs and the slashpack trade in Adelaide. It was a great concept and successful right up until the mid-1980s.
According to Peter, the business came to an abrupt halt when the community orders suddenly stopped. Vested interests used Indigenous media to spread vicious rumours about Peterand the quality of Curtin Springs meat. The workers were laid off and the abattoir closed. It has been shut for 30 years. Among the trials of surviving at Curtin Springs, none were harder fought than the battle Peter has had with the liquor licensing authority. The Curtin Springs liquor licence was granted in 1958, making Peter the longest-standing licence holder in the Territory. But a nine-year war, which went all the way to the Federal Court, took its toll. Eventually, after much bitterness and huge expense, Peter won a unique ruling in 1997 – allowing him to refuse to serve Aboriginal people alcohol. He won the support of Indigenous women and the Human Rights Commission. As a Visionary, Peter has a succession plan. His son Ashley is a dedicated cattleman, as well as a “counter jumping pastoralist”. Together, they have changed the direction by investing in high-quality Murray Grey cattle and large-scale infrastructure.
The cattle work is minimised now, with the use of yards fitted with cattle traps at all the watering points on the station. They no longer use horses or helicopters to muster – they simply use the water traps. This means instead of 14 stockmen on the property Ashley can manage it with two. Peter, Ashley and his wife Lyndee work full-time in both businesses, with Peter doing the work of two men every day. At a personal level, this life has had it challenges. Peter has buried two wives, his mother and grandson. Some days can be hard – but he is determined to find the good thing every day. From a business point of view, Peter says diversification is the answer. Curtin Springs has grown its accommodation from six per night to being able to sleep 72. They can serve hundreds of meals a day. The old abattoir has been refurbished to be the production centre for making handmade paper from the native grasses on the station. Guidedwalks are held on the station, highlighting the salt lakes and the glorious Mt Conner. And there are four-wheel-drive tours. “Pastoral properties can’t rely on good seasons for survival,” Peter says. “You have to have other sources of income – diversify and then diversify again.”