“Keep your eye out for Amy Pulford if you drive through the Steppes,” my uncle said, as friendly advice to his city-based nephew. Little did I think further about his off-hand comment until later that same day, as I slowed the car for a mob of sheep on the road ahead, I would meet the larger than life lady who was fast becoming the stuff of legend on Tasmania’s high Central Plateau.

Steppes Hall - Homestead Tasmania

Steppes Homestead: Central Tasmania (photo by Carol Haberle)

Spirit Lives On

by Mike Vanderkelen

And, as I was to find out, this was a lady whose spiritual home for almost all of her life was the often harsh environment that many call Tasmania’s Lake country. Here she herded and tended sheep and cattle, trapped and shot rabbits and other game and raised two children until a car smash left her a paraplegic.

When she died in 2008 a plaque was erected at the Steppes Hall and her ashes scattered nearby. While her passing did not mark her departure from the Lake country it was arguably the end of an era: the end of a lifestyle that had changed little in the previous 100 or so years, a lifestyle that drew its strength, resilience, colour and ultimately, the reason for its demise, from its dramatic, fragile but increasingly accessible landscape.

It’s a privilege to discover Amy Pulford’s Lake country. A land area that accounts for 10 percent of the state, it’s home to some 4000 lakes, many of which were scraped out under a huge 200 metre thick ice sheet in the last ice age and scattered across 10,000 square kilometres of high but flat plateau.

To get there you can climb slowly up through Golden Valley from Deloraine and past the imposing geological structure that is Quamby Bluff or take the equally scenic climb up the eastern escarpment through Poatina. Gentler is the gradual rise from the midlands town of Bothwell past the long settled sandstone and brick homesteads that owe so much to Tasmania’s English colonial heritage.

It was here, above the 600 metre contour of the snowline, in the early 1940s that Bob Monks introduced a seven year old daughter Amy to the demands of shepherding, droving stock and trapping. This had been Bob’s lifestyle and that of his father and many others before them since the late 19th century when graziers from lowland towns like Bothwell and Ross realized the value of the rich summer pastures on the Plateau.

It was not unusual to have between four and five thousand sheep in one mob which Bob and Amy would drive up to the Lake Country between November and the New Year.

As the first born of six girls and four boys in the Monks family, Amy says it was good working with her dad.

“He was hard to work with but I suppose that’s why we ‘come up’ as workers. He forced us into it, so we did what he did.”

Amy Pulford never expressed regrets about the life that unfolded before her. At 13, just six years after her introduction to the ranks of the “working class gentlemen” as Lake country shepherds were known, shepherding, droving and trapping became Amy’s full time career.

As recently as the winter of 2011, snow and fierce conditions recalled earlier times like 1976 on the Central Plateau when Amy stayed over with her sheep at Skittleball Plains, north of Little Pine Lagoon.

In a report by Launceston Examiner journalist Jan Haswell and photographer Ross Dearing “Amy the Good Shepherd” is pictured hauling a ewe weakened by days of hunger from half metre deep snow drifts while behind her two others lie dead after days without food.

Perhaps because of the accelerating pace of life, or despite the technology and creature comforts that are the milestones of progress in the second half of the twentieth century, Amy was not inclined to leave the Lake country. Out on Skittleball Plains, where she lived for a number of years overseeing sheep and cattle for the Fowler family of Bothwell, she raised her children Mervyn and Tania.

Hers was a lifestyle without TV, radio or newspapers. Entertainment and the chance to put on a dress were provided by an occasional dance when Lake country people gathered at the Steppes community hall.

Pictured against the mechanization and comparative ease of rural lifestyles today, it would be easy to label Amy’s life as “hard”. Not that she saw it that way, given her love of the Lake country and her largely unspoken passion to care for stock, whether sheep or her own working horses and dogs.

If you value isolation and stark sometime treeless landscapes open to extremes of weather, it’s not hard to fall in love with Amy Pulford’s Lake country which I first visited in the early 1970s. Then, the threads of her legend were being spun from growing media interest: here was someone increasingly out of step with the accelerating pace of urban life. In many ways Amy was an accidental survivor from a bygone era of Tasmanian rural life: self-sufficient and living in a sustainable way before those labels were the subject of popular discussion.

As well as the shepherding and droving skills that Bob Monks taught to Amy and then her siblings, they learned the importance of resourcefulness. The rabbits that ran in plague proportions from the 1920s to the 1950s in the high country were to add to the basic foodstuffs and income that could be expected by a Lake country shepherd.

Anything but easy labour, Amy, her father and younger sister Margaret had their work cut out, setting between 30 and 40 dozen traps each day in the cooler months of the year when rabbit skins were at their best.

A day and night rabbiting, which might yield as many as 30 or 40 dozen rabbits, then called for skinning all the following day. Amy was soon as fast as her father, skinning some 3 rabbits a minutes.

Amy’s mum, Verley, had not only to look after a growing family but helped with pegging out the rabbit skins which were sold to buyers who visited regularly.

Bob Monks purchased a new car with the sale of rabbit skins. A young Amy settled for a new stock saddle with her share of the proceeds.

When I encountered her on the road she was in her early forties and a well-known figure in the Lake country. But by then the life that generations of shepherds had lived was changing as was their high country environment. Their older ones had died out, not to be replaced.

The spread of hydro schemes saw roads and communications improve. In cities and urban areas, concern began to be voiced about the impact of stock on the high country’s Crown land grazing leases.

After becoming a paraplegic in 1986, the result of a horrific three car smash near Bothwell, Amy may have simply resigned herself to the inevitable. With a smile, a ‘thumbs up’ and an optimistic view of the future she accepted the gift of a hand-controlled car and four wheel motorcycle from the local community so that she could remain mobile.

But there was no longer a role for her in the Lake country.

Since he was youngster Mike Vanderkelen has been a regular visitor to Tasmania where many of his relatives live and work in primary production. He is a marketing and communications consultant and former business journalist who consults to clients in the information technology sector. For more information please visit Infotech Marketing & Communications.

Article content supplied to Think Tasmania by Mike Vanderkelen. For photos and more information refer: The Examiner newspaper library.

Further Information

  • Interview 5 July 1990 by David Bannear Oral history published by the Tasmanian Communities Online Ouse Access Centre
  • The Roof of Tasmania by Tim Jetson Published by UTAS
  • The Examiner newspaper library: news and feature articles
  • The Lake Highway: a geological journey back in time. A paper published by Parks & Wildlife Service Tasmania
  • A challenging high country environment, Central Highlands