In 1960, Bill O’Connor was a strapping 24-year-old on a remote pastoral property when, in a split second, his life changed forever.
- Narriearra Station, a vast property in north-west New South Wales, has immense ecological and heritage value
- Its long-time owner, Bill O’Connor, lost his leg in an accident on the property but managed it for the next 60 years
- Using Mr O’Connor’s knowledge, New South Wales Parks and Wildlife are preparing the property to open to the public
Warning: This story contains descriptions that may be distressing.
He and a mate were repairing a fence on Narriearra Station, east of Tibooburra in the far north-west corner of New South Wales.
They were digging a post hole with a mechanical auger when the machine struck a tree root.
It bucked out of their grip, entangled Mr O’Connor in loose fence wire and flung him to the ground.
“The wire went around my foot and straight around the auger, twisted it off, broke it at the ankle, tore it off at the knee,” he recalled.
“It was just hanging by a bit of flesh.”
While his friend rushed to the homestead for help, Mr O’Connor managed to disentangle the wire to free himself from the stalled machine and tried to use his belt as a tourniquet.
It was ineffectual. Blood still surged from the wound.
So he took a desperate, life-saving step.
He looped fencing wire around the mangled limb and twisted it tightly.
“And yeah, the blood just petered out and stopped,” he said.
He used a stick to prop the shattered, protruding bone from touching the dirt.
Without water, lying prone in the hot sun, he crawled under the shade of a trailer and waited for help.
When his father and brother arrived, they placed him on a stretcher, loaded him onto a mattress on the tray of a truck, and took him to the station homestead.
From there they raced to Broken Hill Hospital for emergency help, a tortuous journey over hours of rough roads.
Along the way Mr O’Connor loosened his wire tourniquet in the slim hope it might restore sufficient blood flow to save his shattered lower leg from amputation.
That measure was fruitless. Soon after, a surgeon removed his left leg below the knee.
Mr O’Connor spent months recuperating: learning to walk again, finding ways to drive any vehicle, including heavy trucks, and flying his light plane.
He never considered leaving remote Narriearra Station or choosing less physically taxing work.
An ecological treasure trove
Despite his disability, he took over the 150,000-hectare cattle property, enduring searing temperatures, droughts and floods for 60 years before selling it to the New South Wales Government in June, 2020.
Narriearra became the largest single land acquisition for a national park in the state’s history.
Conservationists hail it as one of the most important because of its immense ecological and heritage values.
“We’ve got over 50 species of plants that we’ve recorded here; we’ve got over 250 species of animals,” said New South Wales Parks and Wildlife ranger Jaymie Norris.
“There are 39 different ecological communities that exist on this property and 20 threatened species.”
Mr O’Connor’s parents took up Narriearra in 1916.
The family ran sheep and cattle until 1985, when it switched to only cattle, better suited to the harsh environment.
The O’Connors had a strong conservation ethic long before it became commonplace, which partly explained Narriearra’s extraordinary biodiversity.
“You try not to overstock, eat anything out, and of course that protects the wildlife, along with your stock,” Mr O’Connor explained.
The station also encompasses the vast, ephemeral Caryapundy Swamp.
Perhaps once a decade, when big rains soak the Channel Country of south-western Queensland, the Bulloo River flows down to Narriearra, bringing the arid land alive to create a haven for wildlife.
“You see water birds migrate here from Japan and China and all through Australia,” Mr Norris said.
Parks and Wildlife staff are busily surveying the property so it will be ready to open to the public by the end of this winter.
Archaeologists are working with traditional owners to map sacred and significant cultural sites, roads are being upgraded and campgrounds are being built.
Life on a land of extremes
Though Mr O’Connor no longer owns Narriearra, he still lives in his spartan, soon-to-be heritage-listed homestead.
He’s not relishing the day when he’ll finally drive away — but he’s not headed to a retirement home in town.
He has downsized to an 80,000-hectare sheep station in northern South Australia he plans to run with his son.
For now, National Parks staff are delighted to have Mr O’Connor’s extended company.
They have been tapping into his immense knowledge of pastoral, cultural and ecological history.
“We’re very lucky to be custodians of this amazing land and to record Bill’s stories,” Mr Norris said.
Those memories are indexed by the rare flood years that punctuate the grim years of drought.
In the best years, the family mustered 3,000 cattle.
In the worst, hundreds, unable to be mustered, perished in extreme heat.
“It’s just the land of extremes,” Mr O’Connor said.
“You’ve got too much or you’ve got nothing.”
Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline at 12:30pm on Sunday, or on iview.