Written by Heather Brown for the Women’s Weekly Issue – 1 July 1981
The Woman Who Mastered the Outback
“A lot of women have more guts in the bush then men” say Edna Jessop, the former boss drover who made the saddle and the outback her home.
Edna Jessop, drover, belle of the ball, saddler, mother and horsebreaker sits at the table and sifts through her memories. Inside the album the yellowing newspaper cuttings and the photographs tell the story of the legend.
The warm Mount Isa sun streams through the doorway and the cattle dogs snooze around her feet as a tape of Slim Dusty singing the song “Give My Regards to Edna” his recently released tribute to this extraordinary woman, plays in the background.
When the music fades Edna looks up and smiles “it was nice of him,” she says, in her modesty, shuffling through her album again. “I like this old photograph,” she points. It looks like a still from from a Hollywood epic. A slip of a girl sits on a bay mare in the foreground. Behind her, nearly 1600 bullock wallow, drinking in the river. Her clothes are rumpled and mannish, her hair tucked into her hat, and she is remarkably pretty. Edna Zigenbine, boss drover, not much more than 20, photographed on the trek that made her a household word throughout Australia’s northern cattle country.
Edna stands smaller than a stockman’s shoulder, but there is iron in this woman, a quality that won her the respect of every stockman in the tough Outback. “Edna is better than any man.” they’ll tell you, and they mean it.
Edna was born at Thargominda in Queensland’s channel country, the daughter of boss drover Harry Zigenbine and his wife Ruby. Of the eight children in the family, only two were born in a hospital. Edna grew up sleeping under the stars, soothed to sleep by the lowing cattle. Her father went droving for Sir Sidney Kidman and the family lived in the tiny siding of Dajarra, where she went to school for a few years.
The family soon moved again and Edna left school for good. She had just learned the alphabet.
With school over Edna turned to horses to occupy her days and broke in her first at the age of six. In the album there are photographs of sweet little girls riding the buck out of colts. within a few years Edna and her sister were breaking in all the horses her father needed for his droving team. the saddle became her home. She followed her family into the Territory, droving. in the album she is sometimes pretty and girlish, in high heels and dresses, in other photos she is back in the shapeless droving garb.
In 1950 her life changed. Edna was on the road with her father and three other stockmen bringing a mob of 1550 of Tom Quilty’s bullocks from a station near Halls Creek, Northern Territory, to Dajarra in Queensland. Her father became ill and went to hospital. “You take over,” he told her. “You’re are the best man I have.”
So she did. One of the stockmen left and she was reduced to two men and a cook to bring the mob across. News of the trek spread, and the Press moved in. The story was dashing, romantic and captured the imagination of the public right across Australia.
“It was nothing,” Edna growls “I grew up with it and the trip just went as normal.” Later on, she admits, things weren’t quite like that. “There were plenty of times I prayed, times I was afraid – when my father was sick or we were short of water. “You know, you get pretty close to God out there.”
The trek took six months and the curious and the courting rode in like Lochinvar to run a disbelieving eye over the girl. Most left shaking her hand and a few fell in love. One suitor left his droving plant in the care of an off-sider and rode ahead to the nearest pedal-radio to order a magnificent carved stock saddle from Brisbane. When Edna and her mob arrived in the next town he presented it to her. The newspapers reported that he “remained number one in her affections for a long time afterwards,” and her eyes shine when she remembers him.
Edna bought the mob into Dajarra and trucked them off without a loss. “When those old bullocks went I really missed then badly. Some of them had become like mates to me.”
She returned to a warm welcome in Tennant Creek and the national Press flew in and took her to Darwin to show her the sea for the first time. “All that water,” she sighed at the beach, “and all going to waste.” Letters poured in from all over Australia and overseas, and she was deluged with marriage proposals, but the boss drover was just happy to get home to the bush.
She gave up droving for awhile and worked as a wards-maid in the hospital and as a waitress.
For a time life was good and Edna was twice belle of the ball at Tennant Creek’s St Patrick Day gala. But she could feel the bush tugging somewhere inside her and after a while she went back droving, back to her share of long dry days and the nightwatch for hours on end.
She met her husband on a droving trip to Winton, Queensland. Johnny Jessop was a drover and she respected him, but after a few years and the birth of her son Jack, the marriage drifted apart and Edna moved back to Mount Isa.
For a few years Edna battled in different jobs, making sure her son received the education she never had.
She was soon involved with her beloved horses again and helped in the form of the Mount Isa Pony Club, teaching dozens of children to ride. In 1965 she became pound keeper, a job she still holds and relishes, rising long before dawn each day to check the city for straying stock.
Edna spends most days handling stock at the trucking yards, and is the undisputed Queen of Mount Isa’s famous rodeo held in August each year, where she rides around the arena shifting stock and tending gear.
She is usually surrounded by cattlemen sharing a beer and her wisdom for hours on end. “They’re a good bunch of blokes,” she says. But if Edna ever went droving again she is adamant she would take a full team of women. “They learn quicker and you can trust them better. A lot of women have more guts in the bush than men.”
She still dreams of owning her own cattle station one day “just to show them how to look after stock,” and, strangely, of going to Disneyland.
“But,” sighs Edna Jessop, “I’d probably miss the bush so much I’d want to come straight back home again.”
Edna Zigenbine 1926-2007
Photos and story provided by nephew Gordon Zigenbine: March 2008
Photographer John Elliott.
Edna Zigenbine, my Dad’s sister, was born in Thargominda, in south west Queensland, on the 10th October 1926. The fifth child to Harry and Ruby Zigenbine. As Harry was a drover, Edna, along with her 7 siblings – four brothers and three sisters were raised on the stock routes of Northern Australia. In 1950, Harry had a contract to take 1500 head of steers from a cattle station called Bedford Downs, in the Kimberleys – Western Australia, walking them to the rail-head town of Dajarra in Western Queensland, via the Northern Territory’s Murranji Track. A trip of approximately 1,000 miles to Dajarra. On that trip, Harry became very ill and the responsibility of boss drover fell on Edna’s shoulders – thereby becoming Australia’s first female boss drover. Left off the droving track at the Tennant and is an old Tennant legend of the country. Edna was a boss in a very male world. She also worked at the Tennant Creek Hospital before moving to the Isa after she was married.
Edna passed away September 15, 2007
Edna … Written by Ron Teague: April 2008
Edna and her family were very extraordinary. They lived on the cattle droving tracks across the Territory, Queensland and Western Australia. She was a tough lady controlling all male drovers, (she had to be after her father’s illness) but at the same time she had a heart of gold.
I recall one of her visits to Tennant Creek in 1950, at the time, we were running a Ball. Edna arrived, from memory, partnered by one of her brothers. She was dressed like a Queen and took out the “Belle of the Ball” with her beauty. She looked fabulous. At that time, she knocked all of us young guys off our feet with her beauty. I recall it very clearly. I was 22 at that time!! She had a younger sister, I think her name was Mavis who had a wonderful personality and very popular among the younger crowd.