The Radio Scene on the World’s Largest Private Property

The world’s largest property in private ownership was Victoria River Downs with its almost 16,000 square miles of cattle country, some 500 miles south of Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia.  In the year 1879, the South Australian government awarded the concession to two men, Englishman Charles Fisher and Australian born Maurice Lyons, who developed the land together as a cattle ranch, with 30,000 cattle and 500 horses.

Victoria River Downs Head Station 1891. By State Library of South Australia – http://images.slsa.sa.gov.au/mpcimg/10250/B10127.htm, Public Domain, Link

Originally the Victoria River Downs station covered a vast area of pastoral land about the same size as Switzerland, and twice the size of Wales in the British isles.  If Victoria River Downs had been a separate country, it would be listed as number 63.  That is, there are as many as 62 politically separate countries around the world these days that are smaller than the original Victoria River Downs.

In the middle of last century, Victoria River Downs was almost a small town in its own right.  Near the station homestead, there was a small two storey hospital, Wimmera Home, that was operated by two nurses.  There was also a small general store, an airstrip, and several dwellings for support staff.

In 1932, a newly developed pedal radio was installed in Wimmera Home by its inventor, Alf Traeger.  (His first pedal wireless had been installed in Augustus Downs, near Cloncurry in Queensland just three years earlier.)

Alfred Traeger using his transceiver 1927. Photo: Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre

Initially these radio transceivers operated only in Morse Code and this procedure required that the operator had to pedal the generator that provided electricity for the radio equipment, and also to operate the Morse Code key as well.  However in 1931, Alf Traeger had also developed an ingenious typewrite keyboard that sent each letter out in Morse Code.

Soon after it was taken into regular usage, nursing Sister Mackenzie described the pedal wireless at Victoria River Downs as “a marvel of simplicity and (it) has proved its tremendous value”.  Seven years later, another nursing Sister, World War 1 veteran Grace Francis, was managing the communication wireless station at Victoria River Downs.

In addition to communication radio these days at Victoria River Downs, there is an airport radio beacon with 2 kW on 377 kHz under the Morse Code callsign VRD, and there is also an ABC Radio National FM  radio broadcasting station with 100 watts on 105.7 MHz.

The 1927 edition of the AWA Radio Guide in Australia lists three more of these radio communication stations that operated in the Australian outback in the early days of wireless history. 

Those now silent historic and forgotten wireless stations were:-

  • VJD at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory
  • VJJ at Camooweal in Queensland
  • VZGO at Brunette Downs in the Northern Territory 

The wireless equipment for all three stations was manufactured by AWA at their factory in suburban Sydney.  For the first two stations, the radio equipment was taken by ship to Darwin, and then carried by early model motor vehicle to Wave Hill and Camooweal. 

Those two stations, Wave Hill VJD and Camooweal VJJ, were set up by AWA on behalf of the PMG Department in the federal government in an endeavor to encourage the widespread development of radio communications throughout the Great Outback.  It was intended that small communication transmitters, each at 50 watts, would be privately operated on a multitude of pastoral properties throughout the desert and semi-desert areas, for intercommunication and also for communication with the two official government stations, VJD and VJJ.

The Wave Hill pastoral property was located nearly 400 miles south of Darwin in the northern Territory.  Wireless station VJD with its 2 kW was installed in a new and separate building near the pastoral homestead at Wave Hill.

It was a completely self contained station with all of the needed equipment and it was described by the Melbourne based radio magazine Listener In as one of the most modern wireless stations in Australia.  Station VJD was officially opened on October 12, 1925, and it was taken into regular service two days later.

As an official PMG station VJD received incoming messages from many different localities in surrounding outback areas, and they then passed official communications on to Darwin Radio VID.  In addition, the Wave Hill station relayed the broadcast of daily bulletins of news for the listening public, in the same way as was heard from the AWA network of coastal maritime stations.

The settlement of Camooweal in western Queensland was just 12 miles from the border with the Northern Territory.  Station VJJ served a similar purpose as was available with VJD at Wave Hill.  However in addition to its wireless communications, that station had the supplemental advantage that the isolated settlement at Camooweal was the western terminal of the wired telegraph network in the state of Queensland.

Following the disappearance of the Southern Cross that was piloted by Charles Kingsford Smith in early April 1929 as part of the flight from Sydney to Wyndham, messages had been sent using the Wave Hill wireless station.Several search-planes went to look for the Southern Cross, including the Kookaburra, flown by Lieutenant Keith Anderson with mechanic R. Hitchcock, which took off from Alice Springs on 10 April. The Kookaburra never landed at Wave Hill to resupply and was declared missing. The Southern Cross was found on 12 April on mudflats at the mouth of the Glenelg River in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The wreckage of the Kookaburra was found in desert country south-east of Wave Hill on 21 April with Hitchcock’s body beneath one wing and Anderson missing. Anderson’s body was found a few hundred meters away.

The search for the Kookaburra aeroplane, with the Wave Hill wireless station shown. By Contributor(s): The Queenslander – Copied and digitised from an image appearing in The Queenslander, 2 May 1929, p. 29., Public Domain, Link

However due to economy measures soon that were introduced soon after the beginning of World War 2, the Wave Hill VJD station was closed in January 1941, after a lifetime of 16 useful years.  The equipment was offered for sale by tender.  These days the only radio transmitter at Wave Hill is a low power aeradio territory beacon, as a safety geographic guide for aircraft flying over the vast lonely areas of the Great Outback.

However it is not stated when the Camooweal station VJJ was closed, though it would be presumed that it must have been around the same time as the closure of VJD.  The callsign VJJ was subsequently recycled just two years later, and it was applied to the new Flying Doctor Base at Charleville in western Queensland in 1943.  At Camooweal these days, there are two ABC FM relay stations operating on 106.1 MHz and 107.7 MHz with 160 watts each, and also there is a privately operated FM relay station on 88.0 MHz.

Victoria River Downs Station – Modern day Birds Eye View. Photo: Heytesbury Cattle Co.

As we mentioned earlier, one of the major purposes for establishing the two Government-PMG stations, VJD at Wave Hill in the Northern Territory and VJJ at Camooweal in Queensland, was to encourage other large pastoral settlements in the outback to acquire a double set of radio equipment, transmitter and receiver.   However, two years later as the AWA 1927 report indicates, only one other station had been installed, and that was at Brunette Downs, in the Northern Territory.  Strangely, even though the Brunette Downs radio station equipment was purchased (from AWA) and operated privately, yet it was granted a very official four letter callsign, VZGO.

This feature was written by Adrian Peterson and originally aired on Adventist World Radio’s “Wavescan” DX program of March 20, 2022

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