In arranging the interview with David Russell, I received the following text on my phone and an accompanying photo from the trail, a very long way west of the Hills district.
Text: “10 hrs on bike still 2 hrs to get to yard before dark then feed talk later cheers DGR”
David Russell (DGR) the pastoralist, operating his own cattle and sheep station, is just one side of this man from the outback. His other job is as the owner and co-founder of Landmark Russell, stock and station agents.
A second text comes through: “I’m flying back to Cobar now will call in a couple of hours cheers DGR”.
As David comes on the phone his cheery Australian voice offers me a “G’day, so what do you want to know?”
David is in Cobar when we speak, but he has spent the entire weekend at Budda station, around 230 kilometres west of the town (or 240 kilometres downriver from Bourke). He had flown out and back to the now dusty range with his wife of 34 years, Gail, and two of their daughters, Ellie and Kate (their third daughter, Jessie, lives in Townsville).
The family overnighted at Budda Homestead. On the banks of the Darling River, the homestead is an oasis in the dust bowl that the whole region has become.
“We’ve done the house up a bit with a lovely garden on the banks of the river, and we have two caretakers in their 70s who came off the grey nomad's website, and who are the best workers we’ve ever had,” said David.
And renovations in the outback are not easy. To make it clear, to get a plumber out to Budda station means a round trip of several hundred kilometres. Imagine the call-out fee!

The dry poses an ever present threat
“Last year we had 298 millimetres of rain. This year we’ve had only 38 millimetres,” David told me.
The land is parched, cracked and bereft of grass, forcing David to make some significant adjustments, selling breeding stock that the family has nurtured over many seasons.
“It’s like selling your North Shore house. It’s difficult on the land. Every day we’re feeding them — they’re lining up, and with not enough grazing pasture we had to move on some of our prime herd.”
But David remains stalwart and optimistic. “Even though we are a bit depressed when the seasons are dry, it’ll rain like buggery soon,” he said. “It always does.”
The property is well guarded against long drought with the land fronting 21 kilometres of the Darling River. With 70 kilometres of poly pipeline installed, tanks, sub-artesian bores and seasonal watering holes, water is not a problem — the property has a million and a half litres of water stored for the animals on any day. But it is rain for the paddocks that is in dire need.
“To keep the herds healthy we are using new technologies. They get well fed and we now use Beachport liquid minerals and seaweed in the water. It’s like you and I taking a Berocca every morning,” he explained.
And technology is everywhere in the outback. There is excellent mobile reception across Budda, thanks to a Telstra network of repeater stations every 50 kilometres linked to the gas pipeline that crosses the station.
“It’s better than the city,” said David with a hint of a smirk.
David can even monitor the water he has stored from a mobile phone app. “I used to have a radio phone in the car; now with the mobile phone and the iPad you never get left alone,” he joked.

A dynasty is formed
The Russell family has been on Budda station for 100 years next year. In 1918, after the First World War, David’s grandfather was allotted two blocks of 10,240 acres (4,144ha) carved off the original Nelyambo Station, the local Aboriginal tribe’s word for “Land of Many Waters”.
“He was a returning serviceman and this was a government grant,”
said David.
David’s father, who passed away last year aged 93, worked the land all his life and was also a pilot. As David shares memories of his dad, I gather he was also quite a dynamic personality.
Today David aims to put parts of the original Nelyambo station back together, now totalling 64,000 acres (25,899ha), and has been buying back adjacent holdings whenever they become available.
Flying has always been one of David’s passions.
“Sometimes I’m up at 5:00am and I’ll fly out to Budda, do a couple of hours’ work, then fly back to Cobar and be in the office by 9:00am, and no one even knows I’ve been,” he said. “I was virtually raised on the back seat of this aeroplane. I was born in 1962 and the aircraft we have is a 1962 Cessna 182 (call sign RKW) which Dad purchased new from America. He sold it during some tough times but I was able to repurchase it after a few years, and it is our joy to be flying not just out to the station but all around the region doing business.”
David first piloted when he was just a small boy, often taking over while his dad read the newspaper on trips from Cobar out to the station. When he bought back his dad’s plane, he earned his full pilot’s licence.

Stock on Budda
Budda station runs cattle for breeding and meat, merino sheep for wool and South African dorper sheep for meat. Dorpers are drought hardy, and don’t need shearing as they shed their wool. David has 900 dorper ewes already lambing and eating his oats and fava beans.
With the dry, the wild goats come down to the river’s banks and the edges of the billabongs.
“Herding goats has become big business around here, with about 80% of the meat shipped to the United States,” David said. “Goats used to be a pest; now they are somewhat of a saviour.”

Pastoralist and stock and station agent
For David, Budda station has always been there. Born in Bourke, he grew up at the homestead. At first his mum taught him, and they had a couple of governesses on the property using correspondence school.
He attended primary school at Cobar Public and continued on to Cobar High School and boarded at the Cobar War Memorial Hostel from fifth class, with his father flying in to get him for school holidays. He left school in the fourth form and almost immediately his life was set out before him.
“After some odd jobs, at 17 I started work for Glen Pittman, a stock agent, property agent and auctioneer in Cobar, and I did a lot of work for him down south of here and around the place,” David recalled.
He met Gail Howlett at Cobar High School, and they were married in 1984. Soon after, the couple opened Dalgety Russell in Cobar, now Landmark Harcourts Russell. The company operates in everything from town real estate and massive acreage sales to livestock sales and auctioneering, and has become “like a country town general store”.
He oversees livestock sales in an area that sees him covering much ground — in excess of 13,000,000 acres. 
“We’re a little Coles for the town when it comes to everything from dog food to hay,” said David. “Gail is the backbone of the whole operation, and because of our determination through the hard times and honest work, we’ve been in business for 33 years and we’re in the top two or three agents in the country.
“I know that real estate agents are considered bushrangers down in the city, but here it’s all about trust. I know the land out here. I can tell you what the cows and goats and the sheep are eating.”

"This is a clean, healthy town and is at heart a busy mining town with 5,000 people who come and go."

Challenges in a small town
The most significant problem in Cobar is that it is tough to get staff.
“This is a clean, healthy town and is at heart a busy mining town with 5,000 people who come and go, but finding qualified people for the work we do is very hard,” he said.
David added that with increasing business he and Gail are working harder than ever, even with 12 people on the team. On their books at present they have 80 residential properties for sale and 500 rental properties. The company also handles teacher accommodation around the region.
And if all that isn’t enough, David and Gail handle all the livestock buying and selling and overseeing 2.6 million acres for three large cattle stations in the Northern Territory, for their longstanding international client.
The Cessna is well used, with over 200 hours per year of flying time, and David estimates he does another 130,000 kilometres a year by road, and more if you count the quad bikes the family have been riding over the weekend.
Sounds like fun!


Home is 950kms west of the big smoke
Budda station is part of the community around the small town of Tilpa, way out west on the Darling River and more than 950 kilometres from Sydney. The station is 45 kilometres south of Tilpa, nestled on the banks of the Darling River.
Budda station will celebrate 100 years of continuous pastoral care next year, and the Russell family has been there through the good times and bad.
Today the property is run by David and Gail Russell, with help from their daughters. Most weekends, the family flies out to Budda from Cobar, around 230 kilometres away, eager for a couple of days’ hard work on the station that owns their hearts.


Home is 950kms west of the big smoke
Budda station is part of the community around the small town of Tilpa, way out west on the Darling River and more than 950 kilometres from Sydney. The station is 45 kilometres south of Tilpa, nestled on the banks of the Darling River.
Budda station will celebrate 100 years of continuous pastoral care next year, and the Russell family has been there through the good times and bad.
Today the property is run by David and Gail Russell, with help from their daughters. Most weekends, the family flies out to Budda from Cobar, around 230 kilometres away, eager for a couple of days’ hard work on the station that owns their hearts.


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