Photography: State Library of South Australia
Photography: State Library of South Australia

The biggest cattle operation on the planet, the Kidman Ranch might never have existed had a 13-year-old Sidney Kidman not run away from home in 1870.

When ranch lands in Australia covering an area the size of Scotland went on the market last year for more than $300 million, it made news across the globe. Size mattered, but so did the story behind the legendary Kidman Ranch. Over the five generations the land has been in the Kidman family (yes, that of famous Aussie actress Nicole Kidman), the great property has become the stuff of ranching legend.

Divided into 11 cattle stations spread across the heart of Australia with more than 200,000 head of cattle and 150 residents, it’s the largest parcel of privately owned land anywhere on the planet. The biggest station, Anna Creek, is larger than Belgium. Impressive as the 24 million acres might be, the holdings are a mere echo of what they once were: At one point, S. Kidman & Co. claimed ownership of an estimated 3 percent of the Australian land mass. But the colorful story of the ranch founder remains every bit as captivating.

Australian frontiersman Sidney Kidman carved a cattle empire from the blowtorched ground of the outback consisting of 25 cattle stations running in a north-south line through the continent along dry riverbeds that flooded during periodic rains. Towering over this private kingdom with a bushwhacker bullwhip wrapped around his right shoulder was the lean, sunburned 6-foot Kidman.

For Kidman, the adventure began in 1870 when he was 13. His natural father had died when he was only 14 months old in Adelaide. When he was 5 years old, his mother married an abusive alcoholic brawler. The more the man drank, the more he would physically take it out on his adopted children.

Sidney’s older brother, George, had already lit out for the outback to get away from the man and ended up managing a cattle station in New South Wales. To get out of the house, Sidney began working in the Adelaide stockyards for three shillings a week. By age 13 he had saved enough to buy a one-eyed horse named Cyclops.

Australia had just begun exploring her interior. All over the country, men called squatters were taking their herds of cattle and sheep into the unclaimed lands of the interior. The same was taking place in South Australia. Squatters bringing in their herds to sell at Adelaide told stories about the cowboy life in the outback, and young Sidney would listen. One night after being paid his weekly wage, Sidney snuck out of the house, saddled Cyclops, and rode off down the gum tree-lined Kapunda road leading out of the small city. With a few shillings in his pocket and a plan to work for his brother, he headed for the outback.

A stern drover, George was shocked when his little brother showed up. “And what am I supposed to do with you?” was all the greeting Sidney got, and George quickly pawned him off on a passing German squatter named Harry Raines. Soon young Sidney’s home consisted of a hole in the back end of a dugout that he shared with an Aborigine named Billy.

Life in the outback consisted of brownish water holes, poisonous snakes and spiders, packs of wild dogs called dingoes, and drifters raiding stations for cattle and horses, which they herded through the barren lands to sell in fringe settlements. Men carried guns and their trademark bullwhips in fear of each other and of Aboriginal bushmen who had been known to spear a lone rider.

When Raines, now with Sidney in tow, wasn’t looking for free grazing, he was manning one of the many wayside shanties dotting the landscape, a roadhouse offering food, drink, and a place to get out of the relentless sun. The shanty became Sidney’s new home — but not for long. His first night sleeping inside, he sensed a large spider crawling along the wall toward his head. He got up and in a frenzy pounded it against the wall. When Raines ran over to stop him, Sidney exclaimed it was poisonous.

“Lad,” the German immigrant said with a thick accent, “that one isn’t poisonous. Those are the ones you should be concerned with.” He pointed up to the overhead rafters covered with poisonous spiders. Kidman took one look and, as Raines laughed, ran out into the night. It would be years before Kidman slept under a roof again.

Growing into a young man, Kidman was also growing in the ways of the outback. He spent his days in the saddle chasing off packs of dingoes trying for a kill. Once he had to rescue 20 head of cattle from the wild dogs. His growing knowledge of the country led to his being hired out as a pilot for squatters looking for water holes.

When Raines headed out for new lands, Kidman got a job as a drover on the 1,400-square-mile Mount Gipps Station. But his career there was short. He asked for a raise and was fired on the spot. Fortunately, a gold rush was taking place a few miles south. Kidman bought 10 head of cattle and drove them to the gold field, where he set up a makeshift butcher shop for hungry prospectors. It was the first time he was his own boss. He would never work for anyone else again.

Herding cattle to the gold fields to feed miners, Kidman not only encountered plagues of rabbits but at one point was caught in the advance of hundreds of thousands of rats on the move. He had to light fires in a circle around himself and his livestock and tend to them through the night to keep from being overrun and bitten.

Kidman learned the ways of the frontier and put his entrepreneurial talents to work where he saw opportunity. Eventually he would make a fortune trading and transporting. He hauled water, supplies, and passengers to the gold camps and ranch towns that were springing up across the frontier. He got in touch with his older brothers, who were also in the outback, and proposed going into business starting a coach line that would put together a chain of relay stations. He would buy a herd of cattle from a drought-stricken ranch, drive them a hundred miles or more to where there was no drought, and turn a profit when he sold them. During economic depressions, he stayed afloat by securing mail contracts to the mining centers.

Even with all the perils that came with the hardscrabble life, Kidman had always wanted his own cattle station. He had observed others go broke after one drought and was determined not to let that happen to him. He came up with an idea not unlike what he’d done with his brothers previously, but this time he would own everything along the way. With a chain of his own cattle stations along the dry riverbeds from the Northern Territory to the railhead leading toward the Adelaide stockyards, he could drive a herd from a drought-stricken station to one with water, allowing the cattle to fatten before slowly herding them to market.

After an official government expedition opened up the MacDonnell Ranges in the Northern Territory, Kidman was one of the earliest in; he bought his first cattle station there in 1885 or 1886. On June 30, 1885, he married Isabel Wright, a schoolteacher, in the frontier town of Kapunda. He soon built her a house, which he named Eringa — the first roof he slept under since he had run away. But even as he began putting down roots, Kidman was hardly ever home. He spent up to six months at a time in the saddle roaming the outback, keeping an eye on stations coming up for sale.

Gradually he built his chain of cattle stations. He bought the 1,000-square-mile Carcoory Station, the 800-square-mile Dubbo Downs Station, the 6,183-square-mile Glengyle Station, and the 9,000-square-mile Victoria River Downs Station. By 1900, Kidman’s properties ranged throughout the backcountry of the Northern Territory, Queensland, New South Wales, and South Australia — close to 100,000 square miles of grazing lands. His horses had to cover so much rough ground that he was ordering horseshoes by the ton.

Kidman’s theory that such a chain could outsmart drought was put to the test when all of Australia underwent a disastrous drought in 1901. A million cattle out of Queensland’s 4 million head died of thirst that year. Using telegraphs, scouts, locomotives, and saddle leather, Kidman raced from one cattle station to another trying to get stock to water. His cattle empire survived, but only after he lost more than 50,000 head.

He went to the rescue again during World War I, but this time for the troops instead of his cattle. Already a millionaire by this time, he purchased warplanes and saw to it that several Australian units were properly equipped for combat. He also donated beef to the army rather than profiteering off the war as so many did, and he arranged for the care of war widows. His support of the war effort earned him a knighthood in 1921.

Eventually rheumatism crippled Sir Sidney. He died in September 1935 after a brief illness. The Townsville Daily Bulletin ran an obituary declaring, “The career of Sir Sidney Kidman must go down as an outstanding illustration of the opportunities a young country such as Australia offers to men of courage and enterprise, backed by the determination to succeed; for Sir Sidney, who started his life work as a cowboy earning 10/ a week, lived to acquire the greatest extent of pastoral property possessed by any one man in the Commonwealth, and became widely known as the ‘Australian Cattle King.’ ”

The following year saw the publication of legendary Australian writer Ion Idriess’ biography of Kidman, appropriately titled The Cattle King. Idriess had traveled through the outback researching Kidman’s life and gotten a vivid picture of a self-starter who had grown from nothing to immensity in not just his holdings, wealth, and fame, but also in his reputation for plain dealing and philanthropy. Time and again, Idriess heard Kidman described as a man who “never falls down on a deal ... [a man who’s] as good as his word.”

Idriess’ favorite story about Kidman was one about a widow on a cattle station in South Australia. One day she was startled to find workmen on her property setting up a windmill to pump water. Asked what they were doing, they told her that their boss, Sir Sidney Kidman, had ordered them to set up the pump.

The widow exclaimed she couldn’t afford the large windmill. The foreman told her it was a gift from Kidman. He had passed by and could not abide cattle going thirsty.

From the April 2016 issue.