The wild life of Dennis Kunoth, a Central Australian cattleman

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As the sun rises across the Utopian homelands — the land emerging with its deep, rich reds that are symbolic of Central Australia — Dennis Kunoth is making his tea with two bags, a dash of long life milk and some sugar.

He is sitting in his armchair at the end of his shed, watching the colour slowly reveal itself across his country.

The radio crackles in the background, something about COVID-19 cases in the east.

Dennis is 63 years old. For decades, he wasn’t sure if he would ever watch the sun rise in the Red Centre again.

He was born in 1958 to a white mother and an Indigenous father.

As was the case for many part-Aboriginal children in the 1960s, Dennis and his six siblings were removed from their family in Alice Springs and sent to Darwin, as part of what is now known as the Stolen Generations.

An old photo showing a group of kids at a children's home in Darwin, most with their faces blurred.An old photo showing a group of kids at a children's home in Darwin, most with their faces blurred.
Dennis Kunoth at the children’s home he was sent to in Darwin.(Supplied)

“This old Sister Eileen came along there just out of the blue with her little Mini Minor,” Dennis recalls.

“I was only seven, and she got us around the car, and she said, ‘Would you like to go on a holiday?’ 

Sister Eileen was a Catholic nun in Alice Springs, and the holiday she spoke of was a one-way ticket to Darwin.

“We thought, ‘Oh well, we might be going home soon, like next month’, that’s what was going through my mind,” Dennis says. 

“But it ended up being 13 years … we weren’t going home. We were [wards of the state].”

‘You get the police, I don’t care’

Growing up in Darwin was not easy for many of the children taken from their homes.

“We all lived in the one house, and to watch your brother and sister get flogged with a bloomin’ cane until they’re black and blue and couldn’t do anything, and you had to help them do everything … that bloody bites you right where it hurts,” Dennis says. 

By the age of 14, Dennis had reached his limit and, in an act of defiance, he simply walked out.

“I said, ‘I’m going to get out of this … place’, and they said, ‘No you aren’t. We’ll track you down, get the police and all that’,” he says. 

“And I said, ‘You get the bloody police … I don’t care’.

“So, on a Sunday night, I walked out of the joint.”

Out of the city, into the saddle

With sudden freedom, but little direction, Dennis turned to the rugged life of the Northern Territory cattleman.

It was working cattle where the boy from Utopia found his calling, but Dennis always felt the pull back to Central Australia.

Dennis Kunoth as a young man. Dennis Kunoth as a young man.
Dennis Kunoth as a young ringer. (Supplied)

“We’re all proud of our country, our heritage. There’s nothing more satisfying than being on country,” he says.

Coincidentally, it was an event that destroyed many homes across Darwin that gave him the ticket back to the Red Centre.

When Cyclone Tracy tore through the Top End in 1974, Dennis tried to return to Darwin, the place that had become his home for the past 13 years.

It was after a conversation with the police officer in charge of the evacuation buses that he was reminded that there was nothing stopping him from returning to Alice Springs.

Dennis wearing a bright red shirt looking up at people on horses.Dennis wearing a bright red shirt looking up at people on horses.
Dennis Kunoth instructing at his young family’s stock camp.(ABC News: Hugo Rikard-Bell)

“I tried to get a bus from Daly Waters [to Darwin] there. They said, ‘You can get a bus, but it won’t be goin’ north. Have you got family down south?'”

So, just like that, his journey home began, and his return was a day he will never forget.

Last steps on long walk home

Upon his return, he worked several jobs on different stations around Alice Springs.

It was while managing Loves Creek Station, an hour up the Ross Highway, where he met his partner, Ley, who at the time was a jillaroo on the neighbouring station.

“He used to say he was an old bull that jumped the boundary fence,” Ley says.

“He thought he was pretty special there.” 

Together, they shared a dream of one day running their own station on Dennis’s homelands in Utopia.

Man and woman standing next to a horse. Man and woman standing next to a horse.
Dennis and Ley Kunoth dreamed of having their own business and running their own cattle station. (ABC News: Hugo Rikard-Bell)

Utopia is an Indigenous lands trust. So, to be allowed to run cattle there was a lofty goal.

However, in 2018 — almost 60 years after he was relocated to Darwin — the Kunoths signed the lease to Waite River Cattle Station, a stunning block of land that runs along the Sandover River.

Dennis is one of the only Indigenous men who runs his own cattle station in Central Australia.

Together, he and Ley farm roughly 800 cattle, own a small herd of horses and are keen campdrafters, a passion they handed down to their kids, Tyler, Tameka and Dean.

A legacy to last

After all his years on the land, it is teaching his own and local community kids — who he employs for cattle work — where Dennis thrives.

Unfortunately, the window to learn from him is closing.

Six months ago, Dennis was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.

For now, he and Ley are focused on their land and their family.

Ley on a horse leading cattle down a dirt path. Ley on a horse leading cattle down a dirt path.
Ley Kunoth leading cattle on their property. (ABC News: Hugo Rikard-Bell)

“You don’t think you’re gonna come this far, do you?” Dennis reflects. 

“You know, we never in our wildest dreams thought we’d own a shop and now lease a cattle station.

“So we’re proud of what we’ve done for us and our kids.”

Watch this story on 7.30 tonight on ABC TV and iview.