The Rugged Outback: How Tough Is Tough?
Working the cattle
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'I had been hankering to visit an outback station for years. Novels, movies, and TV have romanticized jackaroos into universal icons of stoicism and roughness. How tough were those guys really?'
Heli-herding wild buffalo
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Video courtesy Northern Territory Tourist Commission
'As we left Katherine, the land withered and became a few leaves short of dramatically barren. Austere eucalyptus trees dotted the landscape, their trunks charred from incessant fire.'
'Out here,' said Graham, 'anything smaller than a million acres is a hobby farm.'
'I was going to have to prove myself, I was going to have to pull out all the farm slang I could muster. I was going to have to get dirt under my fingernails, pronto.'
'I asked questions laden with jargon, thinking they would surely display the fact that I could get down and dirty with the best of them. John looked at me suspiciously, as if he expected me to ask where the nearest manicurist was.'
'I'd heard about bull-catchers, but was incredulous at the description and thought that maybe it was an outback myth they told foreigners to prop up their carefully groomed image of ruggedness.'
'They are tough people, no doubt, but they are also kind, compassionate, and deeply appreciative of nature's ironies.'
A native of New Zealand, Amanda Jones has lived in the United States for more than a decade. She now resides in the San Francisco Bay Area where she is a freelance writer specializing in adventure travel.
Lured by the idyll of the rugged outback cattle station, our correspondent must prove her mettle among the wild buffalo and the equally untamed men, the jackaroos.
Story and photography by Amanda Jones
It was like a scene in a 1940s movie. The twin-prop plane had landed in Katherine, a small town in the sparse heart of the Northern Territory. There I was, waiting beside the runway while the other passengers were met by back-slapping friends and drifted away. I stood alone in the dust of the last receding vehicle--Panama hat, white shirt, khaki pants, bags at my feet. There was the hope that a Bogart-esque character would come hurtling round the corner, but when the scorching heat started to wilt my Bacall-cool, any breathing mortal would do.
Finally, a beaten Landcruiser pulled up, driven by a gentleman with the splendid mustache and shorts-and-long-socks of a World War II Brigadier General. "Sorry, luv. Had to get the 'copter petrol." Graham worked at Mountain Valley, a million-and-a-half-acre cattle station three hours east of Katherine, where I was headed to submerse myself in quintessential Aussie ranch life.
I had been hankering to visit an outback station for years. Novels, movies, and TV have romanticized jackaroos into universal icons of stoicism and roughness. How tough were those guys really? And how tough was I if the guys were really that tough? I told the person making my travel arrangements to find a real working station, not one of those weenie-arsed ones where the jackaroos are actually tour guides and you have to sign a waiver before they let you go to the bathroom. She found me Mountain Valley, a place where hard-core hunters normally go, but they also take people like me, wannabe jillaroos.
As we left Katherine, a bustling metropolis of 7,000 people and one newly installed traffic light (which has thrown the town into utter chaos), the land withered and became a few leaves short of dramatically barren. Austere eucalyptus trees dotted the landscape, their trunks charred from incessant fire. Intense sun, wind, and apocalyptic lightning storms have created an environment where fire is part of the cycle. Many of the plants actually need it to aid in spreading seed. Having figured out that it was easier to see hunting prey when the undergrowth was gone, Aborigines took to lighting fires on their own, which they often still do. Smokey the Bear would have suffered apoplexy in this country.
Mountain Valley, owned by John Herrick, is enormous. Its 1.5 million acres extend from southeast of Katherine to the southern border of Arnhem Land. Graham informed me that John was a tough, 42-year-old former jackaroo who came up from Victoria and ended up staying because he didn't have the bus fare home. He was a damn good jackaroo and did contract mustering on other people's stations until he had enough money and guts to spring for his own. "Out here," said Graham, "anything smaller than a million acres is a hobby farm."
Dee greeted us at the homestead. A generous, salt-of-the-earth nurturer, she had a deeply worn face that probably told of a thousand heartbreaks, but her belief in mankind kept on truckin'. She cooked and cleaned for the master of the station and his jackaroos, but my guess was that they relied on her for much more than just fresh socks and a saveloy sandwich. She was mother to all: cussing, cajoling, and comforting them. She was solid outback woman, and the silent, hardened type of man didn't faze her one bit.
I was taken to the stable to meet John, who was shoeing horses in preparation for a cattle drive later that week. A dark-haired man with eyes that glinted with shrewd cynicism, he looked me up and down grimly. It was obvious that he hadn't seen Casablanca and my clean white shirt went unappreciated. I knew his type, I've spent enough time on ranches. I could hear him thinking, "Gawd, here's a ripe one. What the bloody hell am I supposed to do with her for the next few days?" I was going to have to prove myself, I was going to have to pull out all the farm slang I could muster. I was going to have to get dirt under my fingernails, pronto.
I excused myself and went to change. Thank God I'd brought the Oshkosh coveralls. I kept the jodhpurs well-hidden, recognizing they would be an unspeakable faux pas. I swaggered outside, rolled around in the mud for a bit and then went to report to John, who was taking me with him to draft some bucking horses. Horses, fortunately, are something I know a little about. Not so with Brahmin cattle, the most highly prized species on the station. All I knew about these creatures came from sharing sidewalks with them in India. I asked questions laden with jargon, thinking they would surely display the fact that I could get down and dirty with the best of them. John looked at me suspiciously, as if he expected me to ask where the nearest manicurist was.
The horses were in a corral, waiting for John's verdict of keep 'em, sell 'em, or put 'em out back. There were at least 100 animals: a mixture of bucking horses that John supplies to most of the rodeos in the Northern Territory, and stock horses, those that are broken enough to take on cattle drives. They were intoxicatingly beautiful, snorting and stamping below me as I sat on top of the drafting pen fence. The sun stained the sky ruby as it drifted away, and the hard-living jackaroos below me worked with precision and grace. The dust was starting to settle in my pores, and John seemed to regard me slightly more approvingly.
Driving back as the sun flatlined on the horizon, John spoke about the 3,000 water buffalo that run wild on the station. Introduced to the Northern Territory from Southeast Asia last century as beasts of burden, they now run feral and are considered by many to be a blight. John musters them occasionally and sells the meat back to Asia for a sizable sum. I asked about the mustering process and was told they use a bull-catcher. I'd heard about bull-catchers, but was incredulous at the description and thought that maybe it was an outback myth they told foreigners to prop up their carefully groomed image of ruggedness.
A bull-catcher, I had heard, was an open-air, 4WD jeep with a wide wheel base and a very ballsy driver. It has a hydraulic metal arm on the front. The idea is to spot a beast, start chasing it through the bush at high speed, pull up alongside this thousand-pound, heaving, galloping, enraged, sharp-horned monster, operate some control lever within the jeep (with your other hand still on the wheel), and clamp him around the neck with the hydraulic collar. Then you drive back to the holding pen with him in your iron embrace. Yeah, right. I had to see this.
"I bet you end up in my lap if I take you. All the girls do," John smirked. "I bet I don't," I replied, silently vowing to die by buffalo horn before I let that happen. John and I were becoming friends. I liked him. He was a no-bull kind of guy (pardon the pun), and he had decided it was worthwhile testing my mettle. "Oh luv," Dee warned, shaking her head, "hang on, it's a rough ride."
We spotted our buff and took off barreling through the bush, cutting like Jerry Rice on his way to a touchdown, running over termite mounds which splintered and flew into my eyes. Most bull-catchers, I learned later, have a roll-bar and steel rails on the side to keep the bull from goring the passengers. Not this one.
John was beside the beast in minutes; he threw the lever which shot the arm across and poised it above the neck. Seconds later he threw the switch to lower it and we had our unhappy buffalo. I felt a pang of sympathy for him, but kept my mouth shut. That sort of sentiment, if I had been a man, would cause me to be called a "girl's blouse," which translates to hopeless wuss. I had not, at any point in the whole operation, come close to John's lap. When I casually mentioned this, he smiled roguishly and released our buffalo, taking off after it again. "Wanna see how I get the girls crawling all over me?" He closed in on the buff, but this time he pulled up on the other side, exposing my unprotected half of the vehicle to the beast's thrashing head. It was an involuntary reflex that made me spring away from those horns, towards John. He grinned into the wind.
That night was a full moon. After a mammoth T-bone steak, we saddled up two horses and headed into the bright fields. The air was balmy and John had finally decided I was OK. I'd passed the muster. Literally.
The next morning we rose at 5 a.m. to go riding again. We headed to Canopy Rock, which we climbed for the spectacular view and the ancient Aboriginal rock paintings.
Ben, a neighboring ranch owner, arrived late morning in his helicopter to help with a muster. The properties are so large in Northern Australia that helicopters are a necessity for herding. We were to gather the cattle off the eastern couple of thousand acres and head them off to a holding pen where they await the walk to the trucking yards.
I rode with Ben in the two-person helicopter. It was tiny, like a mosquito with a glandular problem, allowing us to whip in and out of the trees, thrumming down on lazy cattle, scaring them into flight. It was the end of the dry season and the land was parched. If the weather didn't break soon, the cattle would starve. Fortunately, it apparently breaks just in time. Ben managed to flush about 400 obscured cattle out of the bush in three hours.
The following day I had to leave. I didn't want to, I was having so much unadulterated fun. Station life would suit me for a while longer, although I doubt I could hack the harshness in perpetuity. They are tough people, no doubt, but they are also kind, compassionate, and deeply appreciative of nature's ironies. Best of all, after I was accepted, they didn't coddle me just because I was female. I like that in a tough guy.