by Risa Weinreb Wyatt
My horse saw it before I did. Come By Me shifted her weight slightly and one of her ears swiveled. I followed her gaze to a heifer scurrying away from the herd, like a school kid sneaking off for a cigarette. Before I could react, the mare shot after the rebellious Hereford and planted herself in its path. The heifer stopped and glowered, its entire body language radiating “Go on — make me.” Come By Me came one step closer, but the cow held its ground. Another step — the mare’s eyes bored into those of the Hereford. Shifting its glance, the cow ambled back to the herd.
Just another day at home on the range. Only thing was, this range lay about as way-out-West as you can get. No deer and antelope at play — instead, the cast of critters included bouncing kangaroos and waddling echidnas.
Shane Oldfield, the boss drover — Aussie for cowboy —smiled. “If any of the cattle get away, your horses know what to do. It’s in their blood. In the meantime, get to know your horse and experience the Outback — the real Australia.”
I’d saddled up for a preview of the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive, a six-week event scheduled for May and June 2005. The 320-mile ride will move 600 head of cattle by horseback along the Birdsville Track in South Australia, one of the country’s eight states and territories. Since the late 1800s, this route had been used by drovers to move livestock from pasture in southwest Queensland to the railhead at Marree where they would be shipped to market. The adventure is geared to all levels of riders, from silver-buckle winners and show jumpers to jackaroos — the Australian term for greenhorns.
On the journey, visitrs learn horse lore passed from generation to generation, hear stories of Aboriinal culture and experience an inside look at the Outback. “You’ll get a taste of how we live our lives each day,” explained Keith Rasheed, one of the organizing forces behind the adventure. “Because the pace is slow, it’s a spiritual experience — you’ll get to smell the air and the sky.”
Baked into a primal palette of sun, red earth and hot-blue sky, the Australian Outback throbs as the arid, endless heart of Australia. This is the land of “Waltzing Mathilde” and vast cattle and sheep stations (ranches) that sprawl over thousands of square miles — some are as large as Belgium. Despite the advent of cell phones, motorbikes and GPS, the lifestyle remains a flashback to the American frontier of the 1880s. Cattle are still mustered (rounded up) on horseback. A weathered Akubra (hat) can double as potholder for the billy (tea kettle) or patch for the water filter. Stockmen are as comfortable spending the night wrapped in their swag (bedroll) under a coolabah tree as I would be in a five-star hotel.
Landscapes stretch red and repetitive as far as the eye can see, a monochrome of red kangaroos, red gum trees, red rocks, red sand and red sunsets. Look at a map of central Australia — you’ll find few place names marked on its expanse. And when you finally arrive at a locale that’s recorded, all you often find are a couple of corrugated metal buildings, a corral and some water tanks. The outposts themselves carry Alice-meets-Aboriginal-in-Wonderland names — Andamooka, Oodnadatta, Bookaloo ...
.... Or Mungerannie, which is where I flew to join the cattle drive. A small oasis settlement about half-way along the Birds-ville Track, the station encompasses 1.5 million acres — just average, Aussie size — and boasts a total population of eight. A traffic light (non-working) stands at an intersection that sees fewer than a dozen cars a day, and a parking meter (non-working) looms near the hitching post and satellite-phone booth (both in use) — deadpan touches of Aussie humor.
“Anyone here who’s never ridden before?” Shane Oldfield asked as he surveyed our group of American and other riders from overseas on the first afternoon. Three visitors raised their hands timidly. “Good — we have horses that have never been ridden before either,” he joked.
In fact, all the steeds for the cattle drive are levelheaded and cow-smart. Visitors mount up on working “station horses” with pedigrees that range from plow collar to the winner’s circle. Some carry the blood of brumbies (wild horses descended from runaway stock, like American mustangs), while others trace their lineage to winners of the Melbourne Cup — the Aussie equivalent of the Kentucky Derby.
Thanks to the easy-going pace, the cattle drive suits both novice and experienced riders. “I never dreamed in all my life I’d be doing something like this,” declared Trisha Cole, a maybe-twice-a-year rider from California, as Shane gave her a leg up onto a fine-boned chestnut mare. “And I dreamed all my life of doing something like this,” I replied, as a four-time-a-week rider who’s been horse-crazy since the age of five.
Cattle drives still bring livestock to market or to new grasslands in this northeastern corner of South Australia. “Although you can cover more ground on a motorbike, I don’t think you get the same quality of work,” observed Shane, who runs 3,000 head of cattle on his 640,000-acre Clayton Station. “A wise horse will use his nose to push along a tired calf, which is a lot better then a motorbike buzzing behind, scaring it. The cattle get to market in better condition.”
Every aspect of the cattle drive revolves around the safety and comfort of the participants and livestock. Drovers pair horses with riders as carefully as any matchmaking service. Want to take a photo? One of the drovers will hold your horse while you dismount and snap your memory. Tired? A fleet of four-wheel-drive “sag wagons” whisks the saddle-sated back to camp. Since the cattle drive takes place in May and June (Australia’s autumn), the weather remains moderate with daytime temperatures in the high 60s.
Despite the City Slickers images of stampedes and fisticuffs, the herd — Hereford and Hereford/Angus crosses — moseys along, stopping often to graze on Mitchell grass and salt bush or slurp from mud puddles if there has been recent rain. While rookie riders can hang back “on the tail” at the rear of the herd, more experienced horsemen enjoy flanking the cattle and chasing down any escapees. Participants help out with all aspects of the drive, from tacking up to hosing off the horses in evening.
The Australian Outback encompasses some of the oldest landscapes on earth — rock samples three billion years old scatter across the land — and the tableau of our cattle drive seemed equally timeless. The lowing of the cattle. Gallahs jabbering as they flit among the eucalyptus trees. My breath flowing into the same exhalation as that of my horse, as that of the breeze.
After the day’s ride, we’d unsaddle our mounts and let them gallop free to the billabongs (watering holes), their hooves churning spirals of red dust as they thundered over the sand dunes. For the drovers, every fleck of featureless, scorched desert carries memories. “My father, and his father, are buried in the graveyard just over the hill,” Gordon said softly as we rode one afternoon.
After the day’s ride, we’d return to camp for afternoon tea. “Enjoy a cuppa and a cake,” friendly staffers offered, passing around treats such as lamingtons — vanilla pound cake topped with chocolate frosting and coconut. “Real ridgy-didgy — spot on,” complimented one of the Aussie riders. We Yanks acquired a cocktail-hour penchant for “Black Rats,” the local rum-and-cola in a can. These tasted especially good at our camp in Mungerannie, where we could burble in riverside hot springs as we watched a blazing sunset.
On the Cattle Drive, staying “Outback” didn’t mean sleeping in swags and washing in billabongs. We overnighted in two-person tents equipped with a divider, carpet, battery-powered lamps, folding chairs and two cots. Campsite facilities provide plenty of hot water for showers along with flush-toilets.
Dinners featured grilled steaks, chicken or curries — the latter a legacy of the Afghan cameleers who served as the Outback answer to Federal Express during the 19th century, delivering goods from train stations to distant desert outposts. Salads, pastas or potatoes and desserts such as fresh raspberry shortcake rounded out meals.
Afterwards, we gathered alongside the drovers and local station residents around a massive campfire. “We have horse experience, but we’ve never had much people experience,” Shane mentioned apologetically — a remark belied by the warmth with which the drovers welcome Cattle Drive participants into their lives. While the billy boiled above the coals, the drovers spoke of their experiences of seeing their horses and cattle die during “hundred-year-droughts” that seem to come every decade; and of dust storms so bad that families have to eat dinner covered by a sheet.
“Is it hard to be a woman in this country?” I asked Debbie Oldfield, Shane’s wife. “No, it’s not hard,” she reflected. “But it makes you a different kind of woman — it turns you strong. The hardest thing is sending the children away to boarding school when they become teenagers. But you have to, because they need to have a proper education.”
Most of all, people spoke of friendship. “To live in this harsh land you’ve got to look after each other — that’s what we call ‘mates,’” said Gordon Litchfield. “They’re the ones who are going to lift you up when times get hard.”
As in the U.S., horses are becoming obsolete on the stations, with motorbikes replacing four-hoofed drive. “Four men on bikes can do the work of ten drovers and 30 horses,” Gordon commented. “Some operations have eliminated horses entirely; even stations that want to use horses find it increasingly hard to find experienced drovers.”
Will the drover vanish, just like extinct Aussie creatures such as the Tasmanian tiger and the desert bandicoot? “It’s not economical for me to drove cattle on horses,” lamented Shane. “But for me, it’s sentimental — it’s how life began in this country, and we don’t want to see it die.”
On the last day as we rode back to camp after bringing the last calf home, I trotted alongside Trisha Cole — the woman who’d thought she’d never, ever head off on a cattle drive. “This is such a wonderful experience!” she exclaimed. “I wonder how many other things there are that I’ve never dreamed of, that I should do.”
The next Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive will take place from April 30 through June 11, 2005. Riders can join the program for segments ranging from four to six days in length; rates run about US$300 per person per day including the cattle drive (horse, tack and safety equipment), professional staff (drovers, farriers, vets, support crews), all meals, tent accommodations and a fully maintained campsite. For complete details, visit South Australian Tourism Commission at www.cattledrive.southaustralia.com, or call AMEX Travel Agency Network at 866-297-2486. For further information about South Australia, contact the South Australian Tourism Commission: 888-768-8428; www.southoz.com.
AUSTRALIAN CATTLE DRIVE
Australia is located about 7,000 miles from the U.S. West Coast — an awfully long way to come just to punch cows. Here are good ways to explore South Australia’s other attractions.
• Kangaroo Island. Not just kangaroos, but also koalas, wallabies, sea lions, penguins and wedge-tailed eagles leap, toddle and soar around the continent’s third largest isle, located 75 miles southwest of Adelaide. Nearly one-third of the island is a national or conservation park to protect these rare animals as well as 46 species of plants found nowhere else on earth. In short, it’s a nature lover’s paradise. Contact Info: Adventure Charters of Kangaroo Island can arrange a wide variety of tours for individuals and small groups (011-61-8-8553-9119; www.adventurecharters.com.au). Knowledgeable guides such as Ken Grinter not only explain the region’s flora and fauna, they also cook up delicious bush lunches with grilled whiting and local haloumi cheese.
• Adelaide. Gateway to the Outback, Adelaide is filled with gracious 19th-century buildings faced with gold-hued sandstone. Attractions include Tandanya, the National Aboriginal Cultural Institute, which highlights the culture of Australia’s indigenous peoples. Collectors of contemporary crafts should head for The Jam Factory, which sells handcrafted glass, jewelry, textiles, and ceramics. At the South Australian Museum, exhibits include the world’s oldest boomerang, 550-million-year-old fossils and more. Contact Info: A whirlwind of energy and information, Sandy Pugsley runs Tourabout Adelaide, which offers personalized, in-depth tours of the city (011-61-8-8333-1111; www.touraboutadelaide.com.au).
• Wine Country. Premier wines come from the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale, both a 20-minute drive from downtown Adelaide. Leading wineries for tastings include Nepenthe, which makes knockout Pinot Noirs, Sauvignon Blancs and — surprise — Zinfandels. Petaluma Cellars produces a cherry-bright Shiraz; it also operates a top-rated restaurant. Although the names sound offbeat (Scallywag, Loose Cannon, Menage a Trois), the Hugh Hamilton wines (Chardonnay, Viognier, a Sangiovese blend) are excellent. Best restaurants include the Barn with specialties such as twice-cooked duck and kangaroo steak complemented with an extensive list of wines by the glass. Contact Info: Ralf Hadzic, a transplanted Texan, operates Life Is A Cabernet, which features tours throughout Australian wine country (011-61-8-8396-2233; www.lifeisacabernet.com.au).