January 13, 2012

Chook, Madonna and me

SOMEBODY has asked for a tame horse. Chrissy Nott looks slightly incredulous. "A tame horse?" she asks. "Well, that would be outside Woolies and you put two dollars in to take a ride."
Then she throws back her head in a trilling laugh that means, basically: this is the outback. Pull yourself together city slicker. Out here, hours from the nearest "centre" of Longreach, there's dust, Akubras and wafting country music. You sleep under the stars and horses are only as tame as ... "Who's riding Madonna today?" a groomer interrupts.

That would be me.

Now past its 10th year, the Harry Redford Cattle Drive in rural Queensland offers travellers an opportunity to step into the saddle of the iconic drover. That herd of cattle over there? Our shared responsibility. From six in the morning until our itinerant camp surrounds a campfire with swags, I'll be living and breathing the legend of Australia's horsemen.
I slide off the fence wondering if horses can smell fear. It's only a small amount of fear and I'm doing my best to hide it behind a kerchief and oversized hat. But Madonna is a palomino, pale golden with a white mane - the same colour as the horse I've just watched kick another into a state of equine putty. Later, around the campfire, we'll be required to reveal what profession we think our horse would have if it were human. At this stage I'm hoping that "peace activist" will be a viable option.

Part of my concern stems from a visit to the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame the previous day. A cavernous museum digesting pastoral history into a series of attractive exhibits, from explorers ("heroes of the colony") to frontier families and female aviators, the stand on a stockman's life painted a portrait of backbreaking toil.
For the stockworker, it reads, a day's duties can include rounding up, mustering, branding, breaking-in and yarding, or droving cattle from station to station. All of those things sound fairly challenging. And, to top it off, I've signed up to the Cattle Drive for several days (in full, it goes for 19 days and covers more than 200 kilometres).
My only consolation is a matter of semantics: while "mustering" is fast and furious, rounding cattle into a yard with great skill, "droving" is a slow move across the outback with plenty of grazing breaks. Chrissy calls it the "romantic" option.
This seems to be the general consensus at the Drive launch too, where the entire town of Aramac come out to celebrate their annual event by bringing home-cooked casseroles and breaking out the rum and Cokes on Lake Dunn. Participants have travelled from Kurrajong, Innisfail, Sydney; a Hong Kong banker has even pulled on her flat-soled riding boots for a bit of adventure. Young kids, crazed with excitement, dare each other to jump across the campfire while everybody else applauds the guest drovers as they're introduced with a biography and brief comment.
For example: "Alan hopes there'll be a lot of saddle sore cream available." I adopt this hope as my own by lunchtime on the first day.

That stockmen (and women) do this regularly is a matter demanding great respect. How Harry Redford did it in 1870 along the South Australian Strzelecki Track with only two companions is a matter of great wonderment. He had the added stress of being a fugitive too; his 600 to 1000 head of cattle, including an imported white bull belonging to the Scottish Australian Company, were rustled from Aramac's Bowen Downs Station. He didn't think anyone would notice.
People did, of course, although his trial at Roma turned into something of a farce when the jury, impressed with his achievements, found him "not guilty" out of admiration. The scandalised government shut down the courthouse but to little avail: the legend of Captain Starlight was off and running. Today you can watch a dramatisation of Redford's life and exploits at Kinnon & Co. in Longreach. It stars an albino horse.

After a brief courtship, my own horse and I establish a working relationship that is, basically: I let Madonna do what she wants and in return she stops leading me into orb spiders and treading on my feet when I'm hobbling her at lunch.
We begin by following the herd. Along with 20 or so other drovers, the cattle slide under our guidance like mercury across the landscape, breaking apart at clumps of trees and reforming a writhing mass that leaves grass flattened and waterholes muddied. There's a hailstorm of hoof beats every time we cross a tarmac road and the smell of animal sweat mingles with our own. Then there's the dust, a permanent accompaniment; riders hide their mouths behind kerchiefs as we ride into what seems, at times, like a red fog.
All of this would be sublime chaos were it not for "Chook" Hay, the boss drover whose guiding instruction involves a system of "whoas" and "heys" and holding patterns I never quite decipher.
Henry Lawson's famous tale of the drover's wife paints a picture of familial neglect but reality is something different indeed. Chook's wife Ann is riding right up front, as wily on a horse as he is and constantly circling back to make sure the flanks are covered.

By the time I'm finally confident enough to ride alongside them, a hesitant apprentice, the day is pulling to a close.
"My body feels stretched out of shape," I say, bandying my legs after the horses are put to pasture.
"Bloody oath," comes the collective response.
While everyone around me tends to their aches and wounds, stakes out a swag spot, rehearses their campfire yarns or mixes the best golden syrup dumplings this side of Barcaldine, I'm reminded of another of the quotes from the Stockman's Hall of Fame.
"Banjo the poet got a bit of it - 'and he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended' - except he left out the flies and the bulldust and the empty bellies and the rain that can soak your bones to a chill. Apart from that it's pretty good then."

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