Cattle Tsunami

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cattle through townDaylight arrived all too quickly and the sounds of Australian bird life seared my conscience like a hot poker through jelly. We have beautiful birds over here, however, the sounds of Galas and Cockatoos are raucous, indelicate, and a far cry from the tranquil twitter of blue birds that Cinderella or Snow White are known to wake up to.

Breakfast was a wholesome plate of eggs and bacon; it was going to be a monumental day. The 2000 head of cattle packed the Deniliquin sale yards, and when we arrived with our horses and dogs, their impatience for freedom was evident from their restless surging bodies and associated bellows, bleats and snorts.

A rough plan and route had been discussed with the team the night before; a team that now included my friend Denise who had recently secured a droving job with a friend my boss. It suited her to a tee as she was off the land and had grown up riding horses and working on her family’s dairy farm near Shepparton. It was amazing to have my friend to share these experiences with.

The route that we were to take the cattle via avoided the core of town as much as possible, but it was impossible to circumvent civilization completely. Our major obstacle was to be the bridge over the Edward River on the other side of town, but to get there we had to navigate the streets and traffic along the way. My mission was to ride at the front of the mob as the lead, giving the stock and stockmen a focal point to follow. Those that were bringing up the rear and riding along the sides of the mob were to guide and mold this surging, steaming mass behind me as if it were a single entity. Good luck with that.

Of course, the stockmen were supported by a multitude of dogs, eager to pat the bubble wherever it bulged and strained with the urge to pop and spill out of control. They made it an art, it was their art. Being at the front, I missed a lot of the action; dogs shooting off to curb in  recalcitrant calves, whips cracking, shrill whistles and loud whoops. The cattle were hungry and easily distracted from our master plan and it took a great deal of skill and unity from the stockmen, dogs and horses to hold the fragile meniscus from rupturing.

At one stage, so Denise tells me, a frantic Hotel Proprietor desperately guarded his freshly cemented double driveway from an unwelcome re-texturing. Amazingly, and to his credit and the delight of onlookers, his antics paid off. By the time the cattle tsunami had subsided, no hoof prints marred his slab. His flapping arms, heaving belly, mottled face and bulging eyeballs would have been enough to terrify any beast into submission, by all accounts. Personally, I would have liked to have seen just a splattering of prints at the edge of his concrete as a tribute to day we drove our cattle through the thriving town of Deniliquin.

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A House Needs a Heart

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old french doorsIt was exciting to be staying in a house rather than a dilapidated old caravan for a change. On the eve of the day we were to take the cattle through town, we stayed in the abandoned house belonging to the stock owner.

The shack had no electricity or gas, so we brought in our gas lamps and camp stove from the caravan to cook dinner. I had shot a rabbit that afternoon and was determined to cook it for dinner. Shooting for me is not a sport, but in reality, I should have fed it to the dogs like we usually did. I have since learnt how to cook rabbit and it is a bit more of an art than I had anticipated with delicious results if done well. We were hungry, we ate; it was disappointing.

It was going to be a big day the next day. We had 2000 head of cattle waiting in the sale yards for us to funnel through the busy country town of Denileqin. Although we were in a house, it was only the shell of what it once would have been. The high ceilings with neglected ceiling roses and peeling architraves echoed the spirits of a warm and happy home. It made me feel lonely and I longed for the happy home that I had grown up in.

Earlier, before the light had faded, we had set out our swags in our chosen bedrooms. Mine was big and airy with French doors opening out onto a courtyard. In the daylight it felt inviting and warm and the view from my double doors was that of the mystifying Barmah State Forest where we had earlier mustered the cattle from. An enormous blue centipede with a myriad of fine red legs decorated the lank and dusty orange curtains hanging either side of my view.Blue Centipede

Long grasses and seeding weeds grew forlornly between the cracks in the bricks of my courtyard, and an unattractive concrete well stood unapologetically to the side of the abandoned retreat. The urge to look inside was overwhelming and with the expectation of finding tadpoles, green algae or perhaps just smelly stagnant water, I ventured over to peer inside.

With a sharp withdrawal of breath, and an instant rush of adrenalin, my body jerked backwards at the sight of the King Brown Snake undulating in the green, stagnant, tadpole filled maw; just inches from my nose. How do these wells stay so full anyway? Well I guess a well is a well and that is why they exist. Evidently, they just keep on filling up even when forgotten and disused.

My heart pounded violently, but at odds to the cold and gripping fear, I couldn’t restrain the urge to crane back over the cracked edge and wonder at this fear inspiring creature. I had never been so close to a deadly snake before, and my skin crawled with its inexplicable affect on me, but I couldn’t help but wonder about the fate of this animal as it would surely lose its battle with the vertical edges of its ultimate crypt.

I searched around to find a long forked stick. Tentatively, fearfully, I snagged the beast in its hook and carefully lifted the snake above the lip of the well. In an uncoordinated movement, fuelled by terror, I flicked the snake into the bushes beyond, shoving the stick away from me with it.

With a pounding heart, a centipede broach on the drapes, and the absent warmth of those desolate echoing rooms, the shroud of sleep crept slowly over my conscience that night.

Cattle Muster in the Barmah State Forest

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Sheep ready for sale at the Hay Sale Yards, NSW

Sheep ready for sale at the Hay Sale Yards, NSW

The sheep were delivered to the sale yards as requested by the stock owner. Our dogs, in their element, scrambled over their backs and nipped and pushed them up the narrow races of the Hay Sale Yards as we sorted them into manageable lots of 1000 per yard. Our journey with these sheep had come to an end.

Sheep are generally mustered using motor bikes and dogs unless the terrain dictates the use of horses. However, I became a Jillaroo primarily because I love horses and cattle. In addition, the drover I was working for was moody and self absorbed. I found the evening silences to be oppressive and depressing and I was reduced to constantly second guessing my abilities and decisions as a result of  no positive feedback to draw upon.

I can’t remember how, but I was invited by another old drover to move over to his team after the sheep were “docked”.

This job filled me with excitement. It had the promise of an adventure that I yearned for.  In the time that we were moving the sheep, rain had bucketed down days upon days. Rivers were flooded and cattle needed to be moved off the sour grass that had been leeched of all nutrition by the swollen river. 2000 cattle had to be mustered from the Barma State Forest and taken onto “greener pastures”.Barmah Angus cattle

My new Drover was older than the first. At the time he seemed ancient to me but he was probably only in his early 60’s. He was serious, but humble and had a twinkle in his eyes that belied the hard life he had by now accepted. I was allocated a horse that was reliable and well versed in the in the job we had ahead of us. Ten additional Stockmen, with their wily dogs and eager horses were also employed to cooperate in this massive job of “hide and seek” we had ahead of us.

The cattle were spread though hundreds of acres of forest. Some in large groups, but others in groups of two or three. Others were solitary; but all were doing their best to eke out the maximum nutrition from their increasingly diminished pasture.

On the first day of muster, we arose at 5am to a dark and stagnant edge of dawn. By the time we were dressed and breakfasted, the dreary light of a daybreak confirmed itself, promising nothing more than loaded black clouds and fat, unrelenting rain for the mission ahead.

Barmah Cattle with rising steamDespite the ominous and foreboding prediction the dawn inspired, by the time the team of horsemen had gathered, rays of sunlight streamed through the gaps in the clouds like the fingers of God; caressing the damp earth and drawing a blue haze of eucalyptus steam from the thick bush beyond. As the plan for the muster came to bear, the men sucked their hand rolled cigarette, horses fidgeted and jingled their bits, saddles squeaked as weight shifted, oilskins creaked and dogs lay and slept, scratched or licked. Smells of wet horses, tobacco, leather and sodden bushland mingled, and an air of excitement took hold that made me feel at odds with this experienced tribe of misfits.

We headed off down the dirt road and disappeared in groups of 2’s and 3’s into the wild Australian bush to commence our seemingly impossible task of drawing this scattered mob together for their journey ahead towards the lush stock route awaiting them.

Barmah Muster

Four Diaries, 60 Love letters and a Field Day…Treasure

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 60 love lettersI have all of these things. They are treasures to me. All of these things have changed the direction of my life forever. And they will always be a part of me. I cannot throw them away. How do you throw memories away? Physical or mental, they are always with me, like it or not. I treasure these memories though, as they punctuate an important time of my life with wonderful words and amazing experiences; a time of discovery, a time of, adventure and a time that I learnt about love even though I didn’t grasp it in the way I perhaps should have.

I didn’t learn from it then, it has taken two decades, but I am learning from it now as I write and read and sit alone with the company of the person I should love most .

To understand this, I will have to go back and tell you why the bar for love is set so high. I know what I want and I know what I need; I just didn’t recognize it until now. I would never have recognized it unless I had already experienced it. I’m going to wait now until I find it. I have settled for less before and less is not good enough. I deserve better. It may be around the corner. I may have already met him, but I am happy to bide my time and give myself the grace of a decision that is built on the foundations of experience, friendship and courtship; rather than the immediate gratification of lust and spontaneity.

I’m going to be old fashioned.

http://robincoyle.wordpress.com/2012/11/26/is-cursive-handwriting-dead/

The Lonely Road Again

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Not long after losing what I had thought to be the love of my life, I remember sitting on our veranda with Dad. We were discussing my future. He wanted me to find a career that was important to me, worthwhile. My solution, my answer, was probably not what he expected or really wanted for me.

I found an “Ad” in the “Weekly Times”, an Australian country paper. Why I bought that paper, I don’t even know. I can’t really remember exactly what the advertisement said, but it was something like, “Wanted, Jillaroo, able to ride horses, motorbikes, cook, and have an understanding of sheep and cattle”. Well, I could ride, and even though I may not have had much of an understanding of cattle and sheep, I did have an appreciation for them.

I called, and was accepted on trial for the job. Melbourne, Suburban girl, on you go, gallop up that lonely road away from all you know. Run away from your problems, run away from pain; isn’t that the solution you learnt as a little girl? Yes.

On the first day, I had to learn to ride a motor bike. The stock were actually sheep, 5000 of them. My house was to be a caravan on the side of the road and my only friends besides the old drover were 3 noisy and very alert Australian Kelpie Dogs.

The stove was splattered in layer upon layer of ancient grease. The floor was no better. On my second day, with no time for training, I was left to clean. I wondered if this was to be the breadth my role. I wondered at the reasoning behind my hasty move to the bush.

By the time Peter returned, the Caravan was spotless and gleaming. The day confined in this small, barely ventilated hot box had sapped me of energy and I tried to disguise the dullness in my eyes as I cooked a simple dinner.

Soon after, I crawled into my single bunk. Thoughts of Vorn and my family paraded across my conscious mind in prelude to the dreamscape awaiting me. Uncertainty plagued me and quietly I allowed the salty tears, inspired by my broken heart to seep into my desolate pillow.

The next day heralded greater promise. The sheep that had been mustered the day prior were to be taken off the property and onto the “long paddock” or stock route. These sheep were to be grazed along the side of the road between Deniliquin and Hay in the Riverina, NSW, before stopping traffic and parading down the main road on their way to the Hay Stock market.

By law, the travelling stock must travel “six miles a day” (approximately 10 kilometres per day). This is to avoid all the roadside grass from being cleared in a particular area by an individual mob. Bores, equipped with windmills and troughs, may also be located at regular intervals to provide water in regions where there are no other reliable water sources. A Travelling Stock Reserve is a fenced paddock set aside at strategic distances to allow overnight watering and camping of stock. Reserves may also be located on many roadways that are not the typical wide TSRs.

The travelling stock is driven by a drover and stockmen using Australian Stock Horses or vehicles. Other working animals include working dogs such as Kelpies, or their crosses which have been bred for working sheep and cattle. The stockman may also be accompanied by a packhorse, carrying supplies and equipment, or a wagon with supplies might follow the stock. More recently travelling stock has been accompanied by four-wheel drive vehicles and mobile homes.

The purpose of “droving” livestock on such a journey might be to move the stock to different pastures. It was also the only way that most livestock producers had of getting their product to the markets of the towns and cities. The beef cattle were transported to a rail siding or abattoirs “on the hoof”. The rigors of the journey, the availability of feed and water and the reliability of those “droving” the stock were all factors in the condition of the livestock when it was slaughtered.

We chugged along on our Honda 250’s at a gentle pace. The distance between camps was determined by a conservative estimation of the speed a healthy mob of sheep would travel. The award for the amazing and tireless workers of our team had to be given to the three Kelpie dogs that were skilfully directed by the old drover with a language consisting of strange whistles and an array of hand signals. The instincts of these intelligent dogs were a sight to seen as they adeptly redirected a stray sheep or a bulging face in the mob.

The most intense part of a day would be where traffic had to be stopped in order to cross the sheep over a bridge, drawing them together after a water hole and of course, directing the seemingly never ending line of Merinos through the single gate to the yards at the end of the day.

Generally, at the start of the day and once the sheep were feeding and walking at the expected pace, I would be left with my bike and the dogs, to keep the mob relatively tight, whilst the Drover would relocate the camp ready for the next evening.

The days were exhausting but satisfying, and sleep that comes from the daily counting of thousands of sheep came all too easily.

Shattered

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When I think about this next chapter, I find it difficult to find the words to describe what actually happened and it has taken me a long while to write about this. Saying so, it doesn’t make this chapter any better written than any of my last posts either, it has just been difficult.

To take myself back to that point, it is painful; but much of my history is like that; I have to return to that moment in time and put myself in the instant in order to be able to write about it. This is laborious to write about, words just don’t spill out onto my page.

At first I wanted to describe this, as I have before, as a story and then I thought it may be more powerful to write a poem. Neither flowed, and it still doesn’t. Pain has a habit of shutting your memories down in order to protect you…I know I have done that well before this time but I have to delve deep here and it still refuses to flow.

Vorn got up before me. He slipped out of bed quietly, thinking that I was sleeping. I rolled over into his warmth, savouring the essence of him and awaited his return. The night before, we had discussed religion, a topic we hadn’t touched on before. Vorn had been brought up as a Catholic and his thoughts on this subject were far more developed than mine. He also brought up the concept of having a threesome. When asked, I found it difficult to encapsulate my beliefs. I sensed a slight disquiet on his part but I had never felt that different beliefs would be the saw to fell this tree; not for one moment; so I was honest as much as I was vague. We made love. It was beautiful and connected…or so I felt.

He didn’t return to bed as I had anticipated. In my comfortable half dream state, he told me he was leaving. He told me he was leaving ME. Before I had the chance to wake up from my nightmare, he was gone.

I was shattered.

Gum Trees and Walnut glades

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One Spring Vorn convinced me to rough it in the Dargo High Plains with him for three days. We each took back packs filled with minimum supplies; including a  spare set of clothes, sleeping bags, a hoochie (a tarp for sleeping under), and army rations.

When Vorn’s father dropped us off at the foot of the Mountain, I remember seeing groves of lush, majestic trees lining the valley. They seemed to be at odds with the Australian bush that scattered the slopes above us and I was curious as to what they were. Vorn’s dad told me that they were century-old walnuts trees. I regarded them with interest and their age truly did appear to be etched in the rough bark of their trunks. Their gnarled branches reached outwards and downwards forming beautiful green canopies that would soon produce the delicious treasures that the Ancients believed to be “the nuts of the Gods”. We picked a poor excuse for a path and started our journey into the rugged terrain. The bush was marvelous  dry but green, harsh but beautiful and the first leg of our journey was all up hill.

On our first night, we pitched our Hoochie, just a piece of tarp stretched low over two trees, and built a fire to boil water for our evening meal. The ham and pineapple freeze dried food we had bought from the Army Disposal shop tasted like vomit, so we disappointedly cooked some plain rice in its place. Exhausted from our five hour hike we slept soundly despite the rain pattering on our humble sanctuary, and it didn’t seem long before the sun signaled the voices of a chorus of birds and drew out the aromatic particles from the moist earth to release them into the air.

Our camp had been set near the Dargo River and Vorn decided to go for a bathe. I watched him peel off his clothes and wade boldly into the water and then prostrate himself in the middle of the river without hesitation or trepidation against the cold. I however, gingerly tiptoed over the uneven rocks towards him. As the freezing water reached my waist, I sucked my stomach in as if to avoid its icy fingers. I cupped my hands into the water and tipped it over my face and let it run through my hair. The water was so cold, unexpectedly cold, and I hurriedly concluded my sluice without the vigorous enjoyment that Vorn appeared to be experiencing.

Vorn tending our fire for morning riceBreakfast was rice again; we had given up on Army food. And afterward we lay in the morning sun while the steam rose from our drying tarp and the smell of eucalyptus streamed from the gum leaves clearing our noses and pervading our lungs. We felt wholesome and energized.

When we eventually stepped out our nesting glade and gazed upwards once again, ours eyes were met by a steep and jagged path. Much of it was covered in uneven rocks and I remember the fatigue in my legs as I resolutely dug my toes into its unforgiving pitch. Vorn walked a little way ahead but turned periodically to encourage me and we were able to keep a steady pace to reach our destination within a few hours. The rise opened out into a plateau and we were encountered by a panoramic view of clear blue sky, a skirt of tree tops running down the slopes and a deeper ring of green signifying the walnuts nestled in the valley below. Words were not necessary and we held each other in silence and wonder at the world we were lucky to be within.

 

 

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