A House Needs a Heart

27 Comments

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.

The Lonely Road Again

39 Comments

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.

%d bloggers like this: