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.

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

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.

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