Making it in a brutally beautiful land — the great Australian cowboy tradition.
The endless panorama of the brutally beautiful Australian Outback cattle country is a mysterious realm of unimaginably isolated expanse — a world the Aussies sometimes refer to as “the back of beyond” and the land of “never, never.”
Commonly dubbed “the bush” by locals, the Outback is a sparsely populated world of extremes where temperatures can sizzle above 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and bite below freezing during winter nights. It’s also a place where a neighbor can easily be a four-hour drive away and light aircraft and helicopters are more essential than the ubiquitous ute (pickup truck) or trusty steed. This is a land where a drought can last seven or more years and a wet season with four inches of rain is superb.
The unpredictable weather and paucity of rainfall are the engines that drive daily conversations on cattle stations, and dictate emotional highs and lows. “Just about the time you’re ready to pack ’er in, it rains and you remember why you love it out here,” says 72-year-old, fifth-generation stockman Eric Oldfield. His second cousin, Shane Oldfield, adds, “It can be tough on ya in the midst of a drought — just ask my wife, Debbie. But when it does rain, why there isn’t a better bloody drug in the world that a doctor could prescribe for ya.”
With the ability to handle as little as one head per square mile, a typical Outback cattle station averages 1,500 to 2,000 square miles. To be economically viable, stations need to be massive. Sixty kilometers from the outpost of Marree, in the heart of the Gibber Plain, is the 600,000-acre Dulkaninna Station. Eighty-seven-year-old George Bell, a revered icon of the Outback, has been on the Dulkaninna since 1932 and it’s been in the family since 1896. Most cattle stations are multigeneration family affairs. George’s 60-year-old son, Daryl, and his wife, Sharon, run the day-to-day operations along with their grown children.
As Daryl and I bound across the flat, sparsely vegetated Dulkaninna, we stop at a surprisingly fertile area. “You should have seen this area back in 1974 when we got 28 inches,” he says with a mixture of pride and sorrow. “It rained more than six inches in one stretch. We got 12 inches of rain in 1984, and in no time the grass shot up taller than the handlebars on my bike. I raced back home to tell Sharon to plan on adding an additional 1,000 head. But the next day, when I took Sharon out there, the grass was gone, munched down to stubble.” Overnight a storm of locusts had come through and devoured everything for miles around.
Eric Oldfield hops off his horse and grabs a handful of the talcum-fine bull-dust from a desiccated riverbed. “For such soft and gentle earth, it’s amazing how tough and harsh it can be,” he says with mixed awe and reverence. “In spite of the toughness of the land, it just gets in your soul and you can’t get it out. One year in 10 might be exceptionally good, but that’s good enough to keep the spirit going. After it rains or floods, you come out here and you too will say ‘This is God’s own country.’ Following a flood up north in the Channel Country, the grass shoots up taller than yer head and there’s ample feed for three years.”
Oldfield’s lifelong friend and fellow stockman Keith Rasheed nods knowingly. “To make it in the bush, a bloke’s gotta ride the punches pretty well.”
And riding the punches is something the cattle station owners do exceedingly well. Shane Oldfield, whose family has been on the 1,000-square-mile Clayton Station since 1955, says, “We’re in our seventh year of drought, and we’ve had to reduce our stock from 3,000 head to 1,200. And for the first time ever we also sold off half our breeders last year — just to hang on.”
The saving grace at Clayton Station has been an increased reliance on Shane Oldfield’s horse-breeding expertise. “We’re presently running about 150 head, and we sell a truckload of 12 horses every two to three months,” he says.
“Fortunately the market is strong right now.” Shane gazes up at the blazing noonday sun and swats a handful of flies away. “Anyone can manage this country in good seasons, but only the good managers survive the droughts. Like our stock, only the strong survive out here.”
George Bell pipes up: “Some years ago we got into the road transport business to bolster our cattle income during drought years, along with raising and selling appaloosas and cross-breeding feral bush donkeys with draft horses.” Sharon Bell adds that they normally run about 2,000 breeders, Hereford and Hereford-Angus cross. “But at the moment,” she says, “because of this once-in-a-100-year drought, we have de-stocked down to 500 breeders. We’ve also gone 100-percent certified organic, although our product’s tenderness tends to be less consistent than feedlot beef and so far we have not been able to command a premium for our product. I think it’s really a matter of reeducating the consumer.”
An Outback visionary, 58-year-old David Brook, whose great-grandparents settled in the Outback in the late 1870s, started the OBE Organic Beef consortium in 1995, along with 12 other Channel Country cattle producers. “Back in 1918, my dad took a stockman’s job on Cordillo Downs for three dollars a week,” Brook says. Today the Brook family owns Cordillo, along with Kamaran Downs, Adria Downs, and Murnpeowie (combined 6.6 million acres) with an average carrying capacity of 35,000 head.
To Brook’s way of ranching, organic beef production is perfectly suited to Outback conditions. “We have standing native pasture all year round with no need to import stock feed. Our native grass, with a nice grain head and herbages in the winter, grows naturally without need for artificial fertilizers.” The feed quality is such that supplements and hormonal growth implants are never used. And the climate works in his favor: “The aridity and low humidity of the semi-desert means there are no parasites, internal or external, for which there would otherwise be a need to treat with a chemical-based dip or drench.”
Getting the beef to market remains an arduous task. Until recently, roads out here were mere tracks forged through sand dunes, stone-strewn plains, and thick bull dust. Even today, the tracks are mainly gravel roads. George Bell smiles like Yoda as he explains: “The 600-kilometer journey from Marree up to Birdsville, just across the border in Queensland, took five weeks when I moved out here in 1932. Heck, there weren’t any roads at all! Today it’s an easy five-hour drive.”
Cars and trucks were virtually nonexistent in the Outback until after WWII. “The four-wheel-drive army surplus Blitzes and Jeeps changed our world out here,” Bell says. “Eventually they transformed how we mustered cows. Today, mustering is done with four-wheel drives and motorbikes, along with airplanes and helicopters — rarely on horseback.”
Communicating with the outside world has evolved along with transportation. “Back in 1937 we got pedal-operated wireless units from the Royal Flying Doctor Service,” Bell says. “A shortwave frequency was reserved for emergency calls.” Back in the day, the radio was also the women’s lifeline. Eric Oldfield’s wife, Beverly, remembers what it was like. “Each morning at 9 a.m. we’d have a group ‘galah’ session, named after a chatty Aussie bird, over the long-wave band so as to not interfere with emergency communications. Everyone was on the air at once. Three times a day, we’d get on the air and the wives on all the stations would talk and share. Everyone knew where the mail truck was, what the kids were up to, who was coming and going. We’d also get news from the outside world when we tuned in the BBC.”
Things changed with the advent of high-tech. “When we got radio telephones and then mobiles, why that was the end of an era in the Outback,” Eric Oldfield says. “People no longer talked as a connected community.”
Eric Oldfield didn't know it at the time, but when he led a cattle drive of 600 head back in 1972, it was to become the last drive down the Birdsville Track, with Eric immortalized as the last drover. Twenty-nine years later, Eric and mate (that’s Aussie for friend) Keith Rasheed, a second-generation stock route manager, recollected the days when stockmen made the rough but rewarding month-and-a-half-long drive along the Birdsville Track to the Marree railhead. Over a pint of rum, Rasheed dreamed of reviving the drive so others could “experience a vanished Outback tradition.” Oldfield deemed the idea “bloody brilliant.”
The first thought was to re-create a drive for friends and fellow cattlemen. But before long the South Australian Tourism Commission and Tourism Australia got behind the idea, and Rasheed’s and Oldfield’s vision became a reality. Open to participants from across Australia and around the world, the first Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive, with Eric Oldfield once again leading a mob of cattle as boss-drover, was held in 2002. The drive was a smashing success and a reprise event was held in 2005 with another drive scheduled for May and June 2007.
I journeyed Down Under specifically to participate in the 2005 cattle drive. The drive takes a month and a half to complete, but most people sign up to ride for one four-night, fiveday segment, although a few avid enthusiasts saddle up for two weeks or more. Just getting there was part of the adventure. Three hours after the twin-engine Cessna’s dawn departure from Adelaide, we arrived in the heart of the Outback. After a sandwich and a couple of pints in the legendary Birdsville Pub, we climbed into a four-wheel drive for a dusty two-hour ride to our campsite, where we met the drovers, support staff, and our horses.
Overland, it’s a 15-hour drive from Adelaide (“The Big Smoke”) to the trailhead. Most participants arrived in cars and vans; some chartered or flew their own airplanes and helicopters. All the essentials were provided. Two-person tents were set with bedding and battery-powered reading lamps and carpeting. Outback-spiced meals were prepared, saddles and safety equipment were supplied, and hot showers and flush toilets were provided in a converted semi-trailer. There was even an attending physician who rode along, just in case.
Some participants were experienced riders; others had never been in the saddle before. Some were wealthy and retired; others were young college-age adventurers. One day I rode with a schoolteacher on my right while the chairman of the Australian Stock Exchange, Maurice Newman, rode on my left flank.
Evenings around the campfire provided priceless opportunities. Aboriginal stockmen recounted their myths and legends of Dreamtime and ancient trade routes; cattle station owners shared insights into their daily lives, while cowboy singers, guitarists, and balladeers added mystique to the expedition. Fortunately, the cattle drive takes place in winter, so daytime temperatures ranged in the 70s and 80s with cool evenings.
We awoke with the first glimmer of morning light and watched as blotchy cumulous clouds blazed crimson red and then slowly faded to pastel pink. After a breakfast of eggs and sausage we saddled up for our first day on the drive.
As we adjusted to hornless saddles and stirrups, our horses’ hooves stirred up the bull dust. Within moments a fine film of red earth tinged the air, dried my lips, and coated my camera lens. I quickly accepted that a blanket of grit would swath me for the week. Ah, and then there were the flies — the never-ending swatting is jokingly referred to as the “Aussie Wave.” Some locals, and visitors alike, consider wearing a fly veil an essential Outback accoutrement.
It didn’t require rocket science to realize that not one of our horses hailed from the pony-ride-dude-ranch circuit. The steeds were all working ranch horses, and my mount was an instinctively independent operator when it came to retrieving wayward cows. In semi-city-slicker fashion, I naively thought we’d be traveling down the track at a decent clip, but Eric Oldfield, riding next to me, explained, “Nope, we ride real slow to keep the weight on. I guess that’s why we say out here that we’re walking the cattle rather than driving ’em.”
While riding herd I noticed that most aromas, other than close-up campfire smoke, manure, and horse sweat, were consumed by the Simpson Desert’s dry air. I thought about the dust and flies, the parched riverbeds, and most remarkably the vast, undulating flatlands and periodic barren sand dunes. But the overarching impression was utter quiet. Except for the snorting of horses and cows and the chafing of leather, it was starkly still. Unforgiving, remote, brutally beautiful.
David Brook summed up the Outback experience. “The Outback is a place of great opportunity with great potential for innovation. As a landscape in Australia, it is highly sought after by city people; regretfully, most find the hurdle of distance and dirt roads too tough and they never get here. But, in their hearts, at the core of their Australian identity, you’ll find ‘Waltzing Matilda,’ the writings of Banjo Paterson, and the Outback.”
From the October 2006 issue.