“Hang on, Vincey!”
I looked around once again, but there was still not much to hold on to. I was sitting on a large spare tire in a tiny metal cabin, the back of a modified Toyota jeep. I heard the gears wrench and the engine squeal, and as we shot forward, I grabbed desperately for the seat-back in front of me.
Looking out through the hole where the front windscreen once was, I saw our target: a massive black bull with long white horns, one of them sticking out at a crooked angle. He was charging toward the scrublands at the edge of the plain. If he got in there, it would be nearly impossible to turn him back around. The driver, Damien, slammed the car into fourth gear and shot us through the cloud of dust kicked up by the bull’s flying hooves. Though I could only see the back of Damien’s head, I knew the look of steely determination that would be in his eyes: That bull would not reach the scrub.
As we roared within a few meters of our target, I saw that we were entering the rough, uneven patch of land leading up to the trees. I gritted my teeth and tried to brace myself, but as we hit the first pothole, I lurched off the tire briefly before being slammed back down. As I felt the blow run up my spine, the bull broke left across the front of the car. Damien slammed the breaks and swerved to follow, throwing me around the back of the cab like a rag doll.
The scrub loomed a few meters in front of us. Damien pulled up alongside the bull, and swerved to cut it off. The bull turned to face his mysterious mechanized tormentor, his eyes wide with fury. He lowered his head and charged, horns forward, toward the front of the car…
How did I end up chasing (and being chased by) huge wild bullocks in the Australian Outback?
It had been a pipe dream of mine from years back to work on an Outback cattle station. Part desire to experience nature and the ranching lifestyle, part romantic idealism. As I left the tourist trail of the Queensland coast and made the long trek westwards to the more remote Northern Territory, I knew that the time had come.
The station that I ended up on was called Seven Emu’s, near the small town of Booroloola on the northeastern coast of the Northern Territory. I was attracted to the area both for its remoteness and for its predominately Aboriginal population.
The owner of Seven Emu’s, Frank Shadforth, was a highly interesting old fellow. His father was the only Aboriginal person in Australia to have ever obtained a pastoral lease for running cattle. Frank had continued the business, and Frank’s son and grandsons were following the same path.
I spent a quiet first few weeks around the station. I had arrived just in time for the Booroloola rodeo, which was quite an interesting spectacle to behold. But that also meant that most of the guys from the station were either at the rodeo or at home. Another rodeo in nearby Queensland followed the weekend after. I got to do a bit of horse riding, bottle-fed a cute white calf, and watered the garden. The cattle station life was decidedly less exciting than I’d expected.
I hadn’t realized that, in reality, station life is quiet periods punctuated by extreme action periods. The action primarily occurs during mustering; that is, when the cattle that are allowed to roam free and scrounge for food over hundreds of square kilometers of bush are tracked down, gathered into a big herd, trucked out, and sold off, usually for beef. Originally we were going to muster the cattle at Seven Emu’s, but then Frank got a call from his brother-in-law, who owns a station at Limmen River 100 km or so north of Booroloola, to do a contract muster for his cattle. Sold.
The preparations for the voyage up to Limmen River took nearly a week. Gear to be cleaned and packed, horses to be rounded up, and most importantly, many hours of car repair to be performed. Outback Australia is rough country, consisting of dirt roads traversed only by four-wheel-drive vehicles. Nearly every vehicle at the station was a rugged and well-used Toyota Landcruiser; in fact, the guys referred to all motor vehicles as “Toyotas”.
The most intriguing vehicles, however, were the “bull-catchers.” These were modified Toyota jeeps, fitted with metal bars all the way around, and with a couple of old rubber tires attached to the front. They contained no windscreens or seatbelts, and two of the three did not have roofs. I was told that they were for knocking down bulls, but I had trouble imagining the actual process.
The crew assembled for the muster was a varied and entertaining one. Most were from Booroloola, and everyone was either related to each other, or had been working together for many years. There were the “young fellows”, Braydon, Steven, and Ty, each only 16 or 17, but already very proficient horse riders. On the other end there was Buster, an old fellow with a white beard and bright white hair that flowed out from under his black cowboy hat. There was Terry, whom everyone called “Na-Na” and who could easily crack everyone up with a joke. There was Kelwin, a great cattleman and mechanic from nearby Queensland. There was Eddie, who was born mostly deaf and wore a hearing aid, but was possibly the best cattleman in the crew. There was Damien, Frank’s son-in-law, an extremely affable, large man with a jolly smile, who in addition to being a top driver and cattle mover was also a great bush chef. Heading them all up was Frank and his son Clary, a powerfully built man with a mischievous child’s grin. I’d seen Clary handily win an event at the Booroloola rodeo in which the competitors had to jump off a moving horse, tackle a young bull to the ground, pick it back up, and then pin it again.
The drive up to Limmen River was one of those long, long Outback drives, with no radio reception and nothing to do but stare at the endless bush scrubland. We arrived in the late afternoon and set up camp near to the homestead of the station’s owner, Steve. I unrolled my “swag”, which consisted of a tarp, a couple of comforters (“dooners” in Australia) and a pillow, and everyone turned in early to begin the muster the next day.
I slept restlessly, with the ground hard beneath me and the air cold as the night wore on. At one point I woke up, and while it was still pitch black out and the moon shone brightly above, I could see that someone had started the morning fire. I figured I still had an hour or so to sleep until daybreak, and drifted off again. But shortly after I heard Frank calling me to hurry up and get up. It turned out that work began at daybreak, so we had to get up an hour before that. I stumbled up to the fire like a zombie, washed my face and hands, and sat down to some coffee and leftovers from the previous night’s stew.
After breakfast, we climbed onto various Toyotas and headed out to the muster site. It was a large expanse of rough plain, surrounded on all sides by the scrub that went on for thousands of kilometers. The men were split into two groups, those in the three bull-catchers, and seven on horses. Additionally, a helicopter had been hired to assist.
The basic plan was this: the horse riders sat in the middle of the plain with a small herd of about 20 quiet cattle that we had trucked in from Seven Emu’s. The chopper would drive the cattle out of the scrub and onto the plain. The bull-catchers would do whatever necessary to bring the cattle into the center herd (referred to as the “mob”). Finally, the horsemen would form a circle around the mob and keep any cattle from making a run for freedom. I should point out that none of this was explained to me; I would figure it out as the day wore on. The guys never seemed to verbally communicate much to each other. Through a combination of experience and expertise, everyone always seemed to know exactly what was going on.
I was riding in the back of Damien’s bull-catcher, which looked sort of like a small 1930’s taxi, along with Steven, and Clary’s little son Clay, who was all of 6 years old. Clary was driving the red roofless bull-catcher, while Eddie helmed the gray one.
I had no idea what to expect as we sat there on the plain. The horsemen stood in a ring around the quiet Seven Emu’s cattle, which were mulling docilely on the plain. I could hear the chopper buzzing closer and closer, and Damien was looking at the scrub intently, waiting for the first bulls to emerge. I felt a bit like being in the arena in Gladiator, with Maximus saying, “Whatever comes through that gate…”
Suddenly the chopper appeared above the trees, and underneath it a small group of bulls came charging out onto the plain. I had no more time to think as Damien threw down his cigarette, slammed the car into gear, and raced toward the group. I could see Clary and Eddie zooming toward the group as well. Like a squadron of fighter pilots, each catcher locked in on a bull and made straight for it.
Our bull, a reddish-brown hulk, broke right and charged out into the open plain. Damien sped the car up alongside it, and rammed its flank. The bull was knocked off balance momentarily, but kept charging. Sometimes it would randomly break off in another direction, and always Damien was with it. Brake, reverse, hard left, forward, brake, hard right, and on and on.
Eventually the bull began to slow, exhausted. Damien jumped out of the car, grabbed the bull by the tail, and threw it to the ground. He then sat on its hind leg. Completely worn out, and with its back legs pinned by Damien’s massive form, the bull only half-heartedly attempted to get up. Meanwhile, Steven “strapped” the bull’s back legs, binding them together with a strong leather belt. The bull could still get up and hop around in this condition, but it wouldn’t get very far, enabling the catchers to return later and collect the bull without having to hunt it down at full speed again.
It had been an exhausting process bringing that one bull down, but there was no time for a rest. We all immediately jumped back in the car and sped off to grab another one of the bulls. And so it went for the full day. The chopper would drive the bulls in, the bull-catchers would knock them over and strap them, and then when it was quieter, the catchers would return, unstrap the bulls, and drive them into the central mob. The horsemen had the hottest job, sitting all day in the sun, minding the mob. Occasionally one bull or cow would suddenly dash out of the mob, and one of the catchers would go roaring after it to knock it down and drag it back.
The three bull-catchers reminded me of the three whaling boats from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, each captained by one of the Pequod’s three mates and each having one of the ship’s great harpooners: Daggoo, Tashtego, and Queequeg. So did we have Clary, Eddie, and Damien, three extremely skilled and daring drivers. No terrain was too rough, no bull too fast, no horns to sharp for them to handle.
The day wore on, and the mob got larger and larger. Lunch was brought out in the bed of a Toyota, and the catchers and horsemen took turns rotating in for “a feed.” The meal consisted of beef, tea, and “damper”, a thick white bread baked daily over the coals of the camp fire. Standard Australian cattleman fare, this was a meal that we would have many, many times over the coming weeks. I’d previously read that throughout the especially dark years of Australian Aboriginal history following conquest by the Europeans, Aboriginal station-hands were paid no wages; instead, they received only beef, damper, and tea, and occasionally sugar and tobacco if they were lucky.
Late in the afternoon, I had to help a few of the guys put up the “yard.” So that the cattle don’t escape during the night, they must be “yarded up” at the end of the day, and then released to feed the next morning. The yard consisted of about 50 heavy and unwieldy metal panels which were attached by metal pins and ropes. The panels would be taken off the truck and assembled into a circular yard. The next morning, if we were moving camp that day, the panels would have to all be taken down and put back on the truck, driven to the new campsite, and then taken off the truck and assembled into a yard again. It was without a doubt my least favorite job during the muster.
And so the days went. On the fast-paced days, we would go out bull-catching or chopper mustering. On slow days, we would just let the cattle out of the yard and “tail” them all day, keeping them in a loose mob while they fed and watered. The young fellows hated tailing, seeing it as the most boring job, but for me it was fun just to be up on a horse all day. Once we had rounded up all the cattle from a particular swath of land, we would pack up camp and the yard, and walk the whole mob however many necessary kilometers down the road.
Camp life followed a regular routine, and I quickly adapted to it. Early mornings, sitting around the campfire in the dark, eating the previous night’s leftovers from a plate on balanced knees. The constant food staples of beef, damper, stew, tea, sugar, powdered milk, cordial, and a few others. Rolling the swag under a tree and sleeping out in the open, under the stars.
Telephone and internet were distant memories. We had little technology and almost none of the comforts of “civilization.” And I realized that I really didn’t miss them that much. After a few days in the bush, I felt like I could live out there forever. That if I heard that all of my worldly possessions had been lost, it would be ok. I didn’t need them.
Of course there were plenty of hardships. Everything was constantly dirty and dusty. The work was physically intensive, and after a hard day of it, I had a night’s sleep on the hard ground to look forward to. The worst bane by far, however, were the mosquitoes. The first few nights were horrible. I would wake up every few hours to hear them buzzing hungrily in my ear. In the morning my face would be puffy with bites. Mercifully, on the first resupply from town, Frank brought me back a mosquito net.
Whenever I found myself cursing one of these hardships, or missing a modern societal comfort, I was reminded of a line from the film Gone with the Wind. It’s the scene where Aunt Pittypat is packing up to leave Atlanta as the Union troops are shelling the city. Scarlett wants to leave with her, but Dr. Meade is trying to convince Scarlett to stay and help out at the hospital. In response to this suggestion that Scarlett stay on alone, Aunt Pittypat says, “Without a chaperone? Dr. Meade, it simply isn’t done.” Dr. Meade angrily replies, “Good Heavens, woman, this is war, not a garden party!” So did this become my chastisement to myself, whenever I caught myself complaining. “Dammit man, this is cattle mustering, not a garden party!”
Each day I became more in awe of the skills of the drivers. The first day we had been driving around on an open plain, and whenever we had hit a rocky patch of ground, I’d thought I might not survive another round of being slammed around the metal interior of the cab. Yet as we moved further into the territory, the scrubland that we chased the bulls through became only more dense. This fact didn’t seem to bother any of the drivers, and they would shoot after charging bulls at nearly 100 km an hour, weaving through trees, around ant mounds, over potholes. As I mentioned previously, none of the bull-catchers had windscreens (for obvious reasons), so all manner of sticks, pebbles, and other debris would come flying into our faces. I wore sunglasses and ducked my head frequently, but every time we smashed over a small tree, I imagined it flying into the car and impaling me to the seat.
The number of things the drivers had to focus on at any one second was astounding. They’re flying through the wild bush, not cleared in any way, at 80-100 km an hour. The driver must weave around the bigger trees and smash through the smaller ones. He must avoid the numerous hard clay ant mounds that abound on the ground, and which can tear up the underside of the car if driven over. Meanwhile, the whole time he is watching the bull, which is galloping at top speed and will randomly break in different directions. He must skillfully flank the bull, and when it comes time to knock the bull over, he must do so in just the right way so that the bull is firmly pinned beneath the car, but suffers no broken bones or other injuries.
I thought of all the literature I’d read and teachings I’d received about “living in the moment” and being “aware” and “present.” These men were living those principles to a higher degree than I’d ever seen. Once I was sitting with Damien in his car, discussing this very issue with him. He pointed to a patch of grass a few meters away and asked me if I noticed anything about it. I said no, it just looked like a patch of grass. He said, “See that dark spot there? There’s a little hill under the grass there. Can’t drive over that…you have to see it and go around.” I shook my head; I still didn’t believe it. Steven walked over, and sure enough, as he reached the dark bit, he rose up, until he was standing in the middle of it, a good foot off the ground. I was blown away. How could he possibly notice something like that while chasing a wild bull at 100 kph through the bush?
The guys could also spot cattle amongst the endless bush from ridiculously far away. It became a regular joke of Damien’s to ask me repeatedly, as the bulls came towards us in the distance, “Do you see them now, Vincey? See them now?” I usually saw them a full five minutes after the other guys.
One skill I hadn’t considered for cattle mustering, but which turned out to be a highly important one, was car repair. Growing up in the U.S., I used to laugh at those commercials for SUV’s, depicting them driving over rivers and across mountains, when in reality they were used by suburban soccer moms on perfectly paved roads. Meanwhile, these cattlemen took rugged 4WD vehicles beyond anything the manufacturer could have imagined. Cracked radiators, oil leaks, broken clutch pedals, engines falling out of the casing, battery problems, and hordes of flat tires. More often then not, when they went to start the bull-catchers, it was like that scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo starts the broken-down Millennium Falcon by pounding on the dash. Previously, I’d been proud of myself for knowing how to change a tire and attach battery cables. I was thoroughly humbled by watching these incredible bush mechanics in action.
I spent a lot of time thinking about how different these men’s lives were from my own. Most of them had left school by the age of 15, and gone straight into working on cattle stations. My education consisted of many years of classroom work. Learning how to read and write ever more dense works, to memorize facts and analyze, relate, and opinionate.
These men, meanwhile, had received a very different type of education. Hands-on and practical. They had learned how to engage with large dangerous bulls, how to repair broken car engines on the fly, how to light camp fires, how to spot cattle in the scrub, how to weld, hunt, cook, drive, and gallop a horse. I envied the skills of these earthy, real men. I felt that their bush education was in every way equal to my university education. They were experts in the skills required of them in their sphere of life. What did it matter if they couldn’t quote Shakespeare, name the capital of Russia, or type an essay? In this world, all my years of higher education seemed pitifully useless. I was reminded of Mao sending educated city folk out to toil awkwardly in the Chinese fields. Perhaps because of this feeling, I was all the more grateful for stepping outside of my world and experiencing this one.
As I noted previously, the most exhilarating part of the muster by far was going out bull-catching. Yet it was also this activity that, for me, encapsulated the unsettling nature of the whole process.
Early in the first week, I hopped in the bull-catcher with Clary and the young fellows, and we drove out to a more densely wooded area where the chopper was driving out six or seven bulls. Eddie was there with his bull-catcher as well, and the two of them dispatched the bulls with usual aplomb. The chases that afternoon were especially hair-raising, zipping after some especially large bulls through the thick scrub. Clary would race after a snorting bull as if it were nothing, and with his usual dexterity hit the bull, knock it over, and pin it helplessly beneath the bumper. Then the young fellows would jump out and tie a rope around the bull’s horns, and then tie the other end to a tree. When Clary backed off the bull, it would leap up and buck vainly, trying to get free of the rope. We left a half dozen bulls roped to trees in this manner, to stay there overnight and be collected the next morning.
When you first come face to face with a bull, it has a look of extreme power and hatred in its eye. Something straight out of Hemingway. Then it loses its battle with the machine, and it finds itself pinned down for the first time in its life, with strange creatures swarming all around it. Suddenly the look in its eye is completely different; it is one of bewilderment and extreme fear. The giant, fearsome hulk is instantly transformed into a whimpering baby.
When I saw the bulls jump up, and realize that they were tied to the tree, and struggle and buck to get free, I was instantly reminded of a film scene that made a deep impression on me the first time I saw it in high school. It’s from the TV miniseries Roots, depicting the life of Kunta Kinte, a Gambian native who is captured by slavers in the late 18th century and brought to America, and the subsequent lives of his descendents as plantation slaves. Young Kunta is surrounded by the group of slavers, and attempts to fight them off, but there are too many. One rushes forward and snaps manacles onto his wrists. Kunta looks at them in horror, not comprehending. Then as he realizes what has happened he begins screaming and trying to shake the chains off his wrists. But they will be there for the rest of his life. In an instant, the proud, free man is reduced to a helpless, perpetual prisoner.
So too did I see something inherently sad in the capture of these bulls. Sure they were domestic cattle living on borrowed time in the wild. But they were still wild creatures, captured and forcibly brought into domestic servitude, with most eventually destined for the abattoir. The feeling was even stronger the next day, when we went back to get the bulls. The guys roped them to the bull-catcher, which then dragged them to a waiting truck. They then had to drag the bull into the truck using a winch and cable.
I want to point out that I didn’t feel that these men were unnecessarily cruel to the animals, or traumatized them any more than was inherent in the process. As I said, it was the nature of the process itself that I found disturbing.
That aside, it was amazing how quickly these wild bulls, which had been so defiant when they were captured, were transformed into docile members of the ever-enlarging mob. When first placed in the herd, many would immediately break out and make a run for freedom, and have to be rounded up by the catchers again. But after a day, they were indistinguishable from all the other members of the mob: dully feeding, eyes roaming around lazily. Sometimes I would be out tailing the cattle, and would walk my horse at a group of them that were grazing away from the main group. At my approach, they would quietly trot back into the herd. As I watched them, I would realize that they were some of the very same bulls that I’d seen charging into the bull-catchers and dragged fighting into the truck just a couple days prior.
I’d long believed that actually watching an animal slaughtered might make me a vegetarian. Before going on the muster, I’d thought about this, and decided that it would be fine. If the experience pushed me into vegetarianism, so much the better.
One cow provides a lot of beef, but every several days we would have to go replenish our stock. The guys would call it “getting killer”, and we would go on the hunt for a fat cow, one that would provide the most delicious beef.
The first time that I went to get killer, we drove around and around in a pick-up in the early evening. We finally came upon a good candidate, and one of the guys got out and shot it. It was a clean shot through the head at relatively close range; one minute the cow was alive, and the next it had keeled over, dead. The guys immediately set to butchering it, expertly chopping it into all the proper cuts. An hour later we were back at camp eating this freshest of beef.
I was surprised to find that I felt very little inner turmoil over this event, far from what I’d previously imagined. As we were driving to find the cow, part of me was hoping that we wouldn’t find one, that all the cows would escape free into the bush.
Yet the next day, as I gazed out over the herd, I realized that they were all doomed animals. Most likely within a year, every one of the animals I was looking at would be wrapped in plastic on a grocery store shelf, or in a McDonald’s burger. What was the difference if they were killed now, or killed in a few months in a slaughterhouse across the country? I won’t go into an analysis of the ethics of eating meat; I’ll simply point out that the experience showed me that, once again, how I imagined a situation was far different from the reality that I actually experienced.
I left the muster site after just a few weeks. Even with all the difficulties, I had grown accustomed to life out there, and part of me was reluctant to leave. As I rode back to civilization lying in the bed of a pick-up, looking up at the stars, I realized that I’d finally achieved my dream of herding cattle on horseback in Australia. It most certainly ranks as one of the most exciting and informative experiences of my life.