this (outback) life
Several years ago I stayed on a station outside Broken Hill, NSW, for a few days.
My friend Helen was minding the station while her son and his family took a break, and she had invited me up from Adelaide to keep her company. I had always loved the Australian outback since spending a year as a governess when I was 17, so I said yes.
One afternoon, she told me that two semitrailers full of cattle were due to arrive after dark. They were driving in from the Northern Territory.
After dinner, she and I drove out in darkness to the paddock where they were to be unloaded, opened the gate wide, then sat waiting in the car.
The night was moonless and inky black, with the Milky Way twinkling.
After a while, we saw faint pinpricks of light heading our way.
As the trucks got closer, the rutted road made them weave and the headlights, getting brighter and brighter, flashed up, down and sideways.
The rumbling of the engines got louder and louder, and by the time the trucks came through the gate, the noise was deafening in the still night.
The drivers positioned the trucks so that our vehicles formed a circle with the light pooling in the middle.
Helen got out and went to greet the drivers while I stayed close to the car. The semi-trailers were huge — four levels high — and the rank smell of animals was pervasive. The back gates of the trucks opened and the first cattle were released after their very long journey. The lower level was first, then the second, and so on.
Shouts could be heard as the drivers used cattle prods, flashing blue in the dark, to persuade their charges to disembark.
As more and more cattle milled around, Helen and I stayed very close to the car. In the blackness of the night it was unnerving to be aware of the even darker shadows moving about, close to us.
Eventually the unloading was complete. Helen asked the drivers if they wanted to come back to the homestead for supper but they declined, and the two empty monoliths rumbled out of the paddock, with us following, and the gate was shut.
Later that evening we went to bed — me first — and I read a few pages of my book before I heard Helen leaving the house to turn off the generator. She walked back into the house using torchlight, and went to bed herself.
I lay there in the dark and the silence, reflecting on what I had seen and heard — an unforgettably surreal experience.
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