this (out­back) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Merdie Clark­son

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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