TICKET TO RIDE

Heather Cad­dick sad­dles up for the Great Aus­tralian Out­back Cat­tle Drive

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

A rush of horses through the trees A sound of stock whips on the breeze The drover’s life has plea­sures That the towns­folk never know — Banjo Pater­son

CITY born and bred, but with my heart in the bush, I jump at the chance to join this year’s Great Aus­tralian Out­back Cat­tle Drive. Guests are in­vited to ride with the drovers, mov­ing a mob of 500 cat­tle from Ood­na­datta to Ma­ree, with each sec­tor tak­ing five days. We choose the Lake Eyre sec­tor.

Stag­ing cat­tle drives was the brain­child of well-known bush­man Keith Rasheed who, when chat­ting with some mates years ago, be­moaned the loss of the old cat­tle cul­ture and skills of drov­ing, re­placed by mo­tor bikes and road train trans­port.

So the first cat­tle drive evolved in 2002; a well-pub­li­cised drive in 2005 has made this ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence known world­wide, at­tract­ing a large con­tin­gent of in­ter­na­tional guests and me­dia, and emerg­ing as a tourism show­case for out­back Aus­tralia.

There are 67 guest rid­ers on our sec­tor, skirt­ing Lake Eyre South and travers­ing the im­mense Anna Creek Sta­tion, the old Ghan rail­way line, and the 5400km-long dingo fence built to di­vide cat­tle and sheep coun­try and to keep out din­goes.

My itin­er­ant moun­tain-climb­ing son has ar­rived in Ade­laide to re­con­nect with fam­ily so the two of us will join the drive, set­ting off by plane to Roxby from Ade­laide and then to Cur­dimurka, two hours by road from Roxby Downs. This gor­geous coun­try is bright with rich green patches and sil­very creeks that carve the ochre red earth af­ter re­cent rains. The wa­ter has not reached Lake Eyre South, which is a white and bar­ren sea of salt, an end­less wave of deadly mi­rages.

We ar­rive at the site to dis­cover this is not a rough and tough out­back camp; it is clev­erly fused with lux­ury. We are met by young vol­un­teers, dressed in red mono­grammed rugby shirts and Akubras. Some are TAFE stu­dents with a friendly at­ti­tude that cre­ates a happy spirit for the camp.

The camp­site cen­tre has a mar­quee that seats 100 and a sep­a­rate camp li­brary con­tain­ing books on flora, fauna and his­tory and maps of the re­gion.

Ad­join­ing the mar­quee is a drinks van, shaded by colour­ful um­brel­las with bar ta­bles, while in the cen­tral square is the camp­fire site, a great place for a sun­downer or three and the chance to yarn with drovers and Abo­rig­i­nal el­ders af­ter the day’s ride.

The tents are car­peted and bunk beds have cream sheets with choco­late-coloured doonas and comfy pil­lows. There are crisp white tow­els and a hook-stand for clothes, with halo­gen lanterns for af­ter dark.

Thought­ful or­gan­is­ers have pro­vided earplugs to block out the ca­coph­ony of snores, in case one is tempted to take a cat­tle prod to jetengine of­fend­ers.

Goodie bags have been clev­erly de­signed, with a bum bag for our day in the sad­dle mono­grammed with the cat­tle-drive logo and con­tain­ing a wa­ter-bot­tle pouch, sun­screen, plas­tic rain­coat and a licorice treat for the horse. It fits well and has a tidy clip.

Var­i­ous Aus­tralian tourism bod­ies have been in­volved with the de­vel­op­ment of the cat­tle drive and should be con­grat­u­lated for the bril­liant con­cept of the shower and loo trail­ers, with clever use of space. Our clothes will not be sprayed by the shower and there are am­ple hooks and shelves in the cu­bi­cles. Large mir­rors, hand basins and hair dry­ers are also in the shower trailer.

The loo trailer has flush­ing toi­lets that would do Kenny proud; no long drops here. The hand basins have hot wa­ter and there are mir­rors and hooks.

We park our bags and change into jodh­purs, pick up our rid­ing hel­mets and are bussed out to meet the drovers, strap­pers and our horses. Each guest has been matched with a horse from Anna Creek Sta­tion, a vast Kid­man prop­erty. We are paired with Ste­wart Nunn, who re­cently re­tired as man­ager of Anna Creek, and Rod­ney, one of the chief drovers, spent 35 years on this cat­tle sta­tion.

Dar­ryl Bell (known as the Boss), his daugh­ter Shan­non and a fleet of young drovers will be our lead­ers and men­tors for the drive. Drovers and stock­men are the kings of the out­back, with skills that leave us gasp­ing. They ride as if fused to the sad­dle, us­ing strength and courage to deal with break­outs, crack­ing stock­whips with pre­ci­sion to round up stray beasts.

I am in­tro­duced to Wess, a 16-hand chest­nut, my horse for the next few days. Step blocks al­low for easy mount­ing, and strap­pers help and guide us through the yards. The cat­tle are re­leased and start to move. Rod­ney in­structs us to border the mob, walk­ing at a gen­tle pace be­hind, to al­low the drovers to gal­lop, crack whips and di­rect the traf­fic.

This af­ter­noon’s in­tro­duc­tion to drov­ing al­lows us to get to know our horses and re­lax about what is ex­pected. We ad­just to the sounds and smells of the mob and the fine red bull­dust and marvel at the in­tox­i­cat­ing beauty of the coun­try and the sense of free­dom and space. The lo­gis­tics of the drive are daunt­ing. There are wa­ter troughs on trucks that move be­hind the mob and lunch sites that are set up each day for guests, with a mar­quee and smor­gas­bord, a camp­fire and benches to al­low for a two-hour break be­fore the af­ter­noon drive. We dis­mount and take our horses to wa­ter. They are given nose­bags and cor­ralled for the night. We are bussed back to camp to use the shower trail­ers and meet at the camp­fire for a black rat (Bundy and Coke in a can), watch­ing the slow-set­ting sun streak the sky orange and red.

Din­ner is a feast of roasts, veg­eta­bles and sal­ads, with sticky date or choco­late fudge pud­dings and ice cream to fol­low; all is beau­ti­fully dis­played, buf­fet style, and part­nered with good wine. Tres­tle ta­bles and benches al­low ev­ery­one to mix and match at ev­ery meal.

Guests are mostly Bri­tons, Amer­i­cans and New Zealan­ders, with lo­cal horsey peo­ple, cat­tle­men and city slick­ers such as us, old and young. The at­mos­phere is in­clu­sive and friendly, and drovers, vol­un­teers, sta­tion own­ers and bush leg­ends alike min­gle and yarn with us all.

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Af­ter din­ner, Reg, an Abo­rig­i­nal elder from the Arabunna peo­ple, may play his gui­tar or a group of drovers sing coun­try mu­sic un­der ar­guably the clear­est view of the Milky Way in Aus­tralia.

Most guests are happy to sink un­der their doonas early, as there is a 6am bu­gle call to rise for break­fast and a 7.30am de­par­ture for drov­ing. Break­fast is an­other feast, com­plete with the joy of brewed cof­fee or ex­cel­lent tea.

By 8.30am, Wess and I are rid­ing with the mob, and not only do I feel part of the drive but that I was born to drove cat­tle. Dur­ing the next three days we move through the ochre-red peb­bles of gib­ber coun­try, the mulga and mallee.

We slowly cover 14km each day. The mind fills with dif­fer­ent pri­or­i­ties: cat­tle, horses and the ter­rain. There is time to talk, to lis­ten and to think, in­ter­spersed with adrenalin­stir­ring in­ci­dents.

The moun­tain man’s horse is spooked by a wa­ter truck shud­der­ing past us as we move the mob along­side the dirt road to Ma­ree. It bucks in a clas­sic Butch Cas­sidy pose and he just man­ages to stay in the sad­dle. Sue from Eng­land has to jump free when her mount de­cides to roll in the sand while cross­ing some dunes. We watch, im­pressed as she re­mounts, learn­ing that horses, if al­lowed, will be­have like naughty chil­dren.

We see a drover gen­tly carry a new­born calf to rest it in a ute. The calf is later re­turned to its mother, strong enough to walk with the mob. Mean­while, Wess, I dis­cover, is ad­dicted to Mitchell grass and will dis­re­gard any di­rec­tion from me if he hap­pens to spot the long and de­lec­ta­ble straw shoots. But he is a good stock­horse and it is ex­cit­ing to work with him as he rounds stray cat­tle, mov­ing deftly from left to right, ush­er­ing the beasts gen­tly back to the mob.

It is a priv­i­lege to ride along­side Bell, the so-called Boss. He looks the part, with a stock­whip draped around his shoul­der, his moulded bush hat like no other, and his sto­ries coloured with wit and phi­los­o­phy, gleaned from gen­er­a­tions of droughts and floods, and the highs and lows of a hard­fought life that I doubt he would swap with any­one on earth.

This pas­sion af­fects us all. On our fi­nal night at camp, a fire­works dis­play com­petes briefly with the heav­enly dis­play of stars above, and I no­tice my moun­tain-man son is sound­ing more like a desert-plains cat­tle man. We have been gen­tly but per­ma­nently branded and will be book­ing early for the next cat­tle drive from Birdsville in 2009.

Check­list

Lake Eyre En­counter (four nights, five days): $2250 a per­son (air fare from Ade­laide to Roxby Downs and trans­fer to Cur­dimurka not in­cluded). www.out­back­en­counter.com www.southaus­tralia.com

Reins on the plain: The Out­back Cat­tle Drive was dreamed up by bush­man Keith Rasheed, who be­moaned the fad­ing away of old drov­ing skills

Blaz­ing sad­dles: Around the camp­fire

Cat­tle class: On the road with the mob

Easy rider: Each guest is matched with a horse from Anna Creek Sta­tion

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