Three days in the saddle
Freedom, friendship and fresh air on a cattle drive in the Kimberley
IT is, I think, a fair question. ‘‘Should I bring a nightie?’’ But it is met with such mirth that I don’t bother with the second. ‘‘And a hot-water bottle?’’
Like many Australians, so it seems, I have long dreamed of j oining a cattle drive but am unsure what to expect, especially in terms of camping etiquette. When the opportunity arrives to go on a three-day drive on Home Valley Station (where much of Baz Luhrmann’s Australia was filmed), 120km east of Kununurra in Western Australia, it is a no-brainer.
This magnificent pastoral property — bought in 1999 by the Indigenous Land Corporation and opened for tourist activities in 2008 — covers 615,000ha. Together with neighbouring Durack River Station and Karunjie Station, also owned by the ILC on behalf of the Balangarra people, the holding totals 1,417,000ha, much of it sparse savanna land framed by rocky ridge lines.
Last July, Home Valley was inundated with inquiries when it advertised 15 places on its first sixday Heritage Cattle Drive, so it had to quickly organise a second one. Next year there will be four, or more if there’s demand. Cattle drives are entrenched in Australian history and literature; the thought of riding out with a herd of cattle in the middle of nowhere, sitting round a campfire and sleeping under the stars appeals to many an adventurous romantic, whether or not they can ride.
The last time I rode was in November near Abu Dhabi on a borrowed Arab horse. Beautiful but flighty, it seemed jittery. When I asked the guide what was the problem she said the horse was the ruling sheik’s former endurance champion and always liked to lead. As long as it wasn’t by 10km and over anonymous sand dunes, I didn’t mind, but it was a challenge.
No such problem at Home Valley Station, which caters for novices through to very experienced riders; it has a large stable of trained stock horses and rates safety as its No 1 priority.
Day one: It’s 8am and already warming up towards a hot but dry 38C — and it’s only spring. No wonder Home Valley Station closes during summer. The pastoral manager, John Rodney (or JR), assesses our riding skills and, after running through the basics (forget the English style of riding), matches us with a suitable horse. I get Pistol, a handsome bay gelding. Besides the rest of the Home Valley Station team — head stockman Cyril Yeeda ( from Halls Creek, WA), stockman Jason Newman ( from Tamworth, NSW), trainee stockman Jwayne Nocketta (from the Bungle Bungles) and jillaroo Marlene Lenting (from The Netherlands) — there are two rookies, Mary Smith (from Brisbane) and Vanessa Thomas (from Sydney).
It is an interesting mix and we bond quickly.
There’s nothing JR doesn’t know about horses; a former rodeo rider and owner of a touring wild west show, he has spent most of his life in the saddle. Marlene, a former show jumper, racehorse strapper and riding instructor, speaks seven languages and has a masters degree in international investment.
Mary, a solicitor who now runs her own travel company, Aurora Adventures, has walked the Kokoda Track 35 times, but has sat on a horse only once. She is trialling this challenge with a view to including it on her itinerary for next year. Vanessa works in asset finance and is a sports nut, but has never been on a horse.
We ride out of the gate in an orderly fashion. JR keeps an eye on us; between tall stories and lots of teasing, he shares wise advice.
I particularly like this bit: ‘‘ If Pistol aims for a tree, steer his head towards it and he’ll swing his bum out, saving you a bruised leg.’’ Makes sense. Pity I forget.
We mosey along in first gear. Any thought of wild gallops after stampeding cattle is for the movies. ‘‘You’ll lose them if you don’t move slowly,’’ JR warns. ‘‘They’ll scatter and we’ll never get them back.’’
The fastest we go is a trot and the occasional canter when a stray animal wanders. We fan out behind and to the sides of the herd, coaxing them forward at a steady pace. JR encourages us to yell so the cattle, shorthorns and brahmans, don’t dawdle. It takes some effort to overcome my inhibitions; no one else seems to have trouble bellowing absurdities.
It’s hot. Thank heavens for a loose, long-sleeved white (but not for long) shirt, a wet bandanna around the neck, ample sunblock and litres of water. Wegroan when Vanessa declares the lip salve must have slipped out of her pocket.
As the hours drift by, there’s ample time to enjoy the magnificent natural beauty. What a contrast to an office in the CBD. No mobile phone reception, no traffic, no people except us.
The steep red walls of the Cockburn Ranges, the termite mounds, the last of the turkey bush and kapok flowers, the emerging needle leaf grevilleas and cabbage gums, and the boabs are a delight. But JR warns us against letting the horses nibble Crotalaria crispata, a plant with a sweet-tasting flower unique to the Kimberley — apparently it can kill them.
A smoke haze drifts towards us from across the Pentecost River, where scrub fires have been burning for days. They pose no danger to us, however, as the river is too wide.
The birdlife is rich in colour and movement: barking owls, redtailed black cockatoos ( worth about $60,000 each in the US market), brolgas, j abirus, bush turkeys, rainbow lorikeets and little corellas.
A solitary dingo watches us from a safe distance and a lone roo crosses our path. It’s hard to believe that all of the Kimberley was once under the sea.
We pass a camp site, Billabong Gully, but don’t stop. Today the idea is to muster as many cattle as possible and drive them back to the stockyards for hot branding. The practice might date back to 2700 BC, but I confess I can’t watch. JR rolls his eyes; Cyril and Jwayne just laugh.
JR tries to teach us to campdraft but doesn’t get far. A bit more time and I bet I’d master it.
We are so close to base that we return to our beds for the night.
Day two: JR gives us a morning lesson in natural horsemanship; he achieves incredible results with gentle persuasion, patience and respect.
After lunch we ride for about four hours to the second camp, called Bondi Beach because it’s located on a sandy patch above the Pentecost River. The light is fading and JR worries we won’t get there before dark, so we speed through rivers and gullies.
Station staff have driven ahead to leave supplies and set up facilities. Yes, there’s a shower behind a corrugated-iron screen with hot and cold water from canvas buckets; hessian curtains hide four spotless lavatories with pumps to flush. We don’t bother showering or even changing into clean clothes for dinner; the relentless red dust makes it pointless. No make-up, and filthy to boot? I couldn’t be happier.
We roll out our comfortable swags under mozzie domes. Marlene cooks steak, onions, pumpkin, jacket potatoes and broccoli with fresh damper on a clever handmade barbie with three swivel arms.
A pristine sunset is followed by a full moon and all thoughts of a nightie and hot-water bottle seem ridiculous.
It’s cool but not cold, although sitting around the campfire in the dark listening to Jwayne’s unlikely but scary bush stories makes us shiver. A quick wash (facial wipes are handy not just for the face), a clean T-shirt, and as soon as myhead hits the pillow, I’m asleep.
Any concerns about crocodiles and snakes (both abound in the area) are forgotten.
Day three: Dawn is another treat: a huge red sun slowly appears. I pull on the same dirty jeans and tuck into a breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes and baked beans. There’s no hurry. We saddle up and set out looking for rogue cattle, cleanskins that haven’t been branded. (Home Valley was once a favourite target of poddy-dodgers, or rustlers who stole cleanskins.) We find the cattle, but the ground is rocky and they are escape artists.
So instead of giving chase we meander back through the untamed wilderness; as the home gate appears down the track, JR challenges us to a walking race. Pistol and I cheat and break into a trot but Marlene wins easily.
It’s all over. Far too soon. Lyndall Crisp was a guest of Home Valley Station and Tourism WA.
Heritage Cattle Drives on Home Valley Station in the Kimberley, Western Australia, above and below, have proved so popular there will be four next year