Three days in the sad­dle

Free­dom, friend­ship and fresh air on a cat­tle drive in the Kim­ber­ley

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - LYN­DALL CRISP

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.