Strangers in a Strange Place – Part 2

6th Jun 2012

Working with cattle can be extremely dangerous and this was brought home to me during one particular muster.

The homestead

The homestead

We had corralled several hundred cattle in a set of yards close to the house and commenced the chore of sorting, branding, tagging, and castrating the animals. I and several other jackeroos were working in a central pen. We had a branding fire in a half 44-gallon drum in which several branding irons were being kept hot, surrounding us was a pen with bulls and steers in (all destined for market), on two sides a race and crush, and on the fourth a pen feeding the race which held cattle waiting to be processed. At the end of the crush was a gate which could swing two ways, one to steer beasts into the bull/steer pen, and one to direct the animals to the “bush-gate” (the road to freedom).

Sue in one of the station vehicles

Sue in one of the station vehicles

Unfortunately, when this gate was pointing to the bush-gate setting, it would open up the gate to the bulls’ and the steers’ pen so that there was nothing to stop them coming out and into the central; enclosure where we were working.

Under normal this gate arrangement didn’t matter because the default direction of the gate was to open the bush-gate and close the more dangerous avenue. However somehow, at one point a distraction caused the gate to be in the wrong position and our attention was diverted to a particularly troublesome beast in the crush (possibly a bull being relieved of his prairie oysters).

Whatever the cause, four jackeroos suddenly found themselves sharing an enclosed pen with a very angry shorthorn bull. The bull, perhaps for a few seconds, seemed as confused as us. Perhaps he was thinking about who to kill first.

At this point I should describe the material that the yards were constructed of. The walls were partitions made of two inch galvanized water pipe. The sections or panels were held together, very much like steel scaffolding, with brackets. The sections of yard fencing were about 1.8 metres high and had around six cross members. As such they made admirable ladders.

Most of us reacted pretty quickly to the presence of the bull, the dogs being nowhere to be seen (probably sleeping under a car somewhere), we sprinted in four directions up and onto the top of the yard panels where most of us balanced precariously.

I say “most of us”, I mean “everyone except me”.

My inertia was such that, instead of stopping on top of the fence, I lost my footing and fell into the pen on the other side. I squatted there and looked up to see a steer, pawing up clouds of dust and lowering its head toward me. This was a posture I felt I had seen before and I did not imagine that it was a good sign. The shouts and exhortations of my colleagues for me to vacate the premises post-haste gave me the encouragement I needed to turn around and re-scale the fence panel behind me. I managed this time to find my balance on the top and looked around for an escape route.

The bull that had started the trouble was pawing in the ground on my left and looked around for something to attack. The first thing it saw was the half-44 with the branding fire, branding irons in, smoking gently. This clearly had to be dealt with. With horns that were around 30 cms long the bull gored the fire and stomped the ashes and container flat before turning its attention to me balancing on top of the yard panel and not knowing which way to look. Angry steer on my right, bull on my left.

Thankfully while this was going on my colleagues had not been completely idle, someone had managed to rouse the dogs from their recreational activities and rescue was at hand, it did not take long  for these marvelous Australian Red Heeler cattle dogs to move the bull back into its proper pen and my colleagues and I were able to resume work. Of course it was some time before I was allowed to live my clumsy escapade down and I was told that perhaps I shouldn’t bother buying lottery tickets for a while as I had clearly used up any luck that was coming to me in the near future.

Helicopters and Airplanes

The station plane

The station plane

One of the perks of working on an outback station is probably the opportunity to view your workplace from the air. Like many stations in the North West ours was equipped with a small Cessna airplane which could be used to make urgent trips to town or to review the status of the property from the air.

Our station manager held a light-plane pilot’s license and one day we flew the breadth of the station, reviewing the status of windmills and tanks and surveying the river for fish and crocodiles. It was amazing that crocodiles which could never be seen when we were on the ground and near the water were clearly visible from the air as they had no concept of threat from that direction.

One of the other things we were able to spot from the air was donkeys.

This part of Australia is infested with feral donkeys and they carry disease and consume precious water. Hence, annually at the time, the Western Australian Government would sponsor a donkey-shoot to try to cull these creatures. On our station there was open-season all year round and not long before we had arrived fifty donkeys had been cut out during a muster and shot in one place. We had cause to have to return to this location some four weeks later to retrieve some tools that had been left behind. It was not pleasant and as result I can truly understand the expression that “the air could have been cut with a knife” although it may not have been coined for such an occasion, the stench was truly horrendous and inescapable.

One of our choppers

One of our choppers

On another day the muster helicopters stopped in at our homestead on their way to an assignment on another station. These guys were always welcome, partly for the news that they brought from outside, and partly just for the company. They kindly offered during this visit to take us for a joyride next morning. If I was cynical I would say they hoped to be able to cause a bad case of airsickness and have a laugh at the expense of one or other of us.

The helicopters were little two-seaters with a glass bubble on the front and no doors. Literally not much more than a 350 cubic inch four cylinder motor with a couple of seats on top and a blade overhead. When I went up the pilot could not help showing off how maneuverable this machine was by flying along the length of the airstrip and then swinging the helicopter around 180 degrees and from side to side so that I was looking straight to my left at the ground with nothing between me and it except a bit of air. I managed to keep my breakfast down and actually it was a lot of fun. I’m not sure how true it is but I am told the average life expectancy of an agricultural chopper pilot is not long. I’m not surprised.

The video below shows a modern day helicopter muster. You can see how dangerous it is. Our cattle were not the same as these which look to be primarily brahmins. Ours were mostly short-horn cattle although some brahmin stock was being introduced. We also had much less water than this and of-course, no four wheel motorbikes.

Horses and Walkabout Weed

At one stage during our stay on the station, the manager returned from a trip to Perth with four horses. I had always had a vision of horses as being used extensively on cattle stations in the North West; however this was the first time we had seen any and I asked why they were not used on the station.

Apparently there is a plant in the Kimberly region which is quite poisonous to horses (Rattlepods, or, plants of the genus Crotalaria). These have a poison which has a cumulative effect in a horse’s liver and causes a condition known as Kimberley Horse Disease which will kill horses.

These horses had been brought back to fatten in the yards prior to sale back in Perth. Why the owner felt that they needed to come such a long way for this purpose is beyond me but it became a regular chore to hand-feed the horses each day and on one fateful morning we were awoken to the news that during the night the horses had escaped.

So we followed their tracks down the track and into the bush eventually finding the three mares and stallion grazing happily near a creek bed (not on Rattlepods).

Being one of only two people on the station who was able to ride a horse it fell to me to put a halter on one of the mares and ride her back to the yard (we had no bridles, saddles, or any other tack except halters). This turned out to be quite dangerous as she was extremely skittish, I was riding bareback and the stallion which I was leading by a rope kept trying to mount her while I was riding! The journey however was completed uneventfully and the horses returned to their life of standing around, flicking flies off with their tails and munching on hay.

The Fire

The final muster I was involved with at the Station was at a considerable distance from the homestead. We had set the yards up near a sandy track and shallow dam somewhere to the north, about 35 kilometers from a major highway.

Setting up these portable yards takes many days. I previously described the panels that we used and, as you would probably imagine, they are heavy! Add to this the fact that they are generally quite rusty, dark brown, and extremely hot as they bake in the sun which is beating down and raising the temperature to around 40 degrees or more.

When we chose the location for the yards, the station manager observed that the track, being extremely sandy, was going to be almost impassable for the dual-trailer truck which would haul our cattle out for the trip to the coast. Hence, he and his brother cooked up a scheme.

A Caterpillar 16G articulated grader similar to the one borrowed by my boss

A Caterpillar 16G articulated grader similar to the one borrowed by my boss

This scheme involved “borrowing” an articulated grader from its normal working location near the main highway. Apparently, due to the vast distances between towns, the grader would be parked on the side of the road over the weekend and our Manager thought it would be fine to borrow it, drive it 35 kilometers into the bush, tow the truck out with it and then return it before Monday morning. The Manager’s brother was the proud owner of an articulated vehicle driver’s license so what possible turn of events could adversely affect this plan?

The execution commenced well, they managed to start the grader (don’t ask about keys, I simply don’t know) and with a full tank of diesel fuel, tow the truck and trailers in to close proximity with the yards. The grader was then parked up alongside the yards and we prepared to start working the cattle.

A fiery sunset

A fiery sunset – smoke from the station fire made for beautiful sunsets

The branding fire was lit in the half-44 and while it was burning down some of us went out to bring in a stray bull that had been rolled and trussed, to calm down, the previous evening.

Mistake number one. Don’t assume that the people you leave behind have the common sense to stay close to a newly lit fire.

We were about a kilometer from the yards and had managed to raise the, still fuming, bull and roll him onto the back of the land cruiser. One of my colleagues, Eddie, had hold of a rope that was tied around the bull’s horns and looped around the bars at the front of the tray. He had this pulled tight so that the bull’s head was tight against the front of the tray.

At the other business-end of the beast I was kneeling on the tray clutching and holding tight the bull’s tail which was passed between his legs and across his scrotum.  In every sense, while we were stationary, we had complete and comfortable control of the jolly brown giant. Following the normal course of events the next step would have been to truss the bull’s legs so that he couldn’t attempt to stand up.

Did you notice the qualifier in that paragraph? “While we were stationary”. Unfortunately we were not to remain stationary for long.

Someone shouted “shit, the branding fire has got away”.

Looking over, I could see that there was a cloud of smoke coming from the direction of the yards that was clearly more than a small fire and before I had time to even find a decent seating position we were bouncing across the bush, back toward the yards.

I don’t know how I hung on but I knew that if I didn’t we would be in even more trouble. Eddie had managed to tie his rope off and was standing at the front of the tray, I was hanging on grimly to the bull’s tail as his 500 kgs (1,100 lbs) of weight slid and bumped around on the tray. This seemed like probably the longest ride of my life.

Angry cattle

Angry cattle

Somehow we managed to get back to the yards without me losing control and Eddy completed the trussing of our bull’s feet so that he couldn’t move about. The other guys went straight in to trying to deal with the fire which by this stage was racing into the surrounding bush. The most urgent issue was that a small trail bike, parked near the grader, was alight, and the front left grader tyre was burning.

The motorbike was past saving but Scott, the driver, climbed into the grader and started driving, over the top of the burning motorbike, toward a nearby dam with the intention of drowning the burning tyre before it actually blew out.

He was too late.

The fire quickly ran up the hydraulic hoses to the door-less cabin and began licking around it. As the grader climbed the low dam-wall the front tyre blew, rendering the vehicle immobile, Scott leaped from the cabin; jeans alight, and ran into the knee deep mud of the dam. This immediately extinguished his jeans and saved him from serious burns but he could not remain there for long as the various hydraulics on the grader were burning furiously and the fuel tank was being licked by flames.

Struggling from the mud, Scott joined the rest of us and urged us to move further away from the burning Caterpillar. We stood about 50 metres away and watched as the grader’s recently topped-up, full tank of diesel fuel, exploded in a mighty mushroom cloud that extended probably 50 metres into the air.

Now we were helpless. The vehicles were parked up wind of the fire as were we. The fire was well and truly out of control and burning into the bush ahead of a light 20 knot breeze. The cattle were too terrified to be manage-able and we were all in a dazed-shock.

It didn’t take us long to realize that the homestead, while not in the direct path of the fire at that point could very well be threatened should the wind alter course. Hence we decided to return there and prepare for the worst.

I probably don’t have to say explicitly that there is no fire brigade to call on a north west cattle station, and that there is no chance of putting a bush-fire out.

The threat from a fire like this one is that it will burn the bulk of the available feed for cattle and hence they will go elsewhere. This is likely to result in significant losses if the fire is widespread because clean skin (unbranded and untagged) cattle will become the property of the first person to muster them.

The fire burns toward our homestead

The fire burns toward our homestead

Of course the other threat is that any built-property or homesteads in the path of the fire may be destroyed. Hence it becomes important to set up firebreaks around these assets and to be prepared to make sure that the breaks are not breached. We spent a couple of days preparing for this eventuality and when the fire did reach us we were easily able to defend the homestead and the various outhouses.

The fire burned on our station for several weeks. We lost no further equipment or property but many cattle moved on. The cattle in the yards that we had mustered immediately prior to the fire had to be released without processing the next day. The stress of the heat, smoke, and water-less conditions made it inhumane to try to work with them and their best chance for survival was to return to the creek and river beds as soon as possible.

Time to Move On

We spent several months on the station and enjoyed a lifestyle that is not experienced by too many people. My fishing blog tells of our long weekend of fishing in the Fitzroy River.

I haven’t talked much about the wildlife with which the Kimberley region teems. Apart from feral donkeys, crocodiles and fish there is a huge range of bird and insect life that varies as dramatically as the landscape.

Snakes are plentiful but generally will not cause you any problems if you leave them alone.  I don’t recall a lot of spiders. Apart from the ubiquitous redback which can inflict a very painful bight but is highly unlikely to kill an adult, spiders were mercifully rare. There were of course plenty of orb spiders which you could find in the bush (mainly by driving through their webs) but I have not heard of anyone being bitten by one. While tidying up the detail of this entry I found the following site in Western Australia which people interested in Australian spiders might enjoy http://www.gdaywa.com/themes/spiders.php.

Cattle at peace!

Cattle at peace!

Following the fire, tensions rose a little on the station, an insurance agent came up from Perth to assess the damage, particularly as regards the grader, and I think there may have been some fear that the station manager could lose his job.

This tension culminated in a huge fight between the manager and his wife during which he stormed out of the house with the keys to the plane. He then proceeded to fly around furiously “buzzing” the homestead several times and at one point nose-diving the tiny plane from about a thousand feet straight down toward the house before pulling out at the last minute. By this stage we were all at a safe distance but the manager’s wife continued about whatever she was doing in the house as if nothing was happening.

We decided that it was probably time for us to continue our journey and not long afterwards, we packed our belongings and set off for Lake Argyle, Wyndham and Darwin.

2 comments on “Strangers in a Strange Place – Part 2

  1. What an amazing experience! You clearly have a knack of getting in and out of tricky situations!

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