I grew up on the family property, Curbur Station, in the Murchison region of Western Australia and I was the elder boy of four children. My elder sisters were born in Adelaide, South Australia, and were young children when they moved from Darkan in the south-west of WA to make Curbur the family home for the next sixty-odd years. My eldest sister, Leonie, was five and a half and Carolyn was eighteen months old when my father arrived to manage Curbur in 1951. I was born in 1956 and my younger brother, Keros, was born five years later.
Growing up, there was the usual sibling rivalry between the older girls and me. Leonie always loved her horseriding – she taught me to ride – while Carrie was more of a homebody, staying with Mum, who needed plenty of help in those early days, as you can imagine. When they reached their teens, they boarded at St Mary’s Anglican Girls’ School in Perth which meant that much of the year they were away from Curbur and only came home for school holidays. Looking back, this had quite an effect on our relationship because it seemed just as I got to know them again, they were packing to return to school.That gap was bridged in later years when the girls had a flat in Applecross that I could visit on weekends from my boarding school.
The lovely old homestead at Curbur had a huge pitched roof of green-painted corrugated iron. Built by Angus Copley in 1930, the walls were of local stone from a nearby quarry. Copley owned the property from 1918 to 1948. Before that the Sharpe family from Wooleen Station took up the Kurbur (as it was known then) property lease in the 1880s and ran it as a remote outstation of Wooleen, some days’ camel and buggy ride away.
Copley built much of the infrastructure including fencing paddocks and an eight-stand shearing shed capable of handling a thousand sheep per day. Most of the records of that time were probably lost with the apparent suicide of Les Williams, the station manager employed by Copley.
Each oblong stone block in the homestead was about 200 millimetres thick.The mortar between the blocks was painted black to outline the beautiful exposed surfaces.The roadmap of fine black lines enhanced the delicate yellows and oranges of the stones bulging from the walls.
The front lawn was surrounded by oleander bushes and jacaranda trees, with a hibiscus hedge forming the boundary on its eastern edge. The hedge hid a large rockery planted with all sorts of cacti. As a small child I remember wondering,‘Who would ever grow a cactus?’ Running around barefoot, as we all did, they’d often cause us a great deal of grief.
The homestead was built on a slight limestone outcrop. In times of flood, as happened two or three times in my lifetime, this rise protected the house. The main driveway, lined with tamarisk and mesquite trees, ran up some 100 metres from the front gate on the Mullewa–Gascoyne Junction road, forking at ‘the Peak’, as we used to call it. This was where the vermin-proof fenceline, which kept the kangaroos off the lawn surrounding the homestead, joined into a point. From the Peak, visitors could drive to either the northern or southern side of the homestead.
There were two bedrooms at the front of the house. Later, sleep- outs were added to the southern side.The sleeping quarters,bathroom and main dining room were separated from the rear kitchen and old staff dining room by what Mum used to call the breezeway. When windows were opened in the sitting room (which formed the southern end of the breezeway) the cool southerly, if there was such a thing that day, blew down the breezeway towards the north. Its stone walls used to fret and breakdown, creating chalky holes that were beloved by snakes, which seemed to relish the coolness. Dad camped one night on an old stretcher bed in the breezeway and killed seven juvenile snakes as they emerged.
Later the old staff dining room became known as the ironing room when it was bricked in, but in the 1950s it was where the eight or more staff would eat their meals, which were prepared in the homestead kitchen.This was when stations employed overseers, stockmen, windmill men, fencers, mechanics and jackeroos (not many jilleroos back then) and, of course, the cook and yardman. These workers were mostly white blokes. But as the years went by, stations couldn’t afford large staff numbers and began to employ fewer, part- time Aboriginal staff. The Yamatji people had quarters some 300 metres away from the homestead.The Aboriginal stockmen and their families lived there and would come and go, as was their way. They were supplied from the ‘store’, as we called it, where they lined up on certain days of the week for supplies including bags of flour, tea, sugar, tobacco and papers, and tinned food such as fruit and braised steak and onions. Beef and mutton was distributed from kerosene fridges – later replaced by a coolroom. Some work clothes were also given out.
Occasionally Mum would cook for theYamatjis if she knew they’d just arrived on the property or for some other reason didn’t have food, but most of the time they looked after themselves – adding catches like emu and goanna to their diet.They would just throw a lot of food directly onto the coals of the campfire so liked doing their own thing.
Mum, or ‘Missus’ as they called her, was a favourite with theYamatji people, as she often looked after their sick children and supplied first-aid equipment when required.They knew she would never see anybody not cared for.
She was always laughing and joking with the Aboriginal women around the station, who knew her intimately. She was the only one they could turn to for advice about women’s issues or their children’s health problems and she was always keen to help. In fact she’d go out of her way to assist anyone who needed it. Her kindness was well-known, admired and appreciated by all who knew her, and she instilled in me many attributes that I am so grateful for.
Mum not only did much of the cooking and domestic work but also taught all four of us children correspondence school for twenty-two years, as well as being a mother in the bush without any of today’s amenities, such as air conditioning or twenty-four- hour power.
Like many women of that era, Mum never learnt to drive so never got involved in the outside work very much.As we used to say as kids, ‘Dad never changed a nappy and Mum never changed a tyre’.
She certainly was a marvellous, loving mother to her children. Indeed, she had a very special connection to kids of any colour, creed or religion and they in turn were drawn to her like bees to honey. I remember how they used to flock to greet her at the local Murgoo Picnic Races.
Mum was small and lightly built, with dark shoulder-length hair. She had a beautiful voice, and during and after World War II sang for the Red Cross as well as professionally. She used to tell us (after a rare sherry) how the soldiers would carry her around the camps on their shoulders. I didn’t realise it as a child (well, you don’t, do you) but she must have been lovely. I guess thirteen proposals of marriage before she met Dad pretty much demonstrates that!
She cut a number of records, and even performed under Royal Command. A neighbour of ours, Kim Keogh, who had known Mum for thirty years, once commented,‘When you hear Mrs. Keynes sing, it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck’.
I recently heard the moving story of a livestock- and wool-carting truckie,Vic Allrick, who originally came from Vienna. He would stop his truck as close as he could to the homestead and switch off the motor in the hope that he’d be lucky enough to catch Mum singing out in the front garden, which she often used to do near sundown.
When I was five years old, Mum’s mother, Nanna Parkyn, came to visit us and see the spot her daughter had moved to in faraway Western Australia.
It would have been at least ten years since Mum had seen Nanna. In those days, the phone was mainly used for business or urgent calls. Handwritten letters were how most people kept in touch, and the weekly mail truck would receive Mum’s full attention. But now Nanna was coming all the way from Glenelg, in South Australia, and would be there in person. And I went with Dad in the old Ford Customline to pick her up in Mullewa and bring her back to Curbur.
Nanna was very pleased to see us after her long trip from Adelaide. After visiting Peet’s store in the main street and then getting some fuel, we started up the main road on the four-hour journey home.
After the initial excitement of the meeting, Nanna’s long trip caught up with her, and I noted a distinct silence descend on the front bench seat of the old Customline.
Starting to doze in the midday sun myself, and feeling my eyes enjoying being more closed than open, I was jerked wide-awake by Dad turning off the main road and into the entrance of the old Jiganoo outcamp only half way home to Curbur.A station outcamp,sometimes called an outstation, was a building or shelter where mustering teams and fencing contractors or the like could live for short periods of time. Most were rudimentary, as the workers only lived in them for a few months at most. But the odd outcamp was lived in all year round, and was often of a better standard, with trees and a lawn and some shade developing over the years. Jiganoo, an outcamp for Billabalong Station, was certainly not one of those. I didn’t say anything to Dad, as I was still coming out of my own nice snooze, but I was trying to work out why he had turned into it. I thought it was deserted.
The jerky halt as Dad applied the handbrake was enough to wake Nanna. As she came to, all she could see before her was the old abandoned outcamp, front door hanging off its hinges and flywire drifting across the flat. Half the corrugated iron roof was missing, and there was a big piece of it hanging down over what should have been the front door.
I saw Nanna’s mouth drop open in disbelief. Dad jumped out of the car and lifted the boot up to remove the cases, yelling out as he did, ‘You there, June? Your mum’s here to see ya!’ It was only then that my little brain started to work out what Dad was doing. The huge smirk he had on his face when he went around to the boot gave it away to me. In fact he was nearly falling on the ground laughing.
Nanna had no idea of what the Curbur homestead looked like, except from the accounts in Mum’s letters.And because of her little nod-off, she had no idea how far we had travelled.This is what her daughter had come to? It was nothing like the descriptions she’d been sent! Nanna was unable to speak. Her eyes were fixed on the flapping corrugated iron that had been waving at her since her arrival.
It took Dad quite a time to get his breath back, and even longer for Nanna to change her facial expression from one of absolute disbelief. He had purposely stayed out of her way at the rear of the vehicle, but eventually he felt his prank on his mother-in-law had gone far enough, and came around and opened the door for her to get out. He had such a grin on his face that she finally guessed what was going on.
I noted a distinctly relieved expression on Nanna’s face when, two hours later, we arrived at last at our lovely old Curbur homestead.
Dad used to say that Nanna chased all the young men with a broom when they came courting Mum and her twin sister, Margaret. I reckon he squared things up that day. I’m guessing Dad was in the doghouse for at least a week, but I’m sure he thought the giggle he got out of it was worth it.
As a little boy growing up in the bush, I was very attached to the cow paddock that surrounded our homestead. It was 260 hectares and was where the milking cow used to roam. On warm summer nights you would hear her cowbell making a faint jingle in the distance as the cow nibbled away to her heart’s content. I knew the paddock well because I had to muster her early each morning if she didn’t come in for milking.
This particular paddock was also where the mustering team of horses was occasionally kept, but only for short periods of time, as it was the ‘rangeland haystack’ and used for emergency stocking when needed. If a passing livestock truck broke down close by, for instance, and its cargo needed to be fed and watered for a few days, they would be put in this paddock.
I treated this little paddock – ‘little’ only in station terms, of course – very much as my own; I had walked through and around it so many times I knew every tree, creek and wash. I used to love walking through the bush with my dogs, especially after rain or thunderstorms when the mulga smells magical.
Most of that magic is because you know the bloom of bush herbage and wildflowers will be coming soon, along with birds and insects and all the other bounty the rain brings.There was an area near the homestead where surface water would lie for weeks after heavy rain, and colourful wildflowers would then replace the receding water, giving off a mixture of scents that would have made Coco Chanel’s head spin.
I nearly always had a dog with me in my adventures. I had a number of working dogs over the years and one of those was Buster, although he actually belonged to Ben the mechanic, who never used to work him because his job kept him in the workshop. About 80 metres in front of the workshop were the six sturdy dog pens where the dogs that weren’t being worked were housed. Around eight metres long and three metres wide, the pens ran side by side and were built of 2.5-metre-high chain mesh that the dogs couldn’t chew through. I couldn’t go around to the front to get Buster out of the pen as Ben would spot me from the workshop so I’d sneak round the back to the enclosed end that kept the dogs out of the weather. It was covered in corrugated iron sheeting to around half the height of the mesh side. I found I could climb up on this sheeting and get Buster, who was very keen to cooperate, jumping up so I could catch him and pull him over the back of the pens and out mustering sheep with me. I’m sure Ben must have heard the commotion going on over at the dog pen but perhaps chose to ignore it since my intent was good for his dog. After all, Buster was a border collie and the dog just lived for working livestock. If it wasn’t sheep it would be the chooks. Oddly, many years later I had a purebred border collie that flew with me in the chopper, whose name was Ben. Maybe my old childhood memories coming back.
Another companion, Lassie, a border collie cross, used to go with me religiously when I walked through the bush, and was as excited as I was when we struck gold – some sheep.
On another occasion that Nanna stayed with us, the stockmen had mustered a few thousand sheep out of Marey Paddock to the west of the homestead and put them into ‘my’ holding paddock overnight. I made it my mission, at six or seven years of age, to get up real early the next morning before all the stockmen got into the paddock with their horses. I’d have all the sheep waiting in the corner for them when they arrived.After all, this was my paddock and I knew it better than they did anyway!
I kept my mission a secret – my father would have certainly poured cold water on it.That night I was unable to sleep very well due to the excitement of the upcoming challenge. I had rounded up sheep many times before, but not as many as this. Lassie and I could do it on our ear, though, I reckoned.
By four o’clock in the morning the excitement had reached fever pitch and I needed to make a move. I dressed quietly and was heading for the dog pens to collect Lassie when I heard Mum calling out from my bedroom,‘Gregory, are you there, dear?’
Mum was amazing. She would come into your bedroom at any hour of the night to cover you up and make sure everything was okay. You would hear her distant voice say, ‘Just put this sheet over your shoulders dear’. But gee, I didn’t need it on this particular occasion.
‘Busted!’ I thought. ‘What am I going to do now?’
I’m not exactly sure that I can explain what my thought processes were, but the possibility of not being able to muster those sheep out of my holding paddock was too horrible to think about. I knew if Mum found me she would take me back to my bedroom and say it was way too early to be out of bed – as it was, of course. So I slipped quietly out the back door and into the closest building for protection. It happened to be the woodshed.While hiding in there I could hear Mum continuing to call. It upset me that I wasn’t able to answer, but there was a man’s job that had to be done, which was paramount.
The next noise I heard put a shiver down my spine. Mum had obviously woken the old man, which she wouldn’t have done readily. She knew what his response would be at that hour. His yell, cutting through the cold morning air, was scary.
Dad had a five-tail leather strap for us children – well, it used to have five tails but by this time only had four, because one day I got my pocketknife and cut a leather strand off. I was so scared at what the fallout would be when Dad found it in that state that I hid it behind the couch. (But Mum’s cleaning was too thorough, unfortunately.)
So now the pressure had shifted up a gear.What originally seemed a real good idea was rapidly turning into having to face my angry father and a good likelihood of that strap.
As I was weighing up my options, the dulcet tones of my visiting grandmother came to me through the cool morning air in the dark woodhouse.
‘Gregory dear, are you there?’ she called quietly.
It was like water to the lips of a dying bushman.To this day I’m not sure how she knew that I was hiding in the woodshed, but what a godsend she was! At seventy-five she was probably sleeping poorly herself so may have heard me when I first got out of bed. No doubt she knew more than I did about what I was doing at 4 am.
Rushing to Nanna seemed a real good option at that desperate stage. Somewhere deep in the back of my mind I knew that she would keep Dad at bay and prevent him from yelling at me. He wouldn’t cross his mother-in-law – well, not at four o’clock in the morning, anyway.
When she saw my nervous advance, she gave me a welcoming smile. I hugged her waist mercilessly, not wanting to let go. I didn’t know Nanna very well, as we didn’t see her very often. But we certainly strengthened our relationship that morning.
Nanna guided me back to my bedroom and called out to Mum as she covered me up. I could hear my father’s raised voice in the background, saying something to my mother like, ‘What the bloody hell’s he doing up at this time of night?’
After the commotion died down, I finally slept, to dream of big mobs of sheep that Lassie and I had mustered into the corner of the paddock where the old experienced Aboriginal stockmen, who could track an ant on granite, were sitting on their horses, shaking their heads in disbelief and saying,‘He the boy, intee? Little Mijah got em’. (‘He’s the boy, isn’t he? Little boss got them.’)
As a child I had the full run of the station and its surrounds, only confined by how far I could walk or ride, but of course on the proviso that I took enough water and that I returned home before dark.
One of my favourite expeditions was to the station tip. It was a lovely two-mile ride on my little grey pony, Gypsy. I always could pick my way there via the ‘big gidgee thicket’, where one particular gidgee tree stood proud and tall above the rest, a main trunk that went straight up, while others on either side stuck out like the huge arms of a giant.We travelled along the cattle pad all the way from the corner mill trough and past the low-lying black mulga ‘park’, as we called it, where the water used to lie for weeks after rain.
I once had a scare during the ride to the tip: I had leant forward in the saddle to stretch my back just in time to see Gypsy step over a slithering black snake. Gypsy’s gait didn’t change, and I remember the snake didn’t seem angry or threatened, as you might have expected. He didn’t try to strike or bite at all, just seemed intent on getting clear and out of the way.What scared me most, I think, was the thought of what might have happened. If he’d been bitten I could have been cantering Gypsy a little later and he might’ve have collapsed on me and gone down, throwing me, or even died. If I hadn’t happened to be looking over the horse’s withers at the time, I might not have noticed the close shave at all. No one else seemed to care, anyway! Buster, who was following behind the horse, just stepped around the snake even as I turned, too late to warn him. He’d seen it all before and barely bothered to look back as he trotted on with me.
Once we arrived, I’d tie Gypsy to a mulga tree in the shade to mind his own business and shake the odd fly off with the toss of his mane or flick of his tail.A funny little snort would blow away flies drawn by the moisture seeping from his soft velvet nostrils.
The tip was the most exciting place for a young bush kid.You could never guess what you might find next: old abandoned trucks, motorbikes and wooden carts. Tobacco tins, sealed for years, that when opened with caution would still hold the mellow scent of ready rubbed tobacco, metal interiors remaining shiny and proud after years of consealment. Grimy bottles with marbles in the top that rattled when you shook the dust out of them. Dark-brown and black bottles – some long and square, others thin and round. Some crystal clear, as if they’ve just been washed by the rain, shone and reflected like diamonds in the sunlight; others so discoloured they left you wondering what they once contained.
The old vehicles were great to jump in and steer, capable of a complete steering lock each way since the bodies were sitting on blocks, tyres long gone. You could pretend-drive like a racing car driver, making all the right noises; it sounded real good. Plenty of space in the back for imaginary passengers, who were told to ‘sit down and be quiet’ while you drove over imaginary hills and breakaways. No seatbelts then. Some passengers had to stand while holding on tight, like I’d seen Dad drive through the bush. Proper luggage of old boxes and bits and pieces could be piled on, but care was necessary, for fear of angry scorpions and centipedes that were surprised by the unexpected exposure.You always grabbed for grip near the top of the old boxes rather than the bottom, where unexpected nasties could attach to your fingers.
Skipping between the clumps of ‘stuff ’ with juvenile excitement, avoiding the rusty Ardmona fruit tins and odd pieces of broken glass to inspect weathered leather strapping and old saddle gear, cushioning
horsetail hair worn and tired in its felt covering but still rich, black and curly.Wild hops with red flowers standing tall, strong and green, protected by years of rubbish and leftover jobs of bygone times. Partly welded metal frames, welded with old carbide gas and wire, protecting coat of galvanising burnt off to expose to the elements ugly brown rust.
Horse hobble chains rattled as you exposed them from the dusty soil, and rusted buckles outlived their withered leather straps, dry and twisted. Small metal matchboxes inscribed DUNCAN’S WATERPROOF WAX VESTAS were everywhere. I knew these matches would strike into flame anywhere or on anything. I had once carried a boxful in my jeans for months knowing I could start a billy fire anywhere if required.
The old wooden carts were great too, standing proudly on their huge steel wheels with strong metal spokes, some with two wheels and some with four, big enough to cart bales of wool behind the camels, many years before.Abandoned to deteriorate and left to kids’ pleasure and imagination.You just had to be very careful of the old timber bench seats, which had cracked and dried and splintered badly, slicing into unsuspecting, overexcited bottoms.
Yeah, going to the tip was nearly more exciting than going to the big city, for a bush kid.
Now you may think that an outback kid’s life was all fun and games but of course we still had school, though it was very different from the urban school experience that I would have in years to come.
It was mid-morning and I was starting grade one on a very warm January day. All the animals were fed and the chores done and Mrs Jones had us all line up and march across some 100 metres from the homestead to the freshly painted schoolroom over in the office block next to Dad’s office.Then came the storeroom on the western end where the Yamatji people used to line up for their weekly food supplies. I remembered the huge bags of dried apples and apricots, which I enjoyed chewing on, and the flour that was stacked up two or three bags high, with lots of tinned food on the shelves.
But no time for the storeroom now: me and Mrs Jones’s other pupils were all in line, marching towards the learning of books, pencil and paper. She asked us to make sure we didn’t tread on the heels of the child in front of us as we marched: left, right; left, right.
I didn’t think schoolwork was very important, really – not nearly as useful as knowing your direction in the bush and being able to catch, saddle and ride a pony without falling off. Mrs Jones was telling Billy to catch up and be quiet, so I figured I better pay attention. When we reached the shade just outside the classroom veranda Mrs Jones told us to ‘halt!’ and we came to ragged attention. Once instructed to come into the classroom through the door with its new white coat of paint, I sat in the sole desk and chair in the room, and behind me the rest took their places.
‘Good morning, class,’ she said brightly and we all replied, then she enquired if we were all feeling well, and asked us all in turn what we had been doing over the Christmas holidays.
I was wondering if Gypsy was still hungry after the feed I had given him that morning, and Mrs Jones asked me if I was paying attention, as she wished to show us what lovely crayons and art paper we had for the start of the new year. If we would like to take our colourful reading books out ... Jack didn’t have his books so Mrs Jones had to let him borrow hers. Billy said he wanted to go to the toilet, but Mrs Jones said he would have to wait until recess, which wasn’t long.
That was my first experience of a class with ‘Mrs Jones’. She taught four children, all siblings, in that classroom and around the station run for twenty-two years; she had a short break between the girls going to boarding school and me starting, but it would have only been a year or so.
Many people understand correspondence school as distant teachers and pupils communicating over the old HF radio – and for many that was the case, but instead we had our ‘sets’ come up on the weekly mail, which we’d work through and send back with the return mail on Thursdays. These were then marked and returned by the distant teachers.
Mum’s role effectively was to take us through this set work, which often seemed in advance of the schoolwork done by city children of similar age – so when I went off to boarding school, the schoolwork was the least of my worries.
There was never a complaint from Mrs Jones; she always put her children’s needs in front of her own and kept a constant happy, smiling disposition while always helping, always guiding.
It was an honour to call Mrs Jones my mum. And, yes, I was the only one in that classroom, but the care she took, developing that imaginary class to keep me interested, went way beyond the role of a remote teacher.
There’s something very special about growing up in a natural environment.When you play in the mud for hours with tadpoles and frogs, it helps you see life in context. I guess that’s why I look at things so practically and simply.
One thing I learnt at a very early age was that young animals sometimes need to be culled, usually because their mother died while giving birth or caught in dam mud, where they struggled to survive while crows and eagles made their last hours on this planet purgatory. But that is life. We live and we die – and so the cycle continues. It’s something many of today’s children don’t have the opportunity to experience.
As a kid I would follow a line of itchy caterpillars to their nest in a bardie bush (Acacia victoriae), where you could find honey seeping out from under the bark from the hives of native bees – if you knew where to look for it. In the roots of this tree you could also find grubs. We called them ‘bardie grubs’ because they lived in the bardie bushes but they are also known as witchetty grubs.TheYamatji liked to eat them raw, or crisped the outside skin on the fire. Raw they have an almond flavour and once cooked they’re similar to a fried egg in look and taste.
The wild honey was sweet and chewy, not quite like shop-bought honey, but back in the 1960s on an outback station we didn’t know any different – and what you don’t know, you don’t miss.
My favourite times were with the Aboriginal women looking for bardies or ‘kangarooing’ with the roo dogs (or, when I was older, with a rifle if I was lucky).The roo dogs were some old greyhounds that had been bred with God knows what.They would chase a kangaroo until they caught it in full flight and, gripping it around its neck, would break the animal’s lifeline. Many years later I had to rush to help one of our old blue heelers who had grabbed a huge boomer (or rather, it had grabbed him) after I had shot it with a 0.22 rifle and only managed to wing it.The roo had Bluey around the throat in a vice-like grip, choking the air from his lungs. As Bluey was taking his final gasps, I managed to knock the big buck out with a bash to the head from my rifle butt. It was all I had handy, and it shattered into pieces on impact. The big bloke staggered backwards, before dropping Bluey and collapsing. Anybody who has had anything to do with blue heelers knows how tough they are, but that afternoon Bluey was very close to not making it.
Unless we were kangarooing on an open flat we didn’t witness the roo dogs catching the roo, because the chase normally took place some kilometres in front of us.The big challenge would be tracking the dogs as they pursued their prey. The women could track the animals on all sorts of surfaces, from solid rock to hard Murchison cement flats where just the slightest nick in the ground from a leading animal’s toe and the dogs’ faint claw marks confirmed ‘he still goin’. The Aboriginal women would smile at their skill – they were getting closer to a kangaroo dinner for the camp. But the skill was never skited about too much, because the next day they might well lose a track on hard ground and have to admit defeat. It was a lesson I held onto: only a fool gets too smart for their boots.
After growing up kangarooing with the Aboriginal women, I understood what the old stockmen meant when I heard them saying years later,‘He can track an ant on granite’.They would be speaking of how a lone stockman on a horse, in a paddock that could be as big as 150 square kilometres, could follow a grazing animal that had been there days before, and find it in the shade of a solitary tree in the mid-afternoon sun. The stockman is just doing his job. But when you understand that there are millions of similar trees in that paddock, that’s not a fluke, it’s all class.
I consider it an honour to have ridden behind some of the best trackers (mostly Aboriginal in my day) on the following horse, as they casually (as it seemed to my less experienced eye) looked across the surrounding landscape as they rode. Later on, at dinner camp, with horses resting in the shade with saddles off, they would say,‘You pulla seen im track dare, where he went down the wash dare, den come back dis side. He might be ober dis side ah camped in the shade dare, long da edge dare’. As a kid I would often, after lunch, ride with the trackers ‘out along the edge dare’, and sure enough we’d confront a very angry 600-kilogram bull camped in the shade, the very one that we’d been tracking. His tracks would have been a couple of days old when we first cut them, and it would have taken us most of the day to track him down.
A lot of tracking was just dispensing with the least likely options – ‘I can’t see em there, so he must be this way’.When you find the general direction the animal is travelling in, and then ride in that direction looking for signs of the animal’s tracks cutting across under your horse at right angles, it’s called ‘cutting the tracks’.As you can imagine, you can’t follow a track that’s two or three days old, as it would take too long to catch up. If the animal you’re tracking cuts across under you and out to your left, you remember that is the direction it last headed and continue to travel in the general direction you chose originally. If the animal you’re tracking doesn’t come back under you before you’ve gone too far, then you start bending your direction toward the side it last headed until you again cross its track. If you don’t cut a track, you continue bending in the last general direction the track was heading until you cut its track again. Sometimes this may mean nearly as much as a 180-degree turn from your original direction, but that’s part of the challenge.
Tracking is difficult.Wild cattle can smell you upwind kilometres away – especially your horse – and can easily hear the sound of somebody coughing or the engine of a motorbike. Even if an animal isn’t aware that you’re following it, it doesn’t want to be found and is not interested in you coming into its space.
Of course, when you miss cutting a track you may be forced to go back to where you last saw the track and start again.That’s when the Aboriginal humour would come through and a comment would be made like, ‘He musa gone down gweel hole ah’. (‘Gweel’ is the Yamatji word for the bungarra or racehorse goanna, which digs a hole to live in.The entrance is about half the diameter of a cowboy hat.) Sometimes, after hours of trying to rediscover that track you would swear he was right. It’s as if the bloody animal completely disappeared off the face of the earth.
I often saw theYamatji people laughing about frustrating situations that can occur – something I still find very difficult to do,but in fairness as employees they didn’t have to worry about the consequences much.
As a child growing up with, and alongside, Yamatji people you pretty much just took their ways for granted, but as I got a bit older and went to school in Perth and away from the environment I learnt to truly appreciate their humour and way of doing things.
In one such yarn I was hearing about how a station manager was continually getting angry with a fellow called Gordon who everybody in the dinner camp was continually waiting for because he had a huge billy can that he’d put on the campfire at lunch. It always took ages to boil, well after everybody else had removed their billies from the fire and were consuming their tea.
On this particular day the regular frustration got too much for Jock the manager, who suddenly rushed at the campfire and kicked Gordon’s billycan over, spilling its contents all over the place and dousing the campfire. But the stabbing pain in his foot, even enclosed in a heavy boot, drew Jock’s attention to the actual contents of the billycan and especially to its heaviness and solidity. On closer inspection Jock realised that Gordon, with the best of intentions to speed up his slow billy can, had filled the bottom of it with cement in the assumption that less space = less water = less time taken. But physics wasn’t one of Gordon’s best subjects: he didn’t calculate that the cement would need even more heat energy from the campfire to bring the contents to boil.