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DIRT CLASSROOM

An inspiring true adventure through the Australian Outback



Contents

Preface

Introduction

Brisbane to Boulia

The highway

Flood

First muster

Min Min round 2

Donkeys and Turkeys’ nests

Camels

Bronco branding

Grader driver

Giant pig

Making the gate

Bull catcher

Scurvy

Tourists

Gate duty

Fever

Holidays

The Gulf

Water drop

Cowboy hat

Flood fencing

Kookaburra

Rodeo

Roadhouse

Mustering

The end

Full circle





PREFACE

Some names, dates and places have been changed to protect the identity of certain

individuals. The following version of events and information is strictly from my own

recollection and should not be considered fact.



INTRODUCTION

“Man, school sucks!” That was what I was thinking, going into my ninth year at Kenmore State High School.

At 15, against everyone’s advice, I decided to leave school and head about as far away from my comfort zone as possible at that age. Over the course of the next two years or so, I learned many life lessons, which in hindsight I believe set up a solid foundation for my future. It is amazing what happens when you choose to ignore the standard advice from society and go against the grain.

While my school mates were busy spending hours learning things that they can now look up on the internet in a few seconds, I was busy learning a whole different set of skills, in my dirt classroom.

This is the beginning of my little story.



BRISBANE TO BOULIA

Growing up in Queensland, Australia, in the rural outskirts of Brisbane was great! The lifestyle provided a nice mix of being close enough to the city and all its amenities and being fortunate enough to live right on the doorstep of a big forest, where it was possible to lose yourself for a few days surrounded by bush. Most afternoons during the school week, I would fill in the remaining hours of daylight by tearing around the old logging tracks on my dirt bike or exploring the hidden gullies and untouched bushland that surrounded our house. As the light faded, I would find my way back home to a dose of western movies and stories of drovers and stockmen from Australian history.

During school holidays, our family would normally travel to the farms or cattle properties of various friends or relatives located throughout Queensland and New South Wales. During these trips we would offer to help out around the farm, however, the real purpose of our visit would be to hunt the various feral pests that were destroying the Australian environment and our farming lands. At night around the camp fire, my father would tell stories of his time living with remote Aboriginal tribes in the far north of Australia and Mum would talk about her time building and running remote hospitals in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), also of the pirates and warring tribes that inhabited the area at the time. She told us that some nights when it was thought that the pirates might raid the villages, the men would light fires along the beaches and patrol the shoreline with their clubs and homemade blunderbuss shotguns, and the women would run and hide up in the jungle and caves until the all-clear was given.

My late mother was a midwife. Fifty years later, our family are still friends with some of the babes that Mum helped deliver all those years ago.

When I was still quite young, perhaps eight years old, I remember one Christmas holidays flying in a small single-prop plane to Alexandria Station located in the Northern Territory. It was, and I think it still is, one of the biggest cattle stations in the world. The insight into that way of life and the interesting characters who worked way out there was fascinating to me at the time and the whole experience stayed with me for a long time after we left.

All these little adventures out bush naturally led my interests to veer westward, towards the life of a stockman. The bonus of this career choice was that I didn’t have to finish high school! I wasn’t necessarily bad at school, just disinterested. I thought that most of what was being taught was a waste of time. For me anyway. So as grade ten loomed, I made up my mind and then for the next year, paid just enough attention in class to get the result that I was aiming for. An overall final mark of C-!

This was just enough to get me over the line and obtain my Grade 10 Junior Certificate. (Later, I was happy I’d achieved this because it was the minimum requirement that the military needed at the time.) With absolutely no skills or qualifications, I was ready to leave high school. After saying goodbye to all my jealous school friends, and with a few parting words of encouragement from some of the teachers such as, “You might get a job at a servo” and “I hope you can flip burgers”, I was out that gate and didn’t look back.

Later that afternoon, when I arrived back home, I was fully motivated after my parting words of encouragement at school, so I quickly completed the yearly ritual of burning my old school books. Then I set about obtaining employment application forms from the bigger pastoral companies and western cattle barons. A few days later they began to arrive in the mail, and in my neatest chicken-scratch handwriting, I began filling them in without a moment to lose. These forms generally consisted of one A4 page divided into two sections. In the first section I had to fill in my name, age, date of birth and tax file number. The second section was something like, qualifications, past experience, previous employment, referees, etc. With my trusty black pen, I scrawled my favourite two letters N/A (even though I probably didn’t even know what they actually meant). “Too easy,” I thought. “I’ve got this in the bag,” as I slipped those reply-paid envelopes into the mailbox and awaited a reply.

Luckily for me, there must have been a shortage of high school dropout positions, or positions for staff at the bottom rung of the cattle station ladder. Because in no time flat, I received a reply with an offer of employment. The lofty position of ‘First Year Jackaroo’ and at one of the biggest and most remote cattle stations I could possibly have found. I remember thinking, “Not much, but it’s a start,” and I was happy with that. For those who don’t know, a jackaroo refers to blokes who work on a sheep or cattle station to gain experience.

The night before I was due to leave, I rolled up my canvas swag for the first time and boiled the electric jug. As the steam filled the air, I held my brand-new Akubra Arena hat over the hot steam and moulded a nice bash into the crown of the hat. Once that hot fur cooled, it would keep its original design no matter what I did to it.

The next morning, I was off. Nearly. I got a lift into the Brisbane transit centre with the folks and after a few tears from Mum, I was finally off, boarding a McCafferty’s coach for the long ride out to the far-western Queensland town of Boulia and the unknown.

Arriving at Boulia about 28 hours later, I immediately noticed a big sign that read, ‘Welcome to Boulia, Min Min light country’. I had never heard of the Min Min light before, and wondered what it meant. Looking at the sign more closely, I read, ‘This unsolved modern mystery is a light that at times follows travellers for long distances. It has been approached but never identified.’ I found out later that the Min Min lights were named after the small settlement of Min Min between the Outback towns of Boulia and Winton, where the light was noticed by a stockman in 1918.

My joining instruction from the cattle station was fairly simple: “Go to the pub and wait, someone will be along to collect you, at some stage!”

Luckily, there was only one pub in town, which some original free-thinker had named ‘The Australian Hotel’.

Carrying my swag and a small bag over my shoulder, I settled down in the corner of the pub and began my wait. Sitting there on my lonesome I felt way out of place with my brand-new everything, and I’m sure I was the butt of a few jokes from the crusty old stockmen, known as ‘ringers’, hanging around the bar. There wasn’t much liquor licensing enforcement in those days, and some of the old-timers kept a steady supply of mid-strength beers coming my way, after a bit of cash changed hands. I’m sure they thought it would be the funniest thing to happen all year if they could get the young jackaroo drunk before his lift arrived. Unfortunately for them, I’d had my drinking boots on for a little while by then and could hold my own (up to a point). The beers and the conversation with those old alcoholic ringers helped the afternoon slip by nicely, and it didn’t feel like long before the standard issue white LandCruiser utility (ute) pulled up at the front of the pub. I said my goodbyes and best of lucks to the bar folk, and with the slightest stagger I walked out to introduce myself to the driver of the cruiser. As the driver got out and shook my hand, he introduced himself as Banjo and said he was the head stockman.

I threw my swag in the back of the ute and stole another glance at Banjo, who was now climbing back in behind the wheel. I was thinking, “Is he named Banjo after that young hillbilly banjo-playing kid at the start of Deliverance? I hope not!” There was no time to lose, and with the sound of banjos playing in my head, we were soon chasing the setting sun, heading west down the Donohue Highway.



THE HIGHWAY

After a couple of hours of solid driving, I was definitely feeling the effects of the last few days and with the hum of the motor and the gentle rocking of the vehicle, I was struggling to stay awake. We seemed to be about as far west as you can get in Queensland and as far from nowhere as possible. Looking out the window, all I could see were flat, empty, red dirt plains in all directions.

This dirt track, that reaches from Boulia to the Northern Territory border and beyond, is called a highway and it is in name only. The reality is that the Donohue Highway is several hundred kilometres of thick bulldust and washouts, caused by heavy rain sometime in the past. In the past, because now, it hardly ever rains. Bulldust is a fine, powdery, red dust found in the desert regions of Australia.

After bumping along it for a few hours, I decided that whoever had called it a highway needed a good poke in the eye.

The sun had finally set below the horizon, after throwing golden fingers across the western sky. Sunsets always take forever out here, where there is nothing but flat plains to the horizon, and plenty of dust in the air to catch the last rays of light. As the night settled in, I noticed that our LandCruiser was starting to lose acceleration and we began to drop speed quickly in the thick bulldust.

I looked over at Banjo and noticed that he was looking out his window and into the dark night. There’s not much point pulling over to the side of the road on this highway, and our vehicle soon came to a stop in the middle of the road.

Banjo began pointing out into the night sky, and my eyes followed his finger. After a second he said, “There! Do you see them?” That was when the two lights slowly came into my focus and I began to distinguish two lantern-sized lights moving along the open grass plains. It was difficult to determine how far out they were, because there isn’t anything else to use as a reference point on this flat expanse of land, but at a good guess, I’d say a couple of hundred metres out. As I looked closer, I noticed two globes of light cruising across the emptiness, sometimes changing direction and height, but remaining fairly constant. Banjo then said to no one in particular, “Min Min lights.”

After watching for a few minutes, Banjo put the Cruiser into gear and off we went once again.

It was about then that I remembered the conversation with the old guys back at the pub that afternoon. For some reason the subject had turned to the Min Min light. The general consensus of the old drunks was that the Min Min light was just a poor old emu with a Dolphin torch stuck up its arse. Now after seeing the lights for myself, I decided that the emu theory was still possible but probably not the most likely. For one thing, emus don’t normally run at night, and secondly, a Dolphin torch is way too big for a poor old emu to manage. Little did I know that this wouldn’t be my only brush with the Australian ghost light.



FLOOD

We arrived at the station later that night and after a quick look around, I made my bed in the big multi-roomed workers’ quarters. I was the only person in the big dorm-style building, as the mustering season was not due to start for a few weeks, at which time the other stockmen would arrive back after their annual Christmas break.

Waking early the next morning (way earlier than I was used to), I made my way half-asleep to where I thought the kitchen was located, and hopefully where I’d find some form of caffeine. Upon arrival, I noticed that the owner and Banjo were already up, and were having an animated conversation together. All I could pick up was something about rising water and being flooded in. Banjo looked up and upon seeing me, said something about having a sleep-in. He then got up and asked me to go for a walk with him to see something.

We made our way back out the kitchen door, and began walking between the surrounding buildings towards the boundary of the homestead where the bush began. As we got closer to where the homestead clearing ended, I began to see muddy water, and then looking up, saw that a whole lake was forming in front of me, stretching out as far as I could see. We then began to walk clockwise along the edge of the water. It wasn’t long before I realised that the three of us were stranded on about two acres of land, in the middle of an inland sea. As a fresh young 16-year-old straight from the city, I thought, “This is just great, on a property nearly the size of Wales, I’m stuck with these two on what’s basically a little pimple island.” The owner looked angry all the time and didn’t talk much, and the head stockman looked at me too often in a way that made me uncomfortable (I would later learn in sexual harassment training that this was called ‘leering’ and was frowned upon in workplace environments). So, starting to feel very alone and vulnerable, I thought, “I’d better double-check the lock on my bedroom door tonight, and maybe even pull my bed up against it so it can’t open inwards.”

Finally, back at the kitchen and while sipping my coffee with condensed milk, I learned that in this part of Australia called the Channel Country, it can rain hundreds of kilometres away to the north. The floodwaters will slowly (or fast in this case), make their way down through the various channels, creek beds and over the flood plains until, here we are. Surrounded by water, without a drop of rain.

Over the next several weeks of being flooded in, apart from the owner getting me to mow dirt with the lawn mower, my main job involved walking down to the water and placing a rock or marker on its edge to indicate if the water was rising or falling. After my determination, I was then to report directly back to him with the findings.

The station was set up to be fairly self-sufficient. It had a large store and a diesel generator for power, and there was a bore set up for fresh water. Being in the desert, that water was crystal clear from the sand filtering. Because of the fact that we were so remote, there was a distinct lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, however as it turned out, this didn’t really matter because the only thing that was cooked was steak. Steak and onion gravy for breakfast, steak sandwiches for lunch and a double helping of steak for dinner. This was great, I loved steak, but something troubled me deep down inside. My mother’s voice in the back of my head kept saying, “Where are the vegetables? Your body needs vegetables.” “Thanks Mum,” I thought, “these guys have been living out here all their lives, I’m sure they know what’s going on.”

At night, the generator ran until about 9 pm or whenever the boss wanted to go to bed. As the motor slowly died, so did the electricity and lights and the night became silent and black, without the glare of any city lights. I was to discover that at this time of year, and under these circumstances, any type of light that was turned on caused thousands of small black bugs to immediately swarm the area. These bugs would completely block out whatever light there was and make life very miserable. Although there were fly screens on all the windows of my quarters, they didn’t seem to help. Those little black suckers seemed to somehow find a way in.

Resting in bed at night, the choices were simple: sweat under a blanket or alternatively, drift off to sleep with the feeling of hundreds of little sharp insect feet crawling up and down your body all night.

I kept this routine up for several weeks. Check the water level, have a steak and coffee for breakfast, mow some dirt, sweep the shed out (because it’s now dusty from the mower), check the water level, have a steak for lunch with sweet tea, mow some dirt, sweep the shed out again. Check the water level, then it’s steak for dinner. Sit in the dark for a few hours, double-check the doors are locked, and then off to bed. Wake up early and repeat.

My sanity was just hanging in there by a thread when finally, the flood waters began to recede enough to allow vehicles to start moving about the property. At last! More people began to arrive and the new faces saved me both from my own mind, as well as the uncomfortable social situation with my two companions.



FIRST MUSTER

The mustering season was kicking off to a good start in mid-February. The flood waters had soaked the ground, allowing long-dried-out earth to come to life, going from dead red to alive green nearly overnight. All the ringers had arrived, and everyone was getting acquainted or catching up with old friends from the year before. The day of the first muster we were up earlier than usual (extra early). After loading the bikes on the trailer, we all climbed into the back of the ute that was pulling the trailer out to the location of the first muster. Everyone had seemed to find particular spots in the tray of the ute and I was delighted to find a nice looking drum to sit on for the drive out.

As I sat down, I suddenly felt something wet soak through my Wrangler jeans. I thought to myself that a bit of water was a small price to pay for such a great seat. The day was about to go downhill fast. After bumping along in the back of the ute for a time, I started to feel a really strong burning sensation all over my arse that seemed to be getting worse by the minute. I slowly stood up, all the while attempting to keep my balance in the moving vehicle, and then took a closer look at my ‘great seat’. Firstly, I noticed it was a petrol can, next I noticed that it had a dodgy lid that allowed a tiny bit of fuel to slosh up and out every time the vehicle hit a bump, which was about every second. I stood the remainder of the way trying not to fall out the back of the ute, and at the same time dealing with a literal pain in the arse. I had no idea what the effects would be and had images of burnt skin peeling off when I finally undressed. The burning sensation lasted all day, but luckily I kept my skin.

I knew we had arrived at the paddock we were going to muster when the ute stopped and everyone began unloading their dirt bikes from the trailer. That was about where my understanding of mustering stopped. I had no idea what was going on. I managed to get my four-stroke DR350 off the bike trailer and started to look around at everyone else. The head stockman walked past and mentioned something like, “Monkey see, monkey do,” to me and that confused me even more. “What’s a monkey got to do with anything?” I wondered.

I had been given an A4 printed map of the station when I had first arrived. The map also had the paddock and dam names which had been written on it in pen. Early on, before we started the mustering season, I had been expected to have a reasonable understanding of the layout of the station. Looking at something and knowing something are two totally different things, and now realising I had no idea where I was, I had that map out studying it as if my life depended on it, or as if I was about to go riding out in the desert by myself with no supplies.

Soon we heard the sound of a plane in the distance, and it was time to saddle up and head out. The plane above us had UHF radio communications with every bike. Each bike could also communicate with the other bikes. As the plane spotted a mob of cattle, the pilot would radio through what he had discovered, and off a bike would go. The pilot would normally say something like, “Thirty head just off my left wing, now!” So the rider had a fairly good idea where to start looking and how many cattle to expect. Soon it was just me and Banjo alone together, again. As another call came through on the radio, I knew I was up. I quickly confirmed our final destination by asking Banjo again where we were taking our individual mobs of cattle. He looked me in the eye and said, “Once you get your mob of cattle together, walk them to the Toro waterhole where we will all meet up.” Giving a nod of understanding, I strapped on my helmet, hit the decompression lever on the bike, and gave the kick-start two sharp kicks. At least I was comfortable on a bike, after growing up tearing around that forest back home. The four-stroke motor and chunky tyres made a big rooster tail in the dust as I put the hammer down. As I turned the first corner of the track and headed out of sight of Banjo, I came to a quick stop using a combination of front and rear brakes. Pulling out that trusty map from under my t-shirt, I thought to myself, “Where the hell is this Toro waterhole?” Finally satisfied, I tucked my new best friend back into the top of my t-shirt, looked around the sky for the plane and was off again.

Riding through the soft red sand out there required a slight change in riding style. You had to slide your bum back on the seat of the bike a lot further than usual, trying to keep as much weight off the front wheel as possible, and finally the more speed the better. This type of riding also required you to look up in the distance to where you wanted to finally end up, and there was a saying ‘look down, and you go down’. A short time later, I arrived under the plane feeling as if I had just participated in some type of desert bike endurance race. Under the instruction of the pilot circling above, I quickly found the mob of cattle and got around them to head them off. I circled them a few times from a distance, just to let them know that they were now under my control, and then slowly began pushing them in the direction of the Toro waterhole.

After a couple of hours of happily idling along behind my little mob of 20 or so cattle, I received a call on the UHF, “Casper, this is Banjo.” I don’t know how I got that name, maybe from my interest in the Min Min lights or something. I replied, “Go ahead Banjo.” “Casper, how are you going with your cattle?” “Good,” I replied, “I’m nearly at the Toro waterhole, maybe a couple of ks away”.

After a brief silence, Banjo got back on the radio, cursing at me. “I fucking told you this morning to take them to the Black Duck waterhole!” Finding my sweat-soaked map, I quickly looked at the map and noticed that the Black Duck waterhole was at the opposite end of the paddock, and completely in the wrong direction from where I had been headed. Getting on the radio again all I could say was, “Copy that, turning around now.” And that is what I did.

Banjo gave me the wrong information but HE never owned up to it. With everyone, including the station manager, listening in to the muster on the UHF radio, he couldn’t bring himself to admit that he had told me the wrong information. It was easier to let everyone think that the new guy had stuffed up.

After turning those beasts around, I began riding back the way we had just come. I’m sure the cattle gave me a look as if to say, “Where are we going now, dickhead?” It wasn’t until way later than expected that my dusty cattle and I turned up to where everyone else was waiting. Everyone was annoyed with the new guy, and all I could do was grit my teeth and apologise. A few guys started to call me Coo-ee, after the famous Australian call you make when you’re lost, but luckily it didn’t stick.

From that day on, I always confirmed important information over the radio so that everyone could hear the reply and then there could be no denials about what was said later.



MIN MIN ROUND 2

Our stock camp for the next few nights was about as far west as you could get on the property and in Queensland, right at the foot of a rocky ridge line called the Toko Range. We were on the edge of the Simpson Desert. It was coming into winter and surprisingly, some of the nights were bitterly cold and even colder just before dawn.

One of the first jobs in the early morning was to crack the ice on the water troughs so that the cattle could drink. That is how cold it can get in the middle of Australia. It was also around this time that there were reports coming through of snow falling at Alice Springs.

The second and probably most important job in the morning was to get a billy of tea brewing. The process was to throw some dry timber onto the hot coals smouldering in the fire, then get down really low until your face was centimetres from the coals, and gently blow on them until the wood reached the temperature of auto combustion and the hot coals slowly heated up to become small flames, which then quickly grew. One of the rules was to avoid using a match or lighter to get the fire going unless absolutely necessary. There was a story going round of a stockman being fired on the spot for wasting a match to light his smoke while he was sitting around a perfectly good fire. After boiling the water in the billy, the standard measurement of one handful of loose tea leaves per billy was thrown in on top of the boiling water, as if you were angry at it. After a few seconds of boiling it all together, the billy was removed from the heat and a little sprinkling of cold water was dribbled on top. The cold water somehow caused the loose tea leaves to settle to the bottom of the billy, and then you were set. Although the method of swinging a billy can around your head using centrifugal force to settle the tea can also be used for the purpose of settling the tea, I never once saw anyone do it that way. Maybe the only time anyone would do it would be if they were trying to impress a tourist on an Outback tourist camp.

Out on stock camp, we slept traditional style in our canvas swags on the ground, covered in thick woollen horse blankets and wearing a beany to help keep the poor old head warm. During the night, little critters would seek out our body heat and it wouldn’t be uncommon to find big scorpions under the swag. For this reason, and of course the snakes, spiders, centipedes and ants, swags were always rolled up tightly when you weren’t sleeping in them. For the same reason, boots were always checked before sticking your foot in them, a habit I’ve kept to this day.

One of my most uncomfortable nights occurred at this camp. One fine evening in the middle of a lovely deep sleep, I awoke to a searing pain in my back. It was like being stabbed by a hot poker. Bang! This was followed quickly by two more painful hits. Immediately awake, I was thinking, “If this is a brown snake I’m dead already, I might as well roll my swag up and sit back against a tree.” With trepidation, I reached down and felt something long and thin. Thank god, only a huge centipede with all its little legs clawing at my skin. As I grabbed it, the sucker bit my hand. Automatically flicking my hand, I lost the vile creature somewhere in my blankets. This of course caused me to jump up and do a crazy little dance for a few seconds. I knew I had to find it, or I would be standing in the cold for the rest of the night. I didn’t have a torch or any source of light handy, so I spent the next ten minutes or so in the dark flicking out every blanket, then emptying the swag then my pillow, before gingerly lying back down expecting at any minute to get another shot of poison. Sleep wasn’t to come due to the pain from the bites, although after a few hours this slowly died down. However, the poison in my system left me feeling sick and nauseated. When I eventually drifted off to sleep, I experienced some of the trippiest LSD style dreams I could ever imagine.

Sleep is a necessity when you’re out in the sun all day working cattle, and by the end of the next day I was craving a good night’s rest to recuperate. But a good sleep just wasn’t to come.

The next afternoon, after dinner was taken care of and everything had been cleaned up, I quickly finished our traditional after-dinner coffee around the fire and headed to the swag.

Most of the guys normally set up their swags and mini camps out from main camp a bit, away from the firelight. Sometimes, young guys just need to be alone. This was preferably next to a small bush or log that acted as a natural clothes hanger, where towels and spare clothes were flung to dry and stay out of the dirt.

After rolling out my swag and sliding deep into my blankets, I was quickly overtaken by blissful exhaustion-induced sleep. I calculated that I had only been out for a few moments, because when I suddenly awoke for some reason, the stars above me seemed to be in a similar position as to when I had gone to sleep. I found myself staring out into the gidgee scrub. Gidgee is a type of tree with an extremely hard wood and is said to be the second hottest burning wood in the world. As I looked out into the darkness, I noticed two balls of light moving through the scrub about half a football field away from me. These balls were about the size of a big hurricane lantern but with a more intense light. They appeared to be a few metres apart but also seemed to be in unison as they floated between the trees, sometimes coming closer and sometimes retreating.

Feeling very alone, I called out to Brolga who was the closest to me and asked something to the effect of, “Hey Brolga, can you fucking see that?” He replied that he could and had been watching them for a while, and that was all we needed to say about it.

Satisfied that at least someone else was confirming what I was seeing, and that I wasn’t still suffering from that good centipede LSD, I lay there quietly for what seemed like hours watching those balls of light in the scrub and hoping that they didn’t come too close. At some stage in the early morning, exhaustion finally overcame me and I began to drift off to sleep.

Out in the desert spinifex country, the days were longer than most as the paddocks were bigger and distances to walk the cattle to the yards and water further. After flying around all morning rounding up the cattle, we finally settled into a slow afternoon of walking the cattle to the yards.


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