Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Riding With The Stockmen

It was of course nice to see my father again after a year and a half and it would be good to spend "quality time" with him. However I would, by necessity, have to change my way of travelling to accommodate him somewhat, as it would be hard to expect someone in their late 60's to hitchhike and sleep rough, which would have been my first resort if left to my own devices, out of necessity if nothing else (Australia was already expensive seven years ago when I was first here, but since then the Aussie dollar has appreciated in value by about 40%, whilst prices have simultaneously gone up too, on the back of a gigantic natural resources boom, so that a simple overnight bus trip now costs more than my entire monthly budget in most Asian countries). The first thing that needed to be decided was transport: how are we going to get about this not insignificant country. Since flying was out of the question some sort of vehicle was in order. We weighed the pros and cons of renting and buying and decided upon buying our own vehicle, judging it might work out a little cheaper and, more importantly, give us more freedom and flexibility. It is a dream of many to buy a van, to be fully self-sufficient, and head off into the wild blue yonder. The reality though was that most of the vans for travellers on sale were either wildly overpriced or in such poor mechanical condition that arrival at our intended destination was akin to a spin of Russian roulette. So after discarding the poor pickings of Darwin's van offerings we expanded our search to estate cars (station wagons) in which it would be possible, at a pinch, to sleep in the back. Here the selection was far greater and of better value as it was aimed towards a more discerning, local market, rather than gullible backpackers. And within a day we had found ourselves a 2001, 4 litre Ford Falcon (a decidedly Aussie model not found anywhere else) that had been converted to run on LPG (thereby hopefully reducing our upcoming running costs).

With our trusty car, just before setting off, that, in flagrant contravention of Aussie backpacker tradition, we have neither painted with flowers nor given a name to.

The next day I went down to the vehicle registration office where I was told that my papers were not enough for registration and that I needed to show a permanent Australian address (and that the letter from my host in Darwin wasn't enough).  So I had to go through the bizarre process of opening a local bank account (Australian banks are not as picky as the state vehicle registration office) whose sole purpose was to give me an official-looking piece of paper with both my name and a local address on it. I didn't even need to deposit any money to create the account and also got an Australian bank card into the bargain. So armed I could return and finally sign the papers that granted me official ownership of the car, which, oddly enough, is the first car I have ever owned.

An all-too familiar sight on the roads of Australia's Outback. This kangaroo really shouldn't have crossed the road (at least not in front of the road train).

The rest of the day was spent kitting out our new ride with all the requisite equipment for a cross-continental road trip, such as a mattress, stove, cutlery and plenty of other odds and sods. So prepared we were ready for anything Australia was going to throw our way (or at least so we hoped). The next morning we finally set off on our road trip. I may have mentioned it before but I'll say it again: Australia is a very large country, and nothing reinforces that more than having to drive across it. The initial plan had been to drive down to Uluru before backtracking a bit and heading northeast to the Pacific coast, but we had a deadline to keep and so had to scratch the iconic rock from our inventory (it's strange that, despite this abundance of time that I have taken for this trip I still acutely feel the pressure of time and realise that I will not get to see and do everything I set out to) We compensated though by paying a visit to my father's penfriend, with whom he has been writing since he was a teenager in Czechoslovakia back in 1960. Not necessarily interesting for me, except that she and her husband run a cattle station in the heart of the Queensland outback near the town of Longreach. But before we got there we had three days of driving.

Posing with a road train. When you see these coming you just get out of the way as they take longer to stop than supertankers and with their giant bull bars and considerable inertia they make mincemeat of anything in their way, even a herd of cattle.

From the sparse jungle of Top End to the dry ranchland of western Queensland the landscape gradually changed much like it does with altitude as you go up a mountain, but instead here it was latitude, In the road I realised I was noticing and remarking upon the same things that had impressed me the first time I was in Australia: the rich, saturated colours of the outback (red earth, green plants, white tree trunks and blue sky); the giant termite mounds littering the countryside (the north of Australia especially has no large herbivores, instead it is the termites that mow Mother Nature's lawn); the gargantuan road trains with four or five trailers that rule the roads; and the flies that refuse to give up and cause interminable irritation by wanting to craw into your nose, mouth and ears; and the multitude of marsupial roadkill, heralded in the distance by circling carrion birds. These were among my most vivid images of Australia and it seems that they will remain so.

The outback flies are legion and persistent.

Adrienne (my father's penpal) and her husband Bernie might be getting on a bit, but they are still admirably capable of taking care of a station of some 28,000 hectares and with close to a thousand merino sheep and four hundred head of mostly Brangus cattle (a cross between an Indian Brahman and Aberdeen Angus to give an animal that can cope with the hot, tick-infested environment whilst producing more meat) in country that is relatively harsh and barren. We came at a quiet period in the farming calendar, between lambing and shearing, so there was less activity, but it was still fascinating to be taken around and explained the finer points of animal husbandry. A lifetime of experience coupled with Bernie's natural loquacious tendencies meant there was always some minor detail, fact or anecdote to be shared in his colourful rendition of Strine  where the expression fair dinkum is used genuinely with no hint of irony whatsoever, and mob is a catch-all collective noun for pretty much anything. He has an easy way of making everything sound interesting, although my abiding impression will be that half of all you need to know about raising sheep and cattle is the minutiae of different grasses and their particularities, attributes and uses. Longreach is in the heart of Australia's stock country, which has its own distinct culture within the post-colonial mosaic of modern Australia. The stockman's world is similar to that of the American cowboy (since they essentially do the same job) with rodeos, wide-brimmed hats, a certain simple machismo that comes from living on a frontier, though also more heavily flavoured by Aboriginal and British roots. Despite being quintessentially Australian it's not a common stereotype to think of. The Stockman Hall of Fame in Longreach (this town of only 2000 souls is home to two of Australia's most important museums: the Stockman Hall of Fame as well as the Qantas Founders Museum - not many towns that size have a jumbo jet parked in the yard) tells the story of the ranchers and explorers who tamed the Australian outback. I found it particularly fascinating as it's a colonial narrative that is no longer very politically correct,: the stories of pioneering people of uncharacteristic fortitude who overcame great obstacles to tame a wild and virgin land (OK, so there were some natives, but they don't count, right?)

Bernie expounds on the relative merits of Australian bush grass versus South African varieties to my enthralled father.

The stockman's life is by no means easy (although recent technological advances, such as helicopter mustering, walkie-talkies, internet and so on have made it more efficient) and I certainly don't envy them their lot, but it does have a certain allure and romanticism of a bygone, simpler way of life.

Even in the arid outback it is possible to find verdant oases of radiant beauty, such as here at Lawn Hill Gorge, which are all the more beautiful for the contrast.

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