Sometimes opportunities come up that ya just have to take.
Via a very unusual set of circumstances I ended up on a cattle muster at Carlo Station on the border of Queensland and the Northern Territory, backing onto the Simpson Desert.
Ge-off Cochrane had a picture of his bullock team in the Downunder magazine Spring edition, the same edition that I had a story on The Drover. Ge-off was taken by my story and like many others, called up to purchase the book. When the book arrived in the mail, he promptly called me up to thank me and say how amazed he was with the story and my photography.
He then asked if I would come and photograph the muster at Carlo Station. I said sure, ‘when does it happen’ to which he responded, ‘not until June next year’ (it was November of 2014 at this point). I said Ge-off, I don’t know where I am from day to day, let alone next June! Give me a call when the time is near and I will see what I am up to.
I put down the phone and thought nothing of the call. Figuring I would never hear from him again. But in May this year, Ge-off called up.
‘It’s Ge-off Cochrane speaking Alice, I don’t know if you remember me but I ordered your book last year and asked you if you would come and photograph a muster in the territory with us.‘
'Yes I remember Ge-off, how are you?’ Slightly taken back that the old guy had called me back 7 months later!
‘Well, would you like to come?’ he said.
'Sure, why not, I don’t have anything on next week that I can't move'.
So I met Ge-off at McDonalds in Roma for a coffee and we set off the next day with Mary and Lindsay Birchley from Eidsvold and Bryce Jensen from Monto, a family Ge-off had been doing some voluntary mustering for the week before.
We had many stops along the way where Ge-off told us all about the history of the country, the trees, plants, animals, and rock formations. He had roamed this country many times over the last 6 years.
One of the stops was not a scheduled one, and in my new land cruiser, was not a welcomed one. But Ge-off passed me to lead the way and scare away the kangaroos as night fell, and as he passed me, an emu came out of nowhere, ran between us then came back out, narrowly missing me and went behind my car! How it didn’t hit me, I will never know. But from then on I had my eyes pealed.
That night we camped under the stars at Windorah. But not until after we had a hearty bush dinner at the local pub. Before we left to make camp just on the outskirts of town, we arranged for the cook to come in the next morning and make us breakfast and allow us to have a hot shower.
We headed out of town and I spotted many good places to stop for the night, but Ge-off kept driving until he found a dead tree he could push over with the bulbar on his ute and make a fire with it. It wasn’t that cold, but I sure did appreciate it in the morning when it was a lot fresher. We boiled the billy, had a cup of tea and then it was lights out.
The next leg of the trip was 400km of gravel, so we had to keep our distance from each other so we could see where we were going. Ge-off pulled up at a flock of eagles feasting on a dead roo and I got some great photographs of them protecting their meal.
By mid day we got to Bedourie where we met more of the crew travelling to the station, friends of Ge-off’s from NSW. We had a bite to eat at the pub and a few cold ales before fueling up and driving the last 200km out to the station.
Ron Graham from Numbaa, Reg Ryan from Berry and Alfonso Esposito from Wollongong became part of the convoy as we bounced down a dirt track which seemed to lead to the never never and looked like it hadn’t had a vehicle on it in years. I was sure this old guy was leading us to a point of no return.
We check out an old set of Kidman yards on the way, and some old bronco branding yards. We got on a hot pursuit after a wild pig, checked out a mud spring and some Brolgas that were living there and even saw some camels in the distance.
After all this sight seeing and stops to hear Ge-off tell us about the country and the native history we made it to the station just on dark.
The homestead had burnt down years ago and rather than rebuilding they decided to put a number of dongas out there.
The station is 530,000 acres and has been owned by Bruce Semple for the last ten years. It backs onto the Simpson Desert and adjacent properties are nature reserves- Cravens Peak and Ethabooka.
Bruce runs Carlo Station as a breeding unit and has 1200 breeders plus their progeny on the property. He has a finishing property at Dysart, which is 13,300 acres and carts all the weaners back there to finish them.
There were already a number of crew at the station to greet us when we got there. Bruce had employed two back packers, Alex Handel from Leipzing, Germany and Numa Cabot from France. To them, this was an experience of a lifetime that their family and friends back home would not even comprehend.
Bruce also brought out some men who had worked for him over the years, but were now retired. They loved to come back each year for the muster as they never could quite let the bush life go completely.
David Mc Carthy of Koomala. And Eddy Zimmermann from Green Hill had been bulldozer drivers and engineers respectively for Bruce in the past. But this year, the bulldozer was broken so David took on the role of chief cook. And a good cook he was.
We had a day to spare before the muster started so we packed a lunch and went on a tour around the station in pursuit of camels, dingos, pigs and anything else that moved!
We checked out the date palms that seemed very out of place plonked in the middle of the desert with a spring not too far from them.
We saw many wild life and got some great photos of camels. We got stuck a number of times, and even had two flat tyres, but with a handy bunch of men in the vehicles it didn’t hold us up for long.
We went out over some sand dunes into the Simpson desert and we got airborne over a dune which saw all our bums leave the seat, heads hit the roof before we landed again…..with me landing on my stainless steel coffee cup, denting the cup and badly bruising my tail bone. Sitting for the rest of the week was rather awkward!
When we got back to camp that night the helicopter pilot had arrived. Ben Speed is a commercial pilot and spends 6 months of the year mustering cattle in Qld and the territory. The other 6 months he spends working on his family property, Tobermorey which neighbors’ Carlo Station.
Everyone had an opportunity to go for a fly with Ben and see the desert from the air, which is a little mind blowing at first, but after a while it gets a little boring to look at. And the cattle look like ants when you are up there.
Each morning we would travel out on bikes, or in utes to start the days mustering. After the first morning and realizing how cold it was, the proceeding mornings was a bit of a rush to get in the ute as opposed to the bikes!
We lit a fire to warm up when we got out there and waited for everyone to arrive. Ben would fly someone out and one would think that being in a helicopter with no doors would be even colder, but we flew in the little layer of warm air not far off the earths surface. There were over 160 sand dunes to scale to get to the back of the property, which was not signified by a boundary fence, but the fact that cattle had not gone beyond that point before so that’s where they started the muster!
Horses were not able to be used out there as they had no way of transporting them out to the back of the station, and the country is so vast and watering holes so far apart that they could not cover the country to do an effective job.
The helicopter would muster all the cattle from north and south of the main track back to the track where we waited and we would walk them east 10 or 20km per day back towards the yards.
Each day we would lock the cattle in the yard which had a bore in it so they had water over night.
Bruce had spent a fair amount of time upgrading the bores over the years. Once upon a time they were all diesel operated, but this was a costly way of pumping water. So Bruce replaced all the diesel engines with solar panels. – With cloudless skies nearly all year round, sunshine was plentiful.
Ge-off’s job was to control the lead of the mob. As there were plenty of new born calves amongst the herd, he had to prevent the mob from stringing out too far. Alex and Numa who were on two wheeled motor bikes kept the cattle from going off the track, and those of us at the rear often picked up poddy calves and gave them a free ride on a bike as their little legs couldn’t keep up.
Ben would often radio up to tell us there were cattle to the north or south of us and someone would go out on a bike to bring them in.
A few passengers got air sick in the chopper, and a few were a little scared when he ducked and weaved through the trees after rogue cattle. But I couldn’t get enough of it, and I put my life in the hands of the seat belt that strapped me in and I spent most of my time hanging out the window taking photos. My favourite of course, was the dingo I spotted on the run.
I had to leave the station the day before they got the cattle in to the yards as I had speaking commitments back in Brisbane, but I look back at the trip and think how lucky was I to see such a special part of Australia. And what an odd set of circumstances to end up on such an amazing trip - all thanks to the Downunder magazine.