Advance Australia! Chapter 5

Life in the Bush

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Soon after his arrival, Finch-Hatton joined the station workers on the job as they mustered cattle for sale. A description of the station, working alone, two horrible deaths, mustering cattle, stockmen, drafting the cattle, droving cattle.

A description of Mount Spencer station:

Mount Spencer country consisted of three runs adjoining each other, known respectively as Mount Spencer, Haslewood, and Blue Mountain. The whole area was nearly 400 square miles, capable of carrying over 20,000 head of cattle in any season; but when I first went there, there were not above 12,000. Though some parts of the run were very rough riding, it was all very good cattle country, and wonderfully well watered. Numbers of large creeks ran in every direction, and large water-holes were scattered all over the run, so that it hardly suffered at all in the severest drought. The cattle were a very well-bred herd, and the grass was first-rate, so they fattened splendidly. The head station was at Mount Spencer, and the adjoining run was kept principally for a breeding station. At Haslewood there was another station, with yards and paddocks, and the run was fenced off from Mount Spencer by a line of fence twelve miles long, and was used with Blue Mountain run for a fattening station for bullocks. At Blue Mountain there was a small hut, a horse paddock, and stockyard, and at the far end of Mount Spencer run was another small hut, used for camping out, and a sapling yard for yarding cattle at night, when it was too late to take them to the head station.

Dangers of working alone:

In rough country, such as the coast of Queensland, no one ought ever to ride about the run alone. While riding hard after cattle through the long grass, it is impossible to avoid a nasty fall occasionally; and if a man were to be crippled away in the Bush, and unable to ride or walk home, it is a thousand to one if he would ever be found before a miserable death had overtaken him. Considering the number of men who every day of their lives make a practice of riding about the Bush quite alone, it is astonishing that more of them do not come to grief. But the annals of the country contain ghastly records of the horrible death of solitary riders who have met with an accident, and been rendered helpless, and many an unfortunate being has disappeared entirely, without leaving a trace of his fate.

Finch-Hatton tells of two men who met grisly fates while working alone in the bush:

Not far from Mount Spencer run, a man came to his end a few years ago, in a manner that is almost unique in horror. He was away riding by himself in the Bush, and his horse threw him, injuring his spine in the fall, so that he was quite powerless to move. Close to where he fell was an enormous ants' nest, and when he was found three days afterwards he was half eaten by millions of ants. He was still conscious, but unable to speak, and died very shortly afterwards. It is impossible to imagine a more terrible death than to lie paralysed and helpless, to the agony of intolerable thirst being added the torture of being eaten alive by crawling insects.

If any parallel could be found for the awfulness of such a fate, it would be in the case of a man who was burned to death by a tree which fell on him. He was working by himself, several miles away from anywhere, and a burning tree fell on him, pinning him to the ground, without doing him any serious injury. The tree was alight at the butt end, some thirty feet away from where he lay; but it is a peculiarity of some sorts of Australian trees that when once they are set on fire they will smoulder entirely away, leaving nothing but a track of white ashes in the grass. No efforts of the unfortunate man could extricate him from his awful position, and after a time he appears to have abandoned himself to his fate, for he amused himself by scratching a record of his sensations with a knife upon the bottom of a tin dish that lay within reach. It took a day and a half before the fire reached him, and it is shocking to think of what his sufferings must have been. When he was found he was nothing but a charred and blackened mass, which no one would have taken to have been a man, had his fate not been recorded on the tin dish that was found near him.

Mustering cattle:

Two mornings after I arrived at Mount Spencer, we all started out to muster the Water-hole camp, at the lower end of the run, twelve miles away. Frank and Billy had gone on the night before, and camped out, to work the country on the far side of the camp. Having had breakfast about five, Rice, my brother, Timothy, and I, started off, soon after sunrise, with the man who had come up to buy cattle. ...

After going a few miles through the forest of endless gum-trees and blood-wood, we crossed a big creek, and came to a succession of low iron-bark ridges. Everywhere the country was heavily timbered, and it was impossible to see more than half a mile through the trees in any direction. Here we separated, Rice and the cattle-dealer going in one direction, and Timothy, my brother, and I, in another. Presently a mob of about seventy cattle appeared ahead of us in the long grass. We rode up to them at a canter, shouting, and cracking our whips; and they set off at a gallop, apparently in the right direction, for my brother and Timothy pulled up and did not attempt to follow them.

A little farther on we came up another small mob, which turned as soon as they saw us, and trotted off towards a creek on our left. Off went my brother after them, full gallop, through the grass, which was up to his knees as he rode, shouting out that "he knew that old devil of a white cow was off to the Island camp again." He disappeared after them over the creek, and we did not see him again until he turned up on the camp an hour later; driving the refractory mob in front of him. Timothy and I jogged along for some distance, and fell in with some more cattle, that looked lazily at us as we rode up. Timothy scared them up with a shout and a crack of his whip; but they did not seem in any great hurry, and rather inclined to stop, so he turned to me, and told me that "if I would keep behind them, that old yellow cow with a down-horn would take me right into the camp, a couple of miles away, while he went and tried the ridges away to the right." I had not the least idea where the camp was, and only very vague ideas of where I was myself, and the idea of being shown the way about the Bush by a yellow cow with a down-horn seemed rather novel; but Timothy had already started, so I thought I had better do as I was told. ... My pilot had led me as straight as a die, and when I got up I found Frank and Billy were already on the camp with about 600 head of cattle. There are few sights more picturesque than an Australian cattle-camp, and it is one that anyone who takes an interest in stock will never grow weary of.

The Water-hole camp lay on a broad low ridge, running down to a big creek full of flooded gums and dark green she-oaks, about 300 yards away. Close to the camp was a round water-hole, covered with lilac water-lilies, from which the camp took its name. The cattle were moving restlessly about on the camp, the cows bellowing in search of their lost calves, their red, roan, and white colours looking wonderfully bright in the sunlight, among the trunks of the black iron-bark trees. The two stockmen, and a couple of black boys, were riding incessantly round the edges of the camp to keep the cattle together, and prevent them from straying away; so my brother and I lit our pipes, and rode in amongst the cattle to have a look at them. The first thing that struck me was what a very well-bred lot they were. Here and there was an old crow-bait of a cow, a miserable relic of old times, crawling about to save itself the annoyance of a funeral, but most of the cattle showed a great deal of quality. Among the young ones there was scarcely a hard skin to be seen, and some of the heifers were perfect pictures. There were not many bullocks on the camp, as most of them had been cleared off Mount Spencer and put on to Haslewood, but what there were left were very healthy sights. It is astonishing to anyone who has been used to cramming bullocks with oil-cake, hay, and mangolds, before they are fit for the market, to see animals raised entirely on grass, with the fat laid on level all over them wherever there is room for it. A mob of seventy bullocks once left Mount Spencer that averaged over 1000 lbs. when they were killed, one of them weighing 1430 lbs.

... we saw a long string of cattle in the distance, winding along like a snake through the forest towards the camp. Timothy had fallen in with Rice and the cattle-dealer, and they all three appeared, bringing about 400 head of cattle with them. There were now about 1000 head on the camp, and Frank and Billy declared it was pretty full -- that is to say, that all the cattle belonging to the district in which it lay were there.

Finch-Hatton was highly impressed by the abilities of some of the stockmen:

Nothing is more extraordinary than the knowledge of cattle that those who work constantly among them acquire. A good stockman will go on to a camp where there are 1000 head of cattle, and in ten minutes' time will tell you if there are any missing that should be there. Very likely he has half-a-dozen similar camps in other parts of the run; but if he has been a year or two on the place, he knows most of the cattle by sight perfectly well. Although a great deal may be done by practice, no one who is not born in the country ever possesses this power to the same extent as a native, with some of whom it is really a remarkable gift. Billy Burgess was a native of Australia, and was generally allowed to be one of the best hands at working cattle in the north. His faculty for remembering cattle was simply astounding. I have seen him come on to a camp where he had not been for two years, and on which there were about 1200 head of cattle at the time. After riding round the camp amongst the cattle for a little while, he began inquiring from the stockman who was working that part of the run at the time, why such and such a cow or steer was not there, and in every instance he was right. Animals that must have been almost calves when he was last there, he instantly recognised; in fact, if once he saw a beast, it seemed as if no alteration in its appearance could ever prevent him from identifying it afterwards.

Drafting the cattle:

Drafting on the camp, or "cutting out" as it is generally called, is a very pretty performance to watch, if it is well done. First of all a small mob is cut off from the main body of the cattle, and driven gently away for a little distance, and then allowed to stand. This is the nucleus of the draft-mob; for no beast will stand still a moment by itself, and one of the hands is told off to watch them. One or two men then ride in among the cattle, and draft out the ones they want, one at a time, while the rest of the hands ride round the camp and keep the cattle from breaking away. Both my brother and Frank were very sound hands at cutting out, and they were both riding first-rate camp-horses, so I watched them at work with the greatest interest. A "camp-horse" is one used for cutting out cattle on a camp, and very few horses are good at it; but the performance of a really first-class one is a sight worth seeing. Each man picks his beast, and edges him gently to the outside of the mob, on the side of the camp nearest the draft-mob. The instant the animal finds itself cut off from the camp it makes the most desperate efforts to rejoin the herd, and the speed at which a bullock can travel, and the activity with which he turns, are marvellous.

The timber was pretty thick round the camp, and as I watched my brother it seemed as if he must inevitably come to grief; but a good camp-horse is wonderfully smart upon his legs, and goes through the trees like an eel. Away went the bullock round the edge of the camp, my brother, with his reins loose, and his hat on the back of his head, going after it through the timber as if there was no futurity. As he ranges up alongside, the bullock wheels sharp round and gallops back again the way that he came. Toby, the camp-horse, stops dead short, with a violence that would have sent an inexperienced rider ten yards over its head, and is off after the beast again like lightning, following every twist and turn as if he was tied to the bullock's tail with a string. Toby's heart and soul are in the work, and without a word or a touch from his rider he hits out all he knows, to keep the animal from getting back into the camp. This time as he comes up alongside, the bullock lowers his head and charges; but Toby has had a horn in his ribs before now, and avoids the sweep of the bullock's head with marvellous dexterity. For a while the tables are turned, and for a hundred yards or so the bullock hunts Toby; and though the horse is as quick on his legs as a rabbit, a pair of sharp horns are kept quite as near his quarters as is pleasant. Finding that Toby is too quick for him, the bullock turns and gallops back toward the camp. Once more the horse is after him, and turns him back into the Bush; and this time the bullock gives in, and trots sulkily off to join the draft-mob.

Droving cattle:

Droving, however -- that is to say, taking a mob of cattle on a journey extending, perhaps, over three or four months -- is a science of itself, and is a very different thing from merely driving a mob home from the camp to the yards. ...

In Australia large mobs of mixed cattle are continually being moved about from one station to another, or to stock outlying country, and fat cattle are often obliged to travel an enormous distance to market. For the Barcoo, and central districts of Queensland and South Australia, the best markets are Melbourne and Adelaide, each of them distant about 1000 miles. Droving, in consequence, becomes a regular profession, and there are numbers of men who make living, and a very good one too, by nothing else but taking charge of cattle that are travelling from one place to another. To take a mob of a thousand fat bullocks over a thousand miles of all sorts of country, and bring them into market in prime condition, is a business involving a great deal of responsibility and care, for, although cattle are generally travelled at the owner's risks, of course the drover's reputation depends upon the order in which his cattle reach the end of the journey. A good drover is always in requisition, and the wages of the head man in charge of a mob are generally about £4 a week. It is a dog's life, too, a drover's. From daylight to dark he is on horseback, exposed to all kinds of weather, crawling along behind his cattle at the slowest possible rate that is consistent with moving at all. If he averages between four and five miles a day, on a long journey, it is quite as fast as his cattle ought to travel. Every day the man in charge rides on ahead of the mob, to pick a place for them to camp at night. Water, of course, is a sine qua non, and he must have reliable information as to the state of road for a hundred miles ahead of him, or he will get his cattle in a terrible fix. Every night the cattle have to be rounded up, and watched on the camp the whole night long. A drover never gets more than four hours' sleep at a stretch, and he is lucky if he can get that for the first month his cattle are on the road.

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