24 Hours in a 1960's Stock Camp - Barkly Tablelands Part III

Friday, Oct 19, 2012 at 15:01

Bob Y. - Qld

The rest of the horseman mounted quickly, keen to get moving now that they’d left the warmth of the fires. The mounting styles were as different as each one’s personality. The Headstockman and a few others stepped aboard with the same athletic style shown by “Tea ‘n Toast” earlier in the morning, but others proved they didn’t have that style just yet. A couple of the piccaninnies, riding 16hh quiet old workers, had to be thrown aboard, as they were too short to get a boot in the stirrup.

They soon form into 2 groups, the Headstockman and the ‘roos in the lead, and maybe 20 yards further back, the stock boys shuffle their positions, so as to be close to the older ones, and not miss any of the yarns to be told. The horses are unusually restrained as they all ride off. Nearly 6 weeks ago, when this plant was first run in, there would have been “exhibitions” every morning, with accompanying yells, yak-hi’s and the dull thud of the less experienced, falling in amongst the Mitchell Grass. This morning, the horses all settle down within the first 100 yards, and except for the constant wind, there’s little other noise. Then, within an instant, the sudden firm thud of hooves on the road, and one of the boy’s horses gives 2 flying bucks straight ahead, accompanied by a string of farts. The would-be buckjumper then shies off to the left, out across the downs with his head down, in a pig-jumping gait. The performance is greeted with laughter and coo-ee’s, from the boy’s, and a bit of comment from some of the ‘roos. The lone rider takes the delinquent horse around in a big circle, well ahead of the other riders, before cutting back in, to claim his spot in the group.

With the brief excitement over, the wind returns to dominate over all. The wind hasn’t eased up since breakfast, and as daylight approaches the temperature continues to drop. The only consolation at this time is that they are riding with the wind, so the effect of the wind chill is not as severe. But as they continue to ride to the point where the Headstockman decides to split the riders up, the constant chill begins to creep through their jackets, and the old quote “chilled to the bone” has a lot of truth in it. While the wind doesn’t have the velocity of an Antarctic gale, or a North Sea storm, spending a day on a horse, on these treeless plains, can seem like a test of endurance. The constant wind chill finds a way through all but the thickest of jackets, every missing button, tear in the material or too short shirt tails, making an avenue for the wind to chill the riders.

A couple of the ‘roos are wearing bandannas, bought from RM of course, and they are wearing these up over their faces, just as Jack Palance, or Robert Mitchum might, at a Saturday arvo matinee. It muffles their voices, but keeps their faces warm, so that’s all they ask. The Headstockman hasn’t opted for a bandanna, telling these two they look like Tom Mix, but has liberally covered his face with Barrier Cream. While he might look like an extra from a clown act, the wind burn will be reduced and also reduce any discomfort later in the day. With daylight improving, the Headstockman gazes around, and not seeing any cattle, gives a yell: “We’ll trot along, eh”.

For the next mile or more, they all trot and canter along, covering the distance at a quicker rate. One of the ‘roo’s horses had done some racing at Brunette Races in his younger years, and being on the road must have made him think he was back on the track. Before the ‘roo could do much, the ex-race horse had bolted into the lead, and was 100 yards ahead before the ‘roo really pulled on the reins. A further 200 yards ahead, and he manages to halt the horse, and stand in the middle of the road, both of them catching their breath, while the others catch up.

As they all pull up where the wannabe racehorse, and his reluctant jockey await, it’s obvious that they are near the lead of the cattle. Distant but faint bellows from cows and calves reaches the horsemen, and many of the horses suddenly show an interest in the scattered mobs. The Headstockman sends some of the senior ‘roos off to the west, taking half the boys, with instructions to cutoff before they get near No.26 Bore, and to come around near the Anthony Lagoon boundary. The Headstockman and his group will head east, over to the swamp between No.20 and No.19 Bore, and work back towards No.20. With no surface water remaining in the vicinity, all cattle have to water on the bores, and by mustering early, the camp hastens the cattle watering ritual.

The two groups of horsemen canter away from each other, there is the odd call of farewell, but voices are soon lost in the wind. With the sun now sneaking over the horizon, a number of mirages start to appear. The swamp country to the west begins to look like a dark green vertical wall, and back to the south, the Camp Truck, just visible, looks like it is on a hill at least 100 feet high. The Headstockman turns and looks over his shoulder at the distant group of horsemen, and they suddenly look like caricatures. Horses with long, gangly legs, with their riders resembling stick figures, not dissimilar to the style of painter, Hugh Sawrey, that is to become popular in the years to come. The senior ‘roos group have quickly put the first mob of cattle together, and one of the “picks” is delegated to walk them into the trough at No.20. Satisfied with the other group’s initial progress, the Headstockman, turns and concentrates on the expanse ahead of them.

Not too long after the horsemen depart, the cook has reluctantly left the fire, and has washed up, and is tidying the tucker box. Cutlery in the right place, pannikins neatly positioned with tea, sugar and Golden Syrup containers in a secure spot. The remaining butter, already stored in a Sunshine Milk tin, with a couple of layers of hessian fastened around the tin, is placed in a small container of water, to keep in cool. “Doesn’t bloody need cooling this morning” the cook mumbles to himself. Next job on his mental list is to “bag” the corned beef. At night, the cuts of corned and fresh beef, when they still have it, are spread out on a shearer’s stretcher, to “air” and cool down, during the night. By airing the meat overnight, the outer surface of the meat dries, and this reduces the risk of spoilage. Then before daylight, the beef is bagged, and stored in the shade as much as possible through the day.

This primitive, but effective refrigeration method, works well through the cool, winter months, but once the days, and nights warm up, it is difficult to keep corned beef, and almost impossible to keep fresh meat, for more than a day or two. The cook gets all the beef into the hessian bag, and just manages, with knees buckling and arms muscles straining, to lift the beef bag onto the tray of the truck. He bounces up onto the tray easily, and half carrys, half drags the bag up against the water tank. It will be cool here, and he can cover it with all the swags. He jumps down, and rinses the coarse salt off his hands in the wash basin. The numerous cuts and abrasions on both hands are stinging from the salt, and the water helps to dilute the effect of this. He then makes a beeline for the fire, to warm his hands, that water is almost icy.

With the circulation reasonably restored to his “pinkys”, he looks around to see what else needs to be done. He removes the corrugated iron windbreak from near the fire, and places it on the ground near the truck. He drops the iron pickets on it to stop the wind from lifting it, but when it starts to move a bit, he puts one of the other ‘roos swags onto the blackened, ashy sheet. “Better not forget that swag,” he laughs to himself. “He’ll be whingin’ for a week if I do.” As it’s now daylight, he walks off into the grass to the spots where each ‘roo, and the Headstockman slept. Except for one rather grotty sock, he finds nothing, so flicks the sock onto the floor of the truck cab, and begins to chuck the swags on the tray, but not before wondering if maybe he shouldn’t just wash his hands again, after handling that sock.

The last of the gear is on the truck, and he empties the washing-up water, and hand basin onto the fire. A cloud of ashy steam rises, and the remains of the fire bubbles and hisses before the heat goes out of it. The dishes are stowed away, and he lifts the bonnet of the old Bedford to check the oil and water. With no surprises there, he slams the bonnet, and jumps into the cab, where he finds it almost warm, now that he’s out of the wind. He checks the gear lever is in neutral, pulls the choke out fully, foot off the accelerator, turns the key on, and then to start. A few half-hearted turns, and the 300 cu in petrol engine, erupts into life, and the cook quickly pushes the choke in, about halfway. Some of the ‘roos have had trouble starting this old lorry, until a truckie let them know: “Full choke and no throttle for these old bastards, mate”.

He drives up to the boys’ camp, and the old cook and the younger of the horsetailers throw all their gear on. The other horsetailer has ridden off, and is slowly, almost casually, putting the horse plant together. A 4 gallon drum is taken off the truck, and the boys’ cook, with the assistance of the horsetailer and using the drum as a step, manages to get up onto the tray and finds a comfortable position amongst the swags. The drum is thrown onto the tray, and the horsetailer, walks to his horse, unhobbles it, and steps onboard, after tying the hobbles around the horses neck.

The truck has been idling during this loading exercise, so the cook pushes the choke right in, and proceeds to execute a 3-point turn. The truck and its load call out in protest as the cook eases it over the rill, at the side of the road, before engaging reverse, and once again negotiating the rill, to be back on the road, and heading towards No.20. With a call out the window: “ya right, Freddie?” and an echoing “yo-ii”, he engages first gear and heads off with a roar.

The cook notices the horse tailers have the plant heading back to the road, so he assumes they won’t be too far behind him. The horses will bring looking for a drink, so will trot along to No.20, to quench their thirst. The camp truck heads along the road at a steady pace, with numerous rattles and bangs, as it negotiates the black soil surface. The head stockman has told him to fill up with water, at the bore, before he sets up camp, so, on arrival he opens the gate into the turkeys nest enclosure, and drives the truck as close as possible to the windmill tower. A long siphon hose is found on the back, and the cook climbs the tower until he is able to poke one end of the hose, down the top of the bore casing. Once on the ground again, he manages quite easily, to get the water siphoning, has a long drink, before passing the end up to Old Freddie, who shoves it into the water tank. The water from No.20 is one of the sweetest on the station, unlike some of the other bores. Then the cook wanders up to the top of the turkeys nest, and sits in amongst the grass, and enjoys the weak warmth of the morning sun. The tank will take maybe half an hour to fill.

Strings of cattle are heading into the bore, most at a brisk walk, but some, as they near the trough, break into a trot, and then gallop, often kicking up, and dancing about, as if they didn’t have a worry in the world. The mobs are following well used pads into the bore, and the wind picks up the grayish, white dust and flings it across the downs at an acute angle. The cook wishes he was out there with the other ‘roos, but it’s quite pleasant and relaxing, looking from his vantage point. The cattle push and jostle each other trying to get at the trough near where the water comes from the turkeys nest. There’s the odd bellow, crack of hooves and horns on the steel trough, and the dull thud of many cloven hooves stamping on the hardened ground, close to the trough. Dust billows out towards the north-west, so the first couple of horsemen, after watering their horses, move back to the south, to watch over the cattle, and await the rest of the camp.

A yell from Freddie that the tank is full, jolts the cook from his day-dreaming, and he runs down the nest, to retrieve the syphon hose, pulling it out of the bore casing, draining the water out of it, and stowing on the tray. He fires up the old truck, quickly reverses out of the enclosure and after shutting the gate, heads up towards the bronco yard, and the camp, which is a couple of hundred yards past the yard. At the boys’ camp, he helps Freddie unload their gear, and then moves the truck up to where a pile of firewood indicates the ‘roos’ camp.

Before setting up the camp, he quickly gets some wood together, along with some dry grass, in the fire hole, and aided by a dash of petrol, soon has the fire going. His haste to do this means he plans to bake a damper, something he has rarely done before, and he wants plenty of coals available. Also, he needs to boil another piece of corned meat, ready for tea tonight. He gets a piece of beef out of the bag, as well as a couple of pieces for the boys, and drops his selection into a blackened 4 gallon drum. He places the beef bucket on the fire, adds more wood, and turns to open the tucker box, and prepare his damper. Flour comes in drums, blue drums for plain, and red drums for self-raising. He gets some plain flour, adds salt, milk powder and Aunt Mary’s Baking Powder, mixes the dry ingredients well, before adding water to make the dough. The amount of water required perplexes him to some degree, he doesn’t want it too dry, but by the same token, he doesn’t want it to be doughy either. He’s reminded of one of his mentors, back in Megalong Valley, making a damper that was so liquid, he poured it into the oven. And it came out light and fluffy, almost like a cake.

Putting the memories aside he reaches what he thinks is the correct texture, and covers the dough with a rag, while he attends to the fire, and finds one of the Bedourie camp ovens. He sorts out the fire to suit the oven, places the dough into the lightly floured oven, and places it on the coals. A shovelful of coals on top, and he checks his watch, maybe an hour he thinks? He quickly set up the corrugated iron fire break, and wonders about dinner. It’s not yet 9am but with many of the horsemen near the bore, they’ll probably have dinner very soon. He still finds it strange to be having the midday meal at mid- morning, but as long as they have a feed he’s happy. With a conscientious effort, he fills the billys and ponders what he can serve up with the corned beef.

Seen it all, Done it all.
Can't remember most of it.

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