By the time I reached Queensland for the second time, it was supposed to be a farewell trip. I had seen everything I had planned to see, gone everywhere I could go by train and my flight back to Munich was booked. The West Coast, with its lack of infrastructure and seemingly (to a female solo traveller) insurmountable obstacles, would have to wait. For now, at least, I was going home.
Once again, the travel gods had other plans. Instead of letting me head back to safe, familiar, city life in Europe, they sent me in the exact opposite direction: on a cattle drive in outback Queensland. A former colleague needed a journalist to cover the biggest cattle drive in Australian history, I was on the ground already, could track down the sources and tag along with the drovers (or cowboys to you and me) for a few days. I got a hold of boss drover Bill Little in a matter of days, quickly made my arrangements and drove 500-odd kilometres to the stock route the lead mob (or herd) were travelling on.
Images above by Australian photographer Joshua J Smith*
I got the warmest of welcomes and, once I had proven myself by downing a mug of Bundaberg, was instantly awarded the honorary status of “mate,” complete with all the piss-taking and -giving that status involves. What followed were four days of rising early (like, really early), riding all day, and spending almost every waking minute looking at, for or after some animal (horse, dog, cattle, thankfully only a few snakes). Whilst I still can’t fully figure out how any human being can endure the hardships of the drover lifestyle – the lack of sleep, the hard work, the harsh conditions and, let’s face it, the ennui – it was an amazing experience for the few days that I lasted as a wannabe jillaroo (cowgirl). Bill Little and his team were nothing short of hospitable and surprisingly full of trust in the abilities of a useless desk worker like myself: on day one, it was already “Could you roll up that electric fence there, mate? Give us a hand putting away these pups, mate? Your horse is ready, mate!” The boss drover has people and management skills that would serve him well in a cushy managerial position, but are obviously put to better use here.
Pics in this gallery are mine
The physically and logistically hard part of the job turned out to be easy compared to the task of tracking down the other essential ingredient for my story… It was another two months before I finally got a hold of the elusive Tom Brinkworth, who owns the 18,000 cattle that were being walked the 2,000 km from Northern Queensland to their destination in New South Wales. One of the largest land holders in Australia, he lives up to his reputation of being eccentric and publicity shy, dodging my phone calls and – no doubt intentionally – departing the drovers’ camp the day before I arrived.
Pics in this gallery are mine
However, either my persistence or his pride in this massive undertaking got the better of him and I was finally invited to Brinkworth’s homestead in South Australia. Once again, I had to prove myself – this time by taking a swig out of a suspicious-looking bottle of Irish Cream sitting on the kitchen shelf. My accent proved helpful in breaking the ice, as did years of experience charming contrary farmers closer to home… and I emerged with a thoroughly charming two-hour interview and, finally, a great story.
*As luck would have it, a photographer came to document Bill Little’s epic journey on one of the days I was there. Joshua Smith’s fabulous shots graced the stories I wrote for Capital Magazine and Qantas The Australian Way Magazine and he was kind enough to share these outtakes that show me in full jillaroo mode. Spot the tourist…