“Is that photographer fella come yet?”/ “No.”/ “Do you know where he is?”/ “I think he’s coming tomorrow.”/”The American bloke?”/ “I dunno.”/ “Is the journalist guy with you?”
Before I met any of the folks at Kings Creek, I listened to them all discuss my visit on the scratchy radio. On an outback station as big and remote as Kings Creek, cell phones simply don’t work. Everyone uses the radio, calling back to the dispatcher at the station office. Despite the miles of empty space between each worker, the conversation felt public, like a crowded bar with everybody talking out loud at once.
I had already arrived at the station office and was dripping sweat on the floor next to the dispatcher, who looked at me awkwardly before announcing in the microphone across the airwaves, “Uh, he’s right here, with me.”
It was very hot outside–about 105˚ F. Indoors, electric fans were blowing cool air from every corner. Three different dogs sniffed my ankles and then begged for ear scratches.
“Can I get you something cold to drink?” asked the dispatcher, “How about a slushee?” In some desert cultures, guests are offered hot cups of tea, but honestly, artificially-colored ice drinks are much more my style. I was touched.
“Raspberry, mango, cherry, or blue?” she asked.
“Blue!” Blue is one of my favorite flavors, especially when it’s hot.
A minute later I was sipping bright blue ice through a straw, content with my very cold drink on such a very hot day. A minute after that, I was shaking hands with one of the station hands, Mark, a man with dirt-stained jeans, a sweaty plaid shirt, sun-bleached hair and a deeply-tanned face the same color as his big leather hat. I was most alarmed by the vicious scar around his neck–it looked like someone had taken a razor to his throat in some violent roadhouse bar fight, leaving behind the ugly dark red line that circled from ear to ear.
I tried not to stare at the scar as Mark talked me through an array of activities the station offered–the kind of “outback experiences” available to the busloads of tourists who stop by the station on their way to nearby Kings Canyon: camel rides, bush camping, helicopter trips.
“What do you wanna do?”
“I wanna do whatever it is you’re doing,” I answered. “I mean, what kind of work are you doing here at the station.”
“Uh, we’re mustering,” he quipped, a little surprised.
For my American mind, the word “mustering” delivered up scenes of colonial soldiers marching in formation and waving muskets on a village green. I was afraid to ask and look ignorant, but then I accepted that I really was ignorant, and simply asked.
Mustering, I discovered, is when you go out and gather up the brumbies (wild horses) that are out roaming the outback. There are literally millions of these brumbies roaming around Australia and if they’re on your land, they’re legally yours to take. Rounding up wild horses seemed a lot more authentic and exciting then a pony ride in a fenced yard and I wanted in.
“I want to muster, too,” I answered. Mark looked at me oddly but then nodded and gripped his radio.
Scratch. “He wants to muster with us.” Scratch, Scratch. The message got passed on, radio to radio, all around the station.
Pretty soon after, I met Ian, the station owner. Ian is a no-nonsense character who sniffed me out slowly, not unlike his dogs. He arrived in this piece of outback some thirty years ago and built the station from nothing–first by drilling for water, and then adding infrastructure bit-by-bit: blazing new dirt roads, putting up endless miles of fences, releasing cattle and eventually adding houses and offices. I was amazed that a station as immense and sophisticated as Kings Creek could come to pass in one man’s lifetime.
Ian finally agreed to let me come mustering with them, on the condition that I obey all of his directions with exaction. Mustering is plenty hazardous and they didn’t want me getting in the way, or worse–getting injured on their property. I listened and agreed and tried not to stare at Ian’s neck. Oddly, he had the same, dark red raised scar as Mark, like a low knife-slit across his neck. Had one man slashed the other? Tit for tat? I tried not to look too alarmed, but I was kind of freaked out.
I quickly discovered that mustering is not the nice “Git along little dogies,” kind of round-up with a cowboy in chaps leading a few hundred cattle across the prairie while humming “Home on the Range” and twitching a blade of grass in his teeth. In the Australian outback, mustering is like going into battle. It’s pitting man and machine versus big wild beasts that are not too keen on captivity. The attack takes careful preparation.
Mustering means scaring wild animals into small pens made of steel railroad girders. It’s the only thing that will hold wild bulls, Mark explained to me, though even a few of the rails looked severely bent and bashed in. He showed me some of the animals they had gathered up a few days prior–dozens of beautiful black and brown horses with long white scars that looked like aboriginal rock paintings. Apparently, in the wild, horses fight each other and get pretty scuffed up.
Off in the corner of the pen, barely visible, was a tiny foal, crumpled up in a pitiful heap. He’d been born prematurely, right after his mother was captured the day before.
“Little fella’s not gonna make it,” Mark shook his head. The chocolate-colored foal was two days old and hadn’t stood up yet. He wasn’t suckling, was barely breathing and seemed to be suffering.
Even so, I disliked Mark’s attitude: calling something dead before it was actually dead. I wanted life and hope for the little foal–I wanted to cheer him on to victory; wanted the Hollywood happy ending where he grows up to win the Kentucky Derby. I just knew it–that little horse was gonna live.
Mark radioed back to the office and pretty soon, a truck came up to collect the fragile foal. We took him back to a cool barn where he was cradled by a number of staff and given a big bottle of milk to drink. His fuzzy lips quivered on the nipple and his tiny ribs began pulsing in and out with exhaustive breaths. Over the course of an hour, I saw life pour into the little baby brumby–I grew ecstatic. I had witnessed a miracle.
Tough conditions breed tough horses and Australian brumbies are considered some of the heartiest horses in the world. Out in the hot, dusty desert, these wild horses develop incredible strength and stamina. If you can catch them and break them, they make terrific riding horses.
Nobody really knows how many brumbies are out there–nobody’s bothered to count–but wild horses are very much a part of the Australian landscape.
Brumbies have been roaming Australia ever since the Europeans first arrived. In this country, there is more land without fences than with, so that any escaped animals pretty much have their run of a continent. In addition to horses, there are countless wild cattle and about a million feral camels roaming freely around the Australian outback.
At Kings Creek Station, Ian musters the wild cattle, camels, and brumbies that roam his 20,000-square-kilometer property. He normally sells the animals–a broken brumby might fetch $3,000-5,000, while a 1,500 kg bull can fetch a small fortune for the meat. My first night there, I was fed a giant slab of steak cut from one of the wild bulls: wonderfully tender and quite delicious.
Pulling animals out of the wild and into pens requires a hefty amount of technology and manpower. Helicopters scout out the wild herds of horses, then round them up through a symphony of acrobatic maneuvers. After the animals have moved in closer to the station, a team of station hands begin chasing them with an armada of four-wheelers and reinforced jeeps–across the landscape and towards a narrowing channel marked with burlap flies. These flimsy yet effective guides urge the brumbies into the yard, where the hands eventually scare them into the steel pens.
If all goes well, then mustering is quick and painless. The problem is that a lot of things can go wrong.
One look at the bent bull bars and scraped-up steel doors on the mustering vehicles convinced me that this wasn’t a game. A charging wild bull can tip a jeep and kill a person in a snap.
“You can’t wear your hat,” commanded Ian, pointing to my hat, “–the horses see a hat, that means human to them–they’ll scare and scatter. So take off your hat.” I obeyed, then scrambled under the fence and got into position. My position was to lie still on a rock and look like the rock.
For almost an hour I stayed crouched against the hot rock, waiting and waiting. It’s amazing what you hear in the outback when there’s nobody around: grasshoppers jumping in the sand, spiders moving across their webs in the wind, a lizard skitting across the sandstone. The heat was constant–I gulped down nearly a gallon of water while waiting.
And then, finally, I heard it: the low buzzing of a chopper, buzzing like a giant fly, swooping down and then rising up, like a horse going giddy-up in the sky. I craned my neck and saw a herd of brumbies below, their wild manes fluttering in the wind, their hooves dancing up and down as they tried to outrun the helicopter.
The burst of gas engines followed behind as Mark, Ian and a half-dozen station hands charged the horses, whooping and hollering like honest cowboys.
The horses dashed into the flies and around the bend followed closely by the mustering team, who, at the last minute, hopped out and began waving their arms wildly, scaring the horses into the pen. The gate closed and the latch shut–I counted a dozen glistening horses, suddenly quiet and reflective in their newfound captivity.
The mustering team didn’t stick around or congratulate themselves with high fives–they just head back out, repeating the same chase over and over again. Once or twice, a few horses would break and bolt right before getting to the gates, but for the most part, the brumbies had been mustered.
A few hours later, I returned to the station office, soaked with sweat, red with heat and sun, and absolutely filthy. It felt fantastic.
“The foal died,” announced the dispatcher. She frowned as she told me and I felt like crying. After such a good day, why did something have to die? The little baby horse, just two days old, born inside the bounds of a steel fence and now dead on an old blanket in a barn. It’s not the happy ending that I wanted.
I went into the bathroom to wash up before starting my 300-mile drive back to Alice Springs. I smelled like wild horse, which isn’t necessarily a bad smell but not a great smell either.
Only after staring at my worn-out, mustered face in the mirror did I notice the deep, dark red scar around the middle of my neck, slashing from one ear lobe to the next. I touched it gently, frightened, then smudged a thumbprint on my neck. The scar was nothing more than a line of red clay, formed from the day’s collection of sweat, grime, and red outback dust all stuck in the crease of my neck. There had been no violent bar fights, no throats slashed. Just mustering.
I washed away my “scar” and then went into the shop to order one medium blue slushee for the road. Driving the red dirt road back to Alice, I saw lots and lots of brumbies.
Follow along with Andrew as he travels through Australia at @WheresAndrew on Twitter. And visit www.nationalgeographic.com/wheresandrew for daily photo clues, blog posts, and videos from his journey.