Changing Perspectives in Far North Queensland

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For a mountain lover, my first impression says flat, barren. Home for the next seven months does not inspire me, but my dream of working on a two-million-acre cattle station pushes my foot to the accelerator.

The tropics lose their verdant cloak, transforming to a rugged landscape. After camping on the side of the Walsh for three weeks, waiting for the swollen river to subside, we leave the limestone crags of Chillagoe with their hidden sugar-coated sculptures. Three hours west of Cairns, these razor-faced sentinels to the outback seem to warn those who venture further to be well prepared; like their caverns, all is not as it would at first appear.

The road is wide but treacherous – rocks the size of melons and bog holes big enough to hide a small car. A vista of ochre shimmers in the heat.

The horizon doesn’t change, stretching wide under a cloudless azure sky. Either side of us the landscape ripples with wispy grass scattered with coarse shrubs. For hours we drive into emptiness. Mud splashes on the rear window, blocking our view as if to say there is no turning back.

“Do you think we have much further to go?” I don’t realise we have been on the property for an hour. Nothing differentiates the boundary cattlegrid from any other, the fence-lines stretch away as anonymous as silver laser-beams.

We reach a junction. There are no signs to give us clues. After examining our dog-eared road atlas, we turn left.

Ancient mango trees and giant palms frame a two-storey weatherboard homestead. “You can have the donga on the left.” The head stockman greets us with her baby on one hip. Her sweat-stained hat shields any expression as she turns and strides away in dusty boots and baggy shorts. Three rangy dogs check out our tyres before flopping in the shade to watch us unpack.

A young woman zooms by on a ride-on mower. Another hefts fuel drums off the back of a ute. At the outdoor table over lunch we introduce ourselves; no-one asks questions. The number of people that live here surprises me – backpackers looking for a true Australian experience, vagrants working for their next bottle of rum, drifters with a permanent itch in their holed boots. Maintenance staff are equal in number to those that tend the cattle – road graders, bore runners, fencers, mechanic, gardener, cook. Then there are the chopper pilots, swooping in like eagles to claim head of table.

The station is a self-contained skill base. The nearest town is two hundred and fifty kilometres along the Burke Developmental Road that meanders as if etched by a long extinct reptile. Outside the homestead a single kilometre of bitumen runs straight as an airstrip (indeed can be used as such in an emergency) to keep the dust of passers-by at bay.

Past the iron cattle yards that make any dust defence pointless, the true airstrip runs in unnatural straight lines watched over by a limp windsock. Weather permitting, mail and urgent supplies land once a week. That contact with the outside world becomes as welcome as a lighthouse on a stormy night at sea.

*

Twenty years in the computing industry has done nothing to prepare me for station life. As a consultant in Canberra I thought my people-skills well-honed – dealing with Ministers, senior public servants, technicians and salesmen. Even my distant past farming in the United Kingdom couldn’t prepare me for the culture shock.

Station workers are like a family, bonded by proximity rather than blood. People come and go, but while they’re here they share food, accommodation, showers. Jealousies and loves, friendships and rivalry, all play out on the stage in front of a captive audience.

But unlike families, individuals’ pasts are sacrosanct. Skeletons in closets are left behind locked doors. Privacy is accorded as if everyone lives behind shoji screens. I learn that questions are not asked due to lack of interest, but through politeness – a club etiquette that protects its members.

“I thought we’re supposed to start at seven?” We stand outside the manager’s door, waiting for instructions like olden-day serfs with caps in hand. Used to the hectic pace of city life, half-an-hour twiddling our thumbs sits uncomfortably. We don’t have the experience to fill in the time maintaining the vehicle, repairing equipment or doing other odd jobs. Yet.

My husband and I have been employed to manage the fence-lines of the property – sixteen hundred kilometres of them. The sap of broad-leaved paperbarks eats through the wires like acid. We are to eradicate all vegetation in a metre-wide swathe and repair any breaks.

The two extremes of money and distance mean supplies are few and far between, to be treated as if life depends on them – which it may. It is weeks before we are granted access to the lock-up of tools and equipment. The privilege passes unnoticed other than with a sense of relief that we can get on with our job unhampered, but that trust is not accorded to all. Maybe we proved ourselves by not getting repeatedly bogged in the black sticky mud that leadens our boots as we trudge alongside the vehicle, one person driving and the other spraying.

Time seems to travel at a different speed in the outback. Days are long, the work hard, the heat unforgiving. I learn to become a turtle not a hare.

*

The directions sounded easy. “Turn right at the track after the sand hill.” After a month of driving in straight lines on level ground, the promise of a rise of land makes a refreshing change. After two hours there is still no hint of a hill on the horizon. My mind imagines a dune of windswept curves, sparsely covered by tussocks of grass. In the absence of a map, we follow our usual routine – keep going until we meet a fence, then follow whichever direction seems in need of our attention the most; turn around and return the same way in sufficient time to be back at the homestead by five o’clock, the time the generator comes on and we can enjoy a much-needed shower.

The next morning we try again with new directions. “You can’t miss it. The trees are really tall.” The trees all look the same. Straggly, gnarled, twisted. Our odometer tells us we’ve reached the right spot. Looking around, we attempt to find the elusive hill. Maybe the trees are higher here than any others we’ve encountered. The tyres spin in sand. Is this the mound I had been thinking to climb to scan the surrounding bush? Think again! The rise extends perhaps thirty centimetres high. Disappointment hits like an empty stubby on a hot day.

We are to cross that hill many times. On every occasion it grows larger. The protective shade of the bloodwoods has become a favourite lunch spot. The bush trills with birdsong – unlike the desperate screech of the black-tailed kites of the open spaces. Armoured spiders with bulbous bellies busy among the leaf litter, beetles glow iridescent in the filtered light. Rather than a hill, this sand rise is an island of life.

*

“Come on, let’s go.” Pete wakes me from my half-sleep under the ute. Our siesta is over. The air is stifling and still, but the vehicle provides the only solid cover. The trees barely hang on to sufficient leaves to show they are alive, their shade stretched awry over the sand like loosely woven lace.

The Land Cruiser grumbles to life as if equally unhappy to be aroused from its stupor. My spray wand stretches out seeking weeds as I match the crawl of a long-necked turtle seeking water. The slight movement of walking through thick air is cooler than standing still – evaporation brings relief and leaves a crust on my skin. No bare arms or legs – the rays are too strong for my paleness, and I need the protection from needle-sharp leaves, stinging insects and tickling flies.

“Stop!” There is a break in the wire. I don pigskin rigger’s gloves and, in a well-rehearsed routine, throw the tools and wire underneath the ute; they must cool down before we can work with them. It’s a good time for a guzzle of tepid plastic-tasting water. Nectar.

Winter comes with barely perceptible shorter days. Daytime temperatures drop below thirty degrees centigrade. Nights reach single figures. What I would have considered positively balmy down south has me reaching for my woollens. I enjoy the comfort of wrapping up, but by nine a.m. I am back to cotton shirt sleeves.

I swap my favourite Akubra for a floppy-rimmed cotton hat that breathes. There’s no avoiding sturdy boots and thick socks with oilskin protectors against the pervasive grass seeds. Wearing open sandals in the evening gives my toes a feeling of airiness like tiny beads of vintage champagne on my tongue – a memory almost forgotten.

*

The Mitchell is deceptively peaceful mid-year. Crystal water ripples ever-changing patterns over golden sand. The river bed spans a kilometre between tree-lined banks, tangles of dead limbs mark the high-water mark like abandoned nests of pterodactyls. A tributary gurgles over smooth stones, a deep pool shelters in a curve.

Sundays are a good time to retreat to this hideaway removed from station politics and inter-human relationships. Time to watch the movement of sand. Time to ponder the formation of jet streams marking the passage of oblivious passengers to far off cities. Time to just be.

A wallaby approaches. Front paws rest on the ground. Hind legs hop forward, tail used as balance. Stop. Head up, look around. Pause. A joey peeps. Front paws back down, creep another step. She sips. Ears rotate. Alert! With a startled bound she blends into the shadows of the scrub. Gone.

A sand goanna, as long as I am tall, swaggers onto the stage. Forked tongue tastes the air, head swaying from side to side, unblinking eyes of obsidian, penetrating like x-ray vision. His lumbering stride, and swishing tail, leave a broken zig-zag, in the hot sand, claiming his right, to be there, from a millennia of existence.

A movement in the extremes of my vision catches my attention. Sinuous muscles flex as a yellow-bellied tree snake descends for a drink. He bobs his head for a mouthful then rises like a cobra for the water to pulse through his body. I am fascinated by the way he swells with the repeated bobbing, similar to packing mince into sausage skins.

Replete, the snake swims in effortless grace across the narrow creek and in the same fluid movement climbs the rough bark of a tree. Winding his way upwards he searches along every branch for a nest of sustenance but with no luck he descends and repeats the process at the next tree. I watch for an hour. The click of my camera shutter does nothing to deter his quest. Lemon and lime patterning stands stark against the paperbark, but I briefly look away and he has vanished.

*

There are two types of mangoes at the homestead – the large juicy Bowen’s that the cook keeps for herself and the shrivelled green lumps that fall on our heads. We are allowed the latter – tasteless and dry except when they leave a sticky mess on the car. The rainbow lorikeets are ignorant of the cook’s demands to keep off her ripe fruit. They feast until the sugars ferment in their guts then stagger around like the stockies after we return from town with a station-wagon-load of grog.

We’re not permitted the clean rainwater from the kitchen tank. Our supply is pumped from the lagoon, a swamp filled with crocodiles and bloated carcasses. Doc, our dog, drinks out of a bowl so he doesn’t become a snack for a lurking reptile. A glass of water looks like chocolate milkshake; the silty grit on the tongue has become an accustomed taste. The loo is dirtier after it is flushed than before. We have learnt not to use white towels after a shower.

We can’t swim in the river to cool down because of the crocs. This late in the season, the flow has stopped and waterholes have shrunk to muddy puddles. Fixing breaks in floodgates can be treacherous, so one of us keeps watch while the other works. Doc supervises from the cab of the ute.

The waterholes attract a variety of life. Clouds of corellas cloak the trees with a deafening babble like lunchtime in a girls’ school canteen. Thirst sated, they rise in unison, ruffled edges blending with the cirrus. Piglets scamper after grunting sows, shaving-brush-bristles erect on semaphore-flag tails. The unwelcome ferals churn the banks into quagmires and root up succulents, destroying the precarious balance of life in an extreme land.

But who am I to criticise introduced species? Unlike me, they were born here. As for the carpets of cane toads, they must see their rampant survival as success, not pestilence. So too the grader grass with its suffocating mat of chest-high blades. Isn’t a weed merely a plant a human thinks is in the wrong place? Maybe I am the misfit with my spray wand of poison?

For some, reaching water comes too late. Weakened cattle struggle in the sucking slime, captive in the refuge they sought. Swine and wedge-tailed eagles compete for the feast of decay, gulping rips of hide, gorging on offal, picking clean bones. Gaping skulls and ghostly pelvic masks lie askew in testimony to nature’s janitors.

*

The clatter of mechanical dragonflies announces the start of the second muster of the season. Clouds of dust billow as they land. We continue our fence patrol, unaffected by the change of activity at the homestead.

Cracked soils gape with thousands of oversized worm-holes, the only indication that water once spiralled down to the artesian basin far below. Fire-tailed lizards bake atop metal pickets, gargoyles of flesh. Bare rubber vines, their heart-shaped leaves scattered crisped and curled like potato chips, evidence our passing three months prior. Tangled limbs reach out as if pleading for us to return their life as we continue our path of destruction.

We encounter a lake. A lake? No river runs here, no lily-laden billabongs with dancing brolgas. Cattle stand like children’s chains of paper cut-outs, joined at the knees to their reflections in the still pool. The mystery is solved over dinner. “Turn the bore off when you go back tomorrow.” We nod, biting back words of wanton waste, irresponsible flooding. Instead, we offer to assist roll out kilometres of polythene pipes to troughs so the bores can be capped.

I am learning, albeit slowly, to let go of preconceived ideas; to listen before jumping in ‘boots and all’ to voice my views. The lesson is tougher than the taxing heat.

*

Double-decker road trains line up in the bull dust, ready to haul this year’s steers to fatten elsewhere. The heifers will remain to replenish the breeding stock. The early morning resounds with lowing cattle, cracking whips and yapping dogs. Men bark orders and add curses to the dust-choked air.

We drive by to our solitary mission on the southern boundary, glad to work independently. An hour and a half later we reach our work site, three strands of barb hanging low like miniature power lines; all that divides managed land from untamed bush.

A massive brindle bull lowers his head at our approach, one horn twisted over his skull, the other jutting out an arm’s length before curling into a hooked tip like a pirate’s false hand. Froth bubbles from his onyx nose and drool lathers his broad chest.

“I don’t think it’s us he doesn’t like.” I point out a red and white Hereford standing further along the fenceline. The barrier appears too flimsy to provide us any protection. These are wild ‘mickies’, young stock that escaped the muster years before. We drive on.

An emu strides across the track, feathers ruffling as it flounces along. It enters the scrub, grey into grey. I wonder if it has ever seen a human or vehicle before.

Twisted trees give way to open grasslands. Crenellated termite mounds as large as the ute change to knee-high sandy stalagmites. Two young jabiru spread startled wings and run on spindly legs, heavy beaks held high. They flap and pick up speed, cumbersome in freshly fledged feathers. A gust of wind frees them from the two-dimensional world. I’d love to float above this magnificent country with them, to see the variety of terrain mapped out below. To hover as the season changes beneath me and watch the land renewed through flood, a perpetual cycle of rebirth.

How could I ever have thought of this land as flat and barren? The insect and plant life, the washed out river beds and billabongs, the birds and reptiles – including the appearance of a two metre black-bellied snake on the road – there is always something to marvel at.

*

I knew the work would be hard, but it only took weeks to become physically fit. My challenges came from living in close proximity to other humans. Now the wet season comes, broiling with menace. Dark skies reflect the mood. Tempers fray. Lightning streaks warnings. Thunderheads rumble that we must head south.

We pack our belongings into the four-wheel drive. Good-byes are awkward, stilted, empty. Our leaving creates a hole in my heart, but the land won’t miss me. Soon, all our work will be erased, grown over, washed away. Life here will go on, the seasons revolving as they always have, unchanged.

But the differences within me are branded on my soul.

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