IF I’d thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have been so keen to go up north. I grew at Dandaragan, Western Australia, on an Australian Agricultural Company (AACo) station managed by my father. The legendary big northern AACo runs were often talked about, and they exerted a mythical appeal. So in the mid-1980s, I went north.
On Headingly, a 2.6 million acre sprawl on the Barkly Tableland in north-west Queensland, I found myth translated to baking heat, torrential Wet rains, and more flies than should reasonably exist in the entire world. And horses.
I’d got on fairly well with horses up until then, providing they got on with me, but my preferred steed had two wheels and an engine. On Headingly, like all green jackeroos, I was given horses especially selected for their misanthropy. These horses detested people, and detested jackeroos in particular. I spent a lot of time exiting the saddle in new and interesting ways.
I “got spat” so often and so entertainingly, it became my stock camp speciality. Someone decided that anyone who got spat had to buy a carton of beer for the camp. By the time I left, I owed the camp the entire Urandangie pub.
In the humorous way of all stock camps, the worst rider got the worst horses. One memorable day I wasn’t spat, but I drew a horse that refused all instruction. We crabbed and pigrooted and quarrelled through a 14 hour day, and by dusk we were both so knackered that we drooped home well behind the mob.
Henry Burke, then the Headingly overseer, pulled up in his Landcruiser and observed that I’d been having a bit of trouble. He walked over and inspected the horse’s brand, and tipped his hat back thoughtfully. “I don’t think we’ve broken that one yet,” he said. And walked off chuckling, the bastard.
Then I spent a morning on the horse of the head stockman, Alan Kennedy. It was a revelation. A horse that worked! It stopped, went, turned and generally responded like a sweaty Porsche. The reason, I decided, was that Alan wore spurs. On our next blowout in Mt Isa, I bought a pair of superbly shiny spurs.
I loved those spurs, for a morning. We were mustering on Planet Downs, in the Gulf, and while the helicopter ran cattle out of the scrub into an open area, I carefully tested the spurs on my plant horse of the day. This animal had only ever been capable of sudden movement when its nose was pointed home, and sometimes not even then. Confronted with cold steel, though, it proved quite zestful.
Holding the mob through that morning was tedious, with little action to test the new-found power strapped to my heels like Hermes’ wings. In the hot forenoon I dozed in the saddle. Somewhere in a pleasant dream of motorbikes doing what I wanted them to do, I heard a shout of “Stop that beast!”. I started awake to see a steer before me stealthily leading a wing of cattle back into the scrub. Panic and habit combined into one deadly movement: I raised my feet in the stirrups and jammed that horse in the ribs as hard as I could.
I recall three distinct stages of what happened next. The horse, delivering a Trumpet Voluntary of the longest, most strident, most fartiest of horse farts. Me, upside down about four metres in the air, thinking, “This is going to hurt”. Me, on my back in a melon hole, my bulging eyes meeting the bulging eyes of the lead steer a couple of feet away. Bloody oath it hurt.
In the long history of Man v. Beast, men have pitched horses, dogs, whips, helicopters and bad language at cattle. This was likely the first time a jackeroo had been thrown at mutinying livestock.
Genghis Khan’s Mongol hordes used to catapult their enemies over the walls of besieged cities, but the alarmed lead steer hadn’t read about that. It galloped snorting back into the mob with its followers. I won, sort of.
After about 15 minutes, the time it took me to start breathing again and for my horse to be recaptured - it spent the rest of the day on tiptoe - I removed those lovely spurs and put them in the saddle bag. I gave them away that night.
Over the months I became something of an expert at getting spat. Between liftoff from my horse and making rude contact with the ground, I’d sigh, work out which shoulder to roll on, and relax. A fraction more time and I might have rolled a smoke.
I hit my peak late in the season. By then, having mastered getting spat, I was also not getting spat so often. I was getting comfortable with the idea of whole days in which I only left the saddle voluntarily.
One day a bunch of us were on horseback, standing around talking, when my big amiable horse sneezed - or so I thought. Except suddenly I was not in the saddle, I was astride the horse’s neck. Then I was askew on its rump. Then I was in familiar territory: mid-air, and in the loving arms of gravity. This time, I landed in the middle of the ring of horses, square on my feet and with the reins still in my hand. There was a cheer from the assembly; it was a triumph of getting spat.
Knowing I couldn’t improve on my craft, I left shortly afterward. I got work on Flinders Island in Bass Strait, where there were no horses. A year later, I took up journalism, where there are even less.
I’ve been “up north” many times since, but have only viewed station life through a camera viewfinder. There’s nothing sadder than someone trying, and failing, to recapture past glories, and I don’t think I could ever get spat like I used to.