The unsung heroes of Australia’s cattle country
Australia has a reputation of being a continent of red dusty desert, fringed by tropical rainforest and stunning white sand beaches, vast open spaces speckled with kangaroos and the occasional pickup-truck driving, smiley, bush cowboy wishing you a G’Day. Stereotypes are of course never the whole picture, but on our recent trek up to Far North Queensland, it was all eerily accurate. Stretching from tourist hotspot Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, via the Savannah Way to the Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland’s far North is characterised by a similar climate to India, with dry savannah that floods in yearly monsoon rainy season that can easily cut off its rural population from the outside world. Mining and cattle farming are the main land uses, and our recent stay at Ellendale Cattle Station near Einasleigh in the heart of Far North Queensland gave us an incredible insight into the daily lives of rural Australians.
Queensland is home to nearly half of Australia’s beef cattle (as opposed to cattle reared for milk, leather etc.) and most of the animals are full or crossed with Brahman cattle. Think “cow you’d meet backpacking in India”, not “cow modelling for Milka chocolate on a pasture up a mountain in Switzerland”. Brahman are tolerant to heat, have thick skin that is good against mozzies and live longer than a lot of other breeds, still having babies at ages 15 and over. We also happen to think that Brahman breeds are especially pretty looking animals. And it was these dainty, deer like, ochre coloured, long eared hide-and-seekers we were trying out hardest to spot through the thick Australian bush on a Sunday afternoon.
Having grown up in a relatively built up area and lived in cities since, being in the middle of nowhere with your nearest neighbour a couple of hours away was a strangely nice feeling. It reminded us of that Simpson’s episode where Bart calls an Australia boy to ask what way the water turns when going down the toilet, and then asks him to check his neighbour’s. The little boy gets on his bicycle and starts riding towards the horizon. It took us 5 hours from Townsville across the Hervey Range that killed our phone signal and over around 250km of dusty unsealed roads to get to Einasleigh, where Ellendale’s Cranwell family picked us up so we could navigate the small winding roads past little waterholes and through dry bushland to the cattle station half an hour out of town.
Owners Terry Ann and Phillip run around 3000 cattle on their property that stretches as far as you can see from their main building’s roof and takes hours to drive around. In the wet season, the roads sometimes flood, cutting the station off from nearby town Einasleigh. “I leave a vehicle with friends on the other side of the Einasleigh River in Einasleigh for emergency purposes.” explains Terry Ann. “Phillip has an aircraft so he becomes our mailman and he flies into Einasleigh twice a week for our mail, and flies me in for my car to drive to Townsville if necessary.” Whilst on the station we donned cowboy hats and long-sleeved shirts (obligatory in the hot sun), moved young cattle from a nursery paddock to the stockyards for the night and rounded up adult cattle to later sort into different groups to keep, weigh or ship to other properties and markets. Terry Ann drives her own semi-trailer, transporting cattle to different locations around Far North Queensland. When you’re on the road and you get stuck, you can’t just call a mate to change your tire, so Terry Ann and Philip are incredibly resourceful as well as great mechanics. And we quickly realise that we’d be completely lost out in the bush if it weren’t for their expertise and navigation skills.
The isolation paradoxically means communities are a lot closer than if you live in the city. Where you might never meet your inner-city neighbours that live a couple of meters away from you in the apartment across the corridor, the Gulf Savannah’s residents all rely on each other to keep the cattle stations going. Terry Ann originally trained as a nurse and is still heavily involved as ground support staff for the Australian Royal Flying Doctor Service. When the area is flooded, or electricity cables are blown down in storms cutting off phone lines, or bush fires rage throughout the region, residents group together and pro-actively look at where help is needed. “Our airstrip and plane are a godsend”, Philip tells us, “and we always leave the paddock gates open when it’s hot so the local wildlife can come and cool off in our water sprinklers. We have had to shut off the gates to the hangar though, as a few years ago I got a phone call from the local emergency services asking if I had crashed my plane. ‘Well, no, ‘cause it’s in the hangar’, I explained. Turns out some emus had got in, opened the plane door, jumped up into the cabin and pecked at the EPIRB (emergency position indicating radio beacon). We laugh about it now. And lock the hangar door.”
Living on a cattle station is hard work, but incredibly rewarding. You get to see kangaroos jumping and horses running through the golden morning sun rays spilling though the bush. You get to look after real live animals and make sure they’re happy and safe. You get to work on providing your fellow Australians with their daily food supply and to look after the environment so you can keep on doing so for years to come. After a couple of days we’re very sad to leave. Mustering and sorting the cattle was incredibly fun, as well as learning how Terry Ann and Philip manage to painstakingly maintain the property in the harsh North Queensland environment. If you do have a little bit of time left at the end of the day, fishing in nearby Einasleigh river as the sun sparkles off the pristine water is as stunning as it gets. And with so much care, attention and love invested into rearing what ends up vacuum packed and anonymous in our supermarkets, we’re never going to waste a single piece of steak again.