IN 1824, some cattle wandered out of their pens into the bush west of Sydney. For the next 150 years, Australians mounted their horses to round up the steers and get them to market. Out of the ``droving'' has come a culture that helps to shape the Australian national character. The drovers were self-reliant, content with their lot, and always willing to help their ``mates.''
To celebrate the drovers, the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame recently held a ``Ringer's Muster'' (a ``ringer'' is a stockman or a drover) at its outback museum here. Three hundred drovers from around the country came to swap yarns (all true, of course) about their days spent getting cattle to the nearest railhead.
The Australian cowboys would be on the trail for months, even years. They slept under the stars, braved droughts and floods. They spent more time in the saddle then on the ground. It was not exceptional to take 1,500 cattle 2,000 miles to get them to market.
``The Australian people must know that Australian drovers were heroic,'' says Malcolm Kennedy, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne. In his book, ``The Drover,'' Keith Willey writes that the drovers ``knew cattle and sheep and were superb bushmen able to survive in the toughest circumstances.''
Wearing akubras (cowboy hats), work shirts, and boots, many of the men at the ``Ringer's Muster'' looked ready to return to the saddle in an instant to get a mob of bullocks to market. Most were still as lean as a fence post and still had forearms stained the color of cow hide. Their faces were lined from the sun and weather and their handshakes powerful.
The organizers began the event by serving ``billy tea'' and damper. Billy tea is strong, black tea boiled over an open fire in a tin can; damper is unleavened bread cooked in hot ashes.
With their tea and damper in hand, the men moved under lean-tos for a ``galah session'' of tall tales. (Galahs are noisy parrots which sit in trees and squawk.)
Frank Skeen, an aboriginal stockman from Halls Creek in the Northern Territory, recalled taking 2,500 cattle more than 1,000 miles in December 1955. While on the trail, Mr. Skeen and his stockmen were deluged by rain. At night they kept the herd together with torches. ``It helped steady them down,'' says Skeen. It ultimately took six months to get the job done.
Walking the cattle was a big responsibility. It could be a rancher's total income for several years. So it was important to get as many cattle to market as possible. Richard Easton, who drove cattle in northern Queensland, remembers waking up one morning to find he was missing some cattle. Mr. Easton mounted his horse and rode a day and a half back.
``I couldn't find any sign of those cattle. Then, I got the idea of letting the horse look for them. He found them for me,'' recalls Easton. In fact, a drover trusted his horse as much as his mates.
Cattle droving could be dangerous as well. The idea was to walk the cattle about eight to 10 miles a day, depending on the location of the next watering hole. At night, the drovers would slowly circle the cattle and either sing or recite poetry to keep the animals relaxed. But anything could spook them and start a ``rush.''
``You can get killed. The cattle trample everything in their path,'' says Arch Gibson, an aboriginal stockman from Cooktown, Queensland. To end the rush, the drovers would try to find the leaders, turning them in a circle until they tired.
There were other dangers as well. Max Smith, a drover ``all me life,'' remembers getting caught in the 1963 floods. After keeping the cattle in one spot for 10 days, ``they had to drop tucker [food] to us by plane.'' Only a few of the cows were washed away.
Generally, it was a life that the men loved. ``It was a wonderful life,'' recalls Clarry Pankhurst, who drove cattle for more than 30 years.
``We wouldn't have done it if we didn't want to. If it was a bad trip, you just put up with it,'' says Mr. Smith.
``I loved horses and being around animals,'' recalls Fred Mathiewson, a Goombungee drover.
Women were sometimes part of the cattle drives. Emily Pankhurst used to accompany her husband on the long trips. She was the cook and was responsible for driving ahead of the men in a truck to set up camp for the night. For breakfast she would fix cold or hot meat curries. For dinner, it was almost always beef.
``We had a barbecue three times a day,'' recalls Betty Forster, who also went on the trips with her husband. To keep the meat cold, she recalls, ``you rolled it up in your swag,'' your bedroll, which was carried by one of the packhorses, or on the back of your own horse.
The last official stock drive was in 1988. It was done more for publicity than to get cattle to market. Today, trucks move the cattle to the slaughterhouses in days.
AFTER the galah session was over, the drovers moved on to the hall of fame's auditorium where Professor Kennedy explained that droving started in Scotland in the 1700s. By the 1860s, drovers were moving 200,000 head of cattle and 1.5 million sheep to the London markets.
Droving in Australia, because of the country's size, became even bigger. By 1920, Australian stockmen were droving 250,000 horses, 1.3 million cattle, and 7 million sheep every year, says Kennedy. ``It was an honorable profession,'' he said.
A drover, said Kennedy, must be hardy because he would be spending long hours in the saddle. He also had to have practical judgment and an ability to not make rash decisions. And, finally, ``he had to have the power to command firmly but kindly.''
Over corned beef and damper that night at the Longreach racecourse, no one would disagree. In fact, many of the men who began as stockmen in the 1950s are now managing large cattle stations (ranches). And some of them are convinced high fuel prices will eventually bring back the days of moving cattle by horseback.