ON THE stock routes of Queensland and New South Wales in Australia, the crack of dawn is accompanied by the crack of a whip — and followed by the steady stomping of 1,400 thirsty cattle, pushing towards the next water hole. Directing them with a flick of his whip is boss drover Bill Little who, along with his team of experienced stockmen and women, has embarked on what is already being hailed as the biggest cattle drive in Australian history.
In a country where moving thousands of livestock to market from remote outback stations in this way has been a matter of course — and great national pride — for over 150 years, the number of cattle alone would barely raise an eyebrow. However, this is only one of many herds, totalling 18,000 cows altogether, being walked almost 2,000km to their final destination, all in the midst of a widespread drought. Eyebrows have been raised and people have been asking whether this cattle drive is perhaps too big.
The man who thinks big enough to initiate an operation on such a grandiose scale is Tom Brinkworth, one of the largest land holders in Australia, with more than 100 farms across the south and east of the continent, spread out over more than a million hectares. He already ruffled some feathers last year when he acquired heritage merino stud Uardry, in Hay, New South Wales, and proceeded to sell off the prized sheep to make room for cattle. Now he is further angering parts of the farming establishment with his decision to walk those very cattle across two states where herds pass through drought-stricken districts, depleting already sparse resources in the process.
However, the law is on Brinkworth’s side, so attempts by Queensland councils to stop the cattle passing through were overruled. The state’s 72,000km network of stock routes serves as dedicated reserve for travelling stock, open to all. Bill Little, however, is eager to emphasise that the long paddock not only benefits farmers. The stock routes also serve as recreational, nature and wildlife reserves and are there for everyone to use and enjoy.
Perhaps equally important is how the stock routes contribute to Australia’s self-image as a land where the arid wilderness can be subjected in order to “advance Australia fair”, as the national anthem suggests. The drover is one of the rugged cast of characters that populate tales from the country’s early pioneering years. The drover as a legendary figure in Australian lore was seen by the world through the Hugh Jackman character in Baz Luhrmann’s ill-fated epic Australia. Audiences were less than enthralled with a storyline centred around a 1930s cattle drive, but the choice of narrative shows what a grip this rugged way of life still has on the country’s collective consciousness.
In a case of life imitating art imitating life, the Luhrmann version of events has influenced the way the job of the drover is perceived. Tom Brinkworth recently got a good laugh out of a German newspaper article featuring a picture of Nicole Kidman photoshopped onto a herd of his cattle. Needless to say, the reality of life on the stock routes is not quite as romantic as Hollywood would make us believe.
Bill Little is the first to admit it’s not easy on relationships: “A job like this is hard, even with a good partner. If you find someone, go droving with her, and still have a relationship at the end of it, then you know you’ve got a good one.” The fact that he started this trip with his current partner, the mother of his two young children, and will likely be finishing it without her, tells its own story.
Even with all the modern conveniences that have made things more comfortable in recent years, it’s still a hard job. Days start before the sun rises and finish well after it has gone down, seven days a week. At least these days, there is a camp trailer with gas cooker, running water, a fridge and a hot shower. But there’s also the blistering heat (up to “forty-few” degrees in summer), the freezing cold at night, the wind that cuts your skin and the flies that swarm once the wind dies down... and that’s when things are going well. At worst, there are days without feed or water for the cattle, which is when they get restless and might stampede at any minute.
So what makes the drovers go back on the road? “The challenge, the thought that you can be the best. If you want to be successful at something, you have to make sacrifices,” says Little.
A tall, wiry man with the physique of a far younger man, the only thing that betrays Little’s age are the reading glasses he reaches for when studying the maps that litter his makeshift office — and the boundless respect afforded him by his drovers. As Lydia Newbury, one half of his current team, puts it: “Why go droving with anyone else when you can go with the boss drover?” The other, John Cooper, adds with a gummy grin: “He changes his mind so many times a day, but his decisions are worth waiting for. He always knows the right thing to do.”
Even Tom Brinkworth, on the rare occasions that he drops in to see how the drive is progressing, defers to the boss drover. Does he call in to check on his cattle? “No, Bill is in charge of that.” He simply stops by for a chat, has a drink with the drovers of an evening, rolls out his swag alongside them at night, and bids them farewell the next morning. Until he takes delivery of his 18,000 cattle in January, the boss drover alone is in charge of Brinkworth’s €5m investment — and of the greatest cattle drive the country has ever seen.
Etihad, Emirates and Qantas fly to Sydney from Dublin and KLM, Etihad and British Airways offer flights from Cork. Flights cost from €800.
If you wish to join a cattle drive, the best way to get there is by rental car, although some remote stations are accessible by air. Several companies offer droving holidays, including accommodation.