Flight Club

Host: Miss Hollywood

I’m hosting as a ghost writer this week . . . coming from the sparkling lights of Hollywood to the remote West Australian outback after twenty years in the film biz, the last six living and working in LA. A far cry from phone reception, fast cars, five star restaurants, valet parking and high speed internet, let alone the bitumen and the local latte at the coffee shop on the corner. To make this week special, my plan is to disguise the station I’m on and explore the incredible, glorious life that has been thrust upon me. After isolating myself from family and longtime friends, I emerged from the hectic LA industry/lifestyle/party scene to find myself cocooned by a sea of stars, crystal clear fresh air and pure spring water coming from the earth which threw me for a six with it’s clarity and first hand touch of nature. This is so easily forgotten with the distractions of city life. Primary production . . . a phrase I hadn’t used since school days, was about to provide the beautifully refreshing reconnection to the land that I had been craving. It’s cool how life sometimes just gives you what you need and lucky for me, my wish was granted . . .

I am used to working strange hours and locations as the film business requires, with night shoots, 15 hour days or more and sunrises often shot for sunsets. It’s a world where while producing a story in pictures you need to be practical and efficient with your time and budget. It’s a lot about logistics and the similarities in the business and workings on a cattle station are slowly becoming very clear.

My first morning working on the station had me up at 4:30am, before sunrise and a far earlier call time than I had for a while. I was to head down to the shed with “Spider” and “Big Mac”, not knowing what to expect and too shy to ask questions in fear of embarrassing myself and my city girl stylings. It was with a quote that the days adventure would begin that echoed one from a commercial I worked on many years ago. The director didn’t really need me on the shoot but they had it in the budget so he got me on board as we had worked together before. Today though, it was the chopper pilot, “Spider”, who said to me, “This morning, all you have to do is enjoy the ride!”  . . . and with that I jumped in the back, put the headphones on and tried to be cool without letting on how excited I was to be going for a ride in the chopper.

The last time I’d been in one was in the Northern Territory. We were shooting a giant killer crocodile film where the cast/victims were aboard a tour boat travelling up Katherine Gorge. Talk about being in the right place at the right time . . . I was hanging out with the stills photographer when it came up that he was going on a helicopter ride to shoot pictures for the film very early the next day. Without thinking I asked if there was a chance I could tag along and the surprising answer of “YES!” was fired back at me. Luckily, we could not have the film camera operating as it would be in the photographs, so I was free from filming and cleared by the director and production to be the spotter for the shoot. This was about to be one of the most epic moments in my life.

Early the next morning, we took off and rose high over what was now just a tiny crack or vein in the red earth before swooping down and into the beauty of the gorge. There is a series of rises or waterfalls as you travel up the gorge. Our pilot was so excited to have been granted permission to fly in the usually strict no fly zone and we were grateful as his experience allowed the most spectacular thrill ride ever. Today’s ride was just as breathtaking, a different kind of picturesque. The river switched to dams and bores, the red rock cliffs became a carpet of spinifex and snappy gum trees, searching for the little bubbles and peaking eyes above the water for clues of crocodiles to the sight of black, brown, and cream specks moving like ants or a flock of birds on the ground . . . we’d found the mob. “Spider” flew over to where the crew was waiting, landed, and now it was my turn to get into one of the mustering buggies – a whole different kind of ride!

2.1 Flight Club copyWe found the mob! Time for me to get on the ground and see them up close from the buggy!

In the days to follow, I was promoted from buggy passenger to driving another ute as a support vehicle for the flyboys and boys on the bikes while mustering more of the property’s paddocks. I’ll never forget the wow factor I experienced while watching these pilots, “Spider” and “The White Knight” (named after his charm and dashing good looks!) – I couldn’t help but think of them as horsemen riding and rearing in the sky. The way they manoeuvred, dipping, and whipping around with the cattle racing below, it’s obvious to say I was more than a little impressed! They looked so smooth how they moved around the mob, knowing how to fly whether it be a sideways sliding movement to a nose to nose standoff with a stubborn bull. I had to remind myself to be cool again as “The White Knight” landed to meet me for a fuel up. It felt pretty cool to be helping these guys, the big boys with their impressive toys. Also the boys on the ground on their motorbikes.

2.2 Picking up the Avgas Drums at the end of a muster copyLoaded up with AvGas drums.

Before we’d even started our muster, I met up with (who would be named after the events about to transpire) Tom Thumb at one of the far gates in the paddock. The terrain we were running was laid with roads of thick soft red sand and spotted with termite mounds that were as hard as cement. Then the earth would turn to shale gravel that crunched under the tyres and threatened a flat at any moment. Tom Thumb was behind me when I got the radio call from “Spider” in the air, through the static I was able to make out that Tom Thumb had come off his bike.

I quickly headed back and the thought crept into my mind as to what was I about to see, what had happened and what condition Tom Thumb would be in . . . I was relieved to see him standing up but on closer approach I could see the pain in his face. Cradling his arm at the elbow, he said very calming, “I think I’ve broken my thumb” . . . it was easy to see his thumb definitely was not sitting in its normal position, the base of the bone pushing back up into the pad of his palm and the thumb itself was hanging motionless. He struggled to talk as we drove to meet “Spider”  who would fly him back to the house. Tom Thumb wouldn’t get to the hospital until late that day where the x-ray showed the thumb clearly broken away from the rest of the hand, the only thing holding the bones together was the wrap of skin. A matter of seconds resulted in the loss of work, months of repair and recovery, and the regret of not just sticking to the road and riding slowly.

When “Spider” returned with Tom Thumb’s replacement, Tom Cat (aka The Catalogue Kid), we surveyed the crash site and could see the markings in the sand of where Tom Thumb has caught his foot on a termite mound, jamming him up and thrown from the bike a good 10 yards before the next imprint in the sand could be found, yep, he’d got some serious air after smashing his hand into the handle ripping it from its socket. A tough lesson learnt would be the first of many today. Sitting at the back of the mob, pushing them through the series of dams as they make their way to the yards, the weakest fall quickly to the back. I found myself travelling slowly behind this old grey fella who had seen better days and wasn’t looking like he would make it the whole way.

After hours of watching this slow walkers rear, “The White Knight” swooped in to cure us all of this misery. I drove around the old fella, giving him a last look of farewell and kept pushing the others forward. Watching in the rear view mirror, I saw “The White Knight” land on the road once travelled and with a swift single shot, the old fella dropped heavily to the ground. All that walking and struggle only to be relieved of reaching your final destination. However this was meant to be the old fella’s final resting place. The welfare of the cattle on this station is of highest importance to the managers and while giving each of the cattle their best chance, sometimes the time taken on one animal can outweigh it’s worth as two choppers with pilots and three ringers (ground crew) waste time waiting on a lame old bull or a stubborn feral who will not join the rest of the mob. The term ‘temporary resident’ I would learn to describe these ‘problems’, as did poor Tom Thumb. You have to remember out here that common sense is very important along with hard work and a thick skin.