It’s on

Host: Dampier Downs Station
Written by Anne Marie Huey – Station Manager, Dampier Downs.

There’s a smell of Avgas in the air and the faint ‘whump, whump’ of rotor blades in the distance. This can only mean one thing – it’s time to muster.

The aim is always for a calm, controlled muster where the choppers fly straight and slow, gently pushing the cattle into a ‘wing’. A wing is basically two funnel-shaped fence-lines strung with shade cloth that guide cattle into the yard. The job on the ground is to wait at the end of the wing to help move the cattle along at the very end and be ready to leap out and shut the gates behind the mob when they are safely yarded. Of course, not every muster goes exactly to plan.

2.1An example of a mustering ‘wing’, used to guide the cattle into the yards.

Not long ago we mustered the northern part of the property, hitting four different bores in one day. The first two yards went relatively smoothly (far too smoothly as it turned out) and then Mike and I were in the trusty Hilux at the third yard of the day. As the helicopters brought the cattle up, a couple of crafty old cows managed to slip straight through the fence. We got the majority of the mob into the yards when the pilot decided to fly around for another go. We had to switch to the other side of the wing to let the pilots do their job, which involved a bit of bush-bashing. As we were sitting at the end of the fence we could see the choppers manoeuvring and hear the cattle coming through the scrub. Adrenalin was starting to flow when we noticed the smell.

2.2Helicopter pilot in action.

Something was definitely on fire.  It turns out it was the car.  Somehow, a small sapling had gotten wedged in the motor and was now definitely smouldering. Mike and I jumped out and were desperately trying to remove it so that we could be in position to assist the helicopters as needed. Time was definitely of the essence when we noticed the next problem. The fan belt had been dislodged and with no time and limited tools it was impossible to get it back to where it needed to be in time. Mike pulled out his leatherman (a Swiss army knife on steroids) and cut it off. Not the best for the car but we had no option. We had to get down to the yards to shut the gate.

We leapt back in the car and raced down the wing. Half way along Mike asks me for the radio so he can talk to the pilots. I realise the last time I saw the radio was when we were under the bonnet.  This could be a problem but there was no time to worry about it just then. We got to the gate just in time and managed to yard the cattle. As the dust settled we assessed the situation. The Hilux was now well and truly out of action.  Trotting back up the wing I found the radio and two of its three batteries. So now we were down one vehicle and without any communication with still one more bore to muster.

2.3The trusty Hilux, loaded up with the stock camp.

The choppers were already on their way to Boundary Bore so we had no option but to scoot up there as fast as possible. Unfortunately, when we got there we realised that the boys were still a long way from finishing the set-up so once again it was all systems go as we raced to get ready in time. With the Hilux no longer operational I was given the old station Toyota and instructed to wait at one end of the wing, basically to repeat what we’d done previously (preferably without catching on fire this time). The last thing Mike said to me was “Remember you don’t have any brakes.”

Later I learned he had also given the boys a lecture on not getting in my way, due to my lack of brakes. Had I known this I would have been highly offended and considered my character personally besmirched, but as it turned out it was probably just as well.

As I was driving up to get in position I could see the cattle streaming past me in the trees. This was not good – we were nowhere near ready! Eventually I had the choppers in front of me and started back towards the yards, making sure no cows doubled back along the fence-line. As I got to the yard I could see the pilots had done a great job of getting the cattle in, but there was no-one there to shut the gate.  This was a disaster as the cattle were about to hit the back fence, turn around and we would have blown (or lost) them all. I kicked it up a gear to get there in time and just as I approached the gate I saw Mike screaming down the other side of the wing with the same idea. That’s when I remembered – I had no brakes. Well, I could see the whites of his eyes but there was nothing I could do. He shot past me and drove straight into the yard with me inches behind until – Bang! – I ran straight into the back of him. No time to worry about it as the cattle were starting to spill back past him. I had to get out of there and shut that gate. I threw my car into reverse and backed up only to discover that Mike’s father, who I hadn’t even seen for the last couple of hours, had turned up to give us a hand and parked directly behind me. Bang! Straight into his car, too. The score was now Anne Marie 2, Mike 1, Toyotas 0.

All this, and it wasn’t even lunch.

2.4Cows in the yard at the end of a successful muster.