Host: Dr Campbell Costello
This is part 3 in a 5 part series written about Dr. Campbell Costello’s time managing and developing a cattle station in Kazakhstan.
Running a cattle station in Kazakhstan changes your definition of “normal” and weird stuff occurs hourly and it all just becomes white noise. This became apparent as I sat on the verandah of the office over looking our Russian Kamaz army truck being converted into a livestock carrier. I spotted one of the workers blow torching a sheep’s head for dinner next to our armored personnel carrier or “fencing tank”. Another stockman was putting a puppy inside a box and duct taping it shut before mounting his horse and riding to the road to meet a car that was “taking it to his grandchild”. Another stockman was butchering one of our stock horses that had fallen off a cliff during the day and shattered its leg. Horsemeat was a delicacy in Kazakhstan and a protein I’d become well accustomed to. Yet something as simple as obtaining fencing wire and steel posts so we could fence our cattle in was an impossible task to execute. Another shade of bizarre was the fact our station had somehow managed to own the ONLY aluminum, double decker stock carrying trailer in the whole country due to a transport operator not paying his debt to the company.
Our fencing tank.
Our double-decker semi-trailer.
We started loading all our calved heifers and calves onto our double decker and our small army body truck and pup trailer. Our unloading depot was not spectacular. It was an abandoned soviet feedlot, which just like all the other communist funded infrastructure had been forgotten, stripped, and left to decompose after the USSR’s collapse. The holding paddock was a collection of concrete beams, mismatching wire mesh, and car chassis that had been turned on their side to act as a barrier. Our semis made several trips that week to-ing and fro-ing between the “base” and our mountainous paddocks.
Our makeshift cattle truck .
We burned through several truck tires, rattled the double decker to bits, and had to drag the prime mover up the gravel jump-ups with a wealthy Kazakh’s Mercedes Unimog truck. We even converted a 1 tonne Kia Bongo truck into a calf carter. We then purchased two Russian army trailers – small 2x4m cabins on wheels, gutted them, and put a stove, a wood heater, some solar panels on the roof, and some bunk beds for the cowboys and I to sleep in. These would be our temporary accommodations high up in the Kazakhstan Mountains for the next five months. We decided to let the cattle settle at the makeshift holding paddock for a few days before we would push them seventeen kilometres up into the mountains.
Dragging the cattle truck.
We woke up early in the morning to shift the cattle and to haul our portable panel corral, and dormitory trailers up in the mountains. The weather had turned bitterly cold again and the rain was unrelenting. I advised my boss that we should wait another 24 hours, as there was no point sending the cowboys and cattle into the mountains if the trucks couldn’t cart the corral and accommodations to our camp due to slippery roads. The boss was in a rush, was a city man of oil mining background, and declined my request. It was going to be a long day. So my rough and tumble Kazakhstan stockcamp shifted 650 head of calves and breeders as I jumped in our Kamaz army truck and started the slow, dangerous journey into the storm that appeared to only feed off the altitude of the mountains and gain intensity. The plan was to beat the cattle to the camp, set up the portable panels, get the army trailers sorted, light the fireplaces within them, and have a cup of tea awaiting on the arrival of our herd and their drovers. Halfway up the mountain in the truck it started to piss down raining!
The Kazakhstanis always like to save a dollar – today it was on new tires for our Kamaz truck, which were “as bald as cabbages”. The truck had lost traction assaulting a steep mountain dirt road, which was turning into rapids in front of my eyes as I stood and watched the truck slip and slide. The rain was hindering my “go to” stress-breaker – it would absolutely soak my cigarettes about 5 puffs in. I was staring at a truck filled to the brim with portable panels, that was jack knifed against a dormitory trailer, and hanging precariously close to a cliff. My Kazakhstan boss had arrived to this scene and quietly realised why I was concerned about shifting the cattle and camp today. We unhooked one of the two trailers behind the truck and by some kind of miracle the truck was able to slowly progress up the mountain without rolling. This was a relief as the cattle were making good progress due to some curious local nomadic Kazakhs joining in and helping my stock camp on their cattle drive. I questioned their droving technique of splitting the mob into three smaller mob and chasing them, so I just adopted my “look the other way” tactic, sparked up another cigarette, and kept on moving.
Getting the last truck through the snowstorm.
We made it to the top of one of the mountains and had one last, very wet, extremely steep decent to make to the fertile valley that lay before us. My Kazakhstani boss was gallivanting around the steppe in his LandCruiser wagon, showing off to his Almaty dwelling friends of his latest pseudo-cattle baron accomplishments. He misjudged a small gully that had eroded the side of the dirt track and got stuck. Unfortunately, the truck heavily laden with panels and trailers was slowly coming down behind him. The driver saw that the boss had become stuck and pumped the brakes. Twenty tonne of truck, steel and trailer went from slowly rolling forward to skidding down saturated grass and dirt at speed. The only thing that lay in the truck’s way was the back of the boss’s Landcruiser. Two things were achieved from this mishap – the truck stopped, and the LandCruiser was sling-shotted from the gully and was no longer stuck. However, the back of the car now looked like a bent up cigarette in an ashtray.
Dr Campbell Costello BVSc.