Kazakhstan Cowboys – Part 5

Host: Dr Campbell Costello

This is the final instalment in a 5 part series written about Dr. Campbell Costello’s time managing and developing a cattle station in Kazakhstan. 

I returned to Kazakhstan and spent my Twenty-ninth birthday in the Alps vaccinating cattle, and fractured my arm. On the plus side I got to spend the weekend in Almaty and some buddies of mine from America came to visit. They spent three weeks on the ranch helping out with chores and seeing the stunning countryside. During their visit, we had to head across the border to Kyrgyzstan so I could renew and apply for a new Kazakhstan visa in Bishkek. It coincided perfectly with “The World Nomad Games”, which is a weeklong festival on the banks of Issy-Köl Lake that celebrates and showcases traditional nomadic sports.

Somehow I bullshitted my way into becoming a veterinary official for the event and saddled up my Soviet army Jeep to join and follow the 60km equine endurance race through the Kyrgyz Alps. I also got to be the veterinarian for the horse back archery, the horse back eagle hunting, and the horseback wrestling. As “The World Nomad Games” came to a close, it was time for my posse and I to return to Bishkek, collect my visa, and head back across the border to Kazakhstan. September turned quickly into October and the high thirty degree, dry, dusty days rapidly changed into cold ones.

The Nomad games arena.

Horseback wrestling.

I had made the decision that by mid-October we would shift all the cattle back to the base Ranch via semis before the snow fell, which the locals assured me wouldn’t be around until early November. However, the grazing pastures we were using were a thousand metres higher than the Ranch, and the mountains generated some bizarre weather. Almost like clockwork, the night after I ordered the camp and cattle down from the mountains to the lower, holding square made of old car chassis, the snow hit the mountains – a foot and a half fell overnight.

We organized the trucks and started shifting cows and calves as quickly as we could back to the ranch. We hooked our two accommodation trailers, loaded our stock horses onto the body truck, and started driving down the road as the first snowflakes fell. There was a very treacherous mountain pass that we had to drive over to get between the mountain pasture and the base ranch, and my drivers were extremely worried that we would get either stuck or slide off the highway and to our deaths over a cliff. We made it over the pass with an hour to spare; the Kazakhstan police shut the road down shortly after our departure.

Somehow I’d made it to the end of October alive and without quitting, something I’d contemplated several times during my time in Kazakhstan. We’d vaccinated the herd, got a good percentage of them back in calf, stopped animals dying, the stock camp had gained some confidence, and my arm had healed. There were some small victories even though I didn’t get to build fences, set the station up further, and build a feedlot and feed mill. I was gunning to get out of Kazakhstan, get back to home soil, and eat a meal that didn’t have horsemeat in it. All I have of Kazakhstan are a handful of mementos, dozens of overused stories, and a lot of surreal experiences to reminisce about.

When I returned to Australia I felt like I’d failed – I’d set out to do great things and naively expected to build a fantastic facility. Instead I kept six hundred and fifty head alive, got underpaid, and there weren’t many thank you’s when I left. It took me a while to realise I’d forgotten on what I’d achieved and instead focused on the negatives. I’d been given the opportunity to do something I enjoy, in an exotic location, and experience something that very few folk will ever be able to. Being based in Australia, Kazakhstan has taught me to not worry about the smaller things, it has definitely taught me to think outside the box, to think on my feet, to delegate, never underestimate miscommunication/stupidity, and to prioritise the big stuff. Most of all it taught me to appreciate the true essence of life and experience what it is to be a pioneer.

Months later I was reminiscing about my Kazakh misadventures with some Canadian friends of mine in a small town called Talkeetna, Alaska. Sitting next to a fireplace, in between sips of Laphroigh and surreal tales of Central Asian cowboys, I noticed that one of the Canadians had a tattoo of a small octopus, and I queried “why”. They said it was to remind them of a speech that a philosopher called David Foster Wallace gave to a graduating university class in 2005 prior to his death – the speech was called “This is Water” and it opened like this:

There are two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

“It’s a speech that argues against the default setting of unconsciousness, the rat race, the constant gnawing of having had, and lost, something”, she said with a smirk. “Kazakhstan was making sure you didn’t ignore the water going past.” I guess they were right. It was a great adventure and made me check my pulse. A pulse that gets stronger whenever I reminisce of my time in Kazakhstan. How’s the water you ask? I reckon it’s pretty good.

Dr Campbell Costello BVSc.

Instagram: @dr_cozy

My Russian Officer’s coat for the snow.