Austramp #1

Photo: C. Peterson

Caity Peterson
by Caity Peterson



Mungarie Station

Colin, I realized, would never be a good rancher. Granted, he had all the prerequisites: he was tall, wide-backed and crushingly strong. He had a predilection for machinery and the ability to make rusty relics puff along grudgingly with a bit of tinkering every morning. He had more land than I ever knew it was possible for one person to own (though in Australia this was rather par for the course). He was rarely seen without his hat, even though it had been rained on enough times to make the felt brim flop around his ears in a most unbecoming fashion. He could down a case of stubbies without blinking, his vast frame never seeming to feel the ill effects. He didn’t mind solitude, and often went several weeks on end without ever making an appearance in town. And he could tell a story with gusto, at his most expansive when he could have a set of strangers around the dinner table guffawing at a raunchy (or better yet, bloody) tale.

But in truth, he was a softie. He loved his animals too much. The ranchers I knew got along by treating their livestock with the respectful indifference that meant they took care of their beasts but were not opposed to making the necessary sacrifices, and sometimes painful decisions, that made the difference between a profitable operation and a money-sucking pit.

Case in point: a routine day of separating out the young bulls to be tagged and dehorned. On any other establishment there would have been frightened lowing, shouting jackaroos, and the sting of the cattle prod, and the work would have been done in a tidy two hours. But Colin was not a proponent of such techniques; he preferred gentle persuasion, all carrot and no stick, and consequently the work got done in something more like a messy two days. One bull with a particularly bad attitude, dead set against the idea of entering the crush to be tagged, landed a stinging kick on Colin’s hip, just above his pearl-stocked pistol, as he leaned over the barricade to slap the hairy rump towards the gate. Any other cowboy would have roundly cursed the bad-tempered beast and given him a good, sound kick in the ribs. Colin grimaced, rubbed the spot, and said, “Gosh, they don’t normally get that high!”

Another similar episode with a reticent bovine caused Colin to finally lose his temper. He spit and cussed and kicked the dust with his boots and called the animal and its mother filthy, satisfying names – what I had been expecting him to do all along. But while his troops were reorganizing for another attempt, he furtively slipped his hand between the bars and gave the wide forehead a pat. “Rotten bugger,” he muttered with a twinkle in his eye.

In the end the stirks never got sold, Colin’s idea of tough love having made them too skinny for the satisfaction of the export authorities. He wanted his animals to learn to be strong, to be able to get along on their own like the bush cattle did. Thus, though their character was well accounted for, their scrawny flanks earned him no money. He kept the stirks, saved a few pennies on hay, and lost $5,000 dollars.

All in all, it was a damned good thing that Colin was not as averse to diversification as some of the other station owners. It was also lucky that he had a smart, enterprising wife who kept a lively campground business afloat at the homestead and held down a second job in Kalbarri, on top of making their home fit to live in and keeping their two children happy and healthy. It was Colin who dug the tourists out when their caravans became bogged in the sand. It was Colin who lent personality to the guided tours of the property. But it was Rebecca who made sure everyone paid up before heading out. Unlike Colin, she was not afraid to make sure she got what she earned, or to show somebody the door if they looked like too much trouble. Colin was the face, and Rebecca the backbone, of Mungarie Station.