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November 13, 2008

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Photo: Tourism Queensland

Maria Visconti goes a-droving in the tracks of one of Australia's most famous bushrangers.

BY ACTIVITY BY HOLIDAY TYPE Food and wine Cruising Drives

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Horseman Graham Woods sat on the ground contemplating his next move. He had arrived in Aramac with two horses from Rockhampton, on his way to a job in the Kimberley. Only his packhorse had gone berserk and kicked the saddlebags to bits. He had also just found out that his would-be employer in the Kimberley had passed away. There was no job for him there any more. As the Aramac townsfolk readied themselves to kick off the inaugural Harry Redford Cattle Drive that would deliver some 600 head of stock to Roma over three months, Bob Marshall, the "boss drover", could not help but notice the man in the black hat with the shredded bags at his feet. The deal was done over a few beers. Woods' expert horse skills were going to be put to good use.

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Meanwhile, Marshall, grazier and former mayor of Aramac, was finalising his hand-picked team of experienced stockmen and the mind-boggling logistics of an outback expedition. In the highly structured and organised setting of a traditional droving plant, every man knows his place. If he is a newcomer, he is shown the ropes. But what to do with guests with no knowledge whatsoever of cattle and little experience with horses? For somebody like me, joining a cattle drive was like entering that recondite place in the back of the Australian consciousness that identifies "the outback" as the essence of Australianness. This was the stuff of dreams. The Harry Redford Cattle Drive was an idea that started as a "what if?" pub conversation, and became a reality in 2002 as a

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way to celebrate the Year of the Outback. The Aramac Shire, in central-west Queensland, was going to do it one more time and in the old style. They were going to move cattle along routes opened up by the old Queensland stockmen and following the path of outback hero Harry Redford. Redford, commonly known as Captain Starlight, the "gentleman" bushranger, was a legendary cattle duffer who took thousands of stolen heads through unchartered territory in the 1800s, from Bowen Downs Station, through the Strzelecki Desert to South Australia. Cattle rustling in the 19th century was a game, a dare and a good way for a contract stockman to start his own "droving plant". A "poddy pinchin' block" (unbranded cattle filched from paddocks next to droving routes) would yield enough revenue to do just that. Booming goldmining towns such as Charters Towers attracted freelance trade, and small cattle mobs coming from unexpected directions were not unusual. Isolated miners paid well for their beef, usually in pure gold right out of their "shammies" (small leather pouches) - with no questions asked.

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This time, though, there was to be no stolen cattle. Stations all over the Aramac Shire donated heads to be auctioned at Roma at the end of the 600-kilometre ride, with the proceeds going to charity. The success of this first drive was such that the shire has since organised one every year (the next drive will be held over three weeks from May 17 to June 6, 2008).

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The revival of long-neglected droving skills was a great idea. As road trains replaced drovers in the mid 1960s, one more pastoral craft was about to vanish.

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A cattle drive revolves around the animals and their needs. A well fed and watered mob will retire for the night like exhausted children. The same goes for the newcomers. Luckily, we city slickers were eased in with care by the patient horsemen, including Graham Woods, who became one of the most important figures on the cattle drive. Woods, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert Redford, was the resident horse whisperer, often called upon to calm an unsettled horse. As the days went by, our mistakes became less frequent. Woods and the stockmen tried hard to convey the message that this was not a muster, that they wanted the cattle to keep their heads down (feeding as much as they could), and that if we were to end up with healthy-looking beasts (that is "fit to be auctioned") at the other end of the trail, we could not strain and stress them. We had discovered the art of droving was a subtle one. One of the concessions made to modern droving was the use of electric fences for the cattle and horse enclosures at night. These were set up every evening and dismantled every morning. In the past, the drovers would have established a night watch with a night horse saddled at the ready to chase after breakaway leaders. Circling the settled cattle, the night watchman might have sung softly to create a wall of sound around the mob, soothing them and letting them know they were being protected. Rushes or stampedes were not uncommon, and could be started by anything, from lightning to wild pigs.

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The need for preservation of the rich language and traditions linked to cattle driving in Australia has been noted by the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, which is compiling an oral history of cattle driving from the stories the old drovers have to tell.

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Although we erected electric fences every night, Lester Cain, the horse tailer, always slept near the horses - just in case. Nobody knew exactly when Cain found the time to write his poems. But the end result was always spellbinding. His poetry was earthy, funny and sharp. The slight stutter he showed in normal conversation vanished while reciting by the camp fire. The boss drover, also a bush poet, could be seen at times absorbed in moments of intense concentration, writing lines in a little notebook he always carried in his shirt pocket. He did this while mounted and watching the animals grazing to their hearts' content. It was around the night fire, after dinner, where the entertainment took place: poetry reading, chatting, or writing in leather-bound, weather-beaten journals. Simply staring at the fire was enough for some before deciding to call it a day and head for the swag. We were blessed with a full moon. The light was so intense, torches were unnecessary. The soft whinnying of the horses in the background was a comforting sound, as my tired muscles finally relaxed inside the cosy swag. There was no need for jarring alarm clocks in the mornings, thanks to the natural sounds of animal stirrings. First up was the camp's cook, traditionally a respected and sometimes feared figure (they can be temperamental), followed by the horse tailer. Despite the electric fences, hydration packs and camp chairs, the boss drover's wish was that some of the old drover ways would rub off on the wannabe ringers now under the spell of those big open skies, the track mirroring the Milky Way above, the cold nights by the roaring fires and unavoidable physical tiredness resulting from a day of outdoor work. But fundamentally, as Woods and all the horse tailers would say: "We must always thank the horses." TRIP NOTES Getting there: The 2008 Harry Redford Cattle Drive starts on May 17 and runs until June 6. The drive takes off from Lake Dunn, heads for Aramac, then to Bowen Downs and ends in Muttaburra, with a big bush celebration. Guest riders can join in at any spot for any length of time (from a day to the whole three weeks). Travel to Barcaldine or Longreach - home of the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Outback Museum - via bus, train or plane, where transport can be arranged free of charge to Aramac or the campsite. Qantas has daily flights to and from Longreach. MacAir also flies into and out of Longreach. The Spirit of The Outback (Rail Australia) visits Barcaldine and Longreach twice a week. Greyhound Australia's coaches service Barcaldine and Longreach regularly. Staying there: Guests bring their own swag. Accommodation is under the stars with guaranteed views. Some prior riding experience is essential. Further information: Horse and tack are provided for the duration of the trip. Cost is $275 per day all inclusive. Aside from the actual cattle driving experience, there are multiple festivities organised at different points of historical interest. For more details, booking forms and to view the 2007 cattle drive pictures see or phone the cattle drive coordinator on (07) 4651 3311. Source: The Sun-Herald Ads by Google

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