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Sheep herding from the air

Dalgaranga Station-Camp — 2000-08-16

Raindrops beat upon the corrugated iron roof as I open my eyes at 6:00 a.m. I happily roll over and am glad to have made the arrangement to stay, last night. At 10:00 a.m. we are seated at the big table once more and Ingrid serves us hot coffee and fresh, home made bread. We chat in the warmth of the room, without having to watch the clock, and learn from Ingrid about a poisonous plant growing in this area, which could kill the camels if they ate it. ‘I’ll show it to you later,’ Andy says. He is only about 26 years old but has lived a lot already in his young life. Somehow the conversation turns to flying and I ask him lots of questions. ‘Yes, I made my pilot’s licence when I was 17 years old. Since then I’ve flown about 500 hours each year whilst herding the sheep and cattle.’ ‘Do you have your own plane?’ I want to know. ‘Around here almost all the farmers own their own plane, it’s nothing special. The farms are so big that it’s almost impossible to herd all the sheep without one. One hour of flying saves us days and weeks.’ He tells me in his kind and humble way. ‘How are you able to herd sheep from the air?’ ‘The huge areas in which the sheep are held, are fenced. The fences make everything easier to manage and prevent the animals from scattering wildly across an area the size of Scotland. They are better organised in this way, we even have different types of sheep in different paddocks, but it would take too long to explain that in detail. At certain times of the year, the sheep are herded together for sheering, or for any number of other reasons. Then I fly over the particular paddock and look for the sheep, radioing their position then to the sheep herders on the ground. Nowadays, sheep herding is done on motorbike, and I fly in zig zag from west to east or south to north, herding them in the right direction and letting the bikes do the fine work of herding them into a corner of the paddock where they find a gate. It is not unusual for me to sit a whole month in the plane herding sheep during the main season.’ ‘Is the flying dangerous?’ I ask. ‘It’s a lot safer than riding around on the motorbikes. So far I haven’t been in hardly any dangerous situations, but plenty of my mates on the ground have taken a tumble. It just takes a moment to lose concentration and ride against a stump hiding in the grass. That’s usually enough to fly through the air, even without wings,’ Andy answers with a laugh.


Grey clouds race across the farm and empty themselves the whole day. Around midday, Andy offers to take another look at Hardie’s saddle and to weld any possible weak points. ‘Better safe than sorry,’ I say, and help him to drag the iron frame to his well equipped shed. ‘Take a look at that, the frame is completely bent,’ Andy exclaims and points to the spot. ‘Amazing, I didn’t even notice. That wouldn’t have held much longer. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened if the saddle were to break a long way from here.’ I snort. Upon inspection, we find three more places on the frame which are broken. I am flabbergasted. The saddle probably would have fallen to pieces within a days march from here. Who knows, maybe Andy’s eagle eye and expert advice have saved us from a terrible disaster. ‘I’m going to weld a four millimetre thick iron bar onto this break for support,’ he says and begins the job with quick and practised hands. 30 minutes later, the saddle is professionally repaired and hopefully able to hold out another three months, until Jo and Tom replace it with an Afghanistan saddle.

The thick cloud cover disperses a little by late afternoon and a few stray sun rays take the opportunity to shine down through the holes in the sky and dip the farm into a lovely light. Tanja tends to the camels while Andy, Ingrid’s parents and I take a walk to a dam about a hundred metres behind the farm house. Quite unexpectedly, a huge wall of stone rises up in the bush. The water pressure behind this wall must have been quite significant, as a large hole has been forced through its middle, ‘Take a look at how perfectly straight the wall was built. It’s not a millimetre out,’ Andy says and I can’t believe my eyes. ‘The wall was built by Italian prisoners of war, in 1911, in order to collect rain water. The owner of the station at that time always had enough to drink.’ ‘Wow, that’s a great piece of work, considering the simple tools that the men had to work with back then,’ I say in fascination. I slowly cast my eye over the red rock surrounding this monument. ‘The people on the farm must have been very lucky to have survived the break in the dam wall,’ I say, gazing at the blocks scattered on and around the wall. ‘Yes, it must have been a torrential flood only metres from the farm house,’ he answers. As we spring down from block to block, a kangaroo appears on top of the remaining wall and looks at us. Rufus would like to chase him, but I manage to hold him back at the last minute.


‘I want to show you the poisonous plants before you leave tomorrow,’ Andy says, and takes us for a short trip in his Ute. He stops suddenly and points to an unlikely plant on the side of the track. We get out and inspect the plant closely. ‘As far as I know, it’s a breelya bush. Notice the ragged leaves? They look like kites. That’s why we call it kite-leaf. A sheep will die if it eats enough of this plant, and it’s deadly for cattle. Make sure you never tie your camels to one of these kite-leaf plants overnight. Earlier, the farmers took great care to protect their animals from eating this plant, and pulled every one out that they found and burnt it. We still lose a sheep every now and then, but it’s not worth the effort to send men out in search of them anymore. It’s important for you to know that almost all plants with leaves growing opposite one another on the stem, instead of displaced along either side, are poisonous and you should keep the camels away from them at all costs.’ Tanja and I look at one another in shock. Without realising it, we have found ourselves amidst dangerous vegetation. Friends have been meaning to send detailed information about the dangerous plants of Australia, but for some reason haven’t done it yet. We had requested that Jo and Tom bring the information with them during our last conversation. Once we pass the Tropic of Capricorn, a little to the north of Canarvon, we will find a lot more dangerous plants and will know how to deal with them.

Day: 97






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