Head ’em Up

Head ’em Up

By Evelyn Ellis. 

It’s around seven am when we hit the road for home. With just about four hundred kilometres to travel, it’s good to hit the road early. The morning air is crisp, the sky a brilliant postcard blue. It’s my turn to drive and I’m cautious, watching out for kangaroos. Their grey/brown coats are perfect camouflage against the dried grass of the roadside, often they’re not seen until the last moment. Road kill along the way shows they have little sense of self-preservation. Instead of staying in safety, they can suddenly bound across the road, so I need to be alert.

The rough sign leaning against a road marker warns “Cattle droving ahead”.

“Gee, I get all the best bits”, I say, rolling my eyes at Peter.

“You’ll be fine,” he said. “You’ve driven through big mobs of sheep before, just take your time and let them go past.”

“Well, I guess it breaks the monotony.”

We’re heading home after a three week holiday near Coolangatta, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales. We always take our time getting there and coming back, usually four days driving each way through outback Queensland. By using the inland route we avoid the busy coast road. The road we’re on now, between Clermont and Charters Towers, is mainly straight. Tonight we’ll stay in Charters Towers and just have a short hour and a half’s drive tomorrow to reach home.

There’s no traffic so early in the morning. The flat country is uninteresting: scrub, gum trees, grasslands and groups of cattle grazing or gathering by water holes.
I pass another cattle droving sign and after a long straight come around a corner and am faced with about one thousand beasts straggling along the road.

“Here we go,” I said.

“Remember, just take your time,” Peter replied. He unwrapped a barley sugar. “Here,  have a lollie”.

I sucked on the sweet and reflected that a cattle drive is something you don’t see every day. There are many stock routes that cut across country but in areas where these don’t exist the roads are used. I’ve always thought it amazing that cattle traveling like this, and on the road for weeks, can arrive at their destination in better condition than if they’d been trucked. A couple of years ago a drive brought eighteen thousand head of cattle from Longreach in Queensland to Hay in New South Wales, a distance of around a thousand kilometres. Today, three stockmen are keeping this herd of cattle moving forward. It’s a fairly slow pace, as the animals are only capable of traveling, at most, ten kilometres a day.

The only way to drive through cattle is slowly and carefully. Really, you’re better to just come to a complete stop and let them go past, which I do. Within minutes large bovine bodies surround the car and the air fills with the stench of manure and urine. Hooves clattering on the roadway, moos, bellows and roars drown out any possibility of conversation. Most of the herd passes by, but one monstrous Brahmin cow stops directly in front of the car. She regards us with eyes like pools of rich, caramel sauce beneath long dark eyelashes. Her hide is a greyish-white colour. She has long droopy ears and a dangling dewlap which looks like an empty flour bag. If she decided to charge our small Toyota Corolla she’d do a fair bit of damage. Thankfully, after a few seconds, she flicks her tail, utters a mournful bellow and eases past my open window.

Gradually the herd passes and we’re in the clear. One of the stockmen, riding his horse along the ridge to my right, raises a hand in salute. He could be straight out of a Remington painting of the old West. We feel like we’re part of history as we drive on through the bright morning.

“Remember that old show, back in the days of black and white television?” I asked. “Frankie Lane used to sing the theme song.”

“You mean, Rawhide?”

We start singing “Head ‘em up, round ‘em out” then forget the rest of the words and start laughing.

A short distance up the road my driving stint is over and Peter takes over. He gets to drive over and through the mess the cattle left behind. First job when we arrive at our destination will be to head to the car wash.

About Evelyn

Evelyn is a widow who lives in North Queensland, Australia and enjoys writing, reading, gardening and traveling. This is just one of the stories from a time when she and her husband traveled the roads of Queensland’s outback every year on their annual holiday.

Picture by iquanyin2.

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