Skimming no more than a two feet above the water McGoo Little darts his tiny Robinson helicopter into a pocket of underbrush along the edge of the legendary, crocodile infested Mitchell River. He prods out a Brahman bull with the skid of his “heli” while simultaneously leaning out of the cockpit and firing rubber bullets at the rump of another recalcitrant bull — Welcome to a typical day in Northern Queensland’s Outback.
By Thomas Wilmer
My second day on the Wrotham Park cattle station in Northern Queensland (350 km west of Cairns), I awoke groggily to what at first thought was the sound of a gargantuan mosquito buzzing above my head. As the gnat-like drone intensified, I realized it was the buzz of an approaching Robinson R-22 helicopter.
I understood the economic viability of utilizing helicopters (“helis” as they’re fondly referred to by Aussies) to muster (round up) cattle. But it wasn’t until I stood on a bluff top with the cattle station manager and surveyed the surrounding terrain and the mountain range in the far, far distance that I began to comprehend the size of space out here–and the helicopters’ invaluable role in Australian Outback cattle operations. My host casually pointed to a distant, smudged mountain range and said, “the boundary of our station is way beyond the far side of those hills.”
That’s when I realized that without the aid of helicopters the station would have to employ a battalion of ringers (ranch hands). Walking along the banks of the Mitchell River, a heli zipped out from behind a towering row of eucalyptus. It hovered low overhead for a moment, like a raptor, then arced and nose dived. At the last second the craft careened along the bluff-top and then gingerly descended to within inches of the Mitchell River. The pilot, McGoo Little, nimbly danced his flying machine–skirting around and then under an overhanging canopy of gargantuan trees at river’s edge.
In pursuit of four recalcitrant Brahman bulls, McGoo drew up real close to the rear guard. He then nursed his craft right up to the rump of a two thousand pounder and pushed and prodded him with the helicopter’s starboard skid. McGoo’s prey was pissed but reluctantly ambled on out from underneath the overhanging branches and lumbered across the river. The other recalcitrant bulls stood fast. That’s when I saw McGoo lean out of the cockpit, clutching a shotgun. With a flash and a blast he fired off a round of rubber bullets at the rumps of the holdouts—it worked.
The station manager radioed McGoo, announcing that I wanted to meet him as the heli skittered across the Mitchell, zoomed up an embankment and hovered above a holding pen. The craft spun 180-degrees like a determined dragonfly and dropped to within an inch of the fence. A gate had been left open and McGoo was gently closing it with the helicopter’s skid.
He then set the craft down atop a small gravel-bar in the middle of the Mitchell. He hopped out, sloshed ashore, barreled up to me, stuck out his hand, smiled like a jovial pirate and said, “Real good to meet yah mate!”
McGoo explained that even with the aid of a helicopter it averages three months to complete a mustering at Wrotham. The heard of 35,000 head would eventually be corralled in 23 separate “yards”. Station personnel include approximately 23 Stockman, ringers, jackaroos, and jillaroos (greenhorns) at the main camp with another six or seven ringers working remote stock camps. “Two ten-hour days heli-mustering and we might be able to bring in 3,500 head.” McGoo proclaimed proudly. McGoo added, “Mate, by any other means it would take a mob of ringers a hell of a lot longer to muster ‘em.”
Most of the ringers ride horseback and ATVs but McGoo noted the two-story-tall matted-jungle masses of Rubber vines that form sometimes acre-wide swathes of brush and bramble that serve as superb cattle hideouts–completely inaccessible by horse or ATV. And then there are sheer-cliff sections along the Mitchell that also make river access impossible by horseback or ATV.
Even though the skies were blue and the weather sublime with daytime temps lingering in the low 90s during my three day stay, the more I listened to the stockmen’s tales, the more I appreciated the brutality of the “wet” season in Queensland’s Outback. When you consider soil’s fragile ecology, and the often-sparse plant-life, combined with the intense monsoonal weather that can produce months of virtually non-stop rainfall, the world out here can rapidly transform from sublime to downright treacherous.
In the Land of OZ, an exceptionally rainy season is recalled as “The Big Wet”. Soon after the monsoon season arrives, the Mitchell River rises from a benign stream to a raging serpent that relentlessly scours the riverbanks. Rivulets rapidly turn to large creeks and the Mitchell’s sandy riverbanks erode at a sobering rate. The hardpan bluff-top crust is often less than a half-inch thick, and once it’s penetrated the water cleaves through the sandstone like a hot knife through butter. By the end of the wet season as much as 44 inches of rain has propelled the never-ending process of etching the Mitchell’s cliffs into micro Grand Canyons.
“The ringers who make it out here,” says McGoo, “are the ones with cheerful, can-do anything-goes attitudes. Those are the blokes who make it. The others last a season, if that, and then they just slither back to The Big Smoke—Sydney or Cairns or wherever they came from.”
For most who live in the Outback, it can be a five-hour drive to the nearest town and an hour or two to reach your nearest neighbor. The closest village to Wrotham, Chillagoe, is 80 kilometers away.
Paradoxically, the remoteness and isolation serves to strengthen the camaraderie and hones the socializing skills and verbal banter amongst local folk when they do manage to get together for a rodeo, a dance or festival. I repeatedly observed a formidably tenacious work ethic among the Outback’s denizens, but simultaneously there remains a relaxed pace and a readiness to smile and laugh as well as an innate inquisitiveness about others and life in general.
McGoo’s reading and writing skills are self-admittedly minimal, but that didn’t stop him from struggling to escape his minimum-wage work as ringer. He spent $30,000 and four years studying and taking flying lessons before receiving his helicopter pilot’s license. When I met him he’d been flying for seven years, but to watch his acrobatics, you’d think he’d been airborne for decades. One evening, I caught up with McGoo and his fellow pilot, Matt Wright, sitting at the bar, “having a shout” (Aussie for having a drink) after a ten-hour day of aerial mustering. We’d just downed a second round when McGoo and Wright asked if I happened to watch them bull wrestling early that morning. “Missed it,” I replied.
McGoo noticed my curiosity, explained, “What we do, is when we spot an errant bull, we’ll land our helis and quickly run behind a tree. Then we’ll start to taunt and goad the bull in hopea of convincing him to charge us. Our hope is to tempt him to veer left or right at the last moment–as we’re ready and waiting with a noose rope. We’ll snag ’em around the horns and try our best to quickly double-wrap the other end of the rope around the tree before we get gored. Not much roping of bulls from the saddle in these parts.”
I asked McGoo if he’d ever crashed. “Does fixed wing count?” he responded quizzically before adding with a grin and a chuckle, “”If it does, why yes, I stuffed one last Wednesday. It stalled out while making a tight turn. And then I suppose I’ve stuffed about three helis.” He confessed his mishaps with a sheepish smile, and no more concern than if I had been inquiring about parking tickets.
After dinner and another pint we walked outside and hung out in the balmy moonlit night, sitting atop a high bank above the meandering Mitchell. As we gazed across the slithering surface, McGoo said, “Yah know, in addition to giant barramundi, there are crocodiles down there. During mating season they’ll swim all the way up from the ocean, about 400 kilometers downstream from here. Why we’ve even seen sharks swimming around up here during the wet season—they too meander up from the sea.”
As McGoo ambled off to the bunkhouse, he turned and advised, “Remember mate, there are two rules in Australia, never go near the edge of the water—whether a river or the ocean.”
Wrotham Park Station
Cairns MC, Queensland, 4871
Ph: 07 4094 8333
Fax: 07 4094 8326
Email: [email protected]