x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Riding into the Outback

Feature Tahira Yaqoob follows the great droving trail of the Australian Outback as she spends five days herding cattle.

In the heat and dust: a group of veteran cowboys started the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive to prevent the old tradition of herding cattle on horseback from dying out.
In the heat and dust: a group of veteran cowboys started the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive to prevent the old tradition of herding cattle on horseback from dying out.

He's called Snoopy but don't be fooled by the name. This mammoth beast has nothing in common with the cartoon character as far as I know. And I have to mount him. Snoopy, half Clydesdale and half goodness-knows-what - centaur? - is my unlikely partner for a five-day trek across the Australian Outback herding cattle and recreating the days when drovers would spend weeks in the saddle to get their stock to market.

The tradition inspired the newly-released film Australia, in which Nicole Kidman plays an English aristocrat who becomes a cowgirl to save her late husband's cattle station, with the help of a drover played by Hugh Jackman. When I joined the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive in South Australia in May last year, the film's director, Baz Luhrmann, had already spent time on horseback on the same expedition, a few days earlier, and had poached one of the drovers to work on set.

I've always wanted to be a cowgirl. Ever since watching one of my favourite films, City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal, in which three friends give up their urban lives to become cowboys, I've longed to get on a horse and shout "yee-hah". It doesn't seem to matter that my only experience of horseriding amounts to donkey rides as a child. The cattle drive caters to riders of all abilities and pairs those taking part with horses to match their experience.

In total, 150 horses, including 80 novice riders like myself, 20 drovers and 526 heads of cattle set out into the strange landscape of the Outback. The extraordinary silence was a reminder that I was away from civilisation. For more than 150 years, cattle were gathered, or mustered, in southern Australia in the same way. Drovers would ride for months to deliver their stock up to 2,500km away in Adelaide. In this uncompromising country, where temperatures soar above 50°C, and some areas have not seen rain for more than three years, the journey remains an arduous one. Since the late 1960s, most of the mustering here has been done by motorbike and on cattle lorries, shortening the journey to 12 hours.

In an effort to prevent an age-old tradition from dying out, a group of veteran cowboys came up with the idea of reviving the cattle drive six years ago, inviting tourists to see how things were done in those day. There is nothing touristy about this experience, however; we are expected to be up at the crack of dawn after a night camping with the drovers and spend up to eight hours per day on horseback helping with the herding.

Over six weeks, the prime beef cattle are herded some 500km along the Oodnadatta track. The drive starts in Oodnadatta itself, an outpost 1,000km north of Adelaide, and cuts a swathe through the Outback to Marree, north-west of the Flinders Ranges, bordering Lake Eyre, the world's largest salt pan. The drive is divided into six legs and I join halfway through on a section called dunes, springs and salt pans. Worryingly, the first three stages have been cancelled because of a severe drought and we are warned that conditions are going to be tough.

I need not have been concerned about being a city slicker as I'm in good company with a motley crew of jackaroos and jillaroos, Australian slang for cowboys and cowgirls. Audrey Simon, 42, a Singaporean socialite whose apartment includes a separate room for her shoes, was expecting the luxury ensuite tents with floating muslin curtains that she had seen in a Condé Nast magazine and whimpers through her first night. Wouter Scheepstra from Holland discovers that he hates horseriding after his first bout in the saddle and retreats to his tent for the rest of the trip.

These are no ordinary tents though. Authenticity ends at their carpeted entrances and they came complete with beds and duvets, while there are trailers with hot running showers and flushing toilets for those who are rather too fond of their creature comforts. Evenings are spent tucking into gourmet fare in a giant marquee complete with a bar and camp library, followed by toasting marshmallows and singsongs around the camp fire.

"There is a lot of nothing out here but it is quite beautiful," Daryl Bell, the boss drover running our trip, says. You can look as far as you want and see nothing." We travel slowly in an awed silence, broken only by the lowing of the cattle jostling for space. The cattle drive takes us through Anna Creek cattle station, which despite being the size of Belgium with 26,000 sq km, has a population of 15. We keep moving, negotiating a path through the desert plains, the horses never going above a walking pace.

Occasionally one of the herd breaks free and tries to make a run for it but the drovers quickly round them up. When we become a little bolder, we try our hand at it too, veering to the outer edges of the herd to pack them back in. I chase one errant member of the pack, then turn in horror as I realise I have made the mistake of getting ahead of the herd instead of staying behind it - a no-no as the horses can panic when 500-odd cattle are stampeding towards them. I freeze while the bellowing herd hurtles towards me, kicking up sand and dust, then spring into action by yanking on the reins and steering Snoopy out of their path. Danger averted, I pat Snoopy gratefully. I have become strangely fond of my mount.

"You did good, girl," Bell says. "Do you think I'd make a good cowgirl?" I ask cheekily. He casts a critical glance at me then harrumphs: "Not in that pink T-shirt you won't." Others don't have such a lucky escape: there are a dozen bumps and bruises and a broken ankle and collarbone. If horses can be unpredictable, so too can the weather when there is nothing but desert for miles around. I'm woken one night by roaring wind and noise outside. I emerge to discover five men trying to prevent my tent from collapsing. Battered by the wind, we retreat to the marquee, where we discover that we have been transformed into terracotta warriors, coated in dust. Next morning, despite the wrecked tents, the peace is restored once again.

Riding on, we come across a carload of female drovers. Bell's daughter Shannon, 22, Prue Fargher, 23, Jessica Kemp and Nicki Stuart, both 25, aren't afraid of getting their manicure-free hands dirty and have never seen the inside of a beauty salon. They make me ashamed of my personal maintenance routine. Their only concession to girlishness is the pink Jeep they drive. They, together with the revived cattle drive, are the only hope of keeping family traditions alive.

"There are a lot of us old ones who don't want to let go," says Daryl Bell. "The world is too fast with computers and everything happening in two minutes but you cannot do anything in seconds here. This is the slow-paced, unrushed life and we want to pass on what we know."

tyaqoob@thenational.ae