Text and photography by Eric Pasquier
In the depths of the Australian Bush, the cowboys of yesteryear have become Jackaroos: helicopter pilots who fly in formation over cattle and road trains.
Ultra-modern technology costing millions of dollars has entered the world of cattle breeding.
Bringing with it a new generation of heroes: the flying cowboys.
He strides, Clint Eastwood fashion, beneath the burning sky. Eyes screwed up in the glaring light, cowboy hat stuck firmly on his head.
He is not getting ready to jump onto his horse, however, but to climb into his flying machine.
The Western heroes of yesterday have given way to the equally brave, equally macho Jackaroos who combine the technology of modern times with their tough life as cattle breeders in the Australian Bush. They are the riders of the sky.
With 120,000 heads of cattle scattered across the ochre territories of the north, health and sanitary checks are essential.
Victoria River Downs (VRD) is a huge enclosure, 12,000 km² in size where each year cattle is brought for branding and checks.
The flat horizon becomes covered in a thick cloud of dust.
The sound of an engine is heard before the first helicopter appears; followed by one, two, three, four others.
A fleet of roaring choppers is heading straight for the nervous cattle.
Like giant dragonflies, the steel insects come and go in a way that slowly becomes ominous.
They suddenly appear over the tops of the trees, zig-zagging with ease between the trunks as they give chase to a galloping cow, frightened by the chopper’s skates herding it forward.
Only a few years ago, it was cowboys who rode furiously behind the cattle, rounding them up before herding them into enclosures.
Now, a single helicopter can accomplish in a day what previously took fifteen.
The idea of helicopters being used to help breeders, originated in the United States during the ‘Sixties and was soon copied in Australia.
With its vast, undulating territories, it had every argument for adopting the method. One hundred and fifty helicopters throughout the country now take part in mustering, the latest way of rounding up cattle.
Two stations, amongst the biggest in the country, share most of the services they provide between them: VRD and Planet Downs, Queensland, that has 12,000 heads of cattle on 450 km² of land. The latter station is run by the Bloxam family, headed by father and son.
Every year when the dry season comes round, the gigantic ballet begins: “It’s really exciting, completely different from any other kind of flying,” a pilot tells us.
Although Planet Downs still uses horses and jeeps as well as helicopters, VRD uses its fleet of 6 choppers exclusively. With a turnover of $3 million, the ‘Heli-Muster’ company set up business on the station with 28 machines, for the benefit of neighbouring cattle breeders.
The choppers clock up 14,000 flying hours per year. Mustering rounds up 1,5 million heads of cattle every year. Helicopter flights cost $280 per hour.
Prices reflect the risky nature of the job. “In the beginning, a lot of guys got killed, pushing the machines – and themselves – over the top.
Some still fly too low…” says Mick Kendall, a typical bush pilot nick-named ‘Dundee’ by his friends.
Aged 37, he earns $50,000 for six months’ work involving 1000 flying hours. “It’s not a job just any pilot can do.
One has to have clocked up at least 160 hours to be employed by the company, as well as knowing something about engines so as to be prepared for flying incidents and how cattle react to the choppers.
The young guys who come here from town know nothing about the job!”
Dundee’s best friend, Dave Henry, 35 – Jackaroos stop when they reach 40 – also successfully changed jobs. He used to drive a road train: the giant trucks that also transport cattle to the markets of Katherine. He has 4000 flying hours to his credit and 5 years’ experience.
“Every 2000 hours, the machines must be overhauled.
Replacing the blades costs $70,000! The most popular, solid and easy to handle chopper at the moment is the Korean M.A.S.H. model. Price: $10,000.”
It is early morning and already hot. Dundee is packing his supplies: a big thermos of strong coffee, a survival kit in the event he crashes in the desert, a big knife and a Magnum 757 should he meet a crocodile: “Accidents are nearly always caused by piloting mistakes.”
Dundee is not the kind of guy to make mistakes.
450 Kilometres away in VRD, 5000 heads of cattle are waiting to be rounded up. It is surprisingly cool in the plastic-domed cockpit. A few seconds later, Dundee is flying over the countryside at a height of 2000 feet, leaving a long line of road trains to eat up the dust below him. He is soon joined by two other choppers.
The pilots exchange knowing signs. The synchronised machines lean to the right, lean to the left before diving suddenly into a clearing, skimming low across the ground before emerging on the other side in an aerial twist. The radar has lost contact with Judas, a cow that has strayed from the herd. As the choppers go in search of her, they liaise by radio.
Once the animal has been located, it is returned at breakneck speed to the herd, the chopper’s skates almost touching its horns as they urge it on. Sometimes, the Jackaroos spend the night outdoors. Just like the cowboys of old, they gather round a camp fire… and continue their route the morning.
Its mission accomplished, the chopper rears up like a horse heading for home and returns to the station. All the machines are checked in the hangars each day.
The Jackaroos gather in the ‘mess’ for a drink, chatting about their day: the dangers, the feats, the rivalries; an atmosphere that is at once stuffy, electrifying and thrilling.