The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive gives wannabe cowboys the thrill of a lifetime, as they trek down the legendary Birdsville Track on a cattle-droving adventure.
Dating from the 1880s, the 514 km route connects Queensland’s Birdsville station to Maree in South Australia, passing through the Simpson Desert and along the Diamantina River, in a journey through the vast Australian interior.
Every few years from April to June, tourists and drovers face oppressive conditions and wayward cattle in the ultimate Aussie experience, following an historic trail first blazed by pioneers more than a century ago.
The Australian Outback is the geographical and spiritual heart of Australia, an uncompromising wilderness as large as Western Europe.
It is flat and unforgiving but filled with great beauty and plentiful wildlife, with deserts and salt lakes that are home to kangaroos and snakes. This is the ancient land at the heart of the Aboriginal Dreamtime.
In all the emptiness, the lonely Birdsville track joins Marree in South Australia to Birdsville in Queensland, 500 km north, passing through the burning centre of the continent. Birdsville, with a permanent population of just one hundred, is the service centre for the outlying cattle stations, and arguably most famous for having one of the remotest pubs in the world.
The arrival of the railway in Marree in 1884, and the subsequent boring of waterholes for livestock established the Birdsville Track as Australia's greatest droving route, along which cattle raised on the interior plains were taken south to the railhead and to market. For many years, droving was the only way of moving stock such long distances, and the track experienced a heyday, passing into national folklore. But with the advent of roads and road trains, traditional droves ended in 1972.
Recognising a potential to increase media exposure in the area, the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive was revived as a tourist experience in 2002, as part of the Year of the Outback celebrations. The man chiefly responsible was Keith Rasheed, a drover who once worked on cattle stations around Birdsville. While the costs of the drive, estimated at over a million dollars, meaning it was unlikely to bring great financial rewards, Rasheed felt it was worthwhile thanks to the publicity it generated for the region. "It's a marketing tool – a showcase event,” he said. Besides this, the cattle themselves are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when sold.
The 2005 Cattle Drive was led by Shane Oldfield, an experienced station manager and drover. He had authority over a massive convoy, which consisted of well over 500 head of cattle of several different breeds - including Hereford, Angus, Brahman and Shorthorn - and around 170 horses (a local breed bred especially to cope with the conditions), the latter ridden by drovers, farriers, horse trailers, and groups of up to 70 tourists.
The tourists ride with the drovers for an average of four to six days each, gaining hands-on experience of life as it was in bygone days and learning secrets of horsemanship that have been passed down from father to son. The drive caters for all visitors, even those who have never sat on a horse before.
Setting out from Birdsville in April, the drive took six weeks to wend its way south, and each day brought something new to those who took part.
The drovers woke up at dawn each day and continued until mid-afternoon, moving the cattle around 15 km in the process. The daily distances covered were not great, and the speed never ventured above walking pace, but this suited the cattle, who were given a chance to eat along the way, and so arrive at the end in optimum condition. Shane Oldfield was quite clear about the importance of making slow progress. "These horses and cattle have to go 500 kilometres,” he said at the start, “so I don't want you knocking them about."
Adding more local colour to the event was Eric Oldfield, Shane’s second cousin and head drover of the last commercial cattle drive before the big trucks took over. Now in his seventies, he rode along, and regaled everyone each evening with tales of the golden age. Other locals recounted stories about Aboriginal history and culture in the region.
While the well-being of the animals was of paramount importance, and they were looked after by a team of onsite vets, the comfort of the paying guests was certainly not neglected. The drovers may have had to sleep rough and eat with the cattle, but the tourists were offered a little more luxury, in the form of tents with carpeted floors, and nearby hot showers and flushing toilets. Campsite staff provided tasty food and cold beer, which soon distracted everyone from thoughts of saddle-soreness and the discomfort of life on the trail. The traditional Aussie campfire, around which most people gathered each evening, not only created a convivial atmosphere, but also provided welcome heating. Though days in the Outback are usually warm and sunny, temperatures fall quickly after sunset and nights can be cold.
After six weeks in the saddle, the circus finally reached Marree. On arrival, the cattle were separated by their owners and auctioned off, for an average price of A$440 per head. The horses were also sold, fetching between A$500 and 1000, while the saddles used went for A$1000 each.
Following the Cattle Drive, Marree’s population swelled from just 300 to around 7,000. People came from all over to watch the auction and enjoy a big communal picnic, and also for a concert by Slim Dusty, an Australian country music legend who, at over 80 years of age, has recorded over one hundred CDs.
But the lingering highlight for most visitors is the opportunity to escape the rigours of modern living - the Track is one of the few places in the world still lacking mobile phone coverage. Instead, the fresh air, silence, and wide-open spaces allow everyone to unwind, celebrating a way of life that has passed into history.
More details are available from: http://www.cattledrive.southaustralia.com.