Round em up; move em up

West Liechardt Station Mt Isa cattle muster

An exploration of a working cattle station

Mount Isa is an historic and mineral rich, rural town, located in the outback of Queensland where the skies remain blue most of the year making it an ideal climate to undertake some unique activities.

In August every year, since 1959, a bunch of cowboys and girls cling to the backs of wild bulls and horses, wrestle with ornery steers and prove their rope and whip prowess in an attempt to win a place at the famous and largest rodeo event in the Southern Hemisphere: Mount Isa Mines Rotary rodeo.

You can go deep into the ground at the Hard Times Mine and enter the Alimak Cage to explore the many tunnels shaped by boom drills  Try out, first hand, an air-leg drill and feel the earth rumble with the firing of the blast.

While your having fun under the earth experience the underground hospital and museum and try to imagine convalescing in this medical antiquity. We, however, are heading out of town and above the ground.

About 35 kilometres east of Mount Isa, at a sign that says, Lake Julius, we make a turn left off the highway onto a red dirt and gravel road. The barren landscape is dotted with palatial red dirt pyramids — the homes of termites, and tufts of spinifex grass and other flora, whose value is only appreciated by indigenous Australians and the thousands of cattle that live here, somewhere.

We drive for 12 kilometres, our journey slowed by bumpy corrugations and our vision blurred by smears of suicidal locusts, until we reach the sign that announces ‘West Leichardt Station’ and in a few hundred metres we are in front of a homestead. An oasis, surrounded by large mango and ficus trees.

A burly bloke, whose blue shirt says David, comes to greet us. He is one of a handful of volunteer nomads that work at the station and keep it viable. He directs us to an unpowered campsite next to a large dry hole in the ground, under the cooling arms of a large ficus and on top of green, green grass — landscape feature that, us, tropical Queenslanders, take for granted.

Spreading out over 300,000 acres West Leichardt is a working cattle station owned and operated by second generation cattle farmer, Ron Croft, and, his wife, Joan. A few hours later, we meet Ron and Joan and, the other campers and volunteers, and Ron begins his story. “My dad left home and went bush at 9 years of age to become a drover. “He had a dream of having his own property.”

Years later, after he got married, and after the establishment of the Mount Isa mine, Bill and his wife Rose drove a dozen cattle by horseback through the ranges from Cloncurry to their new home, on a few acres just west of Mount Isa.

With 11 cows and a bull they started a small dairy and began selling fresh milk to the local mining communities. A difficult business, in a time without refrigeration. When the cattle numbers increased they moved to West Leichardt Station.

By the late 70’s the number of cattle had increased to about 8,000 to 10,000 breeders. Ron points out the original modest house where he and his sister and brother had grown up. Ron learnt the ropes from his father and eventually took over. Up until last year, he mustered on horseback, but, he says, its impractical now, and the mustering is done by bike and chopper.

Later, before we say goodnight, we arrange to follow David on the first of a series of musterings that take place in the dry season, from March to November. The choppers will start out at daybreak and begin herding the cattle to the drafting yards located some 30 kilometres away.

We make our way back to our site looking up to the most amazing night sky I’ve ever seen. Every constellation is visible, at least the ones I know. There’s nothing more spectacular, or humbling, than an outback night sky.

I set the alarm for 6 am, not for an early start mustering, but to experience the property during the ‘golden hours.’ My eyes close to the sounds of nothing, interrupted only by an eerie howling of wild dogs.

At daybreak we set off for a short walk to the drafting yards and rodeo arena. At a large full dam we meet up with David and another photographer and keen birdwatcher, both hopeful of sighting a few of the one hundred or so birds common to the area.

Its hard to imagine any life being sustained here, especially cattle that not only need to survive but also need to be in prime condition for market. But the cattle eat many of the native perennial grasses that, to the untrained eye, look like tufts of dead grass, and with supplement feeding and some support from the rain gods, this year, they are in good condition.

As the sun’s intensity increases we head back to get ready for the muster. In a 4WD tag-along headed up by David we drive towards Razorback mountain. We look out towards a series of rugged ridges and escarpments that, could, contain mineral deposits of copper and gold.

The Mount Isa region is the world’s largest producer of copper zinc, silver and lead. Some prospecting on the property has taken place over the years, but Ron has not struck it rich. “As far as the eye can see all the ranges, everything you see is part of Ron’s property,” says David over the UHF radio.

We arrive at the mustering yards to the sound of bleating and bellowing. We watch as the chopper pilots undertake a series of well choreographed moves to herd a mixture of cattle, Brahmas, Brangas and Droughtmaster x Brahmas, all started with short horn genetics, last century, which will go to the meatworks, store market or the live export markets. I climb up on top of one of the cattle trucks, camera clicking rapidly, amidst a cacophony of bleating, in an atmosphere of thick dust.

A weaner breaks loose, escaping the dinner plate. “He will be harder to catch next year,” says David. As the last of the cattle are herded, the pilots set down.

The billy is boiling and Lyndal is turning slices of meat on the camp fire. “You’ve only just rounded them up and your eating them already'” Thats not beef,” laughs Ron, “Its Pork.” I wonder what Ron will do when he is no longer able to work. He is 72. Time to retire? “Old farmers don’t retire they just fade away,” he says. 

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