Horseback Outback

By Jenny Hontz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 5, 2003

It didn't really hit me until after I'd signed up for the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive that I'd actually have to spend a week on a horse.

Restless for adventure, I figured the Outback was about as far as I could get from my beach pad in Venice, Calif. But the horse part? The only things I'm used to riding are Rollerblades and freeways. My friends didn't help calm my fears, either. Everyone I knew seemed to muster up a horse horror story, and visions of bucking and trampling danced through my head. I signed up for a few riding lessons, but midway through one class, my instructor told me, "This is going to kick your butt."

Good thing I like a challenge. After a two-hour Cessna flight from Adelaide, I landed in Marree, an Outback hub of 80 people, where the 595 cattle, 170 horses and 70 would-be drovers would end their six-week journey.

Marree is a bustling place in those parts, complete with pub, general store and, oddly, a giant wooden camel and makeshift mosque that serves the area's sizable Afghan population. Early in the last century, the rail line ended in Marree, so Afghans -- who'd settled here as farmers and cameliers to help supply goods to the Outback -- transported goods via camel through the rest of the desert. Camels still run wild through the Outback, and dealers sometimes round them up and sell them to Middle Eastern buyers.

As our four-wheel-drive bounced along the dirt road for the 18-mile drive from Marree to the camp, I stared at the barren expanse. There was nothing as far as the eye could see but stony red earth dotted with bursts of chalky saltbush -- no buildings, no people, no power lines and, certainly, no water anywhere. If the horses didn't kill me, thirst probably would.

When we arrived at camp, my fears began to ease. The first thing I saw was a tent labeled "Desert Dial-Up Centre." Inside were three computers caked in a thick film of dust, hooked up to the Internet by satellite. If I can get e-mail, I reasoned, I must be safe. The familiarity of technology soothed me, as did the level of organization and the logistical sophistication of the operation.

The campsite was unlike anything I'd ever seen. Two 18-wheeler trucks converted into bathrooms and showers flanked long rows of tents sheltering sleeping cots with wool blankets and bedding. Another giant tent held picnic tables for dining, and a bar stood outside the dining tent, so guests could buy beer, wine and alcohol after riding.

Each day, we took a four-wheel-drive from Tent City to the horses and back, so the staff only had to dismantle and erect new tent camps once a week or so. Guests weren't expected to do any of this, so the whole experience wasn't as rough as I expected, and my confidence returned.

Luckily, my picture of angry bulls charging a bolting horse was a little off. As Jimmy Crombie, one of the aboriginal culture guides, assured me, "There's nothing to be afraid of. A horse can't hurt you. It's not a crocodile."

Home on the Range

The cattle drive was designed by the South Australia tourism office as a re-creation of the cattle drives of old, before trucks replaced drovers in the 1970s. Australia is the world's largest beef exporter, pumping $1.7 billion into the economy each year. In the old days, drovers -- the equivalent of American cowboys in the Old West -- led about 50,000 cattle to Marree annually, and from there, the cows were railed out to other parts of the country. Hundreds of ringers (so named because they circle the cattle on horseback at night, often whistling to keep the beasts calm) still work on cattle stations today.

I joined the last leg of the excursion, riding alongside Aussie stockmen down the legendary Birdsville Track, one of the main roads for droving cattle from Queensland to Marree in South Australia.

But this wasn't mere nostalgia, sanitized and served on a platter. In spite of the Internet tent and the chef who normally caters for film crews, this was the real thing. Old-time drovers, with drooping mustaches and weathered hats, joined young ringers still working on Outback cattle stations, like one-handed horse tailer Lachlan Cullen, whose shy demeanor only enhanced his Marlboro Man looks.

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