Seventeen-year-old station ringer Kody Taylor puts the bike of the station manager’s son through its paces in Far North Queensland. Kody hoped to be a champion bull rider and boxer until an injury cut his sporting career short. (Benjamin Rutherford)
During roundup season, scenes in the Australian Outback are straight out of the dystopian action film “Mad Max.” Where once the mustering of cattle was done on horseback, now it involves a Frankenstein-like horde of modified 4x4s, motorcycles and helicopters.
This is how photographers Benjamin Rutherford and Josh Cunliffe experienced it as they captured the lifestyle for their project “Bushland.” Because the rations and resources on the Queensland and New South Wales stations, or ranches, are reserved for workers, Rutherford and Cunliffe decided to also gain firsthand experience as ringers, the Australian term for cowboys. It’s dangerous, backbreaking work, and Rutherford says they experienced a few close calls themselves.
The driest spells mean a herculean battle to drive livestock to water sources without the animals collapsing in the heat. Even the waterholes can be deceptive: As they dry up, they can turn into deadly traps for cattle that sink into the sludge attempting to slake their thirst.
There is a feeling among those in the cattle industry that they basically live in a different country from the rest of Australia, says Rutherford. However, life in the Outback is morphing in ways not dissimilar to how urban life is changing: technological advances and work/life-balance problems also encroach. Robots may herd cows in the future or be used to monitor the health of livestock. And easy access to statistics on herds can create the temptation to constantly check up on their well-being through electronics even when off the clock.
But for the most part, Australia’s ringers and station managers live in the same vein that they have been for hundreds of years. They depend on a land that both gives and takes, and the lifestyle can be both rewarding and punishing. And just like the cattle, sometimes they have no choice other than to move forward.
See more of Rutherford’s work, which was previously featured on In Sight: “This illegal practice has overtaken trophy poaching in depleting wildlife in Zambia.”
Miss Rodeo 2015 rides into the stadium to open the weekend rodeo at Bowen River in eastern Queensland. (Benjamin Rutherford) A station manager yards up the day’s muster with her bull whip in Queensland. (Benjamin Rutherford) Sixteen-year-old cattle station ringer Jasmine Noble in central Queensland. (Benjamin Rutherford) Argyle Station, a property north of Julia Creek, North East Queensland, seen from its owner’s plane at sunrise. (Josh Cunliffe) A mob of cattle crosses a small creek during a muster operation. (Benjamin Rutherford) Ringer Lachlan Wallace pushes up the tail of a large mob of cattle during a muster in Cape York. The majority of mustering is done on quad motorbikes and dirtbikes. (Benjamin Rutherford) Lachlan Wallace “sticks” a feral boar as his pig hunting dog Cindy holds it down in Cape York. Pig hunting is a popular sport amongst young men living in rural areas. Feral pigs are seen as a large problem for cattle stations. (Benjamin Rutherford) A bull’s blood pools on the dust of Keswick Station near Julia Creek. Its meat, later poisoned, was dropped from an aircraft along the station’s borders and its neighboring properties to kill feral pigs and dogs, which frequently hunt down young calves and older cattle. (Josh Cunliffe) A wild bullock tied to a tree fights to free itself after being captured in Cape York. (Benjamin Rutherford) Station ringer Chloe Anderson holds the front leg of a freshly slaughtered animal. The meat will serve as the station’s food for the next three weeks. (Benjamin Rutherford) A dead young calf found in a dried up stream. Some of the waterholes on which farmers are reliant turn into a deadly trap for thirsty cattle. North Queensland is at the end of its fourth year of drought; waterholes that were once half full can dry up in a matter of days. (Benjamin Rutherford) A young bull rider waiting atop his bull watches another contestant’s ride at the Bowen River Rodeo in eastern Queensland. (Benjamin Rutherford) A station manager in central Queensland. (Benjamin Rutherford) A truck driver walks along the top of his trailers, shutting and bolting the gates between the decks that cattle fill as the morning passes. (Josh Cunliffe)
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