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Shifting cattle in the desert

Shifting cattle in the desert

Big Rigs

A helicopter creates a dust cloud through which the mustering bikes roar.

Station manager Peter Nunn sits on the bullbar of his Toyota directing the war plan to muster cattle spread far and wide through desert country, feeding on the sweet grasses between the sandhills of the Strzelecki Desert.

 

The tracks are precarious for a double decker road train.
The tracks are precarious for a double decker road train.

UHF radios crackle as the stock men in the air call in cattle movements to the men and women on bikes, all part of the Clifton Hills stock camp.

"Got a mob of 30 coming down the eastern side," the Queensland drawl of the gyro-copter pilot.

"Sixty head coming out of the channels, you can pick them up at the corner," the helicopter pilot from his Robinson mustering machine.

 

The gyro-copter takes off with a bump and a rattle.
The gyro-copter takes off with a bump and a rattle.

An eagle at 10,000 feet would see a scene of small mobs of stringing cattle coming in slowly, following the sandhills and heading for the yards.

Already Peter Nunn and his boss Neil Dunn are drafting cattle in the yards, breeders to go back bush, weaners to go to a different paddock, a draft of market cattle to head deep into Queensland to where they have been purchased.

We are on Clifton Hills Station in the far north of South Australia, one of the biggest blocks in Australia, 17,000 square kilometres of rolling desert sand hills, great expanses of river floodplains and rich red gibber plains stretching to wide horizons.

 

Station manager Peter Nunn drafts cattle ready for the shift.
Station manager Peter Nunn drafts cattle ready for the shift.

Neil Dunn is a managing partner of Clifton Hills and the principal of Dunn's Earthmoving, a good-sized operation working in the adjacent oil and gas fields.

Dunn is a desert man, grew up on the Birdsville track and over the past decade built a service operation for oil and gas exploration companies, putting in roads, preparing drill sites, building camps.

He has a mixed fleet of trucks, Macks, Kenworths and Cats. Dunn's Earthmoving rode the wave of the resources boom, treaded water with the crash and with the price of oil again building, providing services as oil exploration revitalises as the resources outlook improves.

But today he is wearing his other hat, and you can't help but wonder he is following the real love of his life on a big cattle station.

In modern yards, he and Peter Nunn sort the cattle, cold desert winds cut biting dust through the yards.

Meantime Peter's younger brother, Cameron Nunn, has hooked up the two Haulmark double-decker trailers to a Cat truck and by early afternoon is heading out the rough station tracks, dodging long stretches of water that still lie on the tracks that were turned into small rivers during recent rains.

 

Cam Nunn, truck driver and all-round worker in the Dunn desert operation.
Cam Nunn, truck driver and all-round worker in the Dunn desert operation.

Late afternoon. The day's draft of cattle have been yarded, the gyro-copter and helicopter have flown back to the station for refuelling and preparation for another day's work.

The road train is pulled up at the loading ramp. Cam Nunn and Neil Dunn push the cattle up onto the trucks, it's a race against nightfall to get the cattle through the treacherous roads back to central yards where the market cattle can be loaded onto big road trains to take them to their new homes in Queensland.

Loading is slow, cattle are reticent to walk up onto the top deck but slowly the truck is loaded, Cam slams gates and with the sun hovering over the desert horizon, he is ready to take the loaded outfit to the central yards.

These desert roads are normally accessible for a four deck road train, tracking over the grey-black soil of river flood-out country. But after rain the water lies in treacherous lengths.

Rough detours head out into the bush, often through holey country and always with the rough climb out of the original track.

 

ON THE ROAD: The Dunn's truck heads out through the Strzelecki Desert, transport reduces the distance when there are hundreds of kilometres of station tracks.
ON THE ROAD: The Dunn's truck heads out through the Strzelecki Desert, transport reduces the distance when there are hundreds of kilometres of station tracks.

Cam Nunn has to use steady hands to climb over these graded wind rows at the side of the track, dodging long stretches of water.

Quite okay empty, but with the high centre of gravity of a loaded double-decker road train, the angle and twist of the climb, keeping the power steady without jerks and holding your confidence is a challenge for any driver.

But Cam Nunn pulls it off, and well after dark the cattle are unloaded at the yards.

The stock camp lives in demountable rooms, more like a mining camp than an old-time stock camp.

The stock men and women sit around a fire, settle the dust with a beer or two and wait for great slabs of steak to cook on a huge hotplate.

A day's work done on Clifton Hills station, and even as an observer, after a meal of station beef, it's not hard to fall into deep sleep.

Lying there in a donga room, the ice-cold winter winds wailing outside, there are many worse places to be.