Tuesday 25 August 2020

Dog-gone it

This is a dog spike. Nothing, I'm pleased to report, to do with spiking dogs, but all about railway tracks: you hammer these through a hole in the rail base to fix it to the sleeper. There must be so many of these in the world - imagine, two each side of every sleeper, which are set about half a metre apart along the length of the tracks. You'd need better maths than mine to tot that lot up. Anyway, heaps; so I have no qualms about having souvenired this one back in 2007, in South Australia.
I was taking part in the Great Australian Cattle Drive which has been held every two years since 2002, droughts and global pandemics willing: it's a re-enactment of the old days when herds from stations throughout the back country followed the Oodnadatta Track down to the railhead at Marree, from where they were shipped to market. On our one there were 500 cattle, 150 horses, 12 drovers, 40 staff and 80 guests, and we spent four days on horseback, droving the cattle across the remote plains. We returned each night to our tents at base camp where there were hot showers and flushing toilets on trucks, and a big marquee where we ate excellent meals in cheerful company.
My fellow travel writers were from the UK and Singapore, and they were both rather shocked at first by the conditions - one had brought her loofah, and the other's idea of camping involved, quote, "billowing white curtains". They were great fun and good sports, and I soon came to envy the padded, fluffy Seat Saver that Tahira had bought in London.
We'd met in Coober Pedy, opal capital, where we stayed in an underground hotel that had teeth marks on the ceilings (from the digger, you understand) and then drove out past the Dog Fence that runs for 5,400 kilometres from Queensland across NSW and South Australia, to keep dingoes away from sheep, to join the cattle drive near William Creek (pop. 8).
We were assigned our horses (tall, dark and handsome Harley for me) and tents, and settled into the pattern of breakfast, mounting up, and 'helping' drive the herd of Hereford cattle about 15km each day across the red gibber plains with the actual cowboys ('ringers' in Aussie-speak) - like Whitey, who was 77 and thrilled to be doing again what he'd done for real as a young man. Doing it properly back then meant shoeing the cattle before setting off across the stony Outback - imagine that: 8 shoes per cow.
The big excitement of the trek was the dust storm that struck in the middle of one night, when we all had to evacuate our tents and scuttle to the marquee while the staff ringed the camp with the trucks for protection. "Free dermabrasion," said Tahira, of the stinging red sand. I was smug about wondering, while still in my tent with all the walls flapping, whether I would be a Downunder Dorothy - beginning in Oz, would I end up in Kansas? (Yes, that did make it into my story.)
Yawning, we mounted up the following morning, and, while the staff sorted out the mess, returned to following the herd over salt pans, round unexpected puddles, through sand and stones, past flat-topped hills and astonishing bubbling mound springs.
It was a terrific experience: horses, sunshine, blue skies, red earth, mooing cattle, friendly people, lots of good food and drink. I'm so grateful I got to go on it. And the dog spike - which I picked up when we crossed the old route of the Ghan (which I'd travelled way back in 1974) - reminds me of all that. 

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