Our new employers demoted us just about immediately upon arrival. Tasked with a simple fix in the shop, I broke all three parts of the component. Ivana rolled the pickup truck. Then she jumped at the opportunity to use an electric saw—“I helped build the bathrooms in Honduras!”—and promptly cut a four-inch gash into the picnic table she was bracing the piece of plywood on. I lied and said that I’d ridden a motorbike before, and as I didn’t understand how to operate a choke, when Ben instructed me to “please move that red one over there,” I labored to get the bike started. Sweat beaded on my forehead. Then, with an audience of Ben, Caitlin, David, Jimmy, and the big boss, Robin, I casually drifted six feet down an embankment. Just slowly rolled down the hill with my hand on the brake while everyone stood by and watched.
Ivana and I are very nice, but they viewed us like kidney stones: wondering when we would go ahead and pass through. Immediately I established my incompetence by not knowing the difference between beef cattle and dairy cattle. “So, when I drink milk,” I asked, head cocked to one side, “it comes from a different cow than the ones you have out here?”
Often, a group of guys would assemble and head off in one direction together. “Where are you going?” I’d ask, a hopeful note in my voice.
“The cattle need drafting.”
“Y’all need a hand?” I started trotting behind them.
“Naw, we’re aw-rot.”
And my remarks in social settings didn’t earn me any points either. During our lunch break one day at the yards, Ben was discussing the value of well-bred weaners (young cattle who have recently become independent from their moms) on the Indonesian market versus the value of other cattle that a good muster would bring in. I looked up from my sausage roll and replied, “Ha! Ben said wieners!”
In most cases, they preferred to be a man short than to have Ivana or me around. On days we weren’t out in the paddocks gathering cattle, this meant the lowly chores that no one else wanted fell to us. I became a fencing pro. Ivana, without thinking, in her eagerness to please, did an immaculate job on her first day of cleaning and thenceforth had a scrubber in her hand a couple days a week.
We had been so excited about participating in the muster. It was more than just a longing to play modern cowboy. Over the course of my travels, I’d become fascinated by the cow. In Hinduism, cattle are considered sacred, and for good reason. The cow is a beautiful animal, an animal that stays out of the way, that provides much and asks little, that doesn’t bother anyone unless isolated and provoked.
But cows are also very stupid. It’s amazing to me how quickly they fall into line along a fence to trot off to—well, who knows where? Little do they know what lies ahead (The beginning of a new civilization on a new planet? Testing a new kind of yummy hay? Vegan ranchers?), yet they’re happy to make their way in that direction. Together a mob of cattle represents one extremely mighty unit, with the potential to easily overtake those roughnecks straddling motorbikes behind and to the side; yet there they remain, together, trotting along slowly to their doom, ignorant of their unified power.
Does a smart animal allow itself to be mustered, coerced into a group to be spayed, castrated, dehorned, and sent off to be butchered in some foreign land? I should certainly say not.
Kangaroos? They know better. Consider the great quantity of kangaroos on the million-acre Warrawagine station. Every day, everywhere, you see couples, families, troops of kangaroos poking their heads out of the tall spinifex bushes and around little trees. Their ears perk up, their head jolts right and then left, their noses lifting to the wind. And they are off.
Kangaroo meat is tender and delicious. If you substituted ground kangaroo for ground beef the next time you make meatballs, it would take a snobby palate to disapprove of the change. And it’s also healthy. While beef glides straight into my arteries, kangaroo meat boasts high levels of protein and just 2 percent fat. Conjugated linoleic acid, prevalent in kangaroo meat, features anticarcinogenic and antidiabetic properties and has been proven to reduce obesity.
But do you think kangaroos allow themselves to be mustered? No, ma’am. You try to muster a kangaroo and he or she is most likely to punch you in the face and then proceed to hop off in one of a number of different directions.
Cattle, though? I’ve seen an isolated steer on the opposite side of a barbed-wire fence actually take a running start so he could jump that fence to join the mob. “Hey, where are you guys going? Can I come, too?”
Mustering cattle in Western Australia is not like the Old West. Motorbikes have replaced the horses of yesterday, along with a single-engine Cessna and off-road buggies and pickup trucks and helicopters chopping through the air. Two-way radios hang on every man’s shoulder, silent one moment and blaring the next: “Get down here to the creek! I got two clean skins running loose!” It’s exciting, quick-paced work. It’s rewarding. The kind of dream job where pleasure matches occupation. Over dinner, these guys actually discuss their day with gusto, often their mouths full of steak; they get paychecks to do what tourists would readily pluck out their MasterCards to join in on.
I came to Australia wanting to hop on a bike. I wanted to buzz across the outback, hot on the heels of six hundred cattle. I mean, how exciting is that, right? Yeah, so anyway, there I was in Australia, keeping this mob in check over on the flats, and my man in the chopper calls for me to get down to the creek. I grabbed four gears straightaway so I could help him out with this scrubber who wouldn’t budge.
But it wasn’t meant to be. After sliding down the hill in front of everyone that first day, Scott put me at the helm of a buggy and Ivana in the passenger seat. A buggy that rocked with seismic intensity every time you drove off into the bush. A buggy that sucked in dirt like a magnet. A buggy with no heat for chilly mornings or AC for hot afternoons. A buggy with no relief from the wind. A buggy without the excitement of going off sweet jumps or racing down a flat laneway.
There was one thing, though, about the buggy, an opportunity to check off item number ninety-three on the List o’ Good Times: castrate a wild bull. A buggy spends most of its day on the grated road along the fence line, slowly driving the mob home and hollering at the laggards to get their ass in gear.
But then Scott called from the chopper, voice crackling over the radio. “Adam, you on channel?”
“Can you see me?”
I kept one hand on the wheel and twisted my head out the window. He was hovering a half a kilometer a way, windshield reflecting in the sun. “Yeah, I see you.”
“Get back here under my tail!”
“On my way.”
The mob was calmly trotting in the proper direction, their bellies vibrating and heads low. I spun the wheel and headed toward the chopper. Ivana fumbled to grab the camera to later prove to my friends that the ensuing events really did happen.
I reached Scott’s location out in the bush, and dammit if he didn’t have this little bull running wild under his landing skids. Cattle, fearful of the powerful thwak-thwak-thwak of a helicopter, run in the opposite direction—and eventually into the rest of the mob plodding peacefully along the fence line. Still, occasionally you’ll get one that bucks the rules.
I paced up alongside this micky as he sped up. I eased my foot on the gas, keeping time with his unsteady jog. He busted into a full sprint, back hooves hurling dust and grass behind him. I pressed my toes to the floorboard. The buggy’s engine roared in protest but kept me by the bull’s side. The micky took a slight turn left, and I did, too, as I had my front right fender just off to the left of his backside. Handling cattle is all geometry. In the yards, out in the paddocks, doesn’t matter—handling cattle is all about managing angles.
My fender raced inches—inches!—from the brown fuzzy hair on his side. Leaning forward and to the side toward Ivana to get a better assessment of our position, I twisted the steering wheel right, giving his rear quarters a gentle nudge. The back half of his body swerved, jarred from the tap from my right fender, and his legs buckled. He went down in a heap, hind legs rolling over his body. I came to a stop and then inched forward. He lay on the ground, sides heaving, momentarily incapacitated, while I tapped the breaks and then slowly slid the nose of the buggy over the front half of his body to lock him down. His hind legs rested on the outside of the front tires. This had been my opportunity to shine, and, pop the champagne, I nailed it.
“Nice work, Adam!” Scott yelled into the radio. He set the helicopter down thirty yards off and exited, knife in hand. I hopped out of the buggy and met him by the micky’s heaving side.
Scott handed me the blade. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that there was a glint in his eye. Oh, how I would have loved for my own father to have been there to witness this. The sound of the chopper blades was the only noise now as I slowly crept around to approach the beast. Scott bent down behind him and raised his back leg, exposing his genitals. I was careful to pierce this bull’s sack and remove his bollocks without nicking any vital arteries or veins, which could cause him to slowly and painfully bleed to death. I cut a tiny slit in the left of his scrotum and pushed out his left testicle. He kicked once, but Scott maintained his grip on the bull’s leg. I cut a tiny slit in the right side of his scrotum and pushed out his right testicle. His blood speckled my hands, but despite his upset lowing, he was going to be fine. Scott, smiling, gave me a single nod of approval. Nothing else to say. I grabbed a rag from my back pocket to wipe my hands, hopped back in the buggy, reversed it, and let the now-steer rise leisurely on his own. Calmer now, he gathered his bearing and trotted off to join the mob. Ivana, beaming with pride, kissed me on the cheek.
And then my alarm clock woke me from my slumber. Dammit.
Instead, in real life, Scott greatly, greatly overestimated my intuition of the what-to-dos and how-to-do-thems of rolling and castrating a bull. He called for me to get on my skates. “Adam! Are you fucking kidding me driving like that! Get your ass over here under my tail!” Scott cursed on the radio once out of every three or four musters and usually at me.
“On my way.”
I arrived at the scene, eyes wide and heart racing at the opportunity. I took a generous turn around the left side of the micky, hit the gas hard, and rammed him. He rolled straight through the wire fence, long legs flailing as he flipped into the neighboring paddock. Picture a potato going through a masher and coming out whole on the other side. That poor bastard. He stood up, stunned long enough to snort air out of his nose as if forcing a sneeze, gave me a quick, dark-eyed once-over, and loped off into the other paddock, free to spread his seed until the next year’s muster.
Scott said nothing into the radio. He didn’t yell or curse. I looked up at him through his windshield. Scott is a courteous man, a gentle man, but I’d just shoved eight hundred dollars into the next paddock. His chopper was loud, buffeting me with waves of wind. Dust swirled. I could see fury in his eyes. But he just pressed his lips together into a thin, white line and said nothing into his mouthpiece; he just glared at me. I glanced at Ivana. She sat with her arms wrapped around herself, eyebrows high on her forehead with a look that said she didn’t know whether to weep or break into uncontrollable laughter.
Finally, Scott cut off his stare and turned the chopper back to the other wild cattle.