Traveling through Outback Australia - Backpacking Aussie

Landing in Alice Springs is amazing. When the plane comes in to land, all you can see is a red flat surface for hundreds of miles. There were a few hills to give a sense of proportion on the landscape. I was conscious that it was the middle of June, and for Australians, the middle of winter. The sun was shining brilliantly in the blue sky.

On the trip from the airport I couldn't keep from looking out of the window at the most amazing scenery that I had ever seen. Having never been in a dessert before, I wasn't quite prepared for the reality of it. Hot, dry and sandy. It really didn't disappoint me. This is what I came to Australia for. For the first time I was feeling like I was on the other side of the world.

I'd recently taken time out to sort out my finances and found that they were dwindling faster that I'd expected – don't they always? Any chance of work would be a big bonus, so I started looking on the hostel boards, the first point of call for financially challenged backpackers. To my delight I found a notice which had just been put up and was asking for a couple to work in a cattle farm not far from Alice . I phoned up and they were concerned that I'd get bored on my own with no entertainment – that's why they'd asked for a couple on the notice.

No problem I said, I could keep myself occupied reading a fat book and anyway it would be paradise to get away from the other backpackers snoring all night in the crowded dorms. He agreed to take me for one week, and if I could take it, a further week would be offered. He would pick me up on Thursday when he did the weekly shop.

That Thursday, as I waited by the side of the road waiting to be picked up, I saw a bulldog being attacked by a little bird, as if the dog had accidentally strayed too close to the bird's nest and it was protecting its chicks. I chuckled to myself as the dog turned in slow circles whilst getting pecked by the faster bird, huffing and biting at thin air trying to fend of it's winged foe. Just as the dog had almost given up trying to defend itself and was walking away defeated, a Range Rover with a trailer pulled along side me and frightened the bird away to the considerable gratification of the bulldog. The farmer's name was, obviously, Shane. I introduced myself and asked if it was far. And with casual Australian understatement, he said: “Nah, it's just round the corner.”

Just over three hours later, near midnight , I awoke at the gates of Waite River Cattle Station. I scraped the drool off my collar and took in my surroundings. A small light shone through a window of the farm house but other than that, I could see nothing. As soon as I got out of the car, I was attacked by a pack of dogs. Shane immediately reassured me that they, “only bite if they know you're a Pom, but don't worry, I haven't told them yet.”

After a couple of seconds they seemed rather friendly and added more drool to my clothes as I was led through to the outhouse. I dumped my stuff and started digging around for my toothbrush ready to pass out on a well-made double bed. “I'm sure you'll be alright here” Shane said as he opened the door to leave, “only a few red back spiders around here – nothing nasty.” Obviously my definition of nasty and his definition were some way off. And just as an afterthought on the way out he turned to me and said: “Oh by the way, how are you for blood and guts?” My expression must have said it all as he just chuckled and left me to a quiet night in with the spiders.

At 8am sharp he knocked on my door. “Benji, are ya up? Today we're gonna' catch a Killer.” Not the best thing to hear fist thing in the morning. On the Jeep ride across the farm I learned that a ‘Killer' was one of a selected number of cows sectioned off from the rest of the herd, and put in a ‘small' field which we were now driving. Understatement is a lovely Australian trait, and when Shane replied ‘small' to my question “how big is this field?”

I was not surprised. We had been driving around this field for over twenty minutes and neither of us had even seen a cow, let alone killed one. The whole farm as it turned out was over 400,000 acres – small in Australian terms, bloody massive in mine. “Sometimes they know you're coming and they hide from ya.” Shane's eyes squinting from the fierce outback sun were trying to get a glimpse of his prey. The hunter and the hunted. Then, suddenly the jeep rocketed off in the direction of a large group of trees. “There they are…” I must admit I couldn't see them myself. Actually, I couldn't even focus properly for the Jeep bumping around the rugged terrain, my head juddering like a pneumatic drill. I was slightly worried that the pounding the Jeep was taking might cause the gun to go off - which was placed directly behind our heads - and thought it was for the best I couldn't see.

Eventually, after about ten minutes of joyriding at fifty miles an hour around the bumpiest ground I have ever been on, I was glad to be getting out of the Jeep. We had them cornered. As Shane asked me to select a beast for culling, I realised that they did know we were coming. The herd all had their heads bowed and jockeyed for position to get behind each other. Starting to feel a little put off by this, I declined the invitation to be God and let the farmer choose. He looked at the herd in front of us and muttered, “sorry darling, but today I think it has to be…. you”. Bang. The cow was dead before she hit the ground. The rest of the cows fled as soon as the gunshot went off - they were spared. I then realised what he meant by the previous night's question about ‘blood and guts' as he handed me a spade.

He took a very sharp looking knife and cut the cow's throat, blood spilling out everywhere. “Now dig a trench away from it's neck so the blood runs away from the cow. It gets real messy otherwise.” As I was digging my little blood-trench, Shane had a booted foot on the upturned cow's stomach and was pumping the blood out of the animal, squirting blood in gushes as he put pressure on the animal. He looked at me and asked, “you're looking a little green there Benji – you right?” In my most manly voice I replied, “Sure, what's for lunch?” At that, he laughed, said ‘good on ya' and proceeded to gut the animal in such a way that I could only stand back and admire. Us city boys are absolutely useless when it comes to gutting cows…

Within ten minutes, crows started circling above eyeing the meal they could smell from miles away. “The trick is to cut the skin but not the lining of the stomach or it really starts to smell.” Shane expertly cut the animal and with the help of me and a small crane attached to the jeep, hoisted the cow in the air allowing the insides of the animal to fall slowly onto the desert floor. You have no idea how much stuff is on the inside of a cow! The meaty bits came with us and the rest was left for the now very impatient birds. I'm sure I spotted a dingo move in the undergrowth as we pulled away and leisurely made our way back to the farmhouse. The blood and guts bit was over and now all I had to do was skin the hide away from the meat ready for hanging in the fridge. Being a city boy, I'd never done that before either, and it's something which I'd never thought I would do. Ever.

I had been travelling for six months and got into scrapes and adventures and done things I'd never dreamt of, and it was still happening. Less than one day into my new adventure and I was skinning a cow.

Doing things I thought were strange on a weekly basis becomes normal when you travel because you get out of your comfort zone and are forced to try new things. What I learnt from each specific adventure I've no idea, but the experience as a whole taught me a great deal. I didn't 'find' myself or become a different person; I simply had a wonderful time. That was a long time ago now, and I've had lots of challenges since then but none as personally satisfying as travelling. As Saint Augustine said: “Life is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page”. I believe he was right.

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