I arrived in Tamworth, to be picked up the next day by Tim Skerritt, the owner of a cattle station an hour’s drive out of town. Tim’s 1,280-acre property offers greenhorns and travellers an opportunity to learn the skills required for station work: aspiring station hands (or “jackaroos” and “jillaroos”) can try their hands at mustering sheep and cattle, learn the basics of field and fence care, and take away the all-important letter of recommendation to show potential employers.
I was there as part of my attempt to retrace the journey of my great-great-great uncle Angus McMillan, who left Scotland during the Highland Clearances to become an explorer and pioneer in Gippsland, Victoria. He also, as I learned, found himself at the heart of the so-called “frontier wars” and apparently was ringleader of a number of brutal massacres of the Gunai aboriginal group.
Tim arrived in Tamworth in a spluttering, aged minibus to take me and his latest batch of trainees to the farm. He was a strong, capable Crocodile Dundee lookalike in a wide-brimmed bush hat and torn jeans.
The homestead was half an hour by road out of town, followed by a long drive up an unfinished track through sharply rolling landscape.
Within a couple of hours we were saddled up and riding on to the high ridgeline looking for Aberdeen Angus cattle. After a brief quizzing and a quick look over, Tim had teamed me with a pretty chestnut mare called She Oak.
“She’s fast,” said George, one of the stockmen, when I asked. “And watch her with the other horses. She’s a bitch.”
I loved her on sight. She Oak had a silken, unpulled mane, a white snip set at an angle across her nose and three white ankle socks, like a naughty schoolgirl who’d let the other slip down.
She tackled hills with brio, breaking into a trot or a canter if I let her, her ears pricked forward as the sweat lathered where the reins touched her neck.
I was already becoming used to the slow, patronising blink of the Australian male as I grappled with uncooperative sheep and heaved my own bags into the back of the ute. But I found myself desperate to prove myself to this terrifyingly capable man.
I’m a strong rider, so I pushed myself forward in the mustering, looking for approval. Coming down the steep, stony hillsides I sat ramrod straight, reins held loosely in one hand, heels down, hips jerking side to side with She Oak’s steps. Whenever a calf or cow made a break for it, I urged her into a canter, looping wide around the fugitive, then walking calmly back towards it, hooting long low notes that curved up in glissando to a high whoop that I’d copied from the stockmen.
I was rewarded when, after another long day under a merciless sun, Tim eyed me approvingly and asked what I would be doing the next week.
“Heading to Gippsland,” I reminded him. “Following the old exploratory paths.”
“Ah, yeah?” He’d clearly forgotten the entire reason I was there. Actually, I was hoping he was about to ask me to throw it all in and help them with the mustering all season, but instead he nodded once and turned back to the cattle. “Get the branding iron,” he said to the boys.