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Articles Blog

Australia’s Jackaroos

Karyn Planett

Oh, Give Me Land Lots of Land


While the power of Hollywood has pretty much created the definitive “cowboy” and made the American West his home, there are a lot of other places in the world where cow punchin’ of a very different sort takes place.  Think about the cowboys of the Argentine pampas and their bolladeros, or Mongolian cowboys with their miniature horses and funny hats.
The unique aspects of raising cattle in the Outback have led to a distinctly Australian version of this workingman hero too, the jackaroo (and increasingly, the jillaroo.)

Helicopter Cowboys

Out there, in back of the beyond, when they sing, “don’t fence me in” they really mean it!  The typical Australian ranch or “cattle station” isn’t measured in acres but rather in square miles.  Sometimes tens of thousands of them.  All because natural feed is as scarce as land is plentiful.  In the U.S. they may talk about the number of head an acre can support.  Here it’s the number of acres per head.

These enormous distances have led to the emergence of helicopter cowboys for mustering (rounding up) a mob (herd) of cattle.  As recently as thirty years ago, it would take weeks or months for mounted stockmen to gather large herds into holding yards on the way to market.  This new breed of airborne wranglers and ropers can do in a day what would have taken eight guys on horseback one month to accomplish.

But aside from the $20,000 training course and the fancy Top Gun helmet, you wouldn’t know these high-tech cowpunchers from the ground level kind.  They all wear jeans and boots, carry their swag (bedroll) with them, and sleep rough in the bush for a week at a time.  Their gathering techniques don’t differ much either—get behind ‘em, make a lot of noise, and push ‘em where they don’t want to go.  “Much the same rules that apply in the saddle, apply in a chopper,” says one.  “You might be the best pilot in Australia, but if you don’t know cows, you won’t be successful out here.”

The Dog and Pony Show

Airborne or horseback, man’s best friend is still his best friend, and a bloke couldn’t get a better buddy than his “bluey.”  Out where there simply aren’t enough people to provide an adequate labor pool, the blue heeler helps control herds that graze across the vast bushland.  “Heeler” refers to their herding technique of snapping at a cow’s heels.  Blue heelers make great pets too, and it’s rare to find a landowner who won’t brag on the intelligence and loyalty of his four-legged mate.

Australian cattlemen also couldn’t get by without their stock horse, the “Waler”, after New South Wales where the breed was developed.  English bloodstock landed with the First Fleeters was interbred with horses from India, South Africa, and Persia.  What emerged was a distinctive saddle horse ideal for life on the rugged frontier stations.  By 1860 there were half a million of them and they went on to fame and glory carrying thousands of Australian cavalrymen into overseas wars.

Road Trains

The final link in the enormous enterprise that is the Australian cattle business is the road train.  If you’ve ever been blown off some highway by an eighteen-wheeler going past at seventy miles an hour, imagine a sixty-two-wheeler!  These leviathans of the flat track feature not one but three double-decker trailers, hauled by a tractor as tall as a house, powered by a 14-litre turbo-charged engine generating 400 kilowatts of power. When fully loaded with 150 animals it weighs over 115 tons, stretches half the length of a football field from bull bar to tail lights, and even with one set of air brakes for each set of wheels, it takes half a mile to come to a stop from cruising speed.

Road trains sport names like “Whispering Death” and the men who drive them are justly proud of their swashbuckling image and of the enormous skill required to control one.  Many of them spend over 200 nights a year on the road hauling freight, food, and fuel in addition to livestock.  It used to take a team of drovers on horseback five months to push 1500 cattle to market, and the stock often arrived in poor shape.  Road trains have become the lifeline of the Outback and running a profitable cattle station without them just wouldn’t be possible.