As we ride into camp, the last light of the day paints the austere rock face of the Cockburn Ranges with a fiery red glow – its rippled reflection captured in the water of the croc-inhabited Pentecost River. After a long session in the saddle, I'm ready to hang up my hat, kick off my boots and tuck into a hearty drover's dinner.
If you're looking for isolation, this is the place: the Outback, on the Aboriginal-owned Home Valley cattle station, in the spectacularly desolate Kimberley region of Western Australia. Located 115km west of Kununurra on the Gibb River Road – a route which is washed away each wet season – the cattle station is somewhat larger than Yorkshire. It also offers travellers the opportunity to get a real flavour of Outback life.
Every year, between Australia's cooler months of May and September, mustering season takes place on remote Outback stations. Mustering involves bringing in cattle from around a sprawling station so that they can be branded, dehorned, vaccinated, earmarked and vet-checked. Some cattle are destined for live export, while others go back on the station to mature or are used for breeding. Over the years the cattle get used to working with people and horses, making the overall process easier.
I'd arrived to take part in Home Valley's inaugural Kimberley Heritage Cattle Drive, saddling up as a stockwoman. This isn't a trail ride. It's a different kind of holiday, where beginners and experienced riders play a contributing role, working shoulder to shoulder with seasoned stockmen. We tourists were droving recently mustered wild scrub cattle that have roamed the station for years, driving them from a large fenced enclosure into the Outback, to get them used to working with people and horses and collecting a few more wild cows along the way.
The term stockman refers to someone who looks after livestock for a living, traditionally using horses for cattle work. The five-day drive is aimed at people who want to experience station life and learn about the meaty history of Kimberley cattle droving. You need a reasonable level of fitness to take part, but even first-time horse riders can offer their services.
Pastoral manager and boss drover John "JR" Rodney heads the drive on his stockhorse Turbo. "Our guests are part of the team," he says. "We want them to enjoy themselves, but they will be encouraged to participate in every aspect of the cattle drive. As far as I'm concerned, they are stockmen and part of the group; they'll ride daily and learn to control cattle."
Six years ago, Home Valley was a dilapidated station that had remained "unmustered" for 45 years. The Indigenous Land Corporation bought the property on behalf of traditional owners, turning the vast station into a successful tourist destination, and a leading training centre for young Aboriginal men and women looking for a future in pastoral and tourism-focused careers. But there are still in excess of 10,000 wild short-horn cattle – the original English breed – roaming the station's wilderness, and they need to be mustered.
JR explains the idea behind the heritage drive. "Some of our cows have been mustered only once in the past five years. They don't know much about being around people and horses. Over five days we'll walk a recently mustered herd of 400 head for around 14km a day. They are our 'coacher cattle', acting as a magnet to other wild cattle still roaming the land. The wild cattle see the already mustered herd and tag along, integrating quickly into the herd and learning to work with horses and people, and to control their speed, before we take them back to the stockyards and surrounding paddocks."
Until the late 1970s, cattle droving was an exacting, tough and isolated way of life. Drovers moved herds over vast distances in search of food or to market, sometimes travelling for a year at a time. Then labour-saving machines such as helicopters and road trains were introduced and used for mustering and moving stock. But there are still a lot of men and women who make a living as drovers throughout Australia. Cattle will always have to be walked to find food and keep them fit.
At the stables, horses and riders are introduced. I'm paired up with a large stock horse called Mr T. The attitude here is very Outback – friendly yet tough. Basic horsemanship drills take up the better part of the first morning, then we move to a nearby paddock where training involves lessons in droving and demonstrations on where to position our horses around a herd of 400 cows.
Droving takes teamwork. A cow will always walk in the same area of the herd. The lead cow is like a homing pigeon returning back to the cattle yards. It will always be up at the front following the "lead" horse. The "point" horses walk either side of the herd close to the front, keeping the lead cattle focused on the lead horse. The "flank" horses ride outside the middle of the herd, making sure the cattle are focused on the point horses. And the "tail" riders keep the momentum by travelling at the back and pushing the herd forward. To keep it all running smoothly, each rider must maintain a position in a particular area.
We break for lunch just at the point when a nearby cow starts to give birth. A decision is made to assist the struggling beast, and within two minutes a tiny, wet calf flops to the dusty ground. It's just part of everyday work in these parts. We leave the pair to bond. Then we set off deep into the bush with our herd of 400 coaching cows. While on the lookout for roaming wild cattle, we push the herd across the sprawling property through spiky spinifex grass, cloaked permanently in a cloud of fine red dust.
Cyril Yeeda is a robust young man with a charming smile and ready wit. He sits atop Colonel Custard, his faithful "lead" horse. "I'm a third-generation stockman; droving is in my blood," he says proudly. The pair lead us across the deserted land. They have no need for a GPS – they know every nook and cranny on the station.
I thought cattle droving would be faster, with lots of charging around. But I soon learn that the quieter you can work, the easier the job. I ride at the back of the mooing mob, criss-crossing behind the cows, chasing any stragglers and bringing up the rear. We stop only for lunch or to let the animals drink and eat grass. Three pack horses carry our supplies. Our days are spent in the saddle riding through jaw-dropping Kimberley scenery, zigzagging 14km a day across stunning Outback landscapes.
Some days are hard on the riders and testing for some of the horses. We learn essential droving skills as we negotiate uneven rocky country and three creek crossings. You never know how high the water is going to be until you get there; then there's the crocodile element to deal with too. We cross at low tide to avoid croc attacks, but the riverbed is full of deep sticky mud and at times it feels as if we are stuck in concrete and can't move. We push the herd through before high tide – because with the tide come the crocs. The animals struggle through the mud and on to harder ground.
Fortunately, there were no up-close croc encounters, but you know they are there, patrolling under the surface of the water just waiting for an opportunity to leap out and take a cow. JR advises us never to walk along the banks of a croc-inhabited waterway; you won't see the crocs, but they are there and can leap out and grab you when you least expect it. It's advisable to make camp away from a river for the same reasons.
I catch up with Ronnie Ramsey, who tells me about his days in the saddle. "I was born 56 years ago on Bow River Station here in the Kimberley," he says. "Back in my day I was alone with the cattle for months in the bush. It's easier for the fellas today: they work together, have radios, helicopters, mosquito nets. We had nothing. We never had machines to help us. I help teach the younger indigenous fellas now. They listen to me because we share the same background and I know their mothers!"
This is the first time Ronnie has worked with foreigners. "I like it, talking to people from different places," he says, with a smile.
At night, the cattle are herded together and a makeshift electric fence is erected around them. All cows accounted for, we set up camp and huddle round the fire while damper (bread) is cooking in the hot ashes and Cyril prepares a hearty stockman's stew. We have the luxury of cold beers and good wine, something old-time drovers didn't have.
Stockman and champion saddle-bronc rider Jason Newman tells me about his impressive world record for staying in the saddle for eight seconds in 1996. Cyril butts in: "The only reason Jason knows he has an eight-second record is because they rang a bell. He can't count!" Jason responds: "Oh yeah, Cyril? You're not so accurate yourself, mate. You couldn't hit water if you fell out of a boat!"
As a full moon spreads its glow over the surroundings, Ronnie strums a rhythm on his guitar and sings old droving songs. The only other noises are insects and the howl of dingoes. Ronnie plucks his last chord and we drift off to our swags (traditional bedrolls).
The next morning, over fried eggs and steak, I ask JR what makes a good stockhorse. "Miles and miles," he answers. "Thoroughbreds crossed with quarter horses make a good stockhorse. They should be willing, athletic, a cool-headed customer who isn't easily agitated. Their eyes give a good indication as to their personality."
A few wild scrub cattle are hanging around the edges of the fenced-in "magnet herd", and as we release our now well-controlled cows, the wild scrub cattle fall into line and join the ranks – just as JR planned. Later, we arrive at a clearing covered in long luscious grass, and the cattle stop to fill their bellies. Suddenly, something spooks the herd and, in the blink of an eye, there's a massive cattle rush. All 400 cows take off. We ride flat out into the billowing dust cloud in hot pursuit of the fast shifting mob. This is exactly the type of experience I was after. It couldn't have been better scripted: an unpredicted, full-on cattle rush, just like the Hollywood westerns. And I was there, riding with the stockmen.
Getting a herd of cows under control requires concentration – from the horses and their riders. The less experienced riders stay behind or ride along at their own pace blocking the cows from behind. Meanwhile, we get to the front of the herd, then quickly turn them back into themselves – the cattle in the rear creating a buffer, stopping the lead cows. The uneven ground makes it hard going, but my horse enjoys the change of pace as much as I do. Eventually we stop the cattle just a few metres from our next camp. It should have taken 45 minutes to walk them there; we arrived in a quarter of an hour.
On the last leg of our drive we push the cattle along the purpose-built cattle route known as the Gibb River Road. Here, cattle are usually transported in huge trucks, instead of walking along the dusty, unsealed Gibb. We create a spectacular and unusual sight with our well-controlled herd set against the Cockburn Ranges and Pentecost River – the perfect Outback advertisement. A group of Gibb River tourists stop their 4x4s to take photos. We arrive back at the station covered in dust, yet intact. We'd also managed to pick up a few additional wild cows along the way.
Cyril stands tall in his stirrups, wearing a big smile. "Mission accomplished," he says.
* The writer flew with Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates.com) which offers return flights from Gatwick to Perth via Dubai from £821. The airline also flies from Heathrow, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle via Dubai.
* No airline flies direct between the UK and Perth. The other one-stop options are from Heathrow. They include Qantas (08457 747767; qantas.co.uk) and Singapore Airlines (0844 800 2380; singaporeair.co.uk) via Singapore; Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.com) via Hong Kong; Malaysia Airlines (0871 423 9090; malaysiaairlines.com) via Kuala Lumpur; and Thai Airways (0844 561 0911; thaiairways.co.uk) via Bangkok.
* The six-day "Kimberley Heritage Cattle Drive" (00 61 2 8296 8010; hv8.com.au) costs A$3,805 (£2,537) per person, based on two people sharing. The price includes accommodation, meals, most beverages, cattle droving activities and equipment and 4WD transfers. The next cattle drives happen on 26 July, and then 1, 9 and 17 August. * Audley Travel (01993 838800; audleytravel.com) offers a nine-day package including Home Valley Station's cattle drive. It uses international flights with Emirates, and the price of £4,115 per person includes domestic flights and a stopover in Perth.
* Tourism Western Australia (00 61 8 9483 1111; westernaustralia.com). * Download the free iPhone app "Explore WA" from iTunes.