This year I was one of the ‘best of the long short-list’ in the Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel writing competition. This is my entry on the theme of ‘Meeting the Challange’. Next year I hope for highly commended…
The only sign of life was birds of prey circling high above the remains of a cow, its skin in pools around a skeletal frame. I sat on my rucksack somewhere along the border between the Northern Territories and South Australia. Months of picking fruit, endless weeding and clearing gutters left me thirsty for a bigger adventure. The advert in the WWOOF book said De Rose Hill used quad bikes to herd the cattle and I fancied myself a modern day cowgirl. The wail of crickets rose with the heat. Faint tyre marks in the sand stretched to the shimmering horizon where a silver car winked through a mushroom cloud of dust.
“You must be my volunteer.” A woman with cropped hair, floppy cowboy hat and sunglasses that glinted like beetle shells stepped out to greet me.
“Well, I’m Barb and you’ll meet Rex later,” she said, her mouth a tight line. She peered over her sunglasses taking me in; a weedy Scottish girl who looked like she’d never seen a steak before, let alone worked a day on a cattle station.
Vast sheds, old trucks and piles of metal rusting in clumps made up the yard, rising out of the otherwise barren landscape. I scuttled after Barb to the main house. The living room came into focus; seventies décor and pictures of cows everywhere.
“I’ve ridden a quad bike before,” I said, breaking the silence as Barb rummaged in an old shed full of every shade of rust under the sun.
“Have you now?” she said, dragging out a ladder. “Well, Rex does the herding, so I guess it’ll be clearing gutters and mucking out sheds for you.”
My heart sank.
The burning metal of the gutters made my fingertips raw as I scooped sun-crisped leaves and let them flutter like drunken butterflies to the ground. The heat climbed into the high forties and sweat rolled down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Stringy saliva rolled around in my mouth. Once I’d finished the gutters I was desperate for water.
“What are we going to do with her, Rex? She doesn’t look like she can lift a fly, never mind cattle fencing” I heard Barb’s monotone through the open window. A grunt came as a response.
I held my breath as I clattered through the fly door. An old man with a scraggly beard and coat hanger frame lent against the sideboard. A saggy grin hitched up the corners of his mouth.
“Can I have some water?” I asked.
“Don’t take too much,” Barb replied, pointing to a jug in the corner.
It was lukewarm, but I didn’t care. I wanted to tip the whole jug over my head. Barb watched with narrowed eyes as I gulped and Rex’s grin seemed like it was frozen in time. Neither spoke. Perhaps they hadn’t spoken to another soul in years.
“What should I do now?” I asked.
Tractors, ploughs and quadbikes covered in a thin layer of red dust stood silent inside the vast shed. Rex handed me a broom and I expected him to mount a quadbike and power off into the distance. Instead he shuffled to a rusting deck chair in the corner. An old oildrum was his picnic table. A jug of frothing milk that still smelled like cows and a bottle of rum were his lunch.
As I swept, Rex made vowel sounds and pointed at invisible patches of dust. The hot throb of lower back pain pulsed through my body and swirls of dust made my lungs raw, but I was desperate to prove myself. Darkness descended outside, though it was still hours before sunset. Through the open door I saw the landscape tinted an eerie yellow as lumpy grey clouds built up over the sun. A red mist hung in the distance. Rex creaked to life as if someone had wound him back up. He dragged his deckchair outside to watch the sky. Change tingled in the air, or perhaps electricity. A fork of lightning licked silently through the grey clouds.
The wind picked up in seconds as the storm got closer. Flecks of dust grazed my eyes as the world turned red with sweeping sheets of sand. Somewhere out there, Rex sat alone in the storm.
“You alright?” came Barb’s voice from behind me.
“Yeah, but Rex…” I started.
“He’s not what he was ten years ago,” Barb sighed. Her eyes shone as she stared out into the storm. “We can’t do it by ourselves anymore.”
I didn’t know what to say, but an entire desert of sand covered the floor so I cracked my back and started sweeping again.
“Urgh, bloody dust,” Barb said, wiping her eyes. “Maybe tomorrow we’ll get you on a quad bike.”