It was 1967 and it was hot, real hot, in the Queensland desert when my boss, Jim, asked me to check out the trail along the Barcoo river which wound its way through a large section of the ranch. The sheep and cattle on the 20,000acre ranch used the river as a drinking hole. The sheep often got stuck in the muddy bottom and had to be pulled out. Sometimes they would be there for days before we found them.
I set off on the station 175cc Suzuki motorbike. Normally, we traveled on horseback so it was a relief to be riding the bike as the millions and millions of flies couldn’t keep up with the bike! It was a 2-hour round trip to the river and this was one of my easier tasks so I set off in a good mood. I finally came across the flock at the furthest part of the river. Some of the sheep were in the river drinking their fill for the day. A few had become stuck in the mud and you could tell they had been there for some time by the piles of droppings at their rears. It took me about 20 minutes to free the stuck sheep from their muddy traps.
It was then that I noticed the dead white steer. Its horns had been caught in the exposed roots of a tree on the bank of the river. It was covered in flies, and the lower part of the body was a seething mass of white blowfly maggots. The smell of death and rotting flesh was all around and the body was good and ripe. I rode back to the station and reported my finding to Jim. He asked me which steer it was. Was I supposed to know this ?? I told him it was the white one! Apparently, he had two white steers amongst the 200 head of cattle and needed to know, for the books, which one was dead. I asked how I could possibly tell which one had died and was told to look in its ear for the blue tattooed identification mark. I was Jim’s only help on the station at that time and was told I had wasted enough time and to get him the tattooed number as quickly as possible. I set off again for the river.
As I walked towards the steer, I started to breathe in the foul smell of the body. I managed to hold in my strong desire to vomit and held my breath. I tried to move the head to get a better look at an ear by pulling on the horns. The head was so rotten that one of the horns came off in my hand. Running out of breath, I stooped down to look in the exposed ear and thought I saw a faint outline of the number 123. I quickly retreated to fresher air, got back on my bike and rode back to the station with my new information. I had originally set out on my task at 7:00am and, by the time I got back to the station for the second time, it was already around 11:00am. Jim had been patient up until this point but was anxious for me to get on with my other tasks for the day. He asked: “What is the number?” I replied: “It was 123, from what I could see.” For some reason, Jim’s face got flushed and he angrily said: “We don’t have a steer with the number 123. Here is my penknife, get back on your bike, cut the correct ear off and bring it back to me.” He now realized he was dealing with a half-wit!
The temperature was 115 degrees in the shade when I got back to the steer for the third time and the smell was even worse. I looked in the other ear and thought I made out the faint outline of a tattoo. Holding my breath, I tried to make a mental note of the number before hacking off the rotting ear with Jim’s penknife. Now I have the ear in my hand but I need both hands for the bike! So I put the ear in the back pocket of my jeans and headed back for the last time. It was rough country and I bounced from bump to bump. It was like riding a bucking bronco! I got back just after 1:00pm and proudly handed Jim the ear. He wasn’t smiling. After examining the ear, his face went bright red and his jaw muscles started to twitch. It looked like the top of his head was about to blow off and I could almost see smoke coming out of his ears. “Everything okay Jim?” I asked nervously. He looked at me strangely, and, trying to keep himself under control, said: “The ear is too mashed up to read the tattoo. What did you do? Sit on it? What was the number?” I had forgotten the number! Jim never said a word to me for two days. It is hard to live in uncomfortable silence for two days but I reckon that was more than fair punishment under the circumstances and I learned some valuable lessons!
*A jackaroo is the most inexperienced, lowest paid, form of life on an Australian sheep or cattle station.