Tall in the Saddle Down Under
Alumna goes on an Australian cattle drive and overcomes her fear of horses.
by Jenny Hontz
It didn’t really hit me until after I’d signed up for the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive that I’d actually have to spend an entire week on a horse.
Just out of a serious relationship, I was restless for adventure, and the Outback was about as far as I could imagine from my beach pad in Venice, Calif. But the horse part? Let’s just say the only things I’m used to riding are inline skates and freeways.
My friends didn’t help calm my fears either. Everyone I knew seemed to muster up a horse horror story, and visions of bucking and trampling began dancing through my head. I decided to take a few lessons, but midway through one class, my instructor informed me, “This is going to kick your a - -.”
Good thing I like a challenge. Last May after white-knuckling the two-hour Cessna flight from Adelaide, I landed in Marree, an Outback hub of 80 people, where the 595 cattle, 170 horses and 70 tourists would end their six-week journey, culminating in a cattle auction.
Marree is a bustling place in those parts, replete with pub, general store and, oddly, a giant wooden camel and makeshift mosque preserved to honor the area’s sizable Afghan population. Early last century, the rail line ended in Marree, so Afghans used camels to transport goods through the rest of the desert.
As our 4WD bounced along the dirt road from Marree to the tent camp, I stared in awe at the barren expanse. There was nothing but stony red earth dotted with chalky saltbush — no buildings, no people, no power lines and certainly no water anywhere. If the horses didn’t kill me, thirst probably would.
When we arrived at camp, my fears began to ease. The first thing I saw was a tent labeled “Desert Dial-Up Centre.” Inside were three computers caked in a thick film of cattle dust, hooked up to the Internet by satellite. If I can get e-mail, I reasoned, I must be safe.
Luckily, my picture of angry bulls spooking a horse was a little off. As Jimmy Crombie, one of the aboriginal guides, assured me, “There’s nothing to be afraid of. A horse can’t hurt you. It’s not a crocodile.”
The first morning of the ride, I woke before sunrise and shivered. It was the beginning of winter there, and temperatures fell overnight from a pleasant 65 degrees to 20. I gulped some coffee, gobbled down a plateful of meat and eggs and set out to meet the horse.
Image, my 4-year-old companion, was no image of beauty and strength. Encrusted with dirt, he was quiet and a little sleepy, except around food. With a deep breath, I shoved my left foot into the stirrup and hopped onto his back. Image turned to head back to the pen. It took a strong kick of the heels to get him to go.
The minute we reached the cattle, I grew tall in the saddle. The cows were so compliant they’d jog right back to the herd when we approached. Image knew exactly what to do. He’d sidle up to a straggling heifer and gently push its rear with his nose, nudging it forward.
Outfitted with padded bike shorts under my jeans, I felt no pain. As a 31-year-old woman, I definitely stood out from the other riders, mainly middle-aged Aussie horsemen. My tentmate, Lucy, a performance artist from New York, was the only other American on the trip.
Still, I didn’t need to dig too deeply to find the cowgirl within. I felt right at home with Lachlan Cullen, a one-handed tailer, someone who tends the horses, and Andrew “Blacky” Black, a ringer, or drover, whose craggy face and fierce bullwhip belied the gentle spirit of a poet and country music songwriter.
At the end of the ride, my newfound comfort was tested. A fence blocked our path at one point, so we waited while the cattle pushed through the narrow gate. Image must have recognized the scent of home because suddenly he went nuts and tried to run right into the mass of stampeding cows. I yanked the reins, and he swung his head wildly, trying to break free.
I grabbed the right rein inches from Image’s mouth and pulled hard to turn him in a controlled circle. We twirled like dervishes until the cattle were through the fence and Image learned who was in charge.
My horse fear conquered, I rode into Marree for the triumphant finish to the drive as hundreds of people cheered our team on.
I carried home a moon-shaped scar across the bridge of my nose as a souvenir of the event. But the injury wasn’t quite as dramatic as the ones I’d envisioned. When I dismounted my horse, the camera around my neck flew up and bashed me in the face. Just when I started to forget I was a tourist — a freak camera injury. Covered in dust, face streaked with blood, I shook my head and laughed.
Jenny Hontz (J95) is a freelance writer based in Venice, Calif.