Visitors to this year's bicentennial Sydney Royal Show will be treated to a special display that involves a bullock team led by call command, conjuring up days when cattle and their drivers opened vast swathes of country. They did so with nothing more than human voice and confidence in commanding a dozen tonnes of muscle and bone.
"My lifelong ambition was to work in the bush, logging," says bullocky Philip Thomson, who will bring his team to the show, presenting to a crowd as he has done often in the last few years. However, his bullocks still haul timber from the bush, so the ancient art is real, as well as preserved.
Mr Thomson is the last farmer at Natural Arch on the Nerang to Murwillumbah road. Lifestyle living has become the norm in the most stunning of volcanic valleys but this bullocky continues to use his team for real work - what's the point in having one otherwise?
In the late 1970s Mr Thomson worked with the likes of Queensland bullockys George Sirett, Woodridge, hauling logs out of the Numinbah Valley. He learned from old stalwarts like Oscar Samish, Mudgeeraba.
Some of the gear made and used by these old bullockies, keepers of the old bush ways, are used today in Mr Thomson's team of eight, led by a veteran pair of dairy bobby calves grown enormous: A docile Jersey, with dinner plate horns, and his mate, an Australian Illawarra Shorthorn who has been in the game for 14 years.
"I've had bullocks up to 20 years old," says Mr Thomson.
The pair immediately behind the lead bullocks are new recruits, Shorthorn steers that were roped together as calves and obediently come up to the fence to get yoked with just the call of the bullocky. Back in the day those young bullocks would carry a sharp axe, in a holster on their yoke, so that the driver would come often to those fresh animals to carry out his work, and they would become used to human interference. Recruited to pull immediately behind the lead pair meant the new members of the team would get the best education.
The pole pair, right down the back, are best if they are short. Squat stags are ideal for the job - low to the ground and better adapted to taking weight where the bar chain meets the load.
Bullock teams are excellent for moving heavy things short distances - like timber from the bush to a log dump. They're good at breaking new ground, and can manage the jolt when a ripper comes up against stumps and stones. Plenty of bullock teams navigated the whole of Australia's inland, 15 kilometres a day, carrying supplies to the best grazing lands and exporting product out; each journey lasting months. For that reason they can't compete with horses over long distance. The only time a bullock team hitched on to a Cobb and Co coach was to pull it out of a bog.
"They're steady; not there to win records. That's bullocks," Mr Thomson says.
President of the Australian Bullock Drivers League Ron McKinnon, Tomerong via Jervis Bay, has been snigging logs out of the surrounding bush since he was a teenager, working as offsider for his father who at the tender age of 16 commanded a team of the same number with nothing but his voice, and his manners.
All the work is just rewards and Mr McKinnon says his greatest pleasure is to be able to call a team through bush so thick you can't see them for lantana but you can hear them walking together, dragging the chain, then turning and coming forward again to emerge out a steep gully with vines streaming from their long horns.
"Dad never cracked the whip in his life and I never crack it either," says Mr McKinnon who recalls his own lively memories from the age of 11, bare-footed and bare chested managing the off-side with a stick. One time he ran around to stop a stampeding team by standing in front of them on the track. The lead pair came to an abrupt halt but the rest, head down, collided with the bums in front and bundled up like an accordion.
In the post-war years, surplus military equipment became available and logging contractors like Mr McKinnon's father sold their teams and bought a four wheel drive Blitz, snigging logs out of the bush and onto a track quicker and with less collateral damage to the forest than a bullock team.
The log skidder replaced the Blitz and rode softer on bulbous tyres, also able to snig logs with little evidence of a track, and Mr McKinnon uses one today to fulfil orders for logs from his family property, which has been managed for continuous forestry these last 150 years. But he rues the modern way which employs a 24 tonne excavator to snip trees at their base, de-bark and cut the logs while the operator remains isolated, out of harms way.
"Sure, bullocks could leave erosion tracks that remained for a long while but the damage the big machines do now borders on criminal," he says.
About 20 years ago, after a long absence without bullocks on the family property Mr McKinnon decided to build a team, before the skills of a bullocky were lost to the passage of time.
"You don't go out and buy a bullock team," he said. "You go to the saleyards and take home dairy steer calves."
Considering the location, south of Nowra, Illawarra bobby calves were the obvious choice for their temperament, sensibility, strong hooves and harmonious genetics - being bred and developed in the local area.
"I bought a dozen six-month old steers and they grew up to be truly massive bullocks, one standing 16 hands at the shoulder, with his brisket only twelve inches above the ground," he recalled.
"When you put together a heavy horse team, like Clydesdales, you go to the top breeder. To assemble a bullock team in Australia you go down to the sales and get what's there."
Mr McKinnon says a bullock's buried instinct is to pull.
"It's there, deep down," he says. "But you have to lift it out of them. With a working Kelpie they're bred to work stock and they just do it. With bullocks you've got to lift the instinct to pull out of them."
"With horses the driver has reins. With bullocks you just talk to them. It's a trust thing and a discipline thing. Bullocks are so damned tough. If you want them to stop and they don't they will put their head down and shut their eyes thinking 'if he hits me with that stick I'll just take one on the nose then stop ... maybe!'"
"A good bullocky teaches his bullocks that when he's close to them they are comfortable and relaxed. But when he steps back from the team it's a signal that the 'boss' is now demanding their attention and it's time to go to work. It's a power thing. There's a team of animals, including me, but I'm the boss. It's a mind game."
Tasmanian bullock driver Ritchie Wells, Edith Creek, says the process of building a calf into a powerful bullock requires time and commitment.
"It takes at least two years to season a bullock," he says. "It's a long-term process; like any athlete they need fitness, muscle and body development. We work them up and our bullocks enjoy what they do."
At Halfway Creek, on the NSW North Coast, Nathan Wall is keeping alive the memory of his grandfather, Norm, well remembered as a professional bullocky who snigged logs to sleeper cutters up and down the Clarence and Coffs hinterland with teams of Devon - one in work, another at rest and perhaps a third in training. The old bullocky would buy stock at three years old and with a little time in the yards, patting them down, yoking them to another bullock for a couple of days, he would have them in a working team.
The next generation of Wall, at 15 years old, bought Devon steers with his first pay from the Grafton abattoirs and now, at 33, has come back to the discipline and runs a young a team of Holsteins, just learning the ways of their driver who uses them to haul posts for fencing and the like around his Nana Glen property. "The same job would take me half an hour with the tractor, not all day, but I like to get away from home, out in the paddock, yarn with the cattle and listen to the birds."
A good bullocky teaches his team that when he's close to them they are comfortable and relaxed. But when he steps back, it's a signal that the boss now demands their attention.- Ron McKinnon, president Australian Bullock Drivers' League
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