Sunday, February 9, 2014

Inside the rabbit-proof fence

As a boy I once watched a bull being killed at my uncle-in-law’s cattle station in Central Queensland. I have never forgotten the shock. A very large beast, it was, in a pen maybe thirty feet in diameter; a couple of dozen employees and their families leaned against the fence and watched the show.

A man with a rifle – an old Enfield .303 – waited patiently on the fence for the beast to stand still and in the right place, then shot it in the forehead. To my surprise, nothing happened. The man lowered his rifle; the bull stood immobile, as did the spectators. It was eerie. After five seconds – maybe seven or eight – the front knees wobbled slightly, then it collapsed in slow motion in a cloud of dust.

I blogged a while back [The Man from Snowy River, November 2012] about how my Dad used to kill a sheep every ten days, for meat. Dad carefully scraped out the brains – a finicky job that he hated. In my post I noted the difference in attitude between townies and bushies towards the lives and deaths of animals. There are few vegetarians in the bush.

The men of the district organized dingo drives once in a while, and occasionally took potshots at kangaroos. Dingoes were hated because they would kill or cripple sheep for fun (seemingly), and sheep were our livelihood. Kangaroos are classed as a pest – cute though they undoubtedly are – because they nibble the grass too close to the ground and leave none for the sheep. So do rabbits, which were a tremendous pest (though cute, of course) and had to be poisoned en masse in the 1950s because there were too many to shoot.

By rights there shouldn’t have been any dingoes or rabbits on the Darling Downs in Queensland. My Dad’s little patch of five thousand acres was inside both the official rabbit-proof fence and the dingo fence that stretched a thousand miles or so across the State. The whole purpose of the fences (erected and maintained by the State government to this day) was to keep the vermin out of where we lived, so I don’t understand why our men’s dingo-drives were necessary. Mind you, I never saw any bodies, though they talked of finding one or two each time.

The only other things killed in any quantity were snakes. Few of them in our neighbourhood were deadly (unless there was no antidote handy), but all were poisonous to some degree. We boys weren’t allowed to play beneath our house, which sat on two-foot stumps with tin caps over them to frustrate snakes’ attempts to get upstairs.

None ever did, to the best of my knowledge, although I used to imagine a nest of them underneath my bed at night. I slept with a sheet over my head, which I must have been just stupid enough to believe would save me.

Mum was a city-girl, who wasn’t raised to kill snakes. Her job was to pour boiling water on any she found inside the yard and wait till Dad got home. He would break their backs with a length of cable that he mysteriously called “the Kelly”. He had a good eye for snakes, and would watch them carefully while we boys ran and fetched him the Kelly.

If he hit the snake amidships, it couldn’t spring back on him. He was pretty good at it. Only once did he have to resort to shooting one. He never kept a shotgun or a rifle, but he dug out his .45 revolver issued to him during The War (along with a box of bullets) to fight off the expected Japanese invasion.

At dusk one day a snake wriggled under the tilted barrel of chook-food and hid there. Pop lay on the ground and carefully fired six shots into the darkness. Three of them hit, which impressed us immensely. We’d never seen him shoot before, and never even knew he had the gun. What a kick that thing had. POW!