Gone Droving

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Riding high: The sun sets on another day in the saddle
It’s late afternoon and behind storm clouds the sun is casting a brilliant deep purple light across the outback. More than 40 weary, but exuberant horse riders are heading back to their base camp after a day of droving more than 500 head of cattle on Anna Creek Station in South Australia.

It’s The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive where you can experience life as a drover. Spanning more than 23,000 km², Anna Creek is the world’s largest cattle station. Riding through changing landscapes in desert, sand hill, saltbush and red dune country, riders from around the world are experiencing the quintessential Australian outback.

On this journey riders are tracing paths of pioneers who forged their way through unforgiving, harsh landscapes. Occupied since 1872, Anna Creek has resisted drought, floods and adverse economic conditions. Following the best season in decades, there is now a rare show of profuse new life. The cattle are being moved across plains of wildflowers and watercourses and riders are frequently spotting budgerigars, finches and wedge tail eagles. They’ve even ridden through some rain – a rare encounter in this part of the world.

Guiding the modern-day explorers is a droving team of highly skilled horsemen and women brought together by boss drover and renowned horseman, Bill Willoughby. As they ride alongside the original Ghan rail line, the dog fence (built in the 1880s to protect sheep from dingoes) and an ancient Aboriginal trading route the sense of history is poignant.

From Canberra, Mary McDermot, 66, rides two or three times a week at Forest Park Riding School. Mary says this once in a lifetime experience is even better than she expected. “I’m enjoying both the riding in the outback and the terrific camaraderie between riders. People from different countries and professions have come together and we’re having a lot of fun sharing experiences and interests,” she says. “It’s probably one of the best run events I’ve been to. Everything runs on time, the food is delicious and the droving team really looks after us. I want to come back to the next one – and bring others with me; including my 81 year-old friend who I know could handle this.”

After breakfast each day, riders are transported to the horses (and drover’s camp) where the droving starts. Horses are matched to riders and they ride more than 14km before returning to camp for hot showers, cold drinks, a superb, longed-for dinner, a roaring campfire beneath desert stars (with stories and songs) and a roomy tent with stretcher beds and carpet to ward off the cold.

Over the five days if you’d like a break from riding, you can take an optional tour, including a visit to Anna Creek homestead, scenic flights over the Painted Hills, Lake Eyre or the natural artesian pools of Dalhousie Springs or take an Aboriginal cultural tour. But tearing themselves away from the droving is difficult for the riders. As the drovers crack their whips and whistle, as cattle gently bellow and horses whinny to each other, guest riders and drovers alike are pinching themselves to make sure this epic adventure is really happening.

Paula Heelan travelled courtesy of the South Australian Tourism Commission.