“I flick the flashlight in the direction of the treeline and the light is shot back at me from five, six, maybe eight sets of flickering eyes. Dogs. They are standing there, just inside the treeline; still, watchful. Dirty tousled hair springing up around their ears. Tails curled between their legs. Shoulders tense…”
This story was first published on “Journal of Nomads” in November last year. It’s an awesome blog and I was very pleased that they asked me for a story. Click here to check out some more stories on Journal of Nomads.
Flashback: 2014, The Australian Outback.
Terry places a delicate tea cup in front of me on the faded plastic tablecloth.
“Yes please” I tell him.
“Doreen made you a batch of Anzac biscuits” Terry tells Father Rob.
Rob rubs his hands together.
“Your wife makes the best biscuits in town” he tells Terry. Both men laugh.
“Best in the district” Terry agrees.
The nearest house to Terry and Doreen’s is a hundred and seventy kilometres away.
“Pretty quiet life out here” Terry tells me, cradling his tea cup in thick, sun cracked fingers. “That’s one bloody fantastic thing about living on the Nullarbor Plain. You don’t get too much traffic noise.”
“Do you ever feel isolated out here?” I ask Terry.
“Nah. Love it. I been on the land me whole life. I get along better with sheep and ‘roos than I do with people. My wife, Doreen, she gets fed up sometimes. Wasn’t so bad ten, fifteen years ago. Back then there would be a bunch of people working on a station like this. She’d always have people around to talk to. But now-days with all the high tech farming methods, me and Doreen run this whole patch on our own. This farm is nearly the size of Belgium. But so much is automated, and computer controlled, you just don’t need as many people. Like last month we did the crop spraying. Back in the day that was a job would take five men two weeks. But now a young fella comes out with a drone – one of those helicopter things with remote control – and the drone does the whole job. He sends the drone out and it takes photos of the fields from the air. Makes a giant image of the whole thing. He downloads the picture to his computer and the computer scans the whole picture and figures out where all the weeds are. Then he sends the drone out a second time, with a spray kit attached to it and it flies over the crop and sprays the weeds. Gives every weed exactly the right amount of herbicide. Takes two days. Job done.”
Terry passes round the plate of his wife’s biscuits and Father Rob and I both happily accept.
“That’s how it goes now. Used to be I’d have a crew of a dozen blokes running a place this size. Now it’s just me and the missus. ‘Course the Padre here visits us every now and again; has a pray and a biscuit. We have seasonal guys through once in a while. We get the dog shooter in couple times a year. Otherwise it’s just the two of us. Yeah Dory gets lonely a bit I guess. That’s why she gets such a kick out of Rob’s visits. She’s gonna be disappointed she missed you fellas.”
“Yes. I didn’t think I was gonna be coming through here today” Rob says. “Manny here is trying to hitchhike to Melbourne, so I thought I’d make a detour, visit you and Doreen on the way. You’ll have to let her know for me that her Anzac biscuits are still number one.”
Terry and Rob laugh.
“Sorry to ask a dumb question” I say to Terry, “but did you say before you get a dog shooter in?”
Terry nods slowly. “Yeah. I’m afraid we have to. Feral dog problem is so bad out here in the central plains now. We got packs of dogs coming through here that’ll kill two hundred or three hundred lambs in one night. They’re domestic dogs gone wild, not dingoes, so they just kill ‘em and leave ‘em. A real wild animal will only kill what it needs to eat. These feral dogs just kill for the sport of it. We got to get a shooter in a few times a year, especially when the lambs are dropping. He just camps out in the paddocks at night and waits for the dogs to show up. I seen him come back to the house here with a dozen dead dogs in the back of his truck.”
Father Bob’s four-wheel-drive bumps down the station driveway. Across the red plains, nothing breaks the horizon line in any direction.
Terry’s homestead dissolves into the pink heat haze behind us.
“That was wild what Terry was telling us about the feral dog packs” I comment to Rob.
“I’ve been working in this parish for seven years now. Been visiting Terry and Doreen regularly that whole time. Neither of them is religious actually, but we all like the social interaction, so I just pretend they’re Anglican. Anyway – over the years the number of dogs coming on their property has just gone up and up. More sheep get killed every season. Used to be the shooter would come in once a season, now sometimes it’s every couple weeks. The problem with feral dogs is, only the biggest, toughest, most aggressive dogs survive in the outback. So every generation of feral dogs is the genetic product of those survivors. Every year they get bigger, stronger, and more vicious.”
The two way radio on Rob’s dashboard squeals and crackles. He adjusts the volume down. Rob’s vehicle has every cool outdoor gadget on it known to man. Everything from a satellite phone to a roof-top safari tent.
“When I was working in northern Victoria I camped out in the hill country a lot. I love that part of Australia” Father Rob tells me.
You get some mean feral dog packs in the Victorian high country too. There was one time about fourteen years ago I was going through there on my way to Omeo. It was foul weather, like it often is down there, and I’d had a long drive already that day, so I decided to pitch camp. I wasn’t as well set up in those days, but I had a tent, and plenty of food. I found a beautiful little spot on a hillside, looking out across a cloud filled valley.”
It was a gorgeous place. Put my tent up. Made a beef stew with some meatballs I had in my Esky. Just before I turned in for the night I walked a bit up the hill past the treeline to take have a crap. Dug a little hole and did my thing. Taking a crap in the bush is one of those rare pleasures isn’t it? Especially in a spot like that. It was so quiet in the forest. The only sound was the splashing of rain on leaves. The moon sliding in and out of the clouds. Shadows of the trees making mosaics of leaf patterns on the white gum trees. Poetry.
I was on a high, walking back to my tent. I had that great feeling you get right after taking a crap, and I was thinking to myself how great my life is, that I get to live in the bush surrounded by all this beauty, and share the message of Christ. My life is truly blessed.
I was right in the middle of this romantic contemplation when I got this massive blast of dog-shit-smell. I look down, and see that I’ve put my foot right in a dog turd.
Sounds funny now, but at the time I was really annoyed. One thing I just can’t stand is people who let their dogs shit in the bush and don’t clean up after them. I squatted down to asses the damage and I was just amazed at the size of this dog turd. It looked like it had come out of a horse. It was massive. Massive. There was no mistaking the smell though. I never come across a horse that laid turds that rank. This was dog shit, and no mistake. Well, I said some words I’d have to atone for later, cleaned my boot off best I could, and crawled into my tent and passed out.
About three in the a.m. I woke up to piss. The weather had cleared. The sky was that perfect inky black you only see out in the Aussie bush. Millions of stars. A bright moon. I’m stood there, unzipping my pants, and I hear a dog. It was something between a howl and a bark. A high, whining sound. It was a good way off, but it was loud and clear, carrying through the valley. It was answered by another dog, a sharp high pitched bark. And another. A pack of dogs, howling, barking, running together; on a scent.
Back in my tent I lay awake and listened to the howls of the dog pack moving along the valley. I had a growing feeling of unease. The sounds seemed to getting louder, getting closer. And as the dogs voices got clearer I could picture them in my mind. These were the voices of big dogs. Dogs with barrel chests, big jaws. The sounds would strengthen, and wain a little, but minute by minute they were getting closer. And then the sounds stopped.
I lay there, listening, straining my ears. I eased the zipper on my tent open. Instinctively I was making as little sound as possible, but I knew that if anything was going to bring the dogs to my camp, it wouldn’t be the sounds I made. I’d eaten beef stew and I’d left the dirty pot sitting beside my truck. A dog would smell that beef stew a mile away.
I slid out of my tent and dragged on my boots, the one clean and one poo-smelling. I grabbed up the stew pot and put it in the back of the truck. While I was there I found a plastic bag and put my stinky boot inside it.
I’m tying up the plastic bag and out of the corner of my eye I catch a movement. I flick the flashlight in the direction of the treeline and the light is shot back at me from five, six, maybe eight sets of flickering eyes. Dogs.
They’re standing there, just inside the treeline; still, watchful. Dirty tousled hair springing up around their ears. Tails curled between their legs. Shoulders tense.
They were big. Big, big dogs. As my flashlight flicked onto their faces, their heads would drop and their lips would peel back and the snarling started. That sound is never good to hear. A barking dog is intimidating. A dog growling low in it’s throat, teeth bared, eyes screwed up, shoulders hunched – that’s a genuinely frightening sound. And when it’s a pack of dogs, half a dozen animals, and they’re moving toward you, and they’re circling to the left and the right, and they’re eyes are locked on yours… well, I was scared.
When I was a little kid we had plenty of dogs around the property all the time. They were working dogs. Mostly they did what they were told but they were tough. My brother and I used to love teasing the dogs, throwing sticks and playing keep away. My brother would hold their favourite throwing stick up above his head, jump up on a stump and the dogs would go nuts, jumping up trying to get it.
Well, one day one of the dogs just grabbed his arm instead of the stick. Maybe it misjudged or maybe it just got sick of the game, but it clamped its teeth into my brothers forearm.
Hunting dogs are trained to hang on and this bastard hung on like crazy. My brother was screaming blue murder.
My mum came running out of the house and tried to drag the dog off. I remember her kicking the dog in the ribs, screaming at him. Finally she picked up a shovel and started belting this dog with the shovel. That animal didn’t let go of my brother’s arm until my mum cracked his skull.
I wouldn’t say that experience with my brother made me afraid of dogs, but it definitely taught me to respect them. A dog is a highly evolved hunter. This is an animal that has a mouthful of teeth powered by muscles strong enough to crush your leg bones. Those are not comforting thoughts to have when you are being stalked by a half dozen ferals in a dark forest.
I got inside my truck pretty damn fast. I don’t know if my feet even touched the ground, I moved so quick. The dogs moved in on the camp. They turned my kitchen upside down, ripped the lid off my Esky. Went through my tent and dragged my sleeping bag out onto the grass. Once I calmed down I leant on the horn, and that scattered the dogs. They disappeared into the bush and I started breathing again.
I slept in the back seat of the car that night.
It was right after that I got my rooftop safari tent. It’s a pain clambering up the ladder every night, but I like sleeping eight feet off the ground.
People laugh at me sometimes.
I was camped near Coffs Harbour a couple years ago and a bloke was winding me up, saying ‘you worried about getting eaten by a dingo, mate?’
I told him, ‘I figure if a lion can’t get at you in one of those things it’ll probably be out of reach for dogs too.”
The desert landscapes in this post are photographs I’ve taken in the Nullarbor region, nearby where I met Terry and Rob. ‘Nearby’ in the Australian sense anyway.
That sky and tree shot is the view from Terry’s farm driveway. The ocean is beyond a cliff, just over the horizon.
The photo at the top is a ‘dog tree’ I passed on the roadside in rural Victoria. Hunters hang their kills in the tree to send a message to feral dogs.
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