Updated: Apr 25, 2020
“Ever since I can remember he's wanted to go to the hottest part of Australia and chase cows on a horse.”
My Mother was pointing out that regardless of the decision reached around the dining table this evening, eventually I was going to go.
I was sixteen years old, and sitting around the table was my Mum and Dad, an elderly gentleman Geoff Jolly and his wife Dorothy. Probably my four favourite people in the world, I looked up to them all for different reasons.
Since I was very young, like a lot of boys I wanted to be a cowboy. But it was more than that, it wasn't the gunfight in the main street or the circling of wagons fending off an Indian attack that attracted me. It was a romantic notion of long cattle drives, spending all day in the saddle then sleeping under the stars. The heat of the day and the cool of the night. A rotating night watch, quietly soothing the herd, just me and my horse. I was drawn deeply to horses, and would learn that I had an affinity with them that I now think stemmed from empathy, being able to view what was happening from their point of view. But some hard lessons were ahead, this youngster had a lot to learn.
Close to my fourteenth birthday my Father, ever supportive of his children's interests, bought me a horse. A young three year old filly, she was tall, black with a white star on her forehead, and two opposite white socks. He had bought her from a local stock horse breeder. To me she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. However, not knowing much about horses, he had bought me an unbroken three year old filly. This posed a problem, but surely not one that couldn't be overcome. When I told my father he simply turned up the next day with a book he had picked up on his way home from work, it outlined step by step how to break in a horse. A combination of optimism, ignorance and naivety gave me confidence I'd be riding the filly through the mountain range that backed onto our place soon.
The family property had about ten acres of usable pasture, roughly fenced. The rest was rugged foothills leading into the ranges. Growing up I had covered every inch of it and beyond with my dog Beau, he was a black Labrador Cross that my father had found up in the range tied to a tree, and left to starve. We became best of friends.
There were steep gorges, an eighty foot cliff, caves, an old mine shaft, and a central creek that only flowed after heavy spring rains. Wattle trees lined the start of the hills, giving way to taller Messmates and Iron Barks populating the slopes. 'Black Boy' Grass trees grew up near the top in pockets, with heavy kangaroo tail flowers that sometimes reached twenty-five feet up into the sky. Snakes and kangaroos were plenty, but rabbits were scarce which is what Beau and I were typically hunting with bow and arrow, or air rifle.
My Mother was terrified of me having a gun, but the one thing that terrified her more was snakes around the house. There weren't any non-venomous snakes where we lived and our parents had instilled a healthy fear of them into all us kids; my older brother, younger sister and me. As far as we were concerned they were all killers, and we might even die if one of them looked at us from close range!
So to bolster my request on my 12th birthday for an air rifle I suggested I might be able
to shoot any snakes that came around the house.
Beau and I would hunt all day through the hills with my new rifle, usually only to regale my parents with stories at evening dinner of 'the one we nearly got' or 'just missed'. But bright and early we'd be up and head off again the next day.
I had seen hunters on TV walking with their shot guns broken and hanging in the crook of their arm, when their quarry appeared they would close it, aim, and fire in one smooth motion. My air rifle broke in the same fashion but I would have to pull it down hard against a strong internal spring until it clicked, then it would hang limp and the pressure would be coiled inside ready to launch the pellet down the barrel once it was closed again.
So I would carry it the same as the TV hunters, hanging broken in the crook of my arm. I practised closing, aiming and firing. Trying to get smooth, and fast, and I reckoned I was getting pretty good. Until one day I was climbing through a fence and my jacket got caught on the trigger, the barrel flew up, catapulted by the coiled spring and hit me in the face, fucken near broke my nose! That's when I learned that air rifles are not like shotguns.
Then it happened; on a hot summers afternoon my mother hastily corralled all us kids inside with stern instructions of “Do not go outside!”. A prospect we didn't relish as the kitchen had a wood combustion stove that ran all day and all night, to cook on and heat the water for the house, as a consequence it was usually hotter inside than outside. But we knew by the tone in her voice that this was no time to debate the issue. She left us in the lounge room and headed to the back of the house, I found her looking out through the floor to ceiling windows with a worried expression on her face. My mother was a keen gardener and she had terraced the steep slope behind our house that had been cut into the hill. There were several levels of garden beds and she had built each step up with rocks from the creek.
“Whats wrong Mum?” I asked.
“Snake” she replied without turning her head, she was scanning the rock garden beds. With that one word I got a hollow feeling in my stomach and I felt my heart start to beat a little harder.
I swallowed hard then looked up at her, “I could shoot it Mum?”
Her eyes stopped and she turned to look at me, put both hands on my shoulders and said,”Do you think you could?”
She was asking me straight out, no time for bullshit, but I lied anyway, “Yep” I replied holding her gaze.
“Go and get your gun” she said.
I scampered off to my room and returned with my rifle in hand and a box of pellets.
“I'm coming out with you,” she said, “and if I tell you to get back inside you do what I say quickly, OK?”
“OK Mum,” I said as I cocked my rifle and loaded a pellet.
She opened the back door and we gingerly moved out onto the back verandah, eyes darting left and right looking for the killer serpent. Mum was holding onto my sleeve ready to pull or shove me in any direction. My heart was pounding now and I tried to control my hands so she wouldn't see them shaking. All sorts of things were racing through my mind, my rifle was single shot, so once I'd fired it I had to break it, re-cock the mechanism, load another pellet then close it before I could shoot again. What if I missed with the first shot and the angry snake charged and killed us both before I could reload? And I'd lied about all those near misses over evenings dinners, I'd missed by a mile, I was a terrible shot!
Then suddenly we saw it, jet black, moving with silent ease through the rocks, it was an adult, six foot long with a small evil head and a tongue flicking in and out tasting the air. Quietly we moved a step to the right to give me a better angle, Mum tugging at my sleeve. I had to hit it in the head, a pellet in the body would only make it angry, but I had to wait for the perfect time, when it's head was showing between the rocks. As I raised my rifle and took aim the snake sensed we were there and starting moving quicker. Was it coming towards us? I couldn't tell, and I could feel Mum tighten her grip on my sleeve. Then it's head appeared between two rocks and it seemed to pause, looking at us. I took aim and pulled the trigger just as it's head disappeared behind the rocks again, but I'd shot high, somehow the snake stuck his head up out of the rocks again as I fired....right in front of my pellet! It went straight through his head and the snake fell limp down over the rocks.
“You got it!” Mum exclaimed clapping her hands together in disbelief.
I couldn't say anything, I just stood there. 'How can that be?' I thought to myself, 'I can't even hit a tin can and I just shot a moving snake through the head!'
“Yep!” I said sticking my chest out.
I was so proud and privately embarrassed when Mum told my Dad that night about his crack shot son.
I don't think I ever again hit what I was aiming at with my air rifle, or anything else for that matter, in fact years later I completely missed a Brown snake from ten feet away with a twelve gauge shotgun. But it didn't matter, I lived off that one shot for years!
Dad would happily tell anyone who would listen about my feat of marksmanship, and every time he told the story the distance of the shot got longer. The legend grew and it wasn't long before I was invited to join two local lads on a night of spotlighting for rabbits, where a good hand with a gun was always needed. But an air-rifle wasn't the right weapon for spotlighting, so through a friend of a friend my father (keen to nurture his sons new found talent) procured a twelve gauge, full choke, single shot shotgun and a few boxes of shells. It was the biggest gun I had ever seen and just holding it made me nervous. Beau and I set off into the hills rabbit hunting in preparation for the spotlighting. The shotgun kicked like a mule and first time I fired it (at a tree), it nearly dislocated my shoulder, it was so loud Beau took off with his tail between his legs and ran home, I didn't see him again for the rest of the day. But, I could walk with it hanging broken in the crook of my arm like the T.V. hunters.
The night arrived. Tim and Paul were cousins, born and bred farm boys. The sons of two brothers who were big landholders in the area, and like all big properties were locked in a constant battle to keep the rabbit population under control. Weekend nights were often spent spotlighting, but more than just a part of running the family property it was also a form of recreation for them, they enjoyed it and were very good at it. They had a dedicated ute for shooting, with a gun rack in the back and a bar wrapped in foam for resting your gun on while you aimed. A spotlight was mounted on the roof that could be controlled from inside the cab. I shook hands with them and we loaded our gear into the ute. They had 'under and over' shotguns that had two barrels, one on top of the other, and enough shells to fight a small war. Tim explained that there would be one of us driving, one controlling the spotlight and one shooting. They knew both properties well and where the rabbits would be, the idea was that we would drive to certain spots and stop, the spotlight would be turned on and the shooter would hit the rabbits that the spotlight could find. Then we'd drive a bit further to the next spot and the procedure was repeated.
I tried to look like I knew what I was doing and spent the early part of the evening on the spotlight. It was decided that as I didn't really know the property it was easier if the two of them drove because they knew where the fence lines and boundaries ran and where the gates were to get from one paddock to the next. So I stayed on the light as the two of them swapped between shooting and driving. Then it was my turn to shoot. I climbed into the back of the ute and loaded my twelve gauge. Paul got out to open a gate and Tim called through his window up to me explaining that there was a creek running down the south side of this paddock full of box-thorn that the rabbits made their warrens under, but they would come out at night across into the paddock for the sweet pasture. If they got back into the creek they were gone, so we were going to drive down along side the creek with the lights off to get in between the rabbits and the creek. Then we'd stop and turn the light on and pick off as many rabbits as we could before they made it to the sanctuary of the box-thorn. It was a dark night, only a slither of moon was in the sky, the lights of the ute went off and we were away. In the darkness the ute started bouncing along the alleged track, we were going faster now than we had before. I was almost getting bounced out and I struggled to stay on my feet, I was holding onto the bar with one hand and my heavy shotgun with the other. Still the old ute got faster, the cold air started to make my eyes water and I couldn't see a thing. Another bump launched me up into the air and I abandoned the idea of holding my gun and cradled it in my arms so I could hold on with both hands!
“Fuck me!” I spluttered, cold air tears streaming down my cheeks now.
With one final bounce the ute skidded to a halt, all the lights came on revealing a cloud of dust and rabbits darting across in front of us making a B-line for the creek, as my feet landed back down on the floor the gun went off in my arms scaring the shit out of me, and one poor rabbit in the far reaches of the spot light making a final leap into the creek was bowled over in mid stride by my wayward shot, tumbling him end over end dead. The dust settled and the boys emerged from the cab excitedly.
“That was one of the best shots I've ever seen!” exclaimed Tim, “we were still moving!”
“Must have been eighty metres!” said Paul.
They were hoping to get more than just one rabbit from the dash down the creek but the assumed quality of the shot seemed to make up for the disappointment in numbers. I stayed on the back for a while with less than miraculous results, then suggested they shoot some more and I'd go back to the light.
My father relayed the story of the eighty meter shot bowling a rabbit in full flight to a friend who was a shooter. “You'd better come duck shooting with us one morning,” said Gordon, “we can always use someone who can shoot!”
“Ok” I said feigning a smile, “that'd be great.”
At 2:30am the three of us climbed into the station wagon, Gordon, his son Tod who was a few years older than me, and me. Loaded with shotguns, shells, waders, and plastic ducks we drove an hour and a half to the swamp. Gordon explained that the plastic ducks were decoys and placed out on the water in an attempt to convince ducks flying over that it was a safe place to come in to land. He told me that good duck shooters worked together, firing at specific times to keep the ducks over the swamp, bouncing them from one side to the other like a pin-ball. picking them off until the whole flock had been shot. 'Poor ducks I thought' but kept it to myself, good shooters don't think like that. When we got to the swamp there were other cars already parked sporadically around the place, we weren't aloud to use torches or make any noise. In the darkness we quietly put on our waders, mine were far too big for me and nearly came up to my armpits, I had to hold them up by squeezing my arms down on them or they'd fall down. We grabbed our guns and decoys and headed off into the swamp. Single file we followed Gordon into the reeds. The mud and water was freezing, my toes were going numb and I tried to stop my teeth from chattering for fear of making too much noise. After twenty minutes Gordon was happy with a spot and we were told to stay put while he went another fifteen meters and placed the decoys out on the water where they could be seen, then returned to us in the reeds. All we could do now was wait for daylight. It was only half an hour till daybreak but it seemed to take an eternity standing in the freezing knee deep water.
Unbeknown to us a middle aged Italian man, obviously an experienced hunter had moved with great stealth and taken up a position not far from us in the reeds. There was ten minutes of twilight, not dark but not yet light, and deathly quiet, then the first rays of sun shone through. With a blood curdling yell the Italian man leapt out of the reeds scaring the shit out of us, and in a fury of bullets from his pump action shotgun opened fire on our decoys. There were little pieces of plastic floating everywhere and Gordon launched into a tirade of abuse.
The two were screaming at each other, Gordon in English and the man in Italian, but there seemed to be some common words like “Fucken Arsehole!” I thought they were going to shoot each other when suddenly they both stopped as some shadows crossed overhead, “Ducks! Shoot!” and they both started shooting up into the morning sky.
I looked up to see a flock of about twelve ducks heading straight for us.
“Paul shoot!” repeated Gordon.
I quickly stood up straight and with my feet square, a shoulder with apart, raised my twelve gauge up towards the sky, the ducks were almost directly overhead now and as I lifted my arms my waders promptly fell down, I aimed and pulled the trigger, the recoil knocked me clean off my feet and I fell backwards into the knee deep water. Instantly my waders filled with water and acted like a sea anchor holding me down, my head was under the water and I had my arms outstretched trying to keep my gun out of the water but I couldn't get up and I thought I was going to drown! Oblivious to my predicament the others in front of me were still shooting. In a last ditch effort and pure survival instinct, I thought 'Fuck it!' and stuck the barrel of my shotgun into the ground, packing it full of black mud and used it like a crutch to push myself up out of the water.
Now on my knees, soaked from head to toe and covered in swamp mud, my gun was still stuck barrel first in the mud and I was gasping for air. Gordon had turned around having noticed I wasn't shooting and was staring at me with a confused look on his face, “What the fuck happened?” he said reloading his gun.
“I slipped over” I lied, embarrassed but happy to be alive.
“Well you can't fucken use that now” he said gesturing to my gun, “the barrel will be full of mud! You'll just have to wait and we'll shoot the next flock.”
For another hour we waited but no more ducks flew over, maybe the little pieces of plastic duck floating around on the water made them think twice about coming anywhere near us.
I waited for the hour in my waders, up to my armpits full of water like a fucken ice-block in a glass, and decided there and then that this would be the end of my shooting career. 'Good thing too' I thought 'I had started to believe my own bullshit, that I could actually shoot.'
Time to concentrate on my filly.
The book said I needed a yard to break in my filly, a round yard, and our property didn't have one. But we had trees up on the hills, and I had an axe. I stuck a peg in the ground in the middle of the valley, tied a rope to it and estimated the length I needed to reach from the centre of my round yard to the outside. Holding it taut I walked in a circle counting my steps, and scuffing my feet as I went, marking a circle on the ground. I then divided the total steps by ten which gave me equal length sides to my pentagon and I put a rock on the ground where each post would go. By my calculations I needed ten posts, and three rails for each gap which made forty. That was a lot of trees, I was gonna need some help!
I recruited my mate 'Skip' who lived nearby, and armed with a rope and an axe each we headed off up into the hills with Beau at our heels.
The straightest trees were up near the top, once we'd selected the tree we wanted we tag-teamed with our axes until we got it to fall over. We had trees falling into nearby trees getting hung up on precarious angles, and some falling the wrong way sending us scampering for our lives. Others would split right up the centre as they fell, and shoot backwards like a freight train. But we learned; we learned how to scarf a tree in relation to the canopy bias, to get it to fall the way we wanted. We learned to leave a hinge that would hold and give it the direction we wanted, but then snap as the scarf closed so it wouldn't split. After our first few attempts, sweat, and swinging until we couldn't feel our arms, we also learned the value of a sharp axe.
Once we had a tree on the ground we would cut the branches off and cut it into lengths to give us the posts. With a rope tied to a post each we then dragged them down the hill like mules into the valley below. At the yard site we then used the blunt end of our axes to knock the bark off. We were exhausted, we had the first two posts down at the yard site and we were spent. The drag was killing us, the posts were heavy, the bark was rough which was creating a lot of friction and digging into the ground, and we were trying to carry our axes with us so we wouldn't have to walk all the way up again to get them. There had to be an easier way. We tried making a harness for Beau who seemed to have limitless energy and get him to drag them down for us, but he wasn't having any of it and would just sit and look at us with a dumb expression on his face. We got in front and called him, patting our knees encouraging him to pull, eagerly he'd start towards us until he felt the lead pull tight against the log, “C'mon boy!” I encouraged. He looked back at the post and then at me as if to say “I can't I'm tied to this fucken log dumb-arse!” So we gave up on that.
Then we noticed as we knocked the bark off, the sap and moisture under the bark made them quite slippery.
We decided the next two we'd bark up on the hill, and then drag them down, might be easier and we wouldn't have to carry our axes with us!
It took some trial and error but we worked out a knot that wouldn't pull off the slippery posts, then we were ready. I was hoping the freshly barked logs would be noticeably easier to drag, otherwise I was going to have a hard time convincing Skip to hang around.
Once again with a log each we gave them a heave. They slid easily on the hard ground and took off down the hill gathering speed like a battering ram. In seconds we had tossed our ropes and were running for our lives ahead of the speeding logs. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Beau joyfully bounding down the hill with us, tongue hanging out, oblivious to our impending doom. I looked across and saw Skip dive to the side as his log went crashing past him through the undergrowth. My legs were carrying me as fast as I dared on the steep downhill slope, awkwardly leaping over shrubs and fallen branches, gravity had taken over and it was all I could do to stay on my feet! My post was gaining on me and it was only that it crashed into the base of a tree that brought it to an abrupt halt and saved me from getting knocked arse over head!
Out of breath I struggled back up to Skip who was still lying on the ground gasping for air with a shocked look on his face, “Fuck me!” he exclaimed, and we both burst into laughter rolling around on the ground with Beau climbing all over us.
We had solved the problem of the arduous drag, so much so that we even attempted two logs each, and started all four careening down the hill, running the gauntlet trying to stay ahead of them to the valley below. But after some near misses decided one each was enough to tangle with.
At night we built a fire in the middle of the yard, and stayed up late drinking billy tea, smoking tree bark cigarettes and telling lies about girls. We slept in sle