It’s interesting to me: the past circumstances that have led to us being here in our present positions. At a dinner table; the college we’ve chosen to attend; where we take a vacation; the books we read.
If I hadn’t finished watching the news and had instead left ten minutes earlier, would I be caught in this much traffic?
If I hadn’t gone to Rachel’s Cinco de Mayo party and met Richard, whom would I have ended up marrying?
Hypotheticals like these may be absurd, but they’re fascinating nonetheless. How did I get here? And how could my actions in this moment affect the next?
Twenty years ago, Robin and Lyle Mills, at fifty years old apiece and with four grown boys, traded in their sheep farm in Western Australia for partnership in a floundering cattle station. They wanted a change of scenery, maybe, but also, cattle represented the most potential for profit in the livestock market. At fifty, they were risking their entire life savings, but with the children grown, they had room to chance.
A cattle station is a way of life just as much as it is a long-term business investment. Here they were on this lonely, wide-open land, and they worked hard every day but Sunday. They could either love the long, sweaty hours or they could move to the city to sit in an office or wait tables.
“At this point, we are asset rich, but cash poor,” Lyle told me. “We take a cruise once a year, but we sacrifice almost every other luxury for increased equity in the station. We put the money toward fencing or new equipment.”
And this is why they’ve now successfully built a highly efficient and extremely productive large-scale cattle breeding and fattening operation. Other stations grind, but Warrawagine Station, a place that has changed owners a number of times over the last hundred years, now runs better than ever. The Mills family—parents, children, and grandchildren—have staked their lives and their livelihoods on managing twenty-five thousand feral cattle a year on a million-acre station in the outback. They raise and repair windmills, dig wells, string and mend fences, upgrade machinery, and then the muster begins.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a very fun and rewarding challenge,” Robin told me. “We care about making money, but just as much, we care about the well-being of these cattle.”
And I agree. If the USDA flew to Western Australia to investigate Warrawagine, they would end up leaving with a journal full of notes on how animals should be handled.
Shortly after the Mills’ speculative purchase twenty years ago, Surry Roberts, a retired physician from Raleigh, North Carolina, signed up for a camel trek across the desert.
“I got tricked into going,” he told me. “Warwick Deacock, the owner of AusVenture, sent me a telegram saying that my friend Cliff Ball, an Aussie who I had traveled with to the Himalayas a number of times, was signing up for a camel trek across Western Australia. Three weeks later, I got another telegram from Warwick saying that Cliff had already sent in his money and that I better hurry up or I would miss out on the trip.
“Well, I sent in my money, and when I landed in Perth to meet up for this expedition, I mentioned to Cliff that it wasn’t very considerate that he had failed to mention anything about the trip directly to me. He said, ‘What do you mean? I received a telegram from Warwick saying that you were signing up for the camel trek and I had better hurry up and send in my money!’”
Over the course of thirty-one days, they traversed five hundred miles of scrubby flat land, following the historic course of Colonel Peter Warburton, who made a daring crossing through the Gibson and Great Sandy Deserts 120 years earlier.
“We periodically crossed hundred-foot sand dunes, and one day it went to one hundred and twelve degrees, hotter than we expected,” Surry said. “Four nights later, the milk froze in cartons.”
One town they passed by, Marble Bar, holds the world record for 160 consecutive days above a hundred degrees.
“But we were all up for this adventure, and we were much better supplied than Warburton would have been over a century before.” The nights were brilliant: “You could almost read small type under the glowing night sky of the Southern Cross.” Colonel Warburton’s great-grandson, Ridge Warburton, accompanied the group on their trek, as well, and by night, the crew took turns reading from his great-grandfather’s journal.
A little over halfway through the journey to the coast, short on food and looking for a place to camp, Surry’s camel train came upon the newly purchased Warrawagine station. Robin and Lyle put steaks on the grill and a beer in each person’s hand. They served ice cream. Everyone stayed up late by the river, one-upping the last story told.
Some thirty-five years before that night, freshman orientation was beginning at UNC. Dubbed Camp New Hope, the orientation lasted five days. All the freshman shared a few cabins, and it was in one of those cabins that future doctor/camel pilot Surry Roberts met my father. They rushed different fraternities in the fall but saw a lot of each other that year. Pops subsequently dropped out to join the army for a couple years but reconnected with Surry upon his return. They later met on the intramural football field, law school versus med school, and then didn’t see each other until three years later in the chow line at Fort Bragg. Surry was a doctor with the 82nd Airborne Division, and Pops was a civilian at the Special Warfare School. They randomly connected again in Pleiku, Vietnam, at the PX, a trading post on the Army base: Surry was working as a physician with the 5th Special Forces at the Montagnard Hospital, and Pops, a district senior advisor, was in town for supplies. They visited each other on the weekends and have been close friends ever since.
Surry attended Freshman Camp as a young man and got tricked into mounting a camel as an old one. I told him I was looking to get gone for a year. “I’ve got just the spot for you to hang your hat for a few months,” he said to me. “You can’t go around the world without getting on a motorbike to muster a herd of cattle. Let me make a call.”
I struggled to hide my skepticism. Australia wants to kill you. Lingering in that place is like walking around with a permanent BITE ME sign taped to your back. Great white shark attacks aren’t uncommon there. The box jellyfish is one of the most lethal animals in the world. No one has developed an antidote for the bite of a blue-ringed octopus, which simply paralyzes all functions until its victim suffocates. Saltwater crocodiles can grow up to eighteen feet long and are well camouflaged by their bumpy, muddy-green skin. Three hundred people drown per year in Australia. Twenty die from horse-riding accidents. Many people climb Uluru, and most of them make it back down without tumbling off the side to their doom. There are aggressive spiders and bees that can cause anaphylactic shock and snails with harpoonlike teeth. You can’t piss against a tree without the fear of a dingo sneaking up to gnaw a chunk out of your Achilles. Of the top ten most venomous snakes in the world, ten of them are found in Australia.
“Plus,” I told Surry, “I’ve never ridden a motorbike. And I don’t understand how it can have anything to do with gathering cattle.”
“Perfect,” Surry offered, preparing to craft an e-mail to Lyle and Robin. “All the more reason to go.”