Outback Matador

Outback Matador – Bull catching Australian Style
Alison Gotts 1988.

Kurundi is a large cattle station in Central Australia, where the back paddock is 140 km and a four hour drive from the homestead. Criss-crossing the property are spectacular gorges, sandstone escarpments and, in a good season, hundreds of waterholes. In such rugged country, mustering cattle on the ground is difficult, but helicopters can be used to push the cattle to where they can be rounded up. However, there are always some animals with enough cunning to evade the roundup and there are plenty of places to hide.

Peter and Brenda Saint bought Kurundi in 1980 as a rundown property with no fences, one bore and hundreds of wild scrub bulls. Peter spends two months each year bull catching, in a specialized vehicle known to all Territorians as a Bull-catcher. This has been designed to get into the rugged parts of the property and flush out renegade bulls which have never been mustered. Once upon a time, Peter’s vehicle had been a Short wheel base Toyota Landcruiser, now only recognisable by a mechanic.

Ïf only Toyota could see what we do to their cars”, said Peter, his eyes glinting with the idea of taking a Toyota executive for a spin. All the modifications had one objective, to catch wild bulls. The windscreen, roof and sides had been removed, the doors had been welded shut leaving the heavy duty roll bar behind the seat the only thing above waist height. A welded steel frame completely encased the body of the car to protect the driver from charging bulls. The bonnet and front mudguards had also been welded together and the whole unit could be swung forward on hinges to expose the engine when required.

Behind the roll bar, six complete wheels filled the rear space. “Gee, we’re going well, only one flat tyre in the last two days”, said Rick , one of the stockmen. Twenty sweat stained and heavy leather straps were buckled to the roll bar, strong enough to tie the bull’s legs together and withstand the tremendous forces the bull could exert in his bid to escape.

Four tyres were wired to the front of the car, as a buffer to soften the impact of collision when car meets bull, and help prevent bruising and injury. “Cattle buyers in Alice Springs always bid keenly for Kurundi bulls. They know there is little bruising”, said Peter.

The underbelly of the car was also shielded by a thick steel plate, protecting the exposed differential, tie rods and sump from ant mounds and rocks, but also to protect the bull.

Only the essentials were maintained’; radiators flushed with water to remove grass seeds, steering components greased thoroughly, brake pedals kept hard. There were no headlights or handbrakes, such fripperies unnecessary on what had become a finely honed and battle worn machine. Speed, manoeuvrability and consistent engine performance were what counted in this competition. “When the Wynns car rally came through the hills last year, their record time was 35 minutes. Once all the race people had gone, I took the bull-catcher through their course and took six minutes off their record!” said Peter with a wide grin.

Wearing a battered bushman’s hat, a shirt secured by one button across an ample girth and faded blue jeans which barely stayed up, Peter explained why he spent two months each year catching bulls.

“In the early days, cattle were relatively tame because there were large numbers of stockmen always around. That all changed as wages and conditions improved and stations could no longer afford to maintain a large staff. The cattle grew wild, animals were able to avoid muster and continue to breed in the more isolated pockets of the station. They became very cunning and aggressive, each scrub bull having its own harem. They drove off the introduced stud bulls, often killing them. Last year I released ten stud bulls into Ti-Tree Pound and within six months five of them had died. I need to remove the scrub bulls to give the stud bulls a chance to breed, otherwise there is no point to a breeding program”.

On a property like Kurundi where there is a lot of surface water, it is necessary to go out there and catch them. An unforgettable experience for a city slicker.

Peter made sure I was strapped in and took off, immediately leaving the track to follow a creek through mulga scrub, zigzagging around larger ant mounds, ignoring the rest. Peter scanned the horizon, alert for the tell-tale tracks that would lead to a hidden waterhole. The car swung sharply to follow a fresh trail, with us both ducking to avoid overhanging braches.

Peter spotted a herd and the car accelerated, our bodies pushed back into the seats. The bull-catcher drove a slalom course through the ant mounds to outpace the cattle and turn them back. A practiced eye studied each animal while finely tuned reflexes avoided a hundred potential collisions. “That one on the far left, he’s got no ear tag”, and we hurtle through the scrub to get to him.

The cattle galloped across the clay pan as our bull-catcher veered to get between the scrub bull and his herd. The car raced alongside the bull, the ground a blur, the bull spun in a sharp turn to lose us, but the bull-catcher followed. I grabbed the panic handle on the dash and wedged myself down into the seat. The bull turned again and the catcher followed, skidding sideways forcing the bull to turn even more.

The bull started to tire and the bull-catcher closed in. This was the climax of the chase, Peter had to pick the right moment to nudge the bull so that momentum would tip him over and then jam the brakes on so that the car would stop with the front bumper on the bull, pinning him to the ground. Grabbing a leather belt from the roll bar, Peter leapt out to tie up the front legs of the bull. The bull lunged and lifted the entire front of the Toyota, forcing it to roll backwards and so allowing it to escape before Peter could immobilise it. Peter jumped back into the car as a very angry bull charged, its horns rammed the drivers door three times while Peter sat calmly in his seat trying to restart a stalled engine. The engine finally started, the bull took off and the chase was on again. “Bull-catching is dangerous and exciting, I love the thrill of it, the adrenalin surge. The bull could easily kill you and you have to stay one jump ahead”.

Many station owners employ contract bull catchers, rather than do it themselves, but Peter Saint prefers to catch his own scrub bulls. “Contractors are paid a percentage for the bulls they catch, so they concentrate on the big ones. I want to catch every scrub bull, big and small”.

Once the bull has been caught and its feet securely belted together, it is loaded onto a truck using a ramp and pulley system. Before being released in the truck, its horns are clipped with giant secateurs to limit the damage to other bulls. The bulls are yarded until around fifty have been caught, enough for a truckload to market.

“I would have caught two and a half thousand bulls in the eight years at Kurundi”, said Peter. In the beginning they were catching up to thirty five bulls a day, but his stock management program has caused this to drop to four or five bulls. Scrub bulls will never be eradicated, but with continual pressure and regular mustering a better breed of animal will emerge; a beast with a quiet temperament, large build and good meat characteristics. There will always be work for at least one month each year for Peter Saint and his bull catcher at Kurundi, even just to escape the mundane tasks of cattle management and experience the exhilaration of the chase as an outback matador.

Postscript 

Cattle station fined over bull catcher death

ABC Rural

The owners of a Northern Territory cattle station have been fined $55,000 for failing to maintain a vehicle that killed a worker in an accident in 2008.

24-year-old John Evans was driving a bull catcher on Kurundi Station, 140 kilometres south-east of Tennant Creek, when it rolled and pinned him to the ground.

NT WorkSafe executive director Laurene Hull says three other people have died in similar incidents over the last five years.

“It’s not the first death to arise from the use of bull catchers,” he said.

“I’m happy to say that in the ensuing three years there’s been no further deaths.

“I’m confident that the industry is working towards full compliance of their duties for work, health and safety.”

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