BY C Brian Smith
November 11 2009 11:00 AM ET
I retire to my carpeted, spacious tent (larger than some Manhattan apartments) and climb into a twin-size bed, well made with crisp sheets and a flannel comforter. Moonlight bursts through the window flap, casting a shadow on the makeshift cowboy outfit I’ve laid out for the next day.
A bugle blast calls us to breakfast at 5:30 a.m. I compliment the chef on this morning’s spread of bacon, sausage, poached eggs, spinach, porridge, freshly squeezed orange juice, and French-press coffee. “Enjoy, mate,” says chef Steve Marcus, setting down his rusty bugle. But for D’Artagnan’s sake, I settle on a bowl of fruit.
With our 500 head of Santa Gertrudis cattle surrounded, we ride off into the sunrise. D’Artagnan and I creep along the sepia-toned landscape at a lumbering, leisurely pace, which is just fine by me. The Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive celebrates the history of legendary Outback cattle drives, the aim of which was to take cattle from one point to another and have them arrive in better condition—or at least the same—compared to the beginning of the drive.
Toward the end of the day, D’Artagnan becomes slightly agitated as we come upon a small, tattered paddock. “That’s where the cattle are branded and neutered,” Randall says. He explains that it’s D’Artagnan’s job to drag the soon-to-be-castrated bulls up to the post. “Ah.” I nod, “The nut rush.” He smiles: “We call ’em ‘bush oysters.’ Taste like bacon.”
Just then my red windbreaker snags on a gum tree and lands on D’Artagnan’s left eye, causing the mighty beast to break into a panicked sprint. “Please stop?” I beg, to no avail. Instead the horse rears back and bucks me into the air. I meet the desert floor with an ugly thud.
I lie still for a few seconds as I timorously check my startled body for damage. I emerge unscathed and relatively intact. Two of the aboriginal drovers trace a circle on the ground, gather a handful of dirt, and offer it to me. “Bush law,” Randall explains. “You own that land now.”
I apologize to D’Artagnan for the fright, and he receives me once again upon his back. I’m grateful. After all, how many opportunities is one granted to literally get back on the horse? We lumber toward our next camp in silence, the crimson sun falling behind us.
That night, a campfire is constructed from remains of the nearby Ghan railroad track. Local musicians Rohan and Polly serenade us with traditional songs of the Outback as the night’s sky explodes with Southern Hemispheric star patterns. If the objective of a good vacation is to wholly remove oneself from normalcy, I have already succeeded. One by one, each member of the driving team stops by and jokingly pats me on the back. “Hey, cowboy. Good on ya, mate. Terrific dismount.” I’m honored to have earned their respect (granted, for falling off a horse rather than proficiently riding one—but I’ll take it.) After all, I’m now a landowner in the Aussie Outback