25 Jun Tibooburra
It was always going to be a wild weekend, driving the dog fence with a pair of Tibooburra’s spirited women.
Vicki Crozier was in town to deliver kelpie pups to her mates who run the stations in NSW’s remote top corner. Phyllis Ainsworth was in town for the weekend to say g’day to Vicki and repair the tyre rods on her Landcruiser.
I was in town because Vicki is an old friend I hadn’t seen for 20 years – she swept me up off the footpath in Broken Hill on her way through from Port Germaine, in South Australia.
Four hours of dust and dead roos later, we pulled into Tibooburra – 330 kms north of Broken Hill, stone’s throw from the Queensland and South Australian borders, within coo-ee of nowhere.
I’ve been to Tibooburra before. Twenty years ago Vicki needed a ride up from Lismore for her sister’s wedding and I volunteered to drive her. Then the country was dry, the land as sunbaked as a sunbaked Aussie might expect. This year the outback is woolly. Like a great creature grown fur for the winter. The rains have come. But not so much that the locals’ concerns about water have been put to rest.
Other than the fact Vicki’s sister Melissa now owns the iconic Family Hotel, with its original Drysdales and Pughs smeared over the walls, not much at all has changed in Tibooburra. Trucks still rumble through the main street, which is just about the only street. Locals bend their elbows at the bar, either at the Family or the Tibooburra Hotel across the road (known colloquially as ‘the two-storey’). Dusty 4WDs wander about before pulling up in front of the pubs.
That night on the way home from the pub Vicki points to a puddle and mutters through the smoke between her lips: “the Tibooburra car wash.”
Saturday morning I’m sitting on the concrete verandah at Vicki’s place, which is rented by Phyll’s dad Johnny (who does the mail run, the hospital garbage run, the school bus run – “if it needs doin’ I do it”). It’s warm in the sunshine, chilly in the shade. Phyll is on the other side of the front fence, jacking up her Landcruiser, muttering and swearing to herself with each new effort. Vicki is blinking into the daylight, cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth, a fresh-brewed mug of tea warming her fingers.
There’s still one pup to deliver out to Cameron Corner. Today’s mission. The morning stillness is broken by a mighty uproar from Phyll under the cruiser. She’s got the wrong parts. Out here, that’s the end of the matter – there’s no running back to the shop to change them over. That means Phyll is coming out with us to the Corner.
And that’s how I got to drive the dog fence.
We rattle out across the desert to the Corner, the point at which three Australian states converge. The day is blue. The earth is red. The country is wide. Without warning Vicki shudders to a halt and reverses up. Phyll is excited in the back. Brolgas. A sight so rare that two outback women have stopped in their tracks to watch with wonder and delight. The brolgas stand tall, still. There are three. I’m reminded of English gentlemen in morning suits. All they need is the top hat. The birds slide away into the endless land behind them. The dirt road is marked with tracks, the most entertaining of which is a bicycle tyre. Phyll and Vicki are laughing their guts out at the tyre’s passage across the dust. It’s a trail that speaks of exhaustion and persistent dogged effort. They’re hoping like hell we don’t meet him (they are sure it’s a him) on a rise. We don’t. We meet him taking a well-earned break in the spindly shade of a rare tree. His name’s Gwyllam. He’s ridden all the way from Newcastle.
At the Corner we meet Katie, who has driven in from the far horizon with her small children to pick up the pup. And then we decide to drive home along the dog fence, the longest fence in the world, a 3614km* wire barrier that runs through three states to keep the dingos under control. There’s only one reason we can make that decision – and that’s because it’s Phyll’s section of fence.
For the past five years, Phyll has worked the one hundred kilometre section of fence that runs north from Cameron Corner. It’s hers. Her job. Her fence. Her road. Phyll is in the driving seat, I’m in the front seat beside her. Vicki’s cursing behind me about being in the back seat of her own car. She pops a tinny in protest. The fence runs straight as an arrow through the red country. Eight feet high, three gauges of mesh. Phyll is responsible for every patch of rust, every busted wire.
“Best job in the world,” she says.
As far as Monday to Friday work goes, I’m inclined to agree with her.
“Close your eyes,” she barks. “Don’t open ’em till I tell ya.”
I laugh out loud. She’s flying over a rise in the earth and there’s no road before me, only sky.
It occurs to me I’m doing something that just about everybody else on earth will never do: I’m driving the dog fence.
Sunday evening, Vicki rocks in from the pub.
“Get in the car, we’re goin’ to Sunset Hill,” she barks.
I turn off the pasta and grab the keys on the way out, making sure I’m in the driver’s seat. We stop at the pub for ‘takeaways’. Beer for her, cider for me. We rattle up Sunset Hill, park and walk to the top. And there we sit in the middle of the desert while the sun goes down. Me, Vicki and her two-year-old kelpie Bonnie. We scan the horizon, 360 degrees of flat country shoveled into scattered blue hills by ancient geology. Over the years Vicki has mustered every inch of it, all 360 degrees. The youngest daughter of a shearer, Vicki was born to this land. Vicki and Phyllis both.
As the sun dips its brush to paint the sky I smile with appreciation for the company I’ve kept this weekend, for the comradeship of women shaped by the country they love, hard around the edges, soft depending on the light, beautiful in unimagined ways.
I raise my glass to the spirited women of the Outback.
“The web is a problem for misinformation!! It was originally 8614 kms when built in the late 1800s as a rabbit fence. Then it was shortened to 5614 kms in the early 1900s. In 1948 it was altered to become the dog fence and it was shortened again – it’s now about 3614 km. I have looked at a few websites and only found one that married up with what I have learned since being here.”
Written by Stephanie Dale, author, journalist & traveling writer; founder of The Write Road and Walk and Write.
Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a fondness for walking and writing. She is a passionate advocate for the visibility and voices of everyday people and focuses on supporting new and unpublished writers to write and keep writing. The Write Road is dedicated to empowering people to tell their stories, their way.