I awake this morning and hightail it out of Noosa (okay, it’s actually 10:00am before I get going, and though I blame the wait for an available shower in the hostel, my dawdling might be a contributing factor). Today I’m headed to farm-country. Thangool to be exact. Any Australians out there will now be posing the question, “What would bring you to Thangool?”
If I were being my regular smart-self I might say, “Van Morrison is bringing me there.” (My camper van, not the singer and, by the way, is he still alive?)
Instead, I’ll tell you the real story. When I was in Sydney, everyone told me, “You must take the Manly Ferry and check out Manly Island.”
As I’m always on the hunt for someone manly, I did just that. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. Not only did I not find anyone manly, but I found it fairly boring. Now, if you’re a surfer, you might enjoy Manly a bit more than I, but, as I have enough trouble not falling down when walking on cement, it’s probably best that I find my water sports in the water and not on top of it.
So Manly was boring. And the ferry, well, the thirty-minute ride had its exciting moments as the water was rough and, though I worked on ships for many years, and have taken ferries around the world, there were times that I was checking out the quickest exit should we capsize. At one point, I turned to a young woman sitting alone and said, “Is this normal?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I’m not from here.”
We spoke further and she told me her name was Tenille (you’d think she’d know if this rocking were normal, knowing The Captain, and all) and she was from Thangool. She now lives on the Gold Coast and was spending a few days in Sydney before heading over to travel around Vietnam for a couple of weeks. She’d spent the first few days in Sydney with friends but they’d just left, and this was her first time traveling alone. She was a bit lonely and, well, I’m kind of an expert on solo-travel and understand the loneliness which can accompany it at times. We spent the day together, chatting about Vietnam, travel, and life, while strolling through the not-too-exciting streets of Manly. At one point, Tenille mentioned that she grew up on a farm and her dad is often meeting travelers at the local pub and inviting them back to the house to stay for a bit. She mentioned something about horseback riding and sheep sheering and offered to contact her folks to see if they could host me for a few days. I thanked her for the offer and let her know that I was up for it as these types of opportunities are exactly why I travel without a plan.
So there’s the story of why, today, I’m heading to Thangool. It’s about a five-and-a-half hour drive and I manage to do it in only seven hours (yay me!). At just over an hour into the, thus far, boring drive, I stop at a Hungry Jacks (Burger King in Australia) for a quick burger. After passing by the coolest dog in the world, I call Tenille’s mom, Jeanette and ask, “Do you think it’s worth me driving all the way over there?”
I’d remembered that, during our pre-trip communications, Jeanette had mentioned that the travelers her husband Vernon had previously invited back to the farm were passing through the area. My situation is different as I’m not passing through; their farm is my destination. While I don’t expect it to be Disneyland, I want to know that it’s worth the drive. Jeanette tells me that the drive is fairly boring, basically consisting of farms and scrub. She doesn’t want to promise too much, and I understand that I’m the only one who can judge what constitutes, “worth the drive” for me.
With some trepidation, I continue to drive. It was tough to leave the beautiful beach of Noosa and, until I drive over three-hours (past the half-way point), I consider turning back. At just after 5:00pm, I finally pull onto the farm. Standing there to greet me, like the American Gothic painting, are Jeanette and Vernon. Oh, and there’s a little, baby goat, which I later learn is actually a sheep. (Seriously, I’m from Detroit) Oh and a dog; there’s a dog wearing a lampshade on his head. (Is he drunk?)
Vernon and Jeanette give me a warm greeting and I’m shown to my room. After I transfer some necessities from Van Morrison to my room, we take a stroll around the farm. I meet the two pigs, the many “chooks” (chickens for us city-people), five-or-so horses, the sheep, the eight-or-so sheepherding dogs and Cheech and Chong, the sheep’s bodyguards. Jeanette and Vernon explain that Cheech and Chong are dogs which bond with whatever you train them to bond with; in this case a herd of sheep. Cheech and Chong live with the sheep and keep away predators and, really, anything or anyone that they don’t know. They love their sheep like the other Cheech and Chong love their spliff.
As the sun begins to set, we head inside and enjoy a nice dinner. Sam, the dog which I now refer to as “Lampshade”, has just been neutered. This is the reason for the lampshade around his neck and has nothing to do with his alcohol consumption (though, after losing his manhood, he might need a drink). This place is already feeling worth the drive and my stressed-out body and mind are beginning to relax.
At about 6:00am, I’m awakened with the sounds of cackling and crowing. Knowing that getting up this early is for the birds (ha!), I roll over and grab an hour more sleep. When I finally drag myself out of bed, Jaenette and Vernon are sitting enjoying tea and watching the news. I’ve missed this bit of normalcy lately and grab a cup of coffee and join them. After a while, Jeanette heads off to work (she’s a teacher) and Vernon and I head out onto the farm. I mention the possibility of sheep-shearing which Tenille spoke of, and Vernon doesn’t seem too keen on it. From everything I’ve heard prior to coming, sheep-sheering is tough work. Vernon explains that watching an expert sheep-shearer looks like watching a dance. They stand in one place and move the sheep around them with finesse. He goes on to explain that, when he sheers sheep, it’s more like a wrestling match, and often, the sheep wins. We decide to skip the sheep-sheering for today and he shows me some other things which happen around the farm.
We begin with feeding the chickens, birds, pigs, and dogs. Following that, we collect four of the working dogs and walk them over to the sheep. Vernon is training some of them to herd and he gives me a demo. Some of the sheep are let into a round pen so there’s no corners to hide in. Slash is up first. (Yup, named after the guy from Guns-N-Roses.) Slash is a master sheep-herding dog and, while standing in the pen, Vernon explains that Slash understands not to get in the middle of the crowd, but to push them towards Vernon from the outside. Slash is also good at staring down rebellious sheep which try to challenge him. Having a successful run and showing the others how it’s done, Slash is led out of the pen and its now Sophie’s turn. While Sophie has a different style, she’s pretty good at her craft and I congratulate her on a job well-done.
Next up is Slash’s son Jinx. Jinx is just learning the family business and Vernon has to give him just a bit of help so that one of the more aggressive sheep doesn’t take him on and ruin his confidence. Finally, it’s Gus’ turn. Gus is Slash’s other son and does just as good of a job as his brother did. Both seem to love the family trade and show that they have the family’s talent. Vernon explains the process of recreating the natural ability through the bloodline. “You’re actually breeding for something you can’t see.” It’s the “It Factor.”
Next, Vernon and I climb aboard the tractor – he sits, while I stand on a step and hold on for dear life – tie a round-bale of hay onto the loader, and head out into the fields to feed the cattle. I ask Vernon how many there are and he’s not quite sure. There seems to be about a hundred, and they know that when the tractor comes, so does the food. We’re soon the Pied Piper and all the cows are following us. Vernon dumps the hay and, as he spreads it out, it’s like a stampede. I quickly step out of the way, hiding next to the tractor in an effort not to get trampled.
After the hay is spread, Vernon has me step into the tractor’s bucket and he lifts it high. It’s a great view to get some aerial photos of the cattle. After that, we head on over to see a new mother cow with her newborn calf. With the umbilical chord still attached, the calf stumbles on its new legs. The new mother isn’t too happy about our presence, as she wants some private time to take care of her newborn, so we only stay a few minutes before leaving.
Vernon then heats up a bottle for me and I head over to feed Terri, the week-old sheep whose mother has rejected her. Vernon and Jeanette don’t slaughter the sheep that have been rejected by their mothers. Those sheep are destined to live a long, happy life, mating and eating grass. So far, the farm has Steve, Bindi, Bob and now, Terri. Yup, the whole Irwin (Crocodile Hunter) family is here. (Vernon and Jeanette tell me that Bindi is a a bit of a loose woman.)
We spend more time on the farm feeding the horses and trying to get a bird to talk. (Apparently Vernon has taught him a nasty phrase or two.) We head out where Vernon shows me a volcanic hill, as well as a lookout to the local coal mine. In between, we stop for some tea and chat about life. Any doubts about the worthiness of the long drive here have vanished as, finally, I can breathe.
Tomorrow – Christmas in September and a day at the races.