Story By David Hancock

Helicopter pilots in northern Australia lead nomadic lives, flying between stock camps most of the year in small machines that are pushed to the limit. In the Victoria River District (VRD) of the Northern Territory, their work begins at the start of the dry season and ends when monsoonal rains arrive about nine months later.
They muster cattle off stations millions of square kilometres in size, battling the heat and dodging trees and termite mounds, pitting their wits against stubborn cattle that would prefer to stay wild and free.
Their workplace is harsh and unforgiving, flat as the palm of your hand, sliced by brown rivers that flood during the wet season and then shrink into remote waterholes during the dry. Nevertheless, it’s good cattle country that turns off thousands of beasts for markets in Australia and Asia.
In the VRD, people generally rise before dawn and work through the day mustering, branding and loading cattle – most of which are transported to places such as Darwin or Wyndham for live export.
One or two helicopter pilots can muster more cattle in a day than a team on horseback in a week. Pilots fly by the seat of their pants, pushing cattle out of massive paddocks, while road-train drivers carry hundreds of head to the wharves in double-decked, triple trailers – the largest road transports in the world.

This story excerpt is from Issue #59

Outback Magazine: June/July 2008