The perfect trip: Queensland
The man giving the orders is ‘the boss’, Gordon Pringle, the owner of the vast Mount Mulligan estate, a whip-wielding rider in a low-brimmed Akubra hat who first learned the skills of a stockman as a child. He directs the proceedings with constant focus. Some of the bulls are ‘cleanskins’ – wild and wilful unbranded cattle born in the bush – and it’s not unknown for them to lower their horns and charge. The horses are no domesticated nags, either, having been drawn from the ranks of ‘brumbies’, or feral horses, that roam in mobs around the surrounding hills.
These dusty cattle yards are set in 70,000 acres of largely untouched bushland, in the shadow of one of Australia’s most remarkable natural structures. Mount Mulligan is a huge sandstone escarpment around ten times the size of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, that rears out of the landscape and runs for more than 11 miles along the horizon. To the local Djungan people, it is known as Ngarrabullgan, the birthplace of the Rainbow Serpent god, and is one of the most sacred sites in Australia.
Fringed with green, the rock looms over the stockmen’s bunkhouse and slowly changes from a fiery orange to a soft mauve as the sunlight begins to fade. Soon the team arrives, leaving a rising trail of dust in its wake, and a shoulder of beef is set to roast in a camp oven.
Gordon takes a seat on a broad ironbark log and stretches out after a long day in the saddle. ‘It’s not an easy life,’ he admits. ‘It’s life or death every day. But one moment you’re galloping through the bush, chasing a wild bull and tying him up like your ancestors used to, and the next you’re sitting down by a billabong, with a kind of peace and quiet you can’t imagine.’ He gestures behind him, where the mountain is reflected in a slow-moving river strewn with soft pink lotus flowers, and gives a small shrug. ‘It’s just a way of life, I guess.’
Mount Mulligan cattle musters take place from July to September. Watch from the sidelines, or get stuck in on a quad bike or horseback (from £290). Year-round activities include bush walking and fishing (free), plus horse riding, quad biking and ‘fossicking’ for gold (from £60).
Where to stay and eat
For a truly rugged outback experience, bring a tent or grab a camp bed in the Mount Mulligan campsite by the Hodgkinson River. Luxury safari tents and a camp dinner are sometimes available. Call ahead to book (camping £12, bunkhouse from £15, safari tents from £110, meals from £9).