Australian Packer Tips


The following was sent to me by an experienced packer in Australia. Very interesting reading and some very good pack tips.


I read you section on pack tips with interest and you have some excellent ideas obviously picked up from going bush. However this is an experience that is slowly being lost because people don't have those old skills much anymore.

I am not an old packer(in Australia we call them horse tailers!). I am only in my early 40's but packed for several years when I was a ringer (cowboy) when I was in my late teens so my first role was as horse tailor. We also have bullock tailers because they tailed bullocks and sometimes we call them drovers This art is getting lost!.

We do things a bit different here because we don't have a lot of fences, bears, large populations on wanabesand and big outback isolated stations, and many of the things I learnt are now lost because people have no bloody idea about camp horses( cow horses for mustering(rounding up), and the old ways are getting lost because the old blokes and woman are heading for the happy hunting ground!

I tailed (looked after) a mob (herd) of plant horses (workers) on a large station (ranch) which had around 43,000 head. So they was no wheels and horse work was all year round. We used packs because it was a muddy sort of place when it rained. (Australia has an internal drainage system not like places where rivers drain to the sea! so vehicles (even ww2 tracked vehicles and those things like off the banana splits were unsuitable and the noise stirred up the mob.

I still pack today and use exactly the same methods, much to the chagrin of my friends. When I was horse tailor I looked after 60 head of plant horses called a string in a stock camp. A stock camp went for most of the year and we camped out bush under the stars in all weather That's where I learnt from their aboriginal stockman the stars and how to track!. Our pack horses never had halters and I caught each out on the flat (open space) because we don't have things like wire fences in those days. So when we saddled up in packs we drove them in a mob and did that real slow so they could feed as they moved to the next camp site.

Each ringer was responsible for his own pack. Every pack had a purpose. eg my pack was the heaviest and was the meat pack. It kept the meat, butchers knives, sharpening stone, potatoes and oranges. Another bloke might had the hobble pack, so it keep the spare leather, saddle stitching and repair gear, hobbles, shoeing gear, spare shoes etc, and a carbide light, which carbide was a rock that reacted with water and gave off acetylene gas and when lit gave a flame or light at nighttime. So each person had a pack to ten to every morning and night. Some packs carried water! Other packs carried ammunition for the rifle as we butchered cattle on the open for food and salt to preserve meat etc. We ate sparingly and meat each night had to be hung in a tree to keep the ants off them and dry out so as not to go rancid. Meat was placed in a calico bag to dry out the blood.They would last up to 2 weeks in wintertime and Australia can get bloody hot!

I packed between 8 -10 neddies(horses). That meant 8-10 pack saddles and each man had his pack like I described. Young colts getting broken in had a pack but you filled the pack bags with sand for extra weight. So each morning each man had a designated pack and his job was to pack it properly and weight it ready for me to saddle up. The other horses left were for mustering so about 6 head for each stockman or ringer (cowboy so they rotated each horse several times a day so they didn't knock up(exhausted them) There were about 7 ringers so we had a few spare horse as well.

Breaking in(training from scratch) was all done out on the flat. Which meant no yards or fences to catch them. Each night we hobbled every horse and like you said we put horse bells on the ring leaders or the ones with mates at home so they were prone to head home and had horse bells on them. My job was to listen to which direction they went and at day light the bells were tongued to reduce the clanging. Having 70 plant horses meant I had to keep on the ball! so to speak, and they all got to know mw very well. It was an unwritten rule none touched the plant except me so as no to stir up the plant with unfamiliar people!. I got to love each horse really well and I had absolute power. If anyone knocked a horse around I had the power to go crook and let them know they were up to no good. Another unwritten rule of the Australian bush! Those animals became my pets!

They were never fed so they grazed at night and they always were in good nick(condition() because there was plenty of feed and I never knocked then around.

One point you forgot was watering and hobbling. You NEVER hobbled before watering. Do this and you will kill your entire plant! This is because thirsty horses must be watered first! before they walk off camp. So if they drink in a creek they get the hind foot over the hobbles and floundered and drown. This is a drovers first priority! and should never be forgotten!!!!

We never had fancy tucker(food). A good horse tailer had a camp cook to help and always carried a stock whip to keep the horses them in line. The horse tailors job was to get the water in a can or the cook to cook, dig a hole for scraps, and get firewood for cooking food. A night log was the order of the day so in the morning hot coals were ready for breakfast. Each horse got to know only the tailor so when the ringers wanted to catch their work horse for the morning I took their bridle and caught their horse, lead it off camp, and handed it over. It was one of the unwritten rules you never entered the horse tailors domain.

On camp meant you trained the horses to stand patiently in front of the camp fire, each morning and night to be caught, hobbled and then let go. You never chased then off camp but let then make their own way off camp.

Most of this work "on and off camp" was done in the dark so the boys could go mustering early. So a good tailer got to know his plant by sight and shape in the dark. You always tried to made sure you took horses with their mates so they hung together, That meant one "mate" always carried the horse bell so you could catch them in the early morning. You might have 10 bells so you had to learn the different sounds

The time to get them was when the morning star Venus" was just above the horizon before setting. This was around 4.00am or 3.30am So you never used a watch.

To catch them one horse called the night horse was tied up to a tree. He got special treatment because without him you couldn't get the others who grazed all night. The night horse got a nosebag of grain and he had his own special fire with smoke to repel mozzies. because in Australia we have bad mosquitoes and they annoy the buggery out of a tethered horse. He got lots of special attention because if the battle rushed he was relied upon to see in the dark. The night horse was chosen because of their extra powers of night sense, alertness, quietness and trusts, so they were special. Unfortunately people use electric fences these days so this is lost almost. If we night watched cattle we had several night horses tied up and rode around them singing to pacify them. Night watch was hard but being horse tailor I always got first watch. The jingle of a hobble chain could rush the mob. Our mobs were about 1000 head. The most I saw was about 3000 but with so many we had to split them into 3 mobs!

Sometimes we had clean skins, cattle that never got branded as calves, They sometimes became unmanageable as they were uneducated, so we had to toss them. This means gallop after them, jump off grab their tail and when they turn to horn you flick their tail towards their head and they over balance, there is a special moment to do this so you need a mate on horseback to back you up if their tail had so much manure on it your hand slipped off. Your mate also had to hold your horse and then we would kill the beast called pithing it. This meant putting a pocket knife in the par where the skull ,loins the soine and cutting the nervous chord --instant death!

This method in Australia is called throwing or tossing cattle. Not many can do this now as well!

All pack horses were crossed with a Perce so half draughts. All pack bags had holes in the bottom because we swam them many times as the country became boggy when wet. We slept in a swag and this was strapped to the top of the pack saddle. Also a rifle shovel and axe was strapped there as well. They were very good animals, calm and sensible having the draught in them.

These methods were developed by the British Army in India I believe, so the packs we use here were based on the British Army Military pack. That's probably why there were so many unwritten rules. I have never forgotten this work. People don't know this stuff now.




Gerard Hogan

National Coordinator for Viticulture

Cooperative Research Center for Viticulture(CRCV)


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