Monday, March 26, 2012

Snakes Alive!

There’s a snake on the loose and ST is out mustering!

There is a snake on the loose, over by the dog kennels. I was wandering past, just dilly-dallying by with my one working eye, when our Border Collie ‘Rob’ stopped to inspect something by a tree. The snake (assumedly a Brown – second deadliest in the world) was slithering up over some old bricks and rubble just metres to my left. Quickly tying Rob at his kennel, I hot footed it the long way round the trees and back to the house.

Snakes terrify me. And I’m not sure what’s worse: knowing there’s a live snake out there and if you leave it there, it won’t harm you, but you’ll probably never be able to leave the house ever again; or having to man up and have a go at disposing of it yourself…?

Australia is home to seven of the world’s top 10 deadliest snakes, and running into them is common place when you’re living in their habitat. I’ve heard stories of horses and dogs dying within five minutes of a bite from a Taipan, the poll contender on the world’s most deadly list. Brown snakes run a close second and are the most common breed to come across in western New South Wales.

It is illegal to kill snakes – they are native and a protected species. But not killing them is a difficult decision to make when out here, 110km from the nearest town - which does have a hospital, but does not have a doctor – a snake bite would almost certainly be fatal. In the event of snakebite the Royal Flying Doctor Service would immediately dispatch an emergency airplane from the Broken Hill base (300km west), but our nearest RFDS accessible airstrip is 40kilometres away, along rough, dirt roads and with four gates to open on the way.

So when a snake comes dangerously close to your house, yard, and pets... your gut instinct is to protect yourself, which often means trying to kill the snake.

Generally so fired up with fear at the sight of a snake that I run for miles in the opposite direction, I could never kill a snake with a shovel. With this in mind, and adrenalin pumping through my body, I grabbed reinforcements from inside and headed back out to the dog kennels ready to lock and load at the first sighting. I stood around for at least 15 minutes, but couldn’t see anything. There’s no doubt in the time it’d taken me to run inside, and return with a weapon, the snake could have been long gone, or it could have just been curled up under some leaf litter exactly where I’d seen it. Honestly, it could have already made it past me and into the house! I wandered back inside annoyed that it would live to return another time, but relieved I hadn’t had to deal with it by myself…

Just weeks earlier, ST had seen a sinister looking banded brown snake go into our laundry, which is in a little shed, separate to the house but still inside the yard. I had clothes baskets full of sheets in there that it could have easily curled up in… I shiver at the thought of what could have been if we took the “green” approach of just leaving it alone. This particular day, I was inside when I heard ST yelling for me to bring him the gun.

We both stood back, surrounding the laundry shed from either side, just watching and waiting for the snake to exit. “It’s got to come out some time,” ST reasoned. And so we stood there for at least 40 minutes. Drained from standing on guard in the sun, I grabbed some chairs and water bottles so we could take sentry again in a bit more comfort. More than an hour and a half had passed and neither of us had seen any movement around the outside of the shed. We couldn’t stay there forever, and snakes can live for weeks without food... so it certainly could outwait us!

“Are you able to just bring the washing out please?” I asked.

Armed with a shovel, ST dragged the two washing baskets well outside the shed and tipped them over away from him, shovelling through the clothes to make sure there was no way the snake had hidden inside. Satisfied they were safe, I moved them well away before ST grabbed the garden hose and started spraying water around the outside of the shed where he’d seen the snake slither in. There was no sign of it.

We moved rolls of carpet and shade cloth out to make sure it wasn’t curled up in one of them… and then ST spotted a tiny hole in the cement slab, in the far back corner.
Snakes can hide almost anywhere. I’ve seen a seven foot python slither into a fern tree so silently not a single leaf shivered. ST’s mum has told me stories of snakes inside their house which escape through hairline cracks under doorways… It is too frightening to think of the possible consequences if we don’t get these creatures away from the areas we frequent daily…

So, having spent hours looking for the snake in the laundry, we decided to throw petrol down the hole.

I stood back outside, armed and at the ready, while ST entered the laundry with a shovel in one hand and an ice-cream container of petrol in the other. As quickly as he’d thrown it he came backing out the laundry door, whispering loudly “It’s in there. It’s definitely in there. I could hear it moving as soon as I’d thrown it.”

Swapping the shovel for the gun, we returned to our positions at either end of the building… waiting, waiting… and sooner than I could blink the snake shot out underneath the corrugated iron wall. I gasped deeply in fright, and started waving my arms around, pointing crazily before I could get any words out. “It’s here, it’s over here!”

The first shot injured it and the second shot finished the job. At last! We’d spent three hours of our afternoon on that snake, and the shot gun pellets had also sprayed holes through a brand new roll of poly pipe! But how much do you value your life?

I think I might drive over to feed the dogs from now on… sounds safer!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

An eye for an eye and everyone shall be blind

The house looks like it has been broken into by a junkie. First aid kits in the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom are strewn across the floor, cupboards are wide open and draws pulled out in the hunt for a fast fix. Plastic wrappers and empty canisters are spread haphazardly from one end of the house to the other, while puddles of strange liquids mingle with crumbs of chocolate on the lounge room floor…

Yesterday I nearly blinded myself. Who knew a daily task as simple as putting contact lenses in after a morning shower could turn so deadly? OK, well maybe not “deadly” as such… but it was excruciatingly painful and incredibly scary.

In a traumatic turn of events I managed to bleach my eyeball with un-neutralised hydrogen peroxide contact lens solution. As soon as I shoved the first lens into my eye it felt as if I’d had boiling water thrown into my face. A terrified scream rose up through my throat as I desperately tried to splash fresh water on my eye and keep it open wide enough to retrieve the lens which had suctioned perfectly onto my eyeball. I fell to the floor and grabbed at my face, screaming and crying hysterically. The pain was agonising. I couldn’t even swear! I just moaned and squawked until I could get the lens out, while attempts to soothe the burn with cold water were fruitless.

ST had left at dawn to help muster at his parent’s place, so I phoned my parents in Queensland, thinking mum, a nurse, would know the next step. Mum and Dad phoned ST’s parents but there was no answer. Mum then called the poisons information hotline, who said I should get to a doctor to see if any permanent damage was done.

“Who else is nearby that could come to you or get a hold of ST?” Mum asked. I gave her the numbers of all my neighbours and anyone I could think of who had a Royal Flying Doctor medical chest, and Dad set about calling everyone in the area… no one answered.

I was still holding my head under the cold tap and crying in pain between phone calls to Mum. Knowing that our tap water is dam water, Mum suggested I use rainwater to clean my eye properly. Staggering into the kitchen, pots and pans crashed across the floor as I tried to find a container to decant some rainwater into to bathe my face. Water splashed along the table and I dropped my towel to clean it up… realising for the first time that I still hadn’t dressed from my shower.

“Do you have any eye drops or saline solution?” Mum asked through the phone.

I tipped the contents of every medical kit and toiletries bag onto the ground and came up with nothing. Everything was a blur. I couldn’t tell bandages from alcohol swabs or saline solution from cough medicine. I was carrying a saucepan of rainwater around with me through the house, dipping my head in at every chance, spilling water over every surface.

Mum rang the Royal Flying Doctor Service who told her to tell me to call them. I rang the Broken Hill base and burst into fresh tears as the gently spoken Doctor tried to calm me over the phone.

“You will be OK Bessie. It’s OK, you will be OK. Don’t worry…” he placated. “Do you have a Flying Doctor medical chest?”

“No! I don’t have one and I’ve tried ringing all my neighbours who do have them and no one is answering…” a frog climbed up my throat and began wailing in pain.

“OK, do you have any eye drops at all, anything you usually use for your contacts or for dry eyes?"

“I thought I did but I can’t find them! I’ve looked everywhere and I don’t know whether I’ve just used them all and run out, or put them somewhere I can’t remember…”

“OK, don’t worry. As long as you have rinsed it with water for at least 20 minutes it will eventually stop hurting. What you need to do is keep it moist. It shouldn’t cause any permanent damage, but it would be good if you could find some eye drops, or get some things from an RFDS kit…”

Explaining that ST was out mustering at a property which had a kit, the Doctor reassured me that it would be fine to get him to bring them home with him at the end of the day. But the pain was so great, I wanted relief immediately. I phoned his parent’s place again and left a message… dressed clumsily and lay back on the couch with an ice pack pressed to my eye.

In a last ditch effort I continued the blind search for some eye drops. Success! Behind a year’s worth of skin lotions in the bathroom! Reclining on the couch I emptied half a dozen of those miniature eye drop packets onto my face; none of the liquid made it into my eye. I curled up again with the ice pack held firm into the eye socket.

By lunch time I was feeling well enough to stand up and find my glasses. Perching them sideways, I could now see out of my left eye, while my right was too sore to open. Shuffling into the bedroom, I grabbed my fluffy “hangover” mask (a decorative version of those sleeping eye mask things they hand out on international flights), fashioning it to make an eye patch, and then moved my doona and pillows into the lounge room where I set myself up with as much junk food I could muster.

With limited eye-sight TV and reading were off the cards. High on chocolate and lemonade, and wanting to make the most of my remaining functioning faculties, I grabbed the phone book and rang my grandma and a girlfriend for a chat to fill in time until ST called back. He never called… I rang every hour… no one answered…. “They must have taken smoko and lunch out into the paddock and still be mustering,” I thought.

I tried my neighbours again with no luck, and then decided to try the neighbours on the other side of ST’s parent’s place. Their number wasn’t in the phone book, so I started ringing total strangers in the same area to see if they knew the phone number… no one answered!!! I was beginning to think I was the only person left in the Western Division of New South Wales!

Concerned that ST would leave for home without getting any of my phone messages, I left a final effort message on his dad’s mobile. It was a stretch considering mobile coverage is very limited, but relief ran through me when ST finally rang back at around 7pm – only 11 hours since the incident! Major eye roll!! They had only just got the messages and he was on his way home immediately with the necessary creams and potions from the RFDS kit.

With my sugar high wearing off but my eye-patch still firmly in place, I embraced my inner pirate, mixing a G&T and settling back into my nest on the couch, ready to act ASAP (As Sick As Possible) when ST walked in the door. He arrived bearing medicine and apologetic kisses.

We returned to the scene of the crime – the bathroom – where ST held my head down over the edge of the bath and forced my painfully bloodshot eye open to apply the necessary drops and ointments. Fastening a proper eye patch he’d brought home from the RFDS kit, we sat down to bacon and eggs for dinner, “So, what did you do today, Bess?” ST asked…

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Burragan and beyond...

As the first day of crutching kicks into gear, it’s probably not the best time to be starting a blog. But I’ve been given reprieve from sheep work duties this morning and so am grabbing the opportunity to write what I’ve been meaning to write for the past two weeks.

After a few years of forced and failed blogs for university assessments, I’m hoping to keep my new endeavour a bit more up to date. I wanted to get this up and running a few weeks ago, to mark our one year anniversary at Burragan, but ‘life’ got in the way. Unfortunately that means you’ll miss out on stories about deadly snakes in the laundry, injury by sheep stampede in the yards, 8.5 inches of once-in-a-lifetime rain (in an annual 12 inch rainfall region), and the great akubra massacre and miraculous sunglasses discovery of 2012 - starring our two Border Collie pups.

Perhaps I can tell you these stories another time, if they ever come up in conversation…. For now, I guess I should start with a little about Burragan and I.

Burragan is a 70,000 acre sheep and cattle property in western NSW, around 110km east of Wilcannia. My partner’s parents bought it roughly two years ago, after the previous owner, Lin, moved to a nursing home. The property was bought by Lin’s parents in the early 1900s and Lin had lived and worked here her entire life. She married, but never had children, and sadly she passed away in early March 2012. I never met her, but the stories I have heard and my experience of Burragan have built an intriguing and amazing picture.

My partner - we’ll call him ST - grew up on his mum and dad’s property, 40km south of us, which has been in his dad’s family for many generations. The four of us run wool and meat sheep on both places (and a small herd of Angus cattle), as well as a third property a bit further south again.

ST and I moved to Burragan in March 2011 after a few years in Townsville, Queensland, where I studied Journalism at Uni and later worked for the local newspaper and then a TV station. It sounds trashily romantic, but the truth is ST moved to Townsville to be with me! I had been living in Darwin in the Northern Territory for 12 months and was one week from embarking on an amazing adventure through the Kimberley region of Western Australia before moving to Townsville, when ST and his best mate sat across from a girlfriend and I on a bus, headed for the Adelaide River Races. He’d been travelling around Australia after working in Margaret River for a few years… and the rest is history! ST proposed to me up in the hills of Burragan’s back paddock last year with a bunch of hopbush and turpentine flowers; I said yes!

Before Darwin, I’d lived in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast… and grew up in a Murray River town in north western Victoria. I’m not from a farming background, but I have many a childhood memory of camping trips to visit family and friends in all corners of the country, across all industries. I love exploring Australia and the experiences that come with being in the bush.

So here’s cheers to an exceptional life at Burragan and beyond… and may you enjoy the journey with me.