We are just beyond the beginning of the ‘Dry’ in the Northern Territory. As the season progresses, the temperatures will rise, bush will turn crisp and green will disappear. This presents a multitude of challenges to flora and fauna and only the most hardy and adaptable will survive, none the least of which is the most resilient and ancient of species among us, Equus ferus caballus-the wild horse. On my visit to the NT last year, I spent time on Bonrook Station observing the Australian wild horse aka the brumby. The caretaker of the station, Sam Forwood, has spent a few decades now in their element looking out for the horses who are under the protection of the Franz Weber Foundation, a Swiss organisation that set up Bonrook in the 1980s as a sanctuary to protect the brumbies after hearing about the horrific culls taking place across Australia. The story below is a piece written by Sam of his observations of the brumbies during the Dry. – Mae Lee Sun
By Sam Forwood
As it is with all things wild the brumby’s existence is governed by the seasons. Here on the rangelands of Bonrook station in the subtropical savannah of north Australia it is possible they can live and die at season’s whim. In the Monsoon season, roughly October to May and after the Dry season burn off through to August is a time when the brumby’s are in their element. Feed is in abundance across the property as is the water. Billabongs and waterholes are full and the tiny springs and soaks are constantly seeping water.
At this time the brumby’s are spread across the entire station rangelands. They are in good condition and the foals from the previous season live life to the full at their mother’s side in the family groups. The alpha stallions prance and snort in the heady realm of testosterone as they keep their harem mobs in order.
It is then that you see them at their best, whether at flat gallop through the scrub, the lead mare ever so nimble as she leads the mob through the bush thickets. Or standing inquisitive, not moving a family as one, among the shadows and shade of the big eucalyptis trees, they are a sight to behold. Always well groomed with dancing eyes they hover on the cusp of flight ever watching, ever listening. Embracing life in all its untamed majesty.
Then there comes the build up season in the late Dry from late August onwards. The springs and soaks dry up as do the smaller waterholes, the big billabongs far apart. Feed becomes dry and sparse and the brumby’s diet is supplemented by native shrubs and the likes of. They lose condition for they have to walk farther than ever from their grazing grounds to water. Around the remaining billabongs as the mobs come into drink the big stallions wage war, as is their way, kicking and biting they bludgeon each other to exhaustion, injury or even death in the quest of keeping their harem’s intact.
If the weather God’s are favourable they will grant us early storms. A humble inch of rain is all that is required to start the replenishment process of waterhole, creek bed and pasture. Not too much to ask for considering an annual rainfall of well over a metre. In most years we are blessed with such rains as this, violent electrical storms accompanied by short massive torrential downfalls. They signal the start of the Wet season and all that it entails.
Rarely though the rains don’t come. No early storms after a long Dry season followed by an excessive build up. No rain, no replenishment. With the surface water all but gone as the billabongs fast become putrid bog holes. There is mayhem at the remaining water points as the brumby’s vey to quench and assuage their thirst. It has been nine years here on Bonrook since this last occurred.
Survival mode then kicks in and the brumby will dig for water. In the dry sand of the creek beds among the ti tree’s and Coolibah’s they dig. Usually on a steep sided creek bend under shaded bough they find water, for they know where it is by instinct and how to unearth it.
It is not for the stallions to get down on bended knee and scoop out sand with a hoof until near collapse and exhaustion. It is the female, the mare who digs, for she carry’s the responsibility of her offspring whether at foot or in the womb and her very existence is their survival. She knows nothing else.
These holes over half a metre deep, seep water at their base, up through the sand in small pools the size of a dinner plate. The smell of the brumby is very pungent in close proximity as one at a time they go down on bended knee’s to drink their daily ration.
This is survival on a day by day basis and as a human being one is humbled and diminished to bear witness to such as this.
In this the first week of October in the year of our Lord 2015 and on the day and in the hour that these few words are penned. Out there on the Bonrook rangelands the brumby is digging for water, and we pray.
Oct. 4th 2015.
On Oct 25th I borrowed 8 by 1000 litre water pods from the neighboring mango farmer, fitted them up on the station truck and started carting water out to the empty dams and soaks. 8000 litres at a time twice a day .
On the night of Oct 29th we experienced the first electrical storm of the season and received 25mm of rain and in the following week another 57mm fell.