WHY JOHN McNAMEE CAN STILL REMEMBER THE CRACK OF THE HIGH-POWERED RIFLES
The glaring spot lights were attached with fencing wire to a metal frame on top of the old Chev ute.
Jack, who owned the farm, and his mate Len, would stand in the ute tray hanging on for grim death as it rattled and bumped its way across the ploughed paddocks.
They both carried long barrel .22 rifles which fired long calibre high velocity bullets with deadly accuracy.
Both blokes were expert marksmen and rarely missed their target with the killing shot. They learnt their craft well in the wartime army.
We kids had to stay in the cabin, beside ourselves with excitement as the battered old Chev rocked and shook and bounced over the rutted terrain.
We had to brace ourselves against the dashboard as Billy, the station hand, handled the steering wheel and double-declutched the groaning six-cylinder donk with amazing dexterity and a lot of bush bravado.
The dancing headlights would sweep across the darkened paddocks, and pick out the spooky evening mists rising up from the half-empty dams.
Half-asleep kookaburras would flutter across the branches, disturbed by the roar of the engine and the clanking of the ageing chassis.
Ghostly owls blinked in fright and took off with a whooshing of their massive wings to seek a quieter sanctum away from the bedlam that was invading their nocturnal hunting ground.
Suddenly Billy would whoop with delight, swing the steering wheel in a wide screeching arc, bang on the roof of the ute and point ahead, alerting the two shooters.
Jack flicked on the twin “spotties” illuminating the whole area ahead and highlighting the night’s prey.
It was a mob of eastern greys.
They were grazing across the newly planted pastures on the family property which lined the banks of the once mighty Murray river.
There must have been more than 50 of them, massive males over 6 foot tall with tails as big as railway sleepers. At first they stood their ground, their jaws working in alarm, ears erect and twitching to the approaching danger.
The smaller does, some with joeys poking out of their pouches, were already shuffling restlessly and beginning to head for the nearest trees.
They were followed by a group of big “king” males who began to thump their tails on the ground and bound away in swerving side-stepping leaps.
Others waited just that second too long. They would become transfixed by the powerful spotlight. A fatal instinct.
Two shots suddenly splintered the night silence. In the ute cabin, the noise was appallingly loud and we had to cover our ears, gasping in fright.
Billy was grinning madly and pointing at the scene ahead.
Then a volley of more shots rang out and we could hear the shell casings dropping like metal hailstones on the rusty old Chev’s roof.
Billy was pumping the gas again, slamming the gear shift down to low and wrenching the wheel like a wrestler mauling an opponent.
More shots were shattering the night and we could see out the front of the bonnet, large grey carcasses lying in the paddock, most with gaping, bloodied head wounds.
Then there was a strange silence.
Billy stopped the ute and turned off the engine. All you could hear was the sighing and contracting of the overheated Chevvy engine and far off the alarmed cries of night-time birds and animals.
Most of the kill were the big males. Among them though, were some wounded does which Jack and Len despatched with a merciful close-range head-shot.
Inevitably, some of the females carried young in their pouches. The legal culling laws back in those days allowed official shooters working with the property owner’s permission to put the joeys out of their misery with a sharp blow to the head.
Jack and Len unloaded their rifles, put the safety catches on and began the count of the killed animals.
As soon as the guns were disabled, we were allowed to get out of the vehicle and with a sort of thrilled pre-adolescent horror, inspect the carnage.
We used to help the men load the big carcasses on the back of the ute. They were only allowed to take a certain number which were sold off either for the pet food industry or the leather trade.
Sometimes if the animals were needed only for their pelts, the men would skin them on the spot and leave the remains in the paddock where they would become carrion for the wedge-tail eagles and other raptors, wild pigs and foxes and other feral predators.
It was a gruesome business but we also had to help hang the animals on a rack on the ute tray where they could bleed out and were later often gutted with the entrails scattered.
As kids with a rural background we knew about why our wonderful native emblems, the kangaroo, had to be kept in check.
We used to sit around the dinner table at night listening to the farmers telling the horror stories of their precious lifestock dying from starvation and disease because the out-of-control ‘roo population decimated the fodder plantings, destroyed paddocks and contaminated water supplies.
The problem still exists today particularly in the ACT and pastoralists and environmentalists are still supervising massive culls to stop the marauding herds ruining rural and semi-rural pasture land.
In many areas they are also a hazard for drivers and cause numerous accidents, some fatal.
It’s sad when you look back to those days when we were kids witnessing that gory episode in bush life. Not that it affected us too badly, because each day another miracle of nature would greet us in the lambing or calving season and we’d realise why these new-born animals needed all the fodder and water they could get to guarantee their survival.
But it was ironic too because authorities and landowners had only just been able to exterminate the feral rabbit plagues with the myxomotosis toxin.
The various extremes of nature I suppose will always fascinate us.
Nowadays of course the kangaroo graces our dinner plates and is feted by the gourmets of the world as a delicacy and for many years later during my working life I used to buy kangaroo-skin shoes.
They lasted for years.
But even now as I go to put them on, my mind hearkens back to the noisome cabin of the old farm ute with grinning Billy whooping and swinging the steering wheel in joy and above us, the blinding glare of the spotlights probing the night, the ghostly mob of greys standing erect staring straight at us and then the crack of the high-powered rifles.