The wilted body of a dead cow lay a hundred feet away, its skin in pools around a skeletal frame. We sat on our rucksacks somewhere along the border between the Northern Territories and South Australia. The Greyhound had become a speck on the shimmering horizon and the closest three-cottage mining town was a two hour drive away. The only evidence that we were in the right place was an old oil drum bearing the name ‘De Rose Hill Cattle Station’ in spray paint.
“This was your idea, Suzy.” Alistair said. We’d been volunteering on farms in Victoria and I’d wanted to get off the backpacker trail and see real Australia. Panic began to rise with the mid-day heat. Around us was nothing but burnt red earth and the occasional scrubby bush. The only sign of life was birds of prey circling high above the remains of the cow.
Just as I was running through tales of travellers lost in the outback; dying of dehydration or murdered by crazed savages, a silver car winked in the sun, leaving a mushroom cloud of dust in its wake as it sped towards us down the dirt track.
“You must be my Willing Workers.” A woman with a boy’s cropped hair cut, floppy cowboy hat and glinting sunglasses stepped out to greet us, her mouth a tight line. We nodded.
“Well, I’m Barb,” she said, not moving a facial muscle, taking us in for a second; two pasty Scottish travellers. She turned to get back in the car and Alistair and I looked at each other, eyes wide. I had been exchanging emails with Kylie and Rob. There was no mention of a Barb.
Vast sheds, old trucks and piles of metal rusting in clumps rose out of the otherwise barren landscape and made up the yard. Barb showed us to our caravan and retreated to the main house. A juddering fan moved hot air around and everything was coated in a thin layer of red dust. Peering through a hole in the wall, Alistair scrunched up his nose.
“I don’t want to think about what crawls around in the sand at night,” he said.
We marched across the yard, still sleepy from the journey, but desperate to prove ourselves. As we clattered through the fly door, the living room came into focus; seventies décor, a room stuck in a time warp, a large trucker radio in the corner and pictures of cows everywhere. Barb grudgingly set us to work, eyeing our fly-net hats and hiking boots with what could have been amusement if her face ever expressed such an emotion.
“It’s the little ones that are the danger,” she said, handing us a garden hoe to check the grass for snakes. “If you see one, don’t even think, just kill it. The nearest hospital is a three hour helicopter ride away, so if you’re bitten, you’re dead.”
The flies were like a crawling blanket over our backs, our hands were red and raw from the hand sheers we used to cut the scrub. Even the simplest of tasks was made ten times more difficult as the heat climbed into the forties. Then I saw it; the sleek, slithering body of a snake right next to my foot. I stopped, dead. Its tongue flicked out, beady black eyes staring right at me. Alistair laughed at my expression until his gaze followed mine. The snake struck and bit into my boot. In a panic, I stabbed the blade of the hoe through what I thought was its neck, instead the bloody tail end of the snake wriggled away while the rest of it writhed, almost spitting in angry pain.
“Wrong end! Wrong end!” Alistair shouted, leaping as far away as he could. I brought the hoe down again. Three separate bits of snake all contorted in an attempt to fit back together, the severed head inching towards Alistair who had started screaming. Barb came sauntering across the yard. She looked from my hoe, still held high like a sword in battle, to the snake bits still twitching on the ground. We waited for her to react, say something encouraging, praise us for saving our own lives.
“All that fuss for a little snake?”
At least she finally cracked a smile when she said it.