On the first Sunday that Ben took us all to the pub at Noree Hill, I walked across to Johnny Georgesonís place to pick up the quartpot he had promised to make me.
Johnny is the undisputed chief jack of all trades in the area. He can build you a house or a full set of yards, cut and solder tin to make anything from a quartpot to an industrial strength washing machine, make and mend tack, fix an engine, shoe and doctor a horse, and ride pretty much anything with four legs that you can put a saddle on.
Ben says heís a first rate stockman, and despite the fact that heís about five foot nine inches tall and probably weighs less than 150 lbs soaking wet Buckle says there isnít a sensible man in Queensland who would pick a fight with him.
Like Buckle, he doesnít swear much, and he treats even pommie jackeroos with quiet courtesy. He has black hair and blue eyes, and the sort of natural authority that makes it almost impossible for me to call him Johnny. I call him Mr Georgeson on the few occasions when we speak. Each time he adds ĎJohnnyí immediately afterwards, but I reckon I would have to know him for a few more years before I felt properly qualified to be on first name terms.
I canít remember the wording exactly, but the other evening just before Buckle left Cockatoo Creek to go and muster for the Wilsons over at Drummond, Jonathon and I were sitting with him under the bough shelter waiting for supper, and he came out with a sort of bush CV which was probably made up by a campfire a hundred years ago, but still seems to fit Johnny Georgeson and the men like him who keep the wheels turning all over the outback.
If you want to survive in the bush, Buckle said, a man needs to be able to...
Read and write, run, ride, f*** and fight; Work all day and drink all night,
Boil a billy and cook a steak; Stitch a cut and set a break,
Sing a song and dance a jig; Crack a whip and hitch a rig...
There was quite a bit more covering other skills including throwing a bull, bluing a cheque, driving a wagon, digging a hole, cracking a joke and pushing a wheelbarrow. But Jonathon and I were laughing too hard to hear it all properly.
Johnny Georgeson and men such as him are the product of this old, self sufficient bush tradition. It's a way of life that is still alive and kicking out here, but it's already being tarted up and packaged into a horrible heritage experience closer to the coast.
Satellite communications, motorbike mustering, wire fencing and tourism are all spreading a magnolia tide of civilisation deeper and deeper into the outback. But while I was working on Cockatoo Creek, station owners were still queuing for Johnny Georgesonís skills, and he had yard-building jobs booked for the next three years.
They are likely to be the last of an older and tougher breed. In Mr Georgesonís case unless he kicks on a bit he will definitely be the last of his breed because thereís no Mrs Georgeson and no small Georgesons anywhere that Buckle knows about.
He lives in one of the small collection of what are known rather impressively as the Noree Hill town houses. In truth these are actually a handful of corrugated iron shacks, scattered over a scrubby area surrounding the pub. They are the last remnants of what was once a sizeable gold mining centre, and of the half dozen or so dwellings at least two are empty.
Johhnyís shack stands on its own, like him, and as far as I could see on my one visit it consists of a single room partitioned into two halves, with a door in the corner which I assume leads to a bush shower and dunny out the back. The only furnishings I could see were exactly the same as ours in the bough shelter, but for a single occupant. There was a single iron bed immaculately made up, a small table and a single upright chair, a squatterís chair, a workbench and an oldfashioned cast iron wood stove, which I guess doubled up as a heater and a cooker.
Having said Gíday, Johnny picked out a new quartpot from a group of a dozen or so standing on the workbench, pulled the lid out to satisfy himself that it fitted properly, pushed it back and asked for five dollars. I thanked him, handed over the money, and that was more or less the extent of our conversation. I realised after I left that even though I had found him working in what was effectively his living room, it seemd perfectly normal that he been wearing his hat.
Although he doesnít seem at all unfriendly, I have only once seen Johnny Georgeson in the pub. He is one of the most self sufficient people I have ever come across, and one of the very few sane people I have ever met who seems to genuinely prefer living the life of a loner. But then, I hardly know him at all.
Anyway, thanks to Johnny Georgeson I now have my own quartpot, and this essential new piece of outback kit is quickly acquiring the sooty patina of daily use.
Or at least daily use whenever we go out mustering.
On those days you carry a quartpot in a leather holder on one side of your saddle, and a saddlebag with your smoke-oh sandwiches in it on the other side. Both are fixed to ĎDí rings on the saddle with two buckled straps.
Surprisingly enough, a quartpot holds a quart of liquid in the main, boil-up section, and about a third of that quantity can be poured into the lid or cup section, which slots tightly into the larger part when not required. Standing upright, itís about six inches tall, about four inches wide and about two inches front to back
The whole article is made of tin, cut out of a sheet with tin shears, and soldered together into two separate parts that look like two sizes of flattened mugs. Both the larger boiler section and the smaller lid section have handles made of wire, which are hinged so they fold flat. When you boil up your quartpot you use the handles on the large section to pick up and pour your tea into your lid, and the handles on the smaller section to pick up and drink.
You keep your tea leaves in a small, cotton, drawstring bag inside the quartpot when youíre not using it. Deborah kindly gave me hers when I arrived at Cockatoo Creek. Hers is a double ended bag, made out of an old shirtsleeve, to hold tea in one end and sugar in the other. Deborah, like me, prefers sugar in her tea, but the others see this as a pommie weakness and drink theirs straight.
Every mustering morning you check your bag at breakfast time and top it up with loose leaves, and you check your box of matches. On a good day you might get the chance of more than one brew, and to run out of leaves would be catastrophic. Becoming separated and finding you have plenty of tea leaves but no matches would be even worse, unless you happen to know how to light a fire with two sticks of wood. I donít, and after watching Jonathon trying it one day out mustering, I donít think I will bother learning. Ten minutes of heated effort produced only a wisp of smoke that knocked a big hole in the old saying that thereís no smoke without fire, and two big blisters on each hand.
Normally, though, your quartpot only comes out of its leather case once during a mustering day, at smoke-oh or lunch time, and then only on those days when we donít have a mob of cattle to keep an eye on - although if Buckle is with us and the cattle behave themselves the four of us can brew up in shifts of two.
However, you also need to be close to water to make a quartpot of tea, and as the drought continues thatís becoming more of a problem.
In normal conditions there is water in the river and both the creeks that run across the property. There is at least one dam in every paddock, and a series of burrapits that drain the rainwater run-off from the beef road in the top north east corner of the station. But in this persistent drought the river, both creeks and all the burrapits are entirely dry, which just leaves the dams. So thatís where we stop at smoke-oh if we can.
The silt that the cattle stir up in the dam water makes it the colour of milky tea, but that doesnít matter. In the heat and dust even this lukewarm mud soup tastes better than nectar, and when itís been brewed up there isnít a drink to beat it.
Once youíve removed the lid and your tea bag and filled your quartpot with muddy water, you find a patch of bare earth - all too easy in these parched conditions - and put your quartpot on the ground, with the flat side (the side without the handles) facing the breeze if there is any. Then you gather enough dried leaves and very small twigs to make a pile of tinder against the flat, windward side, and light it. You need to check that there are no branches hanging within spark blowing distance nearby, but essentially itís as simple as that.
Particularly if there is any wind the dry leaves and twigs burn instantly and very hot, and the water in your flat sided quartpot boils within twenty or thirty seconds. You pour a small pile of tea leaves from your bag into your hand, and drop them into the boiling water. The leaves take the water off the boil just long enough to sink to the bottom of the quartpot and infuse the water dark brown, and then as the water comes back to the boil again they froth to the top, where you can knock the dust off a twig and scrape them onto the ground.
If you have faced your quartpot handles correctly away from the fire and pulled them out at right angles, they should be cool enough to pick up. If theyíre too hot you use a bandana or your shirt tail to hold them. Because he wears an ancient, shapeless Australian Army bush hat, rather than the proper respectable Akubra, Ben more often than not uses his hat.
In my case, a dash of sugar makes this the perfect cup of tea, or three cups to be more accurate, poured into your quartpot lid and drunk in religious silence, with a cold beef sandwich in the other hand, sitting on a log or squatting on the ground. I made the mistake of sitting on the ground early in my days on Cockatoo Creek, and the bull ants taught me never to do it again.
Plain, ordinary tea, with no milk, drunk as hot as you can bear out of a quartpot lid on a furnace hot day, preferably under the shade of a tall, pale gum tree, is up there with the great French champagnes, chilled XXXX in a refrigerated glass, and the stuff the Gods used to break out for special occasions on Mount Olympus.
It smells of the eucalyptus leaves you burned to brew it, and just as the call of the butcher bird is for me the one clear sound that summons up the outback, a quartpot of tea is the definitive taste of the Australian bush.