Outback Secrets by Rachael Johns



Henrietta Forward could already taste the ice-cold beer that was waiting for her back at Anna Downs station. A drink, dinner, shower and bed, in that order, was on her agenda because she was absolutely knackered. She was nearing the end of a busy few weeks aerial mustering in the East Kimberleys—one of the most remote and beautiful parts of Western Australia—and was looking forward to a few days off to catch her breath before driving across the country to the Riverina region of New South Wales.

It wasn’t that she didn’t adore her job; Henri only felt truly alive when she was above the earth, looking down at the varied landscapes she was lucky enough to experience, but the hours were long and by the end of a stint like this one, she was in dire need of a little R&R. Smiling down at the deep red ground below, she knew she’d never tire of the scenery or the thrill of chasing cattle. Stunning gorges and waterholes were scattered throughout the enormous Anna Downs property, not to mention boabs and eucalypts that would soon be a vibrant shade of green due to the wet. She even loved the weirdly shaped termite mounds that poked up from the earth and looked like little cities of mud-built skyscrapers. This work wasn’t her bread and butter because a lot of stations up here used choppers—they made it easier to navigate the trees, although weren’t nearly as kind on the cattle in her opinion—but there were still a few station owners who preferred fixed-wings and for that she was grateful.

The mobs were in decent sizes now and the ringers were starting to move them towards the yards. There was just one last bit of bush still to inspect. Henri headed over, feeling adrenaline buzz through her as she spied a couple of cattle in a clearing. If there was one thing certain about mustering, it was that where there were some animals, there’d be others close by. The hardest part was encouraging them out of the trees; once they got going it was easy enough to keep them moving, especially if she nudged them in the direction of the nearest waterhole.

Training her gaze on the destination, she angled the Cessna towards the trees—the goal to startle the cattle with the loud noise of the aircraft, which would encourage them to head in the opposite direction. She needed to get close enough to get them moving but not so fast as to cause trouble. It was better if the beasts walked rather than ran. If they moved too fast, occasionally the old girls would leave their calves behind without a backward glance, which did not make for happy station owners.

But it soon became apparent this was the least of Henri’s problems. Her heart hammered at the sound of an almighty bang as she descended towards the trees.

Fuck!The engine! The prop had stopped dead.

No.This could not be happening, but even as she prayed to a God she hadn’t thought of since Sunday School that this was all in her vivid imagination, Henri knew that was not the case. Hadn’t she felt something wasn’t quite right with the old Continental engine?

Earlier in the day there’d been a slight, almost imperceptible miss now and again. The engine was nearing time for a rebuild and was scheduled to be pulled and overhauled as soon as mustering season was finished, but when she’d stopped to refuel, she’d examined around the cowling, checked the oil, and everything had looked fine.

Cold fear sliced through her as she realised this was anything but fine, but she didn’t have time to panic.

Her training took over and instinct set in. Using the speed she still had, Henri gained height again and set up for a forced landing, all the while scanning the area below for a suitable location. A long way from the station’s airstrip, she’d need to improvise and hope like hell that fate was on her side. Her hands grew clammy on the controls, and just when she was losing hope of finding anywhere close to suitable, a small clearing presented itself.

Determined, she maintained an approach speed as she brought the Cessna lower, then switched everything off after the last flap had been applied. She couldn’t breathe, her head completely consumed with the most terrifying, most important landing she’d ever made.

‘Oh my God! I did it,’ she shrieked as the wheels hit the ground and her heart started beating wildly.

But the danger wasn’t over yet; she needed to keep her wits about her a little longer in order to brake heavily and avoid the trees that were rapidly approaching on the other side of the clearing. The small wheels, not made for such rough terrain, bounced along, the noise so horrendous Henri could barely hear herself think.

But she had to. She had to fight to keep control.

Finally, just when it looked like both she and the aircraft had survived the ordeal unscathed, she jolted in her seat, swearing again as a wheel hit something hard. She didn’t have time to wonder what it was—although later she’d identify the culprit as one of the termite mounds she’d been admiring—as the leg dislodged and the aircraft slewed around madly.

It was over in a heartbeat. Her final stop anything but graceful.

It could have been a lot worse, she told herself as she sat there, dazed and trying to catch her breath. After a long day sitting in the high-decibel environment of the cockpit, the sound of silence was almost deafening. All she could hear was the ringing in her own ears.

The red dust that had been disturbed on impact settled around her and Henri stared out of the cockpit, almost unable to believe what had just happened. Although there’d been some close encounters with powerlines in her many years flying, that was the nearest she’d ever come to true calamity, possibly even death.

Suddenly her whole body started to tremble. She forced herself to unbuckle her seatbelt, remove her headset, climb out and examine just how bad the damage was. One undercarriage leg had been bent backwards and right up, lowering the fuselage closer to the ground. Bingo, she thought as she noticed oil smeared back from the engine cowl, telling her exactly why the engine had stopped.

Despite her heart still pounding, some of the shock started to abate and she actually felt slightly proud that she’d known something wasn’t quite right. Disaster had threatened and she’d lived to tell the tale. Next time she’d simply have to pay more attention to her gut.

It was a good thing mustering was all but finished, because there was no way that aircraft was going up again any time soon.

Suddenly parched and knowing there was nothing more she could do here, Henri grabbed her water bottle from the baggage compartment, shut the cockpit door and started walking in the direction of the yards. It was a good distance away, but the ringers would have seen her aircraft go down and she knew it wouldn’t be long before they came to her rescue.