Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya

Sorting the goats out at Namibia


It’s been a while since I’ve managed a blog post so here are a heap of photos all at once.

Since my last post I attended the Southern African Grasslands Congress in South Africa, then headed up to Namibia. Livestock are herded here in order to protect them from predators, both the 2 and 4 legged variety and farmers are struggling to graze small livestock purely because of theft.

In Namibia we galloped through Etosha National Park and had a close and exciting encounter with some magnificent lions, before heading further north up onto the Angolian border where I had my camera stolen.

After farm visits didn’t line up we decided to head down the Okavango Panhandle into Botswana and do some fishing for Tiger Fish, we both caught small ones and hooked big ones that got away.

Exploring the Delta was amazing, and testimony to the value of fresh water. Heading into Zimbabwe we explored the Vic Falls with a micro-lite flight, one of the best things I’ve ever done. Then headed out to the African Centre for Holistic Management to look at Alan Savory’s holistic management. The dedication that Alan and Jody have for the holistic management cause is inspirational. We spent a bit of time out with the herders, following along a mob of 380 mixed cattle, 30 odd sheep and a handful of goats. In my view the stock were doing it pretty tough, and I questioned whether forcing goats to behave and feed like cattle was conducive to productive livestock management. There can be no arguing that the ranch is in good shape, springs opening up in the landscape were a beautiful thing to see, the reality is though that this isn’t a commercial ranch but a training institution operating within communal farming parameters.

From Zimbabwe Robo headed off home, zebra skin in tow, and I came up to Kenya and met up with the extraordinary David Stanley, Nuffield Scholar 1965. If I can just follow David around and keep my ears and eyes open I well may learn more than I have up to this point. Tomorrow though I’m off to the Mara on horseback safari.

Lion post the kill at Etosha NP Namibia

The Lion Paparatzi


Botswana Boma

Overgrazing in Chobe National Park

Okavango Delta


Taking a look at Victoria Falls



The Grazing Guru Alan Savory

Cattle at the African Centre for Holistic Management


Mixed herd grazing at the holistic management centre




Cattle coming back to the Kraal


David and I at the equator


Camels grazing in Kenya


Kenyan goats doing what they do


Boran cattle


Sheep & Goats in Kenya


Looking for wild dogs


An Aussie farming in Kenya


Storks in Nairobi- natures adaptation

Livestock farmers of the Karoo

We’re currently en route between Kimberley and Upington munching on Drybos and Rusks in true Voertreker style. Making our way into the more arid and remote areas the large number of new graves in the cemeteries also tell us we are in an area where Aids has a strong hold. Although repeatedly warned about criminal activity in South Africa, there has been no time when we’ve felt unsafe and we certainly haven’t stuck to the safe tourist side of town, often there is no tourist side to the towns we wander into.

Even in these more remote areas, it seems there are people coming out of the bushes everywhere as we drive along. Teams of road workers cutting the grass with whipper snippers, women with bundles of firewood on their heads, men standing, waiting for a job, road construction crews that numbered 50 or more. It’s not about efficiency; it’s about job creation. South Africa has 50 million people and 4.5 million taxpayers, how long that can be sustained is the usual topic of discussion around the dinner tables we have sat at.

Farmers that we visited sported a range of philosophies and operating principles from strict cell grazers operating within the Holistic management system, to livestock traders making the most of what they have, to intensive sheep producers who had isolated exactly which part of their business made the most profit and maximised it.

Labour at around $AU 10/day was plentiful, the seasons had been good, land prices were strong and all in all it seemed livestock farming in the Karoo was a strong industry although undermined by political uncertainties which caused a reluctance to invest back into the farm.

The average rainfall varied given the mountainous topography but seemed to be in the general vicinity 250-400 mm. The veldt is a mix of shrubs, bushes and grass, with Acacia Karoo seemingly encroaching in the pastures at a steady rate. This thorny shrub being a legume is a good source of protein for livestock but it’s thorny and invasive nature brings management issues and I can’t help but wonder if it will be more of a problem than they are envisaging at present. There were occasions when it enabled revegetation of eroded areas, providing shelter and litter for grasses to establish in. One farmer we visited was using goats to browse the shrub into a tree, allowing the light to filter into the ground cover and opening up the area to cattle. In a virtually treeless landscape it also provides cooking fuel for the less fortunate spectrum of society.

We’ve visited some great people and the hospitality has been second to none. One memorable overnight stay was with Albie Horn and his family. Albie is the founder of the Kalahari Red goat breed, the home of the genetics from which my Kalahari Red goats are derived. It was amazing to see these goats, which look so much like mine on the other side of the world. Albie’s philosophy on breeding animals is one which resonates with Australians. These animals are out on the veldt, there is none of this hand kidding which is the norm here in Africa when there are more than enough hands to do the job. His goats are hardy and practical and I’m even more pleased to have them at home now that I have seen where they came from. We did cause a bit of a ruckus though when we produced a bottle of rum that I had bought in the duty free in Cape Town. When Bundy couldn’t be found I just picked up another bottle of rum, turned out it was the drink for the real boys, Stroh 60, the 60 stands for 60%. Anyway, it was absolutely freezing there so it wasn’t such a bad idea.

One of the farmers we visited had bought country in Western Australia as a way of spreading his risk. He farms nearly 10,000 angora goats here in South Africa and harvests feral goats off his property in WA so had a really good idea about the issues I was looking into. He felt that the shrubs in Australia decreased under grazing while here in South Africa, grazing caused an increase but the thorns aided the plants protection. He had some great observations on the difference between Australian farmers and South Africans, one that I thought was really useful was the fact that the abundance of labour in South Africa meant that farmers were in fact business managers where in Australia, any farmer not working enough at the coal face was considered not worth his salt.

In Middleburg we saw what well may be the oldest grazing trials in the world having been started in 1937 and run consistantly since then. They measured the long term outcome from continuous grazing, continuous rest, rotational grazing and seasonal grazing. The summer graze and winter graze plots sit side by side and the results can’t be argued with. If you don’t rest your grasses during summer it’s possible to end up with a field of rocks and bushes. I was surprised by the continuous graze versus continuous rest plots that sat side by side on the side of a hill. The rested paddock was in far better shape and the grazed paddock had a large amount of shrub covering it although it’s grasses weren’t in bad shape either. There were plots set up in the better country on the flat and the autumn/winter graze plot had caused quite a bit of a stir many years ago when the Wallaby grass (themeda) had been discovered growing on it. This grass hadn’t been seen in these parts for a long time and the director was telephoned in Pretoria, the discovery was so important that he hoped on the first train to Middleburg and each plant was individually tagged. Now there is a dense stand of themeda but the lack of grazing over the past couple of years has seen in clump up and bare patches are beginning to form in between the clumps. Grazing was stopped on these flat plots 2 years ago due to a major problem with stock theft.

summer graze on right, winter graze on left

continuous graze on the leftsummer grazing on right

It’s been really cold, we’ve been typical tourists and thought of Africa as hot and been absolutely frozen at times. Sleeping in the camper isn’t much fun under freezing conditions although we have always managed to have a few laughs. We had rain one night and the camper, as it turns out, is not water proof on Robo’s side ☺, but the rain had fallen as snow on the mountains. Seriously cold although not cold enough for him to get his coat out of his bag?

Finishing this blog post off we are camped on the Orange River just south of Upington and it is much warmer here and the view from our camp site is amazing. If only there were hippos here…

Off to Africa!

Back into blog writing mode, trying to document and share what is an incredible and privileged experience, travelling the world amongst the Nuffield network, visiting farmers and researchers learning all I can about goats, markets and farming.


A Nuffield scholarship is normally finished within 18 months of starting out, I had a few extenuating circumstances that included the end of my marriage, the post traumatic shock bought on by it’s violent end, and the subsequent property buyout. So now it’s me and the bank and working very nicely indeed.


To finish off this scholarship I wanted to spend some time looking at grazing management in arid areas, particularly the effective management of browse species. Much of the rangelands across the world have had an increase in woody weed species that often causes a reduction in production as well as access problems. In my own area at Wanaaring, woody weeds got going in the 70’s following a run of wet years. There is still debate about causes and effects, but my view is that a reduction in perennial grass species caused by overgrazing opened up a window of opportunity for woody weeds to get going. It seems to me that nature covers the ground with whatever it can, the hardier, colonising species occur first, building up organic matter in the soil and providing shelter for the softer more palatable species to get going.


I want to learn about how to manage the grazing of livestock in general but goats in particular to reduce the density of unpalatable woody weeds, increase the perennial grass cover and maintain a healthy and production population of palatable browse species.

I flew into Cape Town, South Africa from the UK where I’d spent a couple of weeks catching up with the Nuffield network, exploring how to grow a farming business. The Irish dairy farmers I met were inspirational in their focus and attention to business strategy. As the end of restrictive milk quotas approaches in 2015, they are determined to be well placed to maximise opportunities.









A week in Scotland was like a visit to my old home town of Bathurst NSW with rolling green hills and a lot of small operations that offered little in the way of economies of scale.


My last visit in the UK was with Nuffield scholar Jem Sewell and his wife Anna. They were among the pioneers of share farming in the UK and certainly showed me how important it is to focus not only on business strategies but also operating with principles and ethos that gives whole of life direction and meaning. It was an ideal focal point for me as I left the UK to head down to Africa for 2 months.


Currently motoring through the South African Karoo chewing on Biltong and listening to Allan Jackson, enjoying the amicable company of Robo, we could be excused for forgetting where we are; this place is so like the Broken Hill area of home. Robo is a great travelling companion, well read enough to make it interesting but enough of a ‘bush boy’ to keep it real, he caused a ruckus in a bikie pub the other night when in typical Robo style after a few beers he started talking faster and waving his arms about, the locals didn’t understand a word he said but were amused nonetheless.


We hired dualsport motorbikes for 4 days and headed around the southernmost tip of Africa getting the feel of the place. I didn’t tell the bike hire guy that my road bike experience was zilch, but turns out it was much easier than battling my bike through the scrub at home chasing goats. We glimpsed whales off the beach, saw paddocks full of ostrich and baboons, eland and other stuff. We rode rough tracks over mountain passes, winding roads through vineyards and raced down freeways with our hearts in our throats. So much fun, I couldn’t imagine a better trip to do on bikes.

Now the safari begins! We’ve hired a Land Rover with a camper on the back and headed out into the Karoo to see what we can learn from the farmers in Graaf-Reinett. We just love South Africa, the people are friendly, meals are cheap and the scenery is nothing short of spectacular. Life is good and just keeps getting better!






Home and the End of the GFP

The Global Focus Program came to an end for us after almost 7 weeks of travelling around the world together. It’s funny sometimes how something can be over before it ends.  Yesterday we left India and flew home via Bangkok. As we rose above the smog of New Delhi the Himalayas stood magnificently in the distance for miles and miles, absolutely unbelievable how long and high that mountain range is. After the absolute awe of seeing the mountains we were blown away again as we flew in over the delta to Bangkok. We saw the highest mountains and the biggest valley that we had ever seen all in one day, sometimes life’s like that I guess. I’m writing this on my flight from Sydney to Broken Hill and from this height the crops look fantastic and all the water storages are full.

The GFP pushed me out of my comfort zone with 7weeks of conversations and intellectual stimulation, something I haven’t been familiar with since I left school. Of the 6 countries we visited the USA was the only one in which English was the first language spoken so it was difficult to understand and be understood and things often got lost in translation. Culturally we were thrown from the crassness of the US into French style, from there to the sombre Ukraine, the hubbub of Turkey, the Bahrainian experience of Islam to incredible India where 30% of the population are starving.

tumeric crop

verandah conversations

I’m very grateful for the telephone and internet connection to the world, my travelling companions were a lot of fun and I’ll miss them, but it’s home to get a bit of work done and plan out the next stage of my Nuffield tour which I hope will involve the kids. Really want to share this adventure with them. It’s a big world out there.

From a goat industry point of view, Australia still has the best goats I’ve seen and I believe it will be a solid industry to be in well into the future.

goat herders

Bahrain; Hotter than Wanaaring and not what you might think

scrawny Bahrain goat

Markets at Bahrain


I’m not what you might call easily intimidated but when we arrived in Bahrain in the middle of the night and I was the only woman in an airport ful of Arabian taxi drivers I attempted to hide behind my Nuffield brothers, wondering how I’d survive a week in the Middle East. But I needn’t have worried, after I’d adjusted to the lack of women on the street Bahrain was easy to cope with and much more tolerant than I expected.

The heat and humidity were extrordinary, I’m pretty used to hot weather but I’ve never felt humidity like that, not even in the Kimberly in the build up to the wet. It was unbelievably uncomfortable and after having to don black robes and headscarf to visit the Grand Mosque I gained a lot of respect for Islamic women who wear these styfling robes in the heat. After speaking to them about why they cover up I still couldn’t rein my overly practical nature in enough to really understand, but they respected my choice as I did theirs and that’s all there really is to it isn’t it?

Bahrain Heat


causeway from Bahrain to Saudi Arabia


Bahrain is a major export destination for Australian products, namely mutton, cars and bauxite. My sponsor, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) were great hosts, especially Peter and Sharon who welcomed us into their home for the absolute luxury of a home cooked meal and a swim in the pool. We got to observe first hand the live sheep trade and slaughter by Bahrain Livestock Company. There is often a bit kicking around inthe media about the cruelty suffered by our livestock being exported live to the Middle East and Asia but all we saw was a professionally run livestock business where animal welfare was a priority and fully addressed.

Aus Mutton at the wet markets


Choosing a sheep in Bahrain


The climate in Bahrain has changed markedly over a short space of time to become one of the most desolate places I’ve ever seen. Being a small island amidst deserts, they’ve created a micro climate change by lowering the water table enough to kill almost all the vegetation, leaving the country totally reliant on desalinated water and imported food.  It’s a vulnerable position to be in, without their oil and gas they’d be in a bit of trouble. They’ve focused on becoming a financial hub in the gulf but so have a lot of places. Processsing oil from Saudi is an important industry, but it’s cheap energy that drives the country, without that they’d have no water and no air conditioning.

We flew from Bahrain to Southern India for yet another eye opener. We’ve visited silk farms and a silk research station, goat and dairy operations, dairy distributor, a coffee plantation in hills straight out of a Rudyard Kipling story and we’ve spoken with a researcher developing super bamboo for biofuel. It’s all been fantastic but visits to the local markets along the way are a highlight and best described with photographs.

mysore markets


verandah conversations in India


Salem, southern India


dairy processing

The Ukraine; soil, water and Mafia

A week in the Ukraine was enough to get us excited about the potential of the agricultural sector and frustrated with the limitations created by a country that slept through the industrial revolution and woke in the mid nineties with a post Soviet hangover.

Fresh water in Kiev

more water

kiev from my window


Humus laden topsoil up to 18’ deep and a river that would make any Australian farmer cry are the jewels of the country. We were like a mob of kids in a lolly shop digging our hands into the black earth and talking about ways to get into the Ukrainian agriculture business. As the week wore on our enthusiasm waned when we realised the real risks of doing business here could only be handled with a good bodyguard and top-level connections.

Dutch owned farm

more water

harvesting soya beans on US owned farm

grain to silo

Land in the Ukraine is owned by the people, usually in 4 hectare plots. These can be used for subsistence farming or rented out to another farmer at around 3% of land value. This is a form of social security that is pretty effective when you think about it. As farmers in Australia we are always trying to get around the problem of such a large portion of our capital being tied up in land. This system allows investors and agricultural professionals to amalgamate a parcel of land and get busy with production. Rates of return are very high, a 20% return is considered a bit of a flop and 100% return seemed to be fairly common. I know, it’s hard to get your head around but that’s what happens when inputs are negligible, the market is strong and the soil is fantastic.

We travelled from Kiev down to Odessa and visited with farmers, factories and even the old Soviet missile base that housed enough neucs to decimate 600,000 square kilometres. We took a trip down into the bunker and saw the ‘buttons’ that could have wiped out nations. We went to the ballet at one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world but given the last three weeks the dim lights resulted in us nodding off rather than appreciating Ukrainian ballet. We witnessed first hand corruption when we were asked for bribes, we felt the effects of racial and sexual discrimination and all in all, we were glad to get out.

missile riders

fatal buttons

Ukrainian ballet

At the Ukrainian Opera House

Markets in Odessa

dry fish at the markets in Odessa

markets at Odessa

Ukrainian mutton seller

We flew onto Turkey and had two nights in the vibrant city of Istanbul. We went to Gallipoli on a mad day trip and had the surreal experience of walking amongst the places that are an intrinsic part of being Australian. Not a day goes by that we don’t remind ourselves of the privilege that being part of this program is.

At Gallipoli

Lone Pine

Shrapnel Gully

The Sphinx

In the trenches at Gallipoli

We’re currently in Bahrain and are experiencing yet another aspect of humanity and culture. It’s an amazing place and we’ve got some stories to tell.


Bahrain streets at night

At the Saudi Arabia border

France, a pleasant surprise

I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting of France but I do know that it exceeded anything I’d hoped for. A beautiful and subtle sense of style permeates all that the French do, including agriculture.

Perhaps I expected grossly inefficient farming practices given the subsidies enjoyed by EU farmers over the years, perhaps I thought that because of their small scale they could not be viable, but in reality I just didn’t know a damn thing because France surprised me on all fronts, particularly when I realised just how easily I could stay and sink into this culture.

It was difficult to remove my mindset from the focus on growth that is the basis of our way of life and business in Australia, but essentially, that’s what I needed to do to understand agriculture in France today. Coming from the “Get big or get out,” frontier philosophy of Australia and after having spent a week in mid-west USA, I had to re-arrange my thinking in order to appreciate how farmers in France remained viable in a business where land is basically an untraded commodity. Their focus was on searching out the high value crops to maximise outputs and co-operating within their families and communities in order to minimise inputs, this resulted in a simple, relaxed and sustainable efficiency that I was a bit envious of.

We flew into Paris and drove north to the battlefields of the Somme where we met Phillippe, French Nuffield scholar and host extraordinaire. We visited the war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, the Australian museum and a small school rebuilt after the war with donations from Australia. The walls of the museum were lined with photographs of young Aussie men, larrikins with grins on their faces despite the horrors of the battles they’d seen. They were embraced by the French as their own, a sign above the playground at the school we visited read; “Remember the Australians.” Our accommodation that night was next to the Notre de Amiens, the largest cathedral in France; 145 metres long and 42 metres high, built between 1220 and 1700. The sheer beauty of that place was spine tingling with the late afternoon light filtering through stained glass windows, statues of saints, ancient paintings and lighted candles, it was a moving experience for all of us and we were unusually quiet as we sipped our beers that evening in the shadow of the most magnificent man made structure I have ever seen. We had dinner that evening with a young local farmer who invited us back to his home next to the cathedral. We drank champagne on his balcony and watched the moon rise over the roof of the cathedral before walking the streets of Amiens at night. Thank you Nuffield!

cathedral Amiens


Battle of the Steeples

From Amiens we drove south to Chartres and met another French Nuffield scholar who took us on a tour of a sugar beet factory then out to dinner next to another magnificent cathedral and so began our steeple grading tour of France.

sugar beets

corn flake

The following day we drove further south to the small village of Gaujacq. We were having a few problems finding the home of the Nuffield scholar we were supposed to meet and rang for directions and I quote, “go to the castle on the hill and knock on the big door on the right.” OK… and there it was. The home of Jean and Frederique Thoby and their Plantarium. Jean took us on a tour of the castle built in the 13th century and their garden containing a million different species of camellias (or something like that.) It was a soak up the beauty and atmosphere and be grateful for the experience moment as we wandered through gates built to hold back the Romans into magnificent gardens overlooking the rolling hills of southern France into Spain’s Pyrenees Mountains.  We were staying that night in a beautiful house not far from the castle, the room was a little cramped with all 6 of us bunking together so I took a hit for the boys and stayed back at the castle sharing a room with Jean’s daughter. I took to the princess role easily, perhaps that’s what happens when your in the South of France. Jean and Frederique introduced me to French hospitality and we enjoyed some more of those fantastic “Nuffield kitchen conversations” over crepes for breakfast. We visited kiwi fruit plantations, crops, a ‘pick your own’ farm and a winery before making a very Australian bee line for the beach.

The Castle Gaujacq

Duck Farm

sand farmers

fields of corn

Gardens at Gaujacq

growing grapes in sand


Leaving Gaujacq at 4am we drove to Paris, met up with Philippe, parked in the middle of the road and spent 80 euros on cheese and wine which we ate on an upturned wine barrel sheltering from the rain under an awning in the markets. That’s when we knew we were really in Paris. Philippe took us on a whirlwind tour of the sites and introduced Don to PIP (Parking in Paris.) The following day we met with the OECD and tried to understand European agricultural policy before walking across the River Seine and admiring the Eiffel Tower in the last light of day.

Eiffel Tower

WHere you park when in Paris!

Beef at the Paris markets

Another early start the next day and we were on our way to the Ukraine (south-eastern Europe,) where we were met by Australian Nuffield scholar from 2006 David Fulwood and our Ukrainian adventure began. The stark contrast between the genteel style of France and the harsh ambience of a country emerging from Soviet rule was in out faces from the moment we arrived, but that’s another story, stay tuned…

Back on the messy home front there have been some good outcomes that have allowed me to relax and enjoy this trip even more than I was already doing, very proud of  Matilda who is shining through it all.

10 Days in the USA

I must becoming a little travel savvy as I’ve managed to sleep my way across the North Atlantic on our way to France. The Global Focus Tour seems to be as much about learning to manage getting yourself out of a meeting and onto an international flight on time as much as anything.

The 3 key points I take home my travels so far is this:

1)            Water is King

2)            Water is King

3)            Water is King

It doesn’t matter whether your in the USA, Mongolia or Australia, access to water opens up options and opportunities like nothing else.

calf pens at Braum's dairy

Apart from visiting farms, universities and research stations, we sampled American mid-west culture big time with a visit to the Oklahoma State Fair. You’ve got to hand it to their culinary genius, there really is nothing they can’t deep fry.

sampling the fried coke

The last two days in Washington DC helped us put the jigsaw that is the American Agricultural system together, basically, if you want to understand it, you need to understand the Farmbill which is such a work in motion that it takes a bit of keeping up with. They are currently crafting the 2012 Farmbill even though the 2008 bill hasn’t been implemented yet so how can they know if policies in the 08 bill will actually work? Tricky and complicated. Food stamps take up a large portion of the “ag” budget and are basically a welfare payment that people can use to buy food, can’t help thinking that in our area that would be a better system than weekly payments that often end up being spent on alcohol and cigarettes.

The bio-technology debate is interesting, America is much more open to the use of science for improving production than most of the western world. It seems to me that the evolvement of societal thinking starts when people are hungry with a focus on food on the table, shifts to profit at all costs as wealth increases, moves on again to science with the availability of profit and an interest in increasing profit, then to making decisions based on emotions as we become in Don’s words; ‘spoilt, fat and lazy.’

buffalo grass variety

Most of us agree that the best part about this trip is the discussions we have after a meeting or visit. With such a diverse mix of experience and skills we can dissect an interview or business and add dimensions to each other’s understanding that we couldn’t do singly.

GFP v's 3.1

We’re really looking forward to France, for the change of diet as much as anything else.


Aus/Irish Senate on US ag

Wanaaring Road test vehicle

And so begins the GFP



The wild flowers were out in bloom when I was home, I was expecting a mass of them after the winter rains but I think the density of grass built up over the last couple of summers has reduced the soft winter annuals that usually supply the colour show. Still, it is looking lovely there.

evening light at Myrnong, by Matilda

After a 4 day “break” at home after arriving home from Mongolia it was time to pack my bags and head out on the next leg of my Nuffield adventure. There’s been a lot of pre-planning and organising to be done to allow me to get away again and I’m grateful for the support of friends and family that have allowed me the privelege of this travel.

met up with the other 4 Australian scholars in Canberra for briefings and then we flew out to the USA, arriving in LA an hour before we left on Saturday thanks to a good tail wind. We have spent this week in the state of Oklahoma and it’s been a great start to our trip. The Irish chapter of our group joined us here and has added the seemingly required dairy farmer mix to the group. The Australians include two vegie growers from South Aus, a crustacean farmer from Tassie and a beef feed lotter from Queensland. It’s a great mix of industries and personalities and we have some pretty lively and interesting discussions. The productive nature of this soil and climate has made a few of us drool a bit, makes you wonder why you’d be scratching out a living in a bit of worn out dirt with little water when there is just so much beautiful country here.

We’ve had some great meetings and have been a bit humbled at how the red carpet has been rolled out for us, Nuffield certainly opens doors for us.

Nuffield scholars version 3.1

Pecan Trees

Stockyard City Oklahoma

Herders of the Gobi Desert continued

Gobi accomodation

Well, here comes another rant on my time in Mongolia, it’s pretty difficult to encapsulate the privileged experience that has been mine for the past few weeks learning about one of the oldest herding cultures left on earth, but it’s a long plane trip home and I can enjoy a one way conversation.

The privilege has been sharing a moment in these people’s lives, laughing over a bowl of tea, cuddling their babies, trying to both understand their herding life and describe mine, lamenting the loss of livestock they experienced last winter, explaining how we survive long dry periods and trying to understand how they can build their animal numbers up quickly enough to remain “viable” when they can’t buy livestock in and have little opportunity to source outside income. We shared their concern about dropping well water levels, changes bought by mining and the exodus of youth to the city. I took with me a collection of photos from home, mostly of livestock and the landscape and some of my family and left a trail of these photos behind me as gifts to herders who would gratefully tuck them into the wall or ceiling of their ger amid pots, ladles, motor bike parts, bridles and Buddhist statues.

future herder

I guess what surprised me most was the fact that I could identify with the herders of the Gobi more so than I could with the goat producers I met in the United States last March who are often protected with alternative income streams from gas, oil and hunting and subsidised fodder. This parallel with a 3rd world country seems a little absurd given that Australia is such a wealthy nation but so much of our wealth is contained in the green belt following our south-eastern coastline that the outback or “inner circle” as I like to call it is similar to Mongolia in that it shares both a lack of infrastructure and services as well as being at the mercy of a pretty harsh climate, though thankfully not as harsh as Mongolia’s.

The Mongolian people have experienced dramatic change since privatisation in the mid 1990’s. During Negdel (socialist) times herders cared for a set number of government owned livestock, around 150 small animals per family, and were permitted to have 75 of their own animals, any losses of government livestock had to be replaced from their own herds. Veterinary care, doctors, education and transport were provided and on the surface it sounds like life was better for herders then, but as one old man told us, though it sounds good, it wasn’t. They were told when and where they could move, they lost their independence and taking independence from a Mongolian herder would be akin to asking an Australian pastoralist to surrender their autonomy. With privatisation in the mid 1990’s, herder and livestock numbers increased resulting in an increase in grazing pressure. It seems that there was also a change in herd dynamics as herders increased goat numbers in an attempt to cash in on strong cashmere prices. I’d make the assumption (dangerously) that it was and still is cashmere that pays for education, mobile phones, TV’s, satellites and motor vehicles. Camels, sheep and horses are herder’s subsistence animals due to their ability to survive tortuous winters. Going into a tough winter some herders will only breed their camels to provide their families with milk in the summer, keeping their softer animals dry to help them make it through the winter and even tougher spring. Goats, with their lack of subcutaneous fat are the first to die, literally freezing to death and so represent a liability in the herd structure. In reality, it’s just another example of the market driving risky and perhaps inappropriate agriculture. Animal numbers were significantly reduced after a harsh winter in 2002 and again last winter, a tough though seemingly necessary cycle to maintain balance in the landscape.

winter carnage

Chart on livestock numbers in Omnigobi aimag from 1960 to 2007. Figures provided by Jane Addison- Thanks J

After around 20 interviews or so I started to get a sense of the role personal “drive” played in the success of these herders, much the same as it does anywhere I guess. As I see it there are two critical factors determining coming through winter in reasonable shape; the ability and willingness to move regularly throughout the summer providing livestock with the best pasture possible to maximise the “fat bank” in each animal, and harvesting as much fodder as possible during the summer to feed livestock when they are holed up in their winter camp. I think personal “drive” has a massive effect here because it’s a lot of work to regularly pack up and move camp following the grass. Once camels were used to transport herder’s belongings and while this was harder and slower than using a motor vehicle, it was less expensive so I think it’s possible that now the number of summer moves are also affected by a family’s available finances. Collecting forage by hand is arduous work, mostly done by the men who sometimes see it as an opportunity for a vodka drinking session with their mates. Obviously the less fodder you have squirreled away for winter, the more at risk you are of your livestock starving to death when energy requirements far outweigh available forage.

a ger in transit

We met one herder who had spent the last 3 years away from his home turf, following the grass, sort of like us having our stock in the “long paddock’ for 3 years. He was a fairly broken man when we chatted and it was hard to see how he could pull himself out of the situation that the climate had thrown him into. He’d had 700 animals last summer, making him quite a wealthy and successful herder. Last autumn he’d got caught in an early snowstorm in the mountains and had lost 200 head of sheep and goats and very nearly lost his life. He was in hospital following that and went into winter in bad shape, resulting in an almost total loss of livestock. He’d moved in closer to the mines in the hope that he could either get work or free fodder for his stock. It’s really unusual for a herder to tell this sort of a story, they are reluctant to tell of losses and I think perhaps we caught him at a weak moment. It was pretty sad.

There was a tangible difference in the herders we interviewed close to the mines and mining areas, perhaps best described as a loss of ‘genuineness’ or maybe even integrity. They appeared poorer, the gers were dirtier, children less clean and tidy, but there seemed to be more wealth. Often we felt a little uncomfortable with these families, individual mining is against the law and so we had to be careful to not ask direct questions that would incriminate them while still trying to understand their situation. There has been a noticeable difference in the number of herders congregating around these areas, perhaps they are the ones who lost their livestock last winter.

In answer to the questions, the area we were in has an average annual rainfall of around 100-150 mm, so it’s pretty arid and I think some of that may actually be snowfall measurement, not sure on that one. The area that herders move in varies according to seasonal conditions. Typically they have a registered winter camp that they return to each year, this allows them to build some infrastructure to shelter their livestock during winter. Some of these winter camps are really impressive, usually they have outer circular walls made out of stone with slabs of dry dung carved up and piled high to create additional wind breaks. During summer herders will try to preserve any pasture around the winter camp and there are occasional arguments amongst herders trying to secure their winter pastures. Some herders will move only in a radius of about 20-30km while others will travel for hundreds of kilometres, again this probably comes down to having both the means and drive.

Water points are quite close by Australian standards but an increasing number of wells are out of action as nobody seems responsible for their maintenance. It would seem logical that some of the money bought in from mining could be used for water point upkeep but I guess that remains to be seen. Most of the herders had noticed the standing water level in the wells was dropping. Some had made ingenious lever action pumps using an old tyre tube. One old camel herder had made a really effective counter balance bucketing system to reach water that was further than he could reach with a bucket on a stick. I guess the interesting factor in all of this is that the country is un-owned and herders basically co-operate in the use of pastures and wells.

Our translator, Chimeg, showed a lot of diplomacy; often she would introduce us as an Australian goat herder who was travelling the world looking at goat herding accompanied by an environmental scientist (Jane) who was doing her doctorate on the differences between Inner Mongolia and the Mongolian Gobi. Of course it was the complete opposite but when introduced like that and producing photos of our goats and asking them about theirs, the ice was broken and we enjoyed some fantastic unrestrained conversations. We even had some herders show us the gold they had found which was extremely unusual and an indicator of how accepted and trusted we were simply because we shared a common occupation and interests.

looking at pictures of home

I am forever grateful to Jane Addison for letting me tag along on her PhD research and ‘nobody knows the trouble she’s seen.’ Thanks Jane for taking a huge risk in inviting me along given that you didn’t know me from a bar of soap. Turns out we had heaps in common including a dangerous sense of humour, a definitive lack of “preciousness,” and now an abiding loathing of “you aint nothing but a hound dog” and an overuse of the phrase ‘I beseech you,’ when it comes to changing the music being blasted from the car stereo.

I’m also really grateful for Chimeg’s company on the trip. At just 23 with a bright future in front of her, she provided an interesting dynamic with her educated Mongolian insights. Chimeg and I had the best time horse riding together, we hired a couple of tough little ponies and delighted in terrorising Italian tourists by galloping flat knacker past them like a pair of unruly kids up to mischief. We had these ponies scaling hills so steep that to quote my grandfather, ‘we had to empty the horse dung out of the crown of our hats when we got to the bottom.’ Chimeg spent her childhood summers on horseback like a true Mongolian helping her grandmother who is still a herder in the cold north. Riding a Mongolian pony has been a long held dream of mine and I reckon Chingis Khaan would have signed us up.

It has simply been the best of trips and allowed me the time, space, company and environment to get my head and heart together and focus on the task at hand.

Getting back to Australia is the easy part, from the airport home is always an arduous journey but last night’s was pretty tough. I arrived back in Sydney after an overnighter from Beijing on Thursday morning and was met by my brother who took me to visit my folks and sister near Bathurst then onto Dubbo the following day. I caught a plane to Broken Hill and was met by my daughter Matilda. We then had to wait for Will’s plane to get in from Adelaide which was delayed due to the rough weather being experienced down there. We began the long journey home around 9pm, driving through the rain, arriving home at 2:30 am after 500 km of wet roads, 200 km of them muddy. I’m a little weary today but it is great to see the place looking so green, another 24mm or rain last night. Only 4 days to get station work caught up and then head back down to Broken Hill and onto Canberra for the start of the Nuffield Global Focus Tour, you don’t have to be mad or hyper but I’m finding it helps.