Illustration by Matt Weismantel
The Last Madura Brumby | Lewis Woolston
Madura didn’t start off as a roadhouse. When the first white people settled in the area there was no highway nor had cars been invented.
It was originally established as a horse breeding station in the 1870’s. They bred and exported horses for the British Army in India. Queen Victoria’s colonial garrisons had an insatiable need for horseflesh so it was a profitable trade for many years despite the hardships of living and working in such a remote place.
The horses were raised on the wide saltbush plain to the south of where the highway is now. When they were ready for duty in Her Majesty’s colonial forces they were mustered up to Eucla and put on a ship to India. I can’t help thinking it would have been a sad experience for a horse that was half wild on the Nullarbor to be shipped to India where it would have laboured long and hard and would probably die horribly in battle or from thirst, heat or disease. The enlisted troopers who rode the horses were probably the dregs of the British working class who joined the Army to escape Dickensian slums. At least the horses had once known freedom.
Right from the start there were some horses that escaped and went wild. Most of course died but a few tough ones survived and formed the first Brumby herds in Western Australia. These herds became a common sight to people who travelled the remote parts of the country.
The Army horse trade boomed during the First World War then died a slow lingering death before finally shutting down in the 1930’s when the station converted to sheep. Herds of wild Brumbies were a common sight in the district right up until the early 1960’s. When the highway was finally sealed in the late 60’s and early 70’s the old homestead was abandoned and the current roadhouse was built. The Nullarbor became a place of tourists and truckies and Brumbies had no place in the modern world.
The Brumby herds in the area soon learnt to stay away from the new sealed highway and most of them stayed to the north of it. Bushies who went on rabbit shooting trips off the beaten track still regularly reported seeing Brumby herds of thirty or forty animals running wild. Most bushies wouldn’t shoot a brumby out of some unspoken respect they felt for the creatures.
The last big herds were seen in the late 80’s and early 90’s in the north towards the railway line. A worker at the railway camp at Forrest reported seeing a herd of twenty Brumbies taking turns to drink from a puddle created by a water tank leak at the camp in 1993. That was probably the last of the big herds in the area.
By the time I got to Madura in 2013 it was basically assumed that the days of Brumbies were over. Some of the older bushies I met could remember seeing them twenty years earlier but the most recent credible sighting was of a sickly looking pair north of Mundrabilla in 2001.
Jimmy Healy was still alive in those days and he spotted what I believe to be the last wild Brumby of the Nullarbor. It was mostly luck he spotted it and he saw it on the south side of the highway near the coast, the exact opposite of where everyone else looked for them.
He told me about it and commanded me to keep my mouth shut before he took me to the spot. We followed the rough dirt track that went to the coast. Only a dozen or so very keen fishermen used this track every year so we were totally alone. We swung off to the east along what remained of the old telegraph road. Most of the track had been covered by vegetation or creeping sand dunes and it was obvious no-one had been down here for years. We startled a mob of emus and they ran before us like prehistoric relics.
Jimmy parked the car in the scrub and we walked to the small waterhole where he’d seen the animal. The waterhole was basically a puddle in the sand which held its water most of the year thanks to its sheltered position in the lee of a huge sand dune. All the animals for miles around came here and the ground was covered in tracks. Jimmy had his head down looking for horse tracks. He found them in a couple of minutes and pointed them out to me.
"She’s walking slowly, she looked pretty old and worn out when I saw her. Not long for this world I reckon."
"How do you know it’s a she?"
"Saw it close enough to know, it’s a mare and an old one, she’s probably had a hard life out here and now she’s all alone just waiting to die."
I quietly digested this info while Jimmy looked around at the tracks on the ground. What must her life be like living alone as the last of its herd in the middle of nowhere? Did wild horses get lonely? I’d heard once that dogs would curl up and die if left alone for too long, apparently their pack instinct is so strong they can’t survive without company, perhaps it was the same for horses.
Jimmy interrupted my thoughts by telling me to get in the car. He said we’d be best off getting to higher ground and having a look over the plain.
With great difficulty we inched the car to the top of a sand dune and parked it there. From that position I could look south and see the Great Southern Ocean stretching unbroken to Antarctica or I could look north and see the vast saltbush plain that made up the interior of Australia. The plains around the Madura area follow a very simple and uniform pattern. They stretch south of the highway, miles and miles of open, flat saltbush with occasional clumps of mulga trees, before meeting a band of huge sand dunes that form a buffer between the plain and the beach. The sand dunes give a little shelter from the wind and small waterholes sometimes form in their lee. This is often the best place to look for animals.
We got out of the car and stood awkwardly on the loose sand of the dune. Despite being older than me Jimmy’s eyes were keener and he spotted the horse first. I had trouble locating it on the vast empty plain even after he pointed it out to me. It was a sorry looking creature, dusty brown and bedraggled, it seemed to be moping as it plodded along through the dust. I couldn’t help but think of that cartoon donkey from Winnie the Pooh.
"She’s a sad old girl." Jimmy’s laconic comment summed up the picture perfectly. The old mare looked ready to die. As if life had become an intolerable burden for her. She slowly made her way to the water and slopped at the muddy puddle like a bedridden old person being spoon-fed in their hospital bed.
"Wouldn’t it be kinder to shoot her?" I asked and got an angry glare from Jimmy for my trouble.
"You shoot her and I’ll shoot you."
I said nothing in order to not provoke his anger further. We watched the old horse for a while and when it had finished drinking and retired to the nearest clump of scrub we got in the car and headed off. I never saw it again and Jimmy himself died a year or so later. I’ve never heard of anyone seeing any Brumbies in the Madura area since that time. It seems a safe bet that I saw the last Madura Brumby.
Lewis Woolston grew up in Geraldton, Western Australia. Hating it, he left as soon as he could. He misspent most of his youth in Perth and Adelaide, undertook a short and miserable stint in the Australian Army, and spent years living and working in remote roadhouses on the Nullarbor and in the Northern Territory before settling down. This story featured in Lewis's first collection The Last Free Man and Other Stories published by Truth Serum Press (2019), which was shortlisted for Best Fiction in the 2020 Chief Minister's NT Book Awards. His second collection, Remembering the Dead and Other Stories, has just been published and is available for purchase here