The Treasure women are on the drove again, cracking the whip and whistling up a storm beneath the high plains of northeast Victoria where their cattle will fatten over a long, lazy summer.
“It’s what my mother and her mother did, and what the women of this family have done for four generations back from me. It’s what we do.”
They’re pushing through the hamlet of Dargo as the late afternoon light turns buttery. Boss drover Lyric, 36, leads the bellowing mob past spick-and-span homes and the pub, where the blokes are on the veranda hoisting a glass to them.
The Treasures have been doing this for generations. No big deal, they insist. But what a stirring sight it is. Aunt Rhonda, 60, saddled up on Lyric’s flank, barks at the onlookers to keep a distance because you never know what will happen with 200-odd beasts that have been on the go since 7.30am.
Cattle dogs dart in and out, hounding stragglers. Lyric’s cousin, Kate Treasure, 31, wheels her horse and cuts off a cow and calf headed obstinately for the hills. Nine-year-old Rhyme is on big-sister duty for her brother, Hughie, 5. The kids look like they were born to ride.
“We are farming women,” Lyric said after counting the cattle into a paddock outside of Dargo, gateway to the lush alpine pastures four hours’ drive from Melbourne. “It’s what my mother and her mother did, and what the women of this family have done for four generations back from me. It’s what we do.”
A tradition her daughter might hand down to a seventh generation of Treasures some day.
“I love doing this,” Rhyme said, her eyes shining.
These women from Snowy River are certainly a special kind, having long ago broken through the ceiling of expectations that is etched in a big country sky by the peaks of the Australian Alps.
The family has been grazing cattle on the high plains since 1898, after pathfinders George and Emily Treasure piled all they owned on a packhorse and moved from a muddy Victorian goldfield to the velvety foothills of the range.
When matriarch Emily heard an alpine grazing lease was going, she saddled a mount and galloped all the way from Omeo to lodge the claim. Work has always been divided equally between the men and women in the family.
Lyric Anderson jokes that she, too, married well. The kids and husband Lance have travelled from the cattle property in NSW’s Hunter Valley that’s home to them. Like many families, the Treasures have spread far and wide. Wherever they are, the girls make sure to get back for the annual cattle drive to the High Country. “It’s no big deal to us,” Lyric said, after watering her tired horse in the creek. “There are plenty of capable women around here. Our cousins fence and do stock work.
“The women on the land have always worked along side of the men. It’s just that history did not shine on them as much.”
The cattle were mustered from the properties owned by her mother, Christa Treasure, a highly regarded horsewoman and breeder, aunt Rhonda Treasure and cousin Kate.
The mob, controlled by the women and children on horseback, were walked up the bitumen road from Bairnsdale in a scene that probably has no equal in the country. Cars slowed from highway speed to nudge through the noisy throng of tan and white Hereford cattle.
Watching from the steps of the Dargo Hotel, electrician Phil Davies, 62, marvelled at the spectacle of cattle being driven along the town’s main street. “You wouldn’t see this every day,” he said.
Publican Christine Howson said the word had passed around — to borrow a phrase from bush bard Banjo Paterson — and more tourists were arriving each year to see the Treasure women at work. “It’s such a long ride for them,” she said, camera in hand.
After a spell in the holding paddock, the cattle will be moved next week to the Dargo High Plains. The Treasures lost access to the Alpine National Park last year when Victoria’s Labor government banned grazing in those heights as a conservation measure.
It still rankles the family, who make do with their remaining leases outside the no-go zone. The cattle take three days to walk into the mountains and will beef up over summer in the rich pastures. They will stay until the weather turns in late autumn and the snow season starts. Rhonda Treasure speaks of their “sense of belonging” in the High Country; she has been driving cattle there since she was Rhyme’s age.
The little girl recently saw a documentary film about her great aunt Freda, a “very handy cattlewoman”, in her mum’s estimation. “I’m going to be like Auntie Freda,” Rhyme said.
Watching over the crew, Lyric recalled how her grandfather, Jim Treasure, would take her droving high into the country now closed to their cattle. “It was a lot to take off us,” she said quietly. “We would be up there most of the summer. It was like another home to us.”
The Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria is leading the fightback, arguing that grazing in the Alpine National Park helped manage the reserve, not denude it. Cattle would keep vegetation levels down, allowing the native grasses to regenerate and hold down weeds. A reduced fuel load also mitigated the risk of summer wildfires becoming conflagrations that destroyed the thick mountain forests.
“Our problem now is that just about every fire we get into our High Country is extreme,” said master horseman Charlie Lovick, 66, who helped bring Paterson’s The Man from Snowy River to the big screen. “We are not looking after the environment in the right way. It’s crying out for help.”
Mr Lovick’s brother-in-law, Geoff Burrowes, 71, was producer of the 1982 adventure movie and as a cattle farmer at Merrijig, beneath Mount Buller, he has a stake in the conservation dispute with the state government and green groups.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” he said of the cattle ban. “I don’t doubt that these people mean well, but they are doing terrible damage. They just can’t or don’t want to see it.”
The Treasure women will hit the road with their cattle in a second drive to the high plains after Christmas.