Amid the ongoing flood crisis in north-west Queensland, an army of volunteers and small businesses is making a difference in the fight to save surviving cattle from starvation.
In the towns of Richmond, Winton, Cloncurry, Julia Creek and many others, helicopters have been in the air for more than a fortnight assisting frantic efforts to save livestock.
Professional pilots, alongside volunteers in their own aircraft, have been moving cattle away from danger, saving thousands, but when the extent of the floods became apparent, the true horror of the catastrophe was revealed.
Pilot Ben Tate said many isolated cattle had succumbed to the floodwaters.
“We pushed [cattle] well out beyond the known flood line, which helped save a lot, but there’s cattle out where we thought was well beyond flood level that are gone,” Mr Tate said.
“I fed cattle about six days ago on an island, about 40 or 50 head of steers, and I came back at 6:30 the next morning and they were all gone.”
“There’s no precedent for it — it’s well and truly above and beyond what we ever expected,” he said.
At Richmond Aerodrome, a base was established early on to coordinate efforts to first move cattle away from known flood peaks before a relief effort began to drop hay to stranded animals.
“The last seven days have been extremely hectic not only for the pilots, but the fantastic community giving us a hand on the ground,” Mr Tate said.
“It’s a busy time but everyone’s banding together. It’s just a job that needs to be done,” he said.
Owner of Fox Helicopter Services Dave Fox and his wife Patsy have been helping to coordinate the disaster relief plan for Richmond Shire Council.
Working from the aerodrome, starting before dawn and staying well after dark, they have organised fodder drops and relief for thousands of surviving cattle across the shire’s 26,000 square kilometres.
Supplies of aviation fuel were threatened early on as a result of the total isolation the town faced, leading to the army’s airlift relief.
“There were a few times when we were down to the last drum of fuel with half the day to go,” Mr Fox said.
“Then the Spartan [military transport plane] would arrive and here comes 3,600 litres and we’re away again,” he said.
“We’ve got a great engineering team … they’ve been tremendous and brought parts out and repaired machines that would have ordinarily been on the ground for days waiting for parts,” Mr Tate said.
Behind the scenes, teams of local women have been feeding the pilots and support workers with lunch, snacks and refreshments.
The toll is beginning to show on the ground and in the air, but roads are opening up as the country dries, reducing the strain on helicopters.
Philip ‘Pipi’ Wells from Blue Dog Helicopters in Hughenden has covered hundreds of kilometres assisting Ergon Energy workers repair powerlines.
Witnessing thousands of dead and suffering cattle trapped in corners of paddocks, Mr Wells said they helped where they could by cutting fences and walking animals to higher ground.
“Right through from [Hughenden] to Cloncurry and north and up the Gulf, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
As graziers and residents start returning to their homes, the pain of the experience has also affected pilots.
“It was bad before, but I think it won’t sink in for a while,” he said.
Mr Fox said the focus was on the people who have been impacted the most: graziers who have lost thousands of head of cattle.
“Some of the people we have here volunteering here on this airport, flying out day in day out to deliver stores or carry things, they’ve been directly affected,” he said.
“I really do thank them for their time and effort and everyone in the community thanks them.”