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Strangers in a Strange Place – Part 1

4th June 2012

In 1982 my wife, Suzanne, and I spent a year travelling. During this time we spent a considerable period, around two months, working together on a remote cattle station in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. This blog is an attempt to share some of our experience as I recall it. For reasons that may become apparent as you read I have changed the names of the location and the people.

In September of 1982 we two; recently married, middle-class travellers and our border collie cross dog; found ourselves, at 21 years of age, in the far north west of the great state of Western Australia.

We had driven from Melbourne in a clockwise direction, working, holidaying and learning, around the coast of Australia.  From Perth we had enjoyed a twelve week detour to Singapore, Great Britain, France, and Sri Lanka and for the month or so since returning to the antipodes we had not felt the need to work.

Broome, WA 1982

Broome, WA 1982

Our vehicle for this journey was a little Japanese-made Datsun four door sedan which, with its 1.8 litre engine, that we used to tow a canvas and steel camper trailer, or “camper”. The camper folded out to provide sleeping space for four, a stove and sink, and storage space for clothing, pots, pans, crockery and other luxury items. The car had completed its first 100,000 kilometers when our trip commenced but cruised along pretty effortlessly and gave us very little trouble on our 14,000 kilometer journey.

And so we found ourselves in Broome, 220 kilometers from the nearest town of Derby in the north and 600 kilometers from Port Hedland in the south. Perspective?  Broome is a tad further from Port Headland than Edinburgh is from London by road. Between Broome and Port Headland there is one petrol station (Sandfire Flat) and not-one town, village or other human settlement apart from a small campsite on 80 mile beach.

Broome 1982

A typical street scene from Broome, 1982

At that time the city of Broome was, as yet, undiscovered by the general tourist trade. Its sleepy wide streets were largely frequented by indigenous Australians, station-workers on r&r breaks, and the odd befuddled dropout seeking escape from the cares and responsibilities of life in England or Australia’s busier cities. The buildings had an air of neglect and the key attractions were the 2 kilometer-long Broome pier, the Roey (Roebuck Bay Hotel), and the pearl shops to which tourists would gravitate on their arrival. It was 7 years before the famous Cable Beach resort would be built and Broome was known primarily as a center for live-cattle export, fishing and pearling.

The Roebuck Bay Hotel - Broome 1982

The Roebuck Bay Hotel – Broome 1982

This seemed like somewhere where we would find the adventure and new experiences that we craved on our trip, who knew, we might even be able to find work that would carry us through the rainy season (December to March) prior to continuing our journey. So it was with great expectations that we approached the Commonwealth Employment Service (the CES has now largely been replaced by CentreLink) and asked what work might be available.

We found a card posted on the board at the CES advertising roles for a station-hand (jackeroo) and a governess. I wish I had somehow kept a copy of this advertisement but did not. However my interview for the job of station-hand went something like this:

Interviewer: “The job involves fencing, windmill-work, and general stock work. Can you drive a bull-buggy?”

Me (in typically over confident fashion): “I can drive pretty much anything. What’s a bull-buggy?”

Interviewer: “A bull-buggy is a four wheel drive with the top and most of the interior removed. I’ll put ‘yes’.”

Me: “OK. I have done lots of fencing work on farms in Victoria, and I have no problems working with mechanical things. I have assembled and disassembled several motor vehicles so windmills should not be much trouble.”

At this stage I had no idea that “pulling” a windmill is an operation that requires some experience and that filling a gear box with oil on a rotating platform, thirty to fifty feet off the ground, requires a serious head for heights.

Interviewer: “have you worked with cattle before?”

Me (picturing Victorian dairy cattle): “I’ve worked with sheep and horses, I don’t think I’ll have any trouble working with cattle”.

Interviewer: “OK. I’ll put you forward to the station manager as a possible candidate”

Sue’s interview was not, I believe, a lot longer. She was an accomplished Legal Steno/Secretary, well spoken and well-presented and the role involved supervising a girl of about 10 (if memory serves correctly) during her School of the Air classes and follow-up work.  School of the Air is a service provided by the Australian Government that provides education for children in remote communities via radio.  Children can talk to their teachers and to other students who they may never meet. Today the School of the Air is augmented with Internet functionality but in 1982 there was just the radio.

The Station Homestead

The Station Homestead and working buildings

I don’t recall actually meeting the station manager before we went out to the station, we met his wife who was in town to pick up the monthly shop and she gave the go-ahead for us to start work a few days later. So, after packing our stuff up again, we set off to drive approximately 400 kilometers (much of this on gravel roads) to our new home.

The Station, as we came to know it, was home to ten other souls apart from ourselves. The manager, call him Bill for want of a better pseudonym, lived in the main homestead with his wife (the real manager as we came to realise) and two children. Four single male farm hands ranging in ages from 19 to 60 lived in the “single men’s quarters” about 25 metres from the homestead, and Bill’s brother lived with his wife in a smaller homestead about 25 kilometers away on our station. I am not certain about just how big the station was, I seem to recall that it was about 50,000 hectares, and this would make it small compared to many stations in Australia.

The homestead in the background and some of our staff

The homestead in the background and some of our staff

The infrastructure on the station was restricted to what could be provided locally. Of course there was no external electricity, gas, telephone, or even water supply. Everything came from what we could capture and store, or generate ourselves. Hence there was a large diesel operated gen-set (generator) which would run during our waking hours to power refrigerators, lights, and sundry appliances in the house (including radio, a VCR and television set).

There was a large outdoor freezer which struggled to keep the contents below zero and this necessitated a turnover of meat every few weeks, a terrible waste, a swimming pool which never had any water in it, as this was the end of the dry season in the Kimberley. Approximately once a month, after pay-day, some of our little group would go into town to do a major shop. At this stage they would pick up things that we could not produce locally, meats such as lamb and pork, vegetables, beer and soft drinks. Rarely a tanker truck would deliver a load of fuel to the station and this was held in large tanks and pumped by hand.

Skinning a beast for the house

Skinning a beast for the house

Once every three weeks or so we would go out and shoot a beast for the house. Typically we would look for a large steer (the meat from steers – castrated male cattle – is much better to eat than meat from cows or bulls) and we would shoot the animal with a high powered rifle from a distance. The objective being not to disturb or frighten the victim as this would cause a rush of adrenalin through the meat which affects its flavor and quality. Once the animal was down we would approach as quickly as possible to cut its throat (hopefully while the heart is still beating, this causes as much blood as possible to be drained). The beast is then skinned and cut into pieces which are put into cotton sacks and hung overnight in a cool room before being butchered properly the next day and frozen (or semi-frozen as per my comments about the freezer earlier!).

My bull-buggy in the rear, over the bull-bar of another

My bull-buggy in the rear, over the bull-bar of another. The building behind is our workshop.

Our jobs on the station were never boring or routine, on working days we would rise around 4am just before the sun. The generator would be started and the men would go out and do a few hours work around the homestead before breakfast. this work included a variety of things from equipment maintenance, cattle-yard maintenance and fencing to preparing vehicles and provisions for more distant work.

After breakfast at around 7:00 am we head off to various points of the compass to do the jobs we had been assigned for the day. These might include setting up a wing-fence to steer cattle into yards during a muster, setting up portable yards, repairing a windmill, or retrieving and relocating equipment from some remote location. At times we might be working up to 50 kilometers from the homestead and in these situations we would pack our cooking equipment, water coolers, meat, bread and other food and set off, fully prepared to stay out as long as it took to get the job done.

Black cockatoos near the homestead

Black cockatoos near the homestead. The Kimberley has a wide variety of wildlife.

Each night the men had an allowance of four cans of beer and we would watch videos, or have a barbecue outside or just read and enjoy each others’ company as best we could. It did not take Sue and I long to realize that, while we would enjoy our time on the station, we would not enjoy a full wet season with out any external stimulation. This was a real possibility as travel in the north west of the state is virtually impossible by car once the wet starts.

Cattle stations such as this one have no fences or natural barriers to keep stock on the property. Hence a key challenge for a station manager is to ensure that the cattle have a reason NOT to wander and that those that do are clearly marked such that their ownership cannot be disputed. This marking is achieved through ear-tagging.

Red dragon fly

Red dragon fly

Keeping cattle on the property starts with ensuring that they have enough feed and enough water. Of these two things the second is the easiest. Water supply is achieved through the installation of bores from which ground water is pumped using windmills. Hence the ability to set up and maintain windmills is a crucial part of the day to day work of a station hand. This blog is not the place to go into the intricacies of pulling and repairing a windmill, suffice to say, it is an interesting job and one that can keep a team busy for a day or two. On a station the size of ours it is crucial that windmills are inspected regularly so much of the work involved driving around, in a bull-buggy, and checking that the associated tanks and troughs are full of water and that the mills are working well.

There are of course few-roads on an area of land this size and much of the time we would be driving across grasslands and scrubby plains where it was very likely that one might hit a large anthill and tear the sump and even the gear box out of a four wheel drive. The thought of being stuck out in the sun for a day or two did not appeal to many of us so a great deal of care was taken.

Several times over the months that we worked on the station we did helicopter musters. A helicopter muster is an experience never to be forgotten. The guys and girls that fly these machines are frighteningly daring and skilful, as they have to be, this is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

The way it works is this. In the preceding week or so the station hands build portable cattle yards on a flat area where they will be able to be reached by a truck which will later be brought in to freight live animals out for sale.

The cattle yards will generally consist of several pens. A large holding pen to bring cattle into, a race which will enable cattle to be dealt with one at a time, a crush at the end of the race where cattle can be held individually for branding, castration or other equally-unpleasant operations, a gate that can be swung left or right to allow the beast leaving the race to join others in one of two pens one for selling and one, the “bush gate”, for release.

Leading to the holding pen is a “wing fence”, perhaps a kilometer long this wire fence will stretch in a straight line directly away from the yards. As scattered groups of cattle are mustered up to the fence they will be encourage to turn to one side or the other and follow the fence down until they find themselves inside the holding pen.

Once the wing fence and yards are ready the helicopters are brought in and three to five bull-buggies and other station vehicles are prepared.  The helicopters will work the terrain that is impenetrable to terrestrial vehicles, rousting cattle with their downdrafts and noise from creek beds and from under trees toward the wing fence. Bull-buggies will form a perimeter around the area being worked by the helicopters, using horns and as much noise and visibility as possible to guide cattle in the right direction.

Bull on the back of the Landcruiser

Bull on the back of the Landcruiser

Occasionally during this work a beast will become obstinate, attacking a vehicle directly (a big steer or bull can crash through a Landcruiser door) or simply stopping and refusing to move. In this situation the drivers will work the beast to the point that it can be lasooed, or otherwise confined. At one stage I saw an irate bull knocked over by a bull-buggy which then parked with the front of the vehicle pinning the beast to the ground. The animals was then trussed and left to calm down before being brought in manually on the back of the same Landcruiser the next day. The operation of getting an angry bull onto the tray of a Landcruiser is a tricky and dangerous one. I’ve done it once, its not something I would care to do again.

It is the best part of a day’s work to get cattle into the yards and with temperatures that are up around the 40 degree mark, we would generally call it quits for the day at this point. We would leave the cattle to calm down ready for the work that was to come and the helicopters and pilots would either return home, or stop with us for a meal and to share stories of the day and past musters.

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2 comments on “Strangers in a Strange Place – Part 1

  1. Great read, looking forwatd to more of the adventure.

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