AT reader Andrew Abbey takes a dip into outback culture on a remote cattle station in WA.
Sometimes you happen to be in the right place at the right time. Travelling through Broome, I enquired at the School of the Air as to whether they knew of anywhere requiring a general hand.
Within an hour I had a job at Red Hill Station, 150km south of the mining town of Pannawonica. Visiting Australia on a year-out break from the UK, I was about to live and work on a cattle station during one of the most exciting times of the year: the annual muster.
There’s been a station at Red Hill since the late 1870s. In the 20 years Digby and Leanne have been there, they’ve turned it from a rundown sheep station into a successful cattle station stocking about 5000 head. At around 60km long by 30km wide, Red Hill is relatively small. Some are comparable in size to small European countries. The largest, at over 30,000km2, is the size of Belgium.
I soon adapted to the station way of life, working nine hours a day, six days a week, and paid $400 a week with food and board. My comfortable lodgings had some wonderful river views – although the Cane River was only in flood a few days each year. In the cooler winter months of July and August, cattle are mustered so that stock can be marketed. This is a major logistical exercise. Digby relied on clapped out buggies supported by a helicopter to scour the huge expanse for cattle. Mustering days started before dawn; wrapped up against the cold, we’d drive our buggies out to a rendezvous point on the station’s outer limits, were we’d sit patiently and wait for the helicopter to find some cattle and drive them in our direction.
The opening phase of a muster was a chaotic affair. Everybody raced around in buggies, there was a lot of shouting (much of it at me) but, as I discovered later, this was all perfectly normal. Communication was via two-way radio, but with the noise from the buggies and the cattle it was difficult to hear instructions. At first I had no understanding as to what was happening or where I was supposed to position myself.
Initially the cattle were extremely nervous but they quickly relaxed once grouped into a mob of around 20. When the dust had settled, we’d start the mob walking, with one buggy at the back and two at each side. My role was to push the cattle from behind, driving them on. If not controlled properly, the agitated mob could scatter in all directions. More shouting, arm waving and racing around always ensued.
We’d arrive at the yards late in the afternoon with a mob of several hundred. Once safely inside, the cattle needed to be drafted – separated into keepers and sellers – then further divided into bulls, heifers, calves and steers. Yard work is inherently dangerous. I learned to be constantly aware of the cattle behind me, often charging beasts, and quickly mastered the fastest method of scrambling up fences out of harm’s way. Once sorted, the cattle had to be loaded on to road trains for the long journey to market in Perth.
With mustering over, Digby would turn his attention to the never-ending task of repairing fences. On a typical day, I’d be dropped off alongside a fence that stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions, with water and all the tools I needed for the next few hours. The support vehicle would then disappear in a cloud of red dust over the hill to the other end of the fence line, with me following slowly behind, repairing as I went. Eventually we’d meet in the middle. With the fence the only visible sign of civilisation, and in the knowledge that there were only a handful of people for hundreds of kilometres, I realised I’d found the real Australian experience I’d been looking for.
Time off was spent walking along the River Gum-lined creek beds or exploring the foothills of the Hamersley Ranges, which bordered the property. The scenery was stunning and there was so much of it. It was like having a national park in your own backyard. When Leanne and Digby went on holiday, I even looked after the station for a week. My tasks included handfeeding the poddies (calves) that had become separated from their mothers during muster, and looking after the two station dogs.
After three months at Red Hill and with temperatures creeping up to their expected peak of 40-plus, I reluctantly decided it was time to move on. Weeks later, to my surprise, I found myself missing a place and lifestyle I previously had no understanding of, in a way I’d not thought possible.
I’d come to Australia for a year-out career break, but didn’t just want to be an ordinary tourist. I wanted to see what the real Australia had to offer. I believe I found it.