The useless bastard from the bush
Jason Davies is from the 'old country'.
He came down
to Oz to do a spot of teaching and decided to
try the life of the 'wild colonial boy'.
Fading sunlight filtered through the dust kicked up by a thousand impounded
Another outback winter's day was ending across miles of uninterrupted
"Move! You useless Pom," yelled Martin the boss, breaking
my daydream. But his shout was too late and the flock rushed past me
and the open gate we had been trying to guide then through for the last
"Wave your arms, move around and use your head, Pom,'' he railed
again, adding a few choice insults regarding my parentage.
Since shortly after sunrise that morning, the dozen-strong team, including
one light aircraft pilot, six riders on farm bikes and the rest in back
up trucks had been mustering sheep from the first paddock.
Under the guidance of the pilot we had shepherded the mob from waterholes,
over the dunes and through the bush at the start of shearing, the farmer's
busiest time of the year.
I had been at the station in Western Australia almost a week and, along
with five other backpackers as farmhands, would spend the next month
rounding up and taking back the 12,000 sheep spread across 350,000 acres
of outback territory.
This was my first job since returning to Australia a month before. I
flew back into Perth to enjoy more of the warmth and hospitality of
family friends I had had before leaving in April. Already the city was
comfortable and familiar, yet still full of surprises such as sitting
in a suburban park surrounded by parrots and watching kangaroos bounce
past as we ate lunch.
After a few days I set off north to explore more of W.A., jumping in
a car with other backpackers with the same aim of seeing what was on
offer and with the luxury of not having to be anywhere tomorrow.
The first stop was the Pinnacles Desert, a unique collection of spire-shaped
sandstones between knee and head height tall and scattered across the
sand between the forest and the ocean. Apparently it achieved international
fame courtesy of Billy Connolly and his naked cavorts during his world
tour of Australia.
Further north the coastal resort of Kalbarri offered inland gorge and
cliff top walks and as if that wasn't enough to strain the legs, the
sunset horse ride across the beach certainly was, but worth every moment
of pain. July, and the Aussies' idea of cold was approaching and travelling
north we were passed by numerous camper vans and four-wheel drives heading
for the season in the sun. Midway up the coast at Carnarvon we had to
look for work.
The town is just within the fringes of the fruit growing area but every
banana plantation we passed turned back potential workers, all except
for the one place that offered "lots of work - no pay".
I was put in touch with the sheep farm by the tourist office and was
eventually taken on trial. The farmer's wife drove in to pick up their
13-year-old son at the airport returning from school for the winter
holiday and warned me that the work was hard, conditions were basic
but the food was good.
The station was more than 100 miles inland along the dirt road, passing
no evidence of civilisation except for a handful of signposts for other
We six farmhands comprised three Poms, two Dutchies and the son of a
New Zealand farmer, who was the youngest by five years and the only
one who knew the back end of a sheep from the front. A cyclone had swept
across the region in March, bringing a year's rainfall in three days.
The metre-wide river at the back of the homestead had swelled to more
than a kilometre across, uprooting trees and fencing. Windmills and
farm buildings had been blown over or damaged and the farmer needed
a good return of wool to cover the $75,000 repair bill.
Before the shearing team arrived we spent the days repairing the miles
of wire fencing in preparation for when the sheep would be brought through.
During early mornings and when the sun began to set, swarms of timid
red and grey kangaroos would hop across the bush. We saw the first of
many wedge-tailed eagles swoop on a group of lurid green budgies and
snatch one for lunch.
We learned to identify tracks and tricks of certain animals, such as
not to stand still before the lizard-like goannas that run up anything
vertical and immobile, thinking it's a tree. One of the Dutchies also
experienced the maternal instincts of emus, as he was knocked off his
motorbike by one after straying too close to her nest. It was hard to
keep a straight face as he told us how he lay dazed and confused with
a ferocious emu staring down at him.
The land was flat with eucalyptus trees breaking the bush, sand and
dirt that spread to the hill ranges and property boundary 15 miles north.
Soon there seemed no point wearing a watch or asking what the day was.
The routine began at around 6am and after breakfast we climbed in the
back of the "ute" (utility truck) and were bounced off for
another day under the relentless blaze of the winter sun, drinking rainwater
for the first time in my life from the homestead tanks. We drove home
at sunset grateful that the day's work was done except for lighting
the wood fires for the water boilers.
The pace picked up once mustering began. Three of us and the three farmer's
sons rode motorbikes, taking radio instructions from the pilot while
the rest of us followed the mob in trucks to pick up the stragglers.
These included lambs as young as a day old and cancer-ridden and fly-blown
sheep, riddled with flesh eating maggots to be treated at the shearing
I remember as a child idealising the heroics of being a vet but that
was when the nearest I had been to surgery was forcing my cat to swallow
a pill. Faced with chopping off a cancerous ear and trimming a fly-blown
fleece, I knew as I retched that I was no James Herriot. Those sheep
with cancerous noses fared worse. We had to bring forward their inevitable
fate with one strong blow to the skull with a ball hammer.
No, this was not work for the sentimental, who prefer to see lambs gambolling
over spring meadows rather than them having their testicles ringed to
make them drop off and horns and tails cut.
An outside team had been hired for shearing and they worked for 12 days,
only taking a break one Sunday for W.A's Aussie Rules derby between
Fremantle and Perth-based West Coast, which was televised live. The
shearing shed became a cauldron of noise, speed and heat. Each shearer
would clip one sheep around every two minutes and complete almost 200
a day. They expertly whipped the clippers around the fleece, which was
then picked up by the roustabout and classified by the woolgrader before
being pressed into 190kg bales.
The working days were now 12 hours long and frantic. We returned home
blood-stained and sweaty often too tired to worry about the venomous
Red Back spiders that lurked under toilet seats and on one occasion,
in my pillow.
One evening we drove to Gascoyne Junction, the nearest civilisation
about ten miles away. Two roads, a dozen people, gallons of beer and
little else passed through the place. The genuine outback crowd drank
hard, wore their stomachs over their shorts and dirty feet in their
sandals. They slapped us on the back and bought us beer.
The boss had said anything less than 330 bales would be a disaster.
The total was 405. We loaded the last one on to the truck early one
Sunday morning and watched the cargo head for the mercy of the wool
auctions in Perth. The next day the three sons boarded the plane back
to their studies in Perth while the 12-year-old daughter continued her
education over the airwaves tuned in to the school of the air for a
few hours each day.
The boss was still contemplating whether to return to his urban life
as a salesman, diversify into farming more goats and cattle or even
trying to cash in on the undoubted tourist potential of his land which
would rocket once the sealed road arrived in around ten years time.
Out of the six farmhands, one Pom had argued with the boss and left
early and the Kiwi had decided to stay. The Dutchies tied a ram's skull
to the grille of their car and the other Pom and I jumped in with them
to head back to civilisation after a month with no newspapers, radio
or e-mails and only flashes of television. A couple of phone calls and
a surprise visit from a Dutch girl had kept me in touch with the world
Back in Carnarvon, predictably, we got drunk. Unpredictably, a group
of fisherman returned from a month at sea and sharing our lodgings cooked
us fresh prawns and whiting at midnight. The next day we fished off
the jetty and made plans for how we were going to spend our hard earned
It felt good to be back on the trail.
The shearing shed
straight out of a Tom Roberts painting.
The author relating
to a sheep in much the same way as the recent trade talks in Seattle treated
the Australian farmers.
Simon from New Zealand,
Nick and Hayo and Darren from the U.K all smiles after surviving another
day surrounded by swearing, swearing, shearing and sheep.