Cows Gone Wild – Working on an Aussie cattle station

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The four wheel drive disappeared into the distance. I was now alone and panicked. Soon I would be the only human for hundreds of kilometres. Although I hadn’t technically been abandoned, I had been left to run an Australian cattle station. I had no experience and no idea how I was going to cope.

I had only arrived on the property 24 hours earlier. The owners, Sarah and Shaun had foolishly believed that after a quick tour I would be capable of caring for their 2000 beef cattle, six dogs and two horses. Before they departed I had tried to communicate my concerns. I had never owned a dog or dealt with a horse and I didn’t even eat beef, let alone know how to look after the live version. For a moment Sarah looked apprehensive, but Shaun patted her on the shoulder and casually announced, ‘She’ll be right!’

I highly doubted it.

I was just a backpacker looking for some work in-between exploring the country. Although I wanted people to see past my highlighted hair and girly ways, this was a little too far in the opposite direction. However, like it or not, the station was now my responsibility for the next week. I had no choice but to get on with things.

My first job, on a list that included, rugging horses, checking reservoir pumps and baking bread, was to move a herd of cattle. Shaun had given me a demonstration the previous day and admittedly he’d made it look easy. With the farm map in hand I headed to the shed and jumped on the quad bike. At least they hadn’t expected me to ride a horse.

I managed to start the thing first time and even felt a flash of adrenaline as I headed down the track. It wasn’t every day a girl from a built up suburb of Kent got to drive such an unusual mode of transport. Nervously I bumped and weaved along the muddy trail, while some-how keeping control of the bike. Having survived the first kilometre, my anxiety began to dissolve and I started to enjoy the ride. The air had a pureness about it and I inhaled deeply. Duck’s Meadow wasn’t your usual dirt and dust station. I was surrounded by lush, green fields and hilly picturesque views that could have rivalled the Yorkshire Dales. Except the Dales don’t have clouds of exotic coloured birds or kookaburras making laugh like calls from up in the trees.

Suddenly, my mind was jerked back to the task at hand, as a kangaroo shot out from the bush. For a few magical seconds it bounded alongside me before turning into the shrubbery. I couldn’t believe my luck. What an incredible encounter and how very, very Aussie. Cattle stations, kookaburras, parrots and roos; this was fast turning into a Walt Disney film.

And then I saw them. The colour didn’t so much as drain from my face, rather it dropped straight to my feet as pure terror ebbed through me. Across the paddock were hundreds upon hundreds of cattle, all pounding, galloping, thumping and thundering towards me. Oh Fuck!

Thankfully between the mob and my current location stood the electric fence which I seriously hoped would stop them. It did. And so, at a much slower pace and with a lot more caution, I continued on. Shaun had informed me that this herd consisted of two year old stock, the cattle equivalent of teenagers. It seemed they had the attitude to match. They stood en mass, varying from black, brown or white to a muddle of all three, huffing, puffing and snorting loudly. There was a mix of males and females. The evil looking, pointy horns made it easy to distinguish between the two. I had been told the herd would be excited to see me. They were moved on a regular basis and had learnt the sound of the bike meant a fresh field of food. However, the cows which Shaun and I had mustered the previous day had been older females and a little more tranquil to say the least. They certainly hadn’t greeted us with this much vigour.

I had been instructed to park the quad a good distance from the gate in case it made the animals too nervous to come through. Nervous! These things were practically baying for blood. Moos, moans, cries and what can only be described as screams, erupted from the crowd as they stamped their feet in frustration. I ducked under a fence and stood in a triangle of space which was surrounded by three electrified gates. The first field held the new grazing ground, the second lead off across the station, while the third held the cows. The electric gates were a thin strip of tape which looked like those used to cordon off crime scenes. Thankfully the farm version had a rubber handle and a hook on each end which would allow me to disconnect it from the supply without being electrocuted. I would then pull the tape back across to the opposite fence post. First I would open the gate which lead through to the new field and then do the same for the one with the cattle behind it. The creatures would apparently wander through into their new pastures enthused by the prospect of tasty grassland. The problem was that this lot didn’t look like they were in the mood for wandering. They looked as if they were ready to stampede.

My main concern was that as soon as I unhooked the tape the herd would trample me before I had chance to reach the adjacent post. The noise and aggression was increasing by the second. I approached the gate on foot as 500 pairs of eyes watched my every move. The deadly horns upon the fiery males looked even more terrifying up close. As if sensing my fear the bull closest to me let out an almighty shriek. The pressure was on and I was too scared to keep them waiting any longer, yet too scared to move.

In the end I had no choice. Grabbing the rubber handle I fumbled before finally disconnecting the tape and hurrying across. My heart pounded in my chest, surely any second now I would be crushed. But some-how I managed to complete the crossing alive. Relieved I leaned on the post trying to catch my breath. For a split second I really thought everything was going to be alright. Then, to my horror the cattle heaved forward, ignored the open field of grass and broke straight through the third fence. NO! NO! NO! Powerless to stop them I looked on as the entire herd poured through the forbidden gate and vanished over the horizon.

This is the opening chapter of Kangaroos and Chaos. Buy my copy now

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Whales: A VERY close encounter

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‘I was eternally grateful of our position on the catamaran as I saw excursions drop sightseers on the glowing sand, only for them to leave an hour later. Mark knew some of the locals working on other boats and one young guy came over to chat. He was skippering a boat loaded with National Geographic photography students. After a day of picture taking, they had put down their cameras and were off to play cricket on the beach. We declined an invitation to join them, as I was currently unable or unwilling to remove myself from the comfy cocoon of the hammock. Who needed cricket when we could enjoy dinner overlooking the water, watching turtles pop their heads up.

Lei spotted a whale in the channel between the beach and another island. Through the binoculars we could see the top fin and a small piece of its back hovering above the water. It wasn’t moving which seemed rather unusual and twenty minutes later it was still in there. Concerned that it might be injured or beached, Mark asked if we wanted to have a closer look. I wanted to jump up and down with excitement; in fact I think I did. It was illegal to get too close to whales, but we were going to keep at the regulated distance with our motor off. Hopping into the dingy we headed out.

By the time we had crossed the channel, the whale had turned upside down leaving only the end of its tail standing upright out of the water. I joked that she should put on more of a show, but as the minutes past all was still. In awe we silently looked on. All we could hear was a gentle splashing as the wind whipped the ocean and suspense began to build. Still nothing happened. I was beginning to wonder what we would do next and whether we should give up and return, when patience finally paid off.

Breaking the surface a baby suddenly appeared alongside its mother. We presumed that she had either just given birth or had been feeding. I was delighted as the baby repeatedly jumped out of the water, landing with a splash. After ten minutes of this energetic display, side by side mother and baby began to move.

We were a little concerned to see that they were heading our way. Then the mother nosed up and turned downwards, appearing to dive and we waited with anticipation to get a view of her huge tail. Then the unexpected happened. About a hundred meters from our little dingy, the adult whale’s barnacled head emerged in a froth of waves. She was massive and as if in slow motion, she rose up out of the water, revealing more and more of her incredible bulk. The black shiny body dwarfed the precariously rocking dingy. We sat frozen, half in awe, half in fear as the huge mass of mammal, propelled herself further up and into the air, displaying her lined, white belly. The fin on her side must have been larger than our boat and it shone sleekly in the sunlight as her whole body cleared the water.

And what did I think during this magical and yet dangerous moment. Well I believe I uttered, ‘Ohhhhhhhh fuck!’ while waiting to be launched into the water.”

What happened next?

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Want to work in the outback? Live on a hippy commune?

Want to work in the  Outback? How about running a cattle station or trying life on a hippy commune?  Here’s how….

Someone just asked me about my experience of trying to find farm work while travelling in Australia. I guess it depends on how much time you have and how much money you need, but one thing is for sure, it doesn’t need to be boring.

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WWOOFing

Luckily I wasn’t desperate for cash and was therefore able to use voluntary work towards my 88 days. WWOOFing (willing workers on organic farms) was a great way to do this. There is even a book which lists farms involved in the scheme. It was a fantastic way to try new experiences while only having to work very short hours.

I spread the work over the course of my trip, working on a banana farm (along side the mentally insane – see my previous post), a cattle station (very, very Aussie and the opening scene to the book), a hippy commune (as I’m sure you can imagine there were some perks to that one) and vegetable farm (a little dull after working with animals, hippies and mad people).

By doing 2 – 3 weeks at each place it allowed me to try new ways of life without getting bored of the work, however to spread it out like this you need to have plenty of time left on your visa. It can also be hard to find placements.

 

Work Hostels

As you will read in ‘Kangaroos and Chaos’ I originally found a work hostel which charged over priced rent, with the promise of finding me work. However, after talking with other travellers I found that there was never any guarantee of getting a job. In fact, they had been sent to stand on the street at 6am every morning while farmers came to chose them! I can’t say this is true for all work hostels (I’ve heard a few positive stories too, so ask around and try to get a recommendation. The backpackers forum is good for this – Link at the bottom of the page), but it certainly put me off. Apparently it made them feel like hookers without a decent wage!

On the plus side, I stayed in a rural hostel in Victoria and got local contacts such as the hostel owners and other working backpackers, to ask around for me. After gathering some phone numbers I offered to work free trails to learn the ropes on dairy farms. Through this I eventually found a job. Having a car was a big help and already being in the area apposed to calling from the city most likely helped too.

 

Don’t Despair! 

If you had told me at the start of my trip that I would spend 3 months on farms, I would have laughed it off, but not only did I do it, but it turned in an insanely random adventure.

To reader more about my experience click here