Living the Pastoral Life at Auvergne Station, in the Northern Territory !
The life of a cowboy on a huge ranch has always had a certain romantic appeal. Broad-brimmed hats, wide open spaces, sunshine, and a dazzling night sky peppered to the horizon with billions of stars are probably just quixotic notions when in reality it’s probably a lot of hard work. I found out it is a lot of hard, dirty, bloody work, but it was one of my favorite experiences, and, I maintain,– it is romantic.
My stay in the east Kimberley region stretched into July when my young friend Victoria managed to arrange for me a stay at Auvergne Station in the Northern Territory. A good friend of hers is one of very few women station managers in the business, and she agreed to room and board in exchange for doing some work.
Pastoral Farming, is a form of agriculture aimed at producing livestock (beef cattle), rather than selling crops. Pastoral farmers are known as pastoralists up in this area. Stations are huge cattle properties ( thousands, and in some cases, millions of acres ) which are rich in Australian history and have traditionally been the training grounds for many young people trying out a career in agriculture. It’s a positive situation all the way around since pastoral companies need large numbers of employees with various skill levels. Many young men and women from all walks of life dreaming of escaping to a life in the bush have gone on to climb the pastoral employment ladder while others have returned to family farms with a much broader experience than they would have otherwise.
Twenty-eight- year-old Emily Andersen, the station manager at Auvergne station, is one such young person who worked her way up the through the ranks and is one of few women, and the only woman manager in the Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) which owns and operates 16 cattle stations. Emily joined CPC in 2008 as a cook, worked her way up through the ranks in four years to head stock woman of Newry Station and was eventually promoted to Station Manager at Argyle Downs. In 2016 she received a further promotion as Station Manager at the larger station, Auvergne. She and husband Henry, a helicopter pilot, live in the manager’s house on the property.
The young crew (and I do mean young) employed this year range in age from 18 to 24. Most hail from Queensland and two young men, Garrum and Taylor, are Aborigines. Stock men/women are paid a salary depending on their skill level. Room and board is $6.00 a day, a good deal! There is a recreation area for after work hours and weekends and a swimming pool. The previous station manager added this effective note to be sure the expense was approved by corporate: ” If funds for this pool are not approved, you can make the phone call to parents explaining that their son/daughter was killed by a crocodile while taking a swim in the river to cool off after a long, hot day!” It was immediately approved. (Stations on average loose one head of cattle a day to crocodiles–a million dollar loss.)
I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and met Sarah who I would be tagging along with for the week. The remainder of the crew had gone to Katherine for the weekend to a cattle show. Sarah, only 24, is wise beyond her years. She is basically Emily’s right hand woman, and if there is a job she doesn’t know how to do, she’ll figure out how to do it. This is Sarah’s second season at Auvergne, and she plans on coming back again next year.
The work day begins early at the station. Breakfast is served at 6:00 am buffet style, and each person then takes his/her dishes and washes/dries them for a quick clean up. A short meeting starts at 6:30 with Station Manager Emily to go over the day’s duties. Several of the young stock men pack lunches to have out on job and do not return until 5:00pm in the evening. Morning tea is served at 9:00, lunch at 12:00, and dinner at 6:30.
Sarah explained to me that these young people (the stock camp) muster (round up) the cattle, draft them into separate categories, process them ( castrate, dehorn, vaccinate, brand, etc) then bush them (put them back in their paddocks). In addition, they are also given two horses at the start of the season (March to early December) to care for, they do a bit of bore running ( maintain water pump stations), and they perform general upkeep around the station.
The weather can be unforgiving during the hot, dry season, and I quickly learned that sunscreen, jeans, work boots, long-sleeved shirts with collars, and wide brimmed hats are not a fashion statement but worn for a reason: a simple t-shirt is no protection in this climate.
My day also started early with Sarah. Forgetting I was almost forty years older, I figured I could keep up with her busy schedule. Monday’s work began at 6:30 feeding the poddies (orphaned calves) their formula from bottles (some hand-held), next, we were off changing beds, doing laundry, and cleaning guests’ rooms.
As you can imagine, there is a lot of fresh, organic beef eaten at the station and someone has to prepare and butcher it. I worked with Sarah next in the meat locker(her dad is a butcher–she knows meat) cutting up beef for meals at the station into steaks, stew beef, and ribs and grinding hamburger. This is a dangerous job as a large power saw is used to cut through bone (at the same time operating an on/off foot, power switch), sharp knives are wielded to filet the beef, and a huge, old-fashioned meat grinder churns out copious amounts of hamburg. Incredibly, she sometimes manages this job by herself!
During the afternoon we started installing a sprinkler system around a section of living quarters in order to provide a little welcome “green” to the scorched landscape, and then it was off to feed the crooks (chickens), hogs, and, once more the poddies before quitting at five. By Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t keep up and asked to quit at 3:00 and did so for the rest of the week!
One day after morning tea, I was asked if I wanted to go out and do some “baiting” with some of the stock men. Not to be deterred by a little dirty work, I was not prepared for the bloody scene presented. A nine-year-old bull had just been shot, and four of the crew were flaying and butchering the carcass while the others were cutting large sections of meat into smaller pieces that would be injected with a natural, toxic substance lethal to feral dogs and dingoes that attack and kill young calves. Oddly enough, it didn’t take long to grow accustomed to what is “life on the station,” and I joined in to help with the meat cutting.
Generally, the work week is Monday through Friday, but often, when required, the stock camp can work two or three weeks in a row without a day off. When a weekend off does roll around, as it did when I visited, there is cause for celebration and fun on Friday night. Instead of dinner in the kitchen, Chloe treated with an outdoor barbeque of steak, salad, potatoes au gratin and, of course, beer.
Since there were no cattle housed in nearby paddocks, Emily allowed for a special treat: fireworks later in the evening. I eventually headed to bed WAY earlier than most, and the partying continued into the wee hours. At one point I got up to go to the bathroom around 3:00am and was startled to see a brush fire out in distance. I could still hear voices coming from the rec center and figured they were aware of it. If they weren’t concerned about it, I wasn’t either and went back to bed. It was a subdued Saturday morning! When you work this hard, you have to play hard too.
In this rugged,remote, and harsh outback, life is demanding and tough. Working a season at a station like this is an exercise in what it means to be mature and requires, respect, cooperation, communication, honesty…in a word: integrity. These young people have it in spades.
I may have been old enough to be their mo…grandmother, but for eight days chronological age became irrelevant thanks to their kindness and generosity of spirit. A prized possession is the Auvergne Station work shirt that Emily and Sarah gave me. Another, an invitation to come back again anytime. Hmm… I wonder if they could use a cheerful cook next season?