Saturday, 15 October 2011

Australia Part 3 - The Outback

22/03/11 - 29/04/11

Our whole trip so far has been indescribably good. But still there have been lowlights and highlights. This next bit is a highlight... maybe even THE highlight.

Mid-way through our journey down the East Coast of Australia we received an email via from someone called Kylie asking if we wanted a 'real outback experience'. Well, why not? We were still on the coast and still had floods, surfing and car registration to attend to but we said we'd be there in a week or so. Thankfully by now the previously persistent rain had abated and we were generally being bathed in glorious antipodean sunshine, poking through that big gap in the ozone layer. [The HelpX Page]

To reach Kylie and her family (The Batys) we trekked another 1,000km West after leaving Byron Bay. Away from the well developed coastline and into 'Real Australia', excited by the roadsigns warning of kagaroos.

As we progressed, towns became fewer in number, smaller in size, more functional and largely deserted. But they were always clean and tidy and most shops were actually well appointed... like people actually cared for where they live - amazing! The trip took a couple of days (think Mad Max looking for Toe-Cutter... that kind of landscape) but there is nothing to really tell you about. And no kangaroos.

As we got closer we exchanged a few emails with Kylie about our arrival and it transpired that not only did the Batys live 130km from the nearest town - Bourke (pronounced Berk) - but also that 130km of road was unsealed (ie, no tarmac, just red earth / sand). There is a phrase in Australia: 'The Back o Bourke' to denote the start of the real outback... well, the Batys were in it! Mr Scared meet Mrs Excited.

We camped overnight in Bourke town, by now we'd bought a slightly larger tarpaulin as all our tents seemed to leak somewhere. Unfortunately we over estimated the size required and ended-up with one that we could easily have wrapped all our tents in. Never mind, we were dry! Popped in to Bourke to find it like a very tidy ghost-town. Amazingly found a pizza parlour (really, the only place we could find to get food from).

The following day we headed in to town and waited for Kylie in a cafe (Bourke looking much more awake now, still very quiet though). Eventually a young woman with child popped her head through the door. Our first meeting with Mrs Baty and Jack! She had a few things to take care of but took us across the road to meet the man of the house, Joe. We will confess here that we couldn't understand many of the words he said but he seemed happy to see us which was good enough for us. He was waiting to pick up one their six working dogs from the vet.

Next stop the supermarket. Supermarket shopping is normally a fairly menial task; I mention it because this is the first difference we noticed from 'normal' life. When you live 130km from town, you really do have to stock up. Trolley after trolley of food after case after case of beer. Good times.

Kylie offered to take us to her place in her Landcruiser (standard issue around these parts) but we declined as Tim wanted to do some work on the car. So with more things to do in town and knowing we might be a bit slower than her, she pointed us in the right direction to her home: Muella Station.

On the plus side, it was difficult to get lost... there being just one road. On the downside, that road - in a Holden Station Wagon - is absolutely terrible. Some brief sections would be tarmac, some solid red earth, some as sandy as a beach, the majority sandy, rocky and potholed. Not really what Clive was built for (or us). The journey took f-o-r-e-v-e-r. At times we were down to less then 10km/h, clunking rocks on the belly-pan or riding on top of the ridges created by the 4x4s and huge trucks carrying livestock which is pretty much all that travels these roads. During this we had to endure Kylie come flying past us, then some time later, Joe with a big smile on his face. They both slowed to check we were ok but were quickly long-gone. And that was the only traffic we saw.

Kylie normally does the journey in 1.5 hours... we took 4.5 hours. We were soooo glad to roll into their yard just before sunset and were greeted by the entire family. It was such a warm lovely feeling.

We were introduced to the remaining young Batys (in age order): William, Meagan and Bec (having already met the youngest, Jack). Night wasn't far off and we were exhausted, so we were guided to our new home (a caravan at the back of the house) and don't really remember much more about the first night. We gave Clive a pat on the bonnet and hit the sack.

Next morning. The first morning of HelpX is always a bit tentative, as neither side really knows what to expect (though I think the hosts are normally not expecting too much!). Breakfast time is busy with four children. Katy, of course, went running, coming back with tales of several Emu sightings and so many kangaroos. While Tim wandered around the kitchen trying not to get in the way. The house is a renovated shearers quarters, a big and airy single story with an enclosed deck around most of it.

Looking out of the kitchen window you are greeted with a view of the front paddock which is vast (everything is on a much bigger scale here which I am insufficiently gifted to describe) mainly red earth, low scrub and grass dotted with the occasional tree and the most amazingly contrasting blue skies which just seemed so much bigger than usual. On this particular morning, still fresh-faced, Tim looked out of the window and noticing something familar asked 'Do you get dingoes out here? Because I think I can see one'. I was expecting 'oh, yes - all the time'. What I actually heard was'Meagan, go get William and tell him to bring the .22!'. It wasn't a dingo, but a fox... and it wasn't even a fox for much longer.

And this is an important point. Life out here is just different. Don't get me wrong, they enjoy many of the same luxuries that 'non-outback' people enjoy but things i would take for granted - like having water - have to be coordinated and managed. Similarly, they have livestock, which has to be protected... it's the way things are around here.

The kids are home-schooled by 'Miss Bec' (to differentiate her from the Bec already here). Bec - the Governess - lives across the road and is very nice. It is her job to educate the three older children while Jack gets the run of the house and learns the way of the land from Kylie and now Tim and Katy (poor chap!). While all this is going on, Joe is in some remote part of the outback trying to get feral (wild) goats from point A to point B with the minimum of fuss (but more of that later).

Our first bit of HelpXing was digging out a fence for the pool and weeding the back garden (which is more like a small paddock but we're happy to be kept busy). The incessent flies trying to get into every orifice is not fun, but we solider on and do pretty well clearing away the dreaded weeds.

One of the great things about having a vast expanse of outdoor space is that you can pretty much drive anywhere without hitting anything. Great that is, if your a 7 year old with a penchant for driving. Meet Bec, a very entertaining seven year old going on 17. She had just been taught how to drive the small white Suzuki 4x4 and you would find her behind the wheel whenever she wasn't in the house.Having declined so many times for a lift Katy finally gave-in and it felt so very scary.

Meagan (10 years old) then took it on herslef to teach Katy how to ride a motorbike, something she'd been wanting to learn but was afraid she'd kill herself. So off she went kangarooing at first, off on Meagans 125cc, accompanied by Meagan on Williams bike, shouting encouraging words. Off they went to some part of the station they call the race track, thankfully speed-demon was on go slow and came back in one piece, with a big grin on her face. Thank you Meagan for that; something that Katy is still very happy about. Although she's not getting anywhere near Tim's Fireblade when we get home.

The following few days were filled with 'maintenance' type jobs: cooking, cleaning, weeding, Tim's futile attempt to tidy one of the sheds... But then, we were given our first true outback experiences... welcome to the world of "Mustering" (that's herding to you and me but on a big scale!). We had arrived in time for them to muster the cattle / sheep / goats on their own property and we were given the opportunity to help.

To give you some perspective, Muella Station (our home) is around 35,000 acres of land and has its own landing strip. They also have another station - Terramea which is 45,000 acres... thats a lot of land!

Mustering is a full time profession in these parts and for this, Joe had a range of people he could on depending the job. The first people we met were Johnny, Luke and Maddy (yes, a girl... and yes, i'm being sarcastic). These all rode off-road bikes. Together with the eye in the sky, Wad and his gyrocopter. All communicating by radio, Wad's job was to encourage the mobs on animals into bigger groups and coordinate the bikes to bring everything together into pens or paddocks. Its a truly amazing site to see, hear and smell.

At the start, Katy's main job was helping Kylie in the house feed all these hungry people. Listening to the conversation on the walkie talkie in the kitchen so we knew what was going on and where everyone was. Tim was helping getting the fence-panels ready for the arrival of the livestock.

Late in the afternoon, when voices on the radio were getting closer to the house Katy tought she should go out and take some photos of the thousands of animals arriving. And what a sight; like something out of the movies. Motorbikes nipping around, Miss Bec had saddled up one of her horses and was helping, Kylie had jumped in the Suzuki with Jack and was jumping in and out to stop escapees (if any break loose, it becomes mayhem). Katy felt like a bit of a spare part, until Joe shouted at her to get in the Susuki and drive it away to help move some slow sheep to the pens (they don't like heading toward such objects). What she didn't expect was opening the door to find the 'zuki full of lambs and young Jack! Extracting some from the footwell, so she could get to the pedals she did what she was told, instantly being part of this amazing experience.

With them penned or paddocked from the previous day We were up early, helping "draft" (sort out): sheep from goats, sheep to keep, sheep to go to slaughter, keeper males had their testicals ringed by Katy's fair hand, (now she's a dab hand with her knowledge from her time with Ross in NZ) still apoligising to each one (which the boys found very funny). Tim was on sheep / goat catching & lifting duty along with Johnny & Chopper, putting them in a cradle device so Katy, Meagan or Miss Bec could do the deed. Along with the de-balling, the lucky beasts also got to have the ear tagged. Some of those animals were pretty hefty and our bodies knew about it the next day. But in a good way. The various animals were then loaded into enormous trucks. We were cut,stracthed, bruised, sore and aching; all in all we had three days of full on hard work from dawn to dusk and we loved it.

The hard work is accompanied by hard play. Once the work is finished, the beer comes out of the fridge (what else but XXXX) and liberally consumed. But this is usually just a prelude to the drink of choice 'Bundy' (Bundaberg Rum) and Coke. So, the long day is followed by an equally long night. Hell, these people can drink! The effect was exaggerated too by us not really being able to afford much alcohol since we'd been travelling (Argentina excepted). Katy is a light-weight of the first order and could spend the night with a glass of wine or two, but boys being boys, Tim tried to keep up with our host (Joe has a very persuasive way of getting you to take one last one 'for the road' even though we weren't travelling anywhere). Needless to say, by the morning, Tim didn't feel too good (though I felt much better about myself when I later realised how rough Joe also felt that morning - TM).

And this is Joe's life. His is so animated when he talks about it, you can tell he loves it. And I can see the attraction; out here you are your own boss and by comparison living in town seems very restrictive. The whole family have clearly worked very hard especially through the years of drought which forced many other station owners to give-in.

When we came to Muella we knew that our three-month visa was rapidly running out, so we had only 12 days maximum we could stay, which we knew wasn't going to be long enough but we wanted to experience the out back. We felt we had only just touched on it when we realised that we would have to go in the next couple of days. Gutted. Especially as there was chance to attend a big muster on someone elses station (this is a major part of joe's business) in a place called Goorimpa (always such great names!), which would involve "sleeping in a swag" (erm, what?) which we were told would be pretty basic but quite an experience. But unfortunately we just couldn't spare the time.

So, imagine our delight when Kylie approached us one day and said that after discussing it with Joe, they would like to obtain Visa extensions for us to stay a little longer. We were made-up! Really, it was so unexpected (and obviously completely changed all our plans)... we were grinning like chesire cats.

So, we were off to Goorimpa: over the next couple of days we prepared and packed before heading off to Goorimpa, another cattle station, several hundred kilometres away from Muella. And takes quite some time to get there. We had bikes and dogs in a big truck, three Toyota land cruirers, and a trailer full of fence panels. Also in the truck were the swags, crates of XXXX beer, Bundy rum and cans of coke... oh, and some food.

We arrived and found our shearers-quarters. Kylie had warned us that for the next few days,living would be 'basic'. She wasn't wrong. Joe is a real outback man and seems to delight in roughing it. He pointed out that this was actually fairly luxurious as we had a roof.

As the name suggests shearers quarters are used infrequently by sheep shearers; people who aren't known for being particularly house proud (at least when it came to this particular house). In fairness, our room had two wire frames for holding our swags (surely the Rolls Royce of sleeping bags). Apart from this, all we'd been left with was an empty beer-can box and mouse-droppings... everywhere.

The kitchen and dining area did not fair much better; the first time we opened the oven door three mice jumped out (there was a whole in the back). I can confess now that we were mortified, but no one else seemed to mind so we just got on with it.

The bathroom (see? another luxury) had a "donkey boiler' for the showers, which is an old oil drum pumped from the rain water supply and heated by the wood fire. The running water was brown and tasted of metal.

The first night, once we had settled in ourselves and the dogs, met the other chaps: Sweary Dave and Keith. We went up to the main house to meet the owner of Goorimpa and his manager, Banjo. We had a tasty meaty BBQ, and a beer or four and then headed to bed for an early morning.

As previously mentioned, Joe loves his job; he loves the early morning and the excitment of whats to come. And so at 4am you can hear his cowboy boots stomping around the shearers quarters not really minding who he wakes up (but preferably everybody). Joe likes to do breakfast which is usually chops (yes, lamb chops... for breakfast), beans and toast and a cup of tea. And ready to go! Now, my feeling is is that if it's dark and the stars are still out, it is night time but Joe assures us that "they are morning stars and we are out of here, goats to muster". So into the landcruisers we go and follow Banjo the station manager through the flooded rivers to where we need to be, which takes about an hour and a half. We were very glad to be in the landcruiser, which thankfully had a snorkle exhaust as the river was splashing up over the bonnet quite alot. To give some idea of scale, the journey took 1.5 hours and we didn't leave the property!

We got to out first stopping point, Katy & I were in charge of making sure Wad had fuel for the Gyro and himself. We also had to get ready to help bring in the goats by means of shouting, running and prodding if needed. To be honest, for us there was a lot of waiting around, and it was hot out there. We could hear what was going on in the trucks on the radios which gave us an idea of where people were (having fun on their bikes). With great excitment we could see goats coming in from all over the place, then they skillfully got filtered into the pens that had been set up.

Some of these goats are big Billies and have never seen a human before. Their horns are huge and can do some serious damage - you don't want to be on the recieving end of of a pissed off Billy. I know this as it happened to me and they hurt...alot. So after a full day it was back along the long dusty track through the rivers (really, much more water than you might expect in the outback), back for showers and food. You do indeed earn your way here.

We were on cooking duty and feeding hungry musters is daunting especially when the kitchen is basic and the ingredients are meat, meat, and meat with potatoes and some tinned peas. Thankfully what we learnt from this experience is that musters who drink alot just need fuel, and as long as its hot and meaty we were ok.I like to think it went well, well we didn't have any complaints.

Evening time is a chance for everyone to discuss the days events which usually means ribbing whoever about there useless bike riding, letting the goats get away from them, etc etc. Good banter (they are very quick witted), alot of swearing and copious amounts of bundy and coke.

We were at Goorimpa for a week but by day three Katy's eyes had started to swell, she thought it was tiredness, but as the days went on the rest of her face began to puff up too. We are several hundred kilometres from anywhere medical so had to rely on the amazing flying doctors! Everywhere as remote as this has a flying-doctor medical box, which is filled with everything you could dream of from a plaster to a scalple. It means you can call a doctor and he can talk you through what you need to do or organise a plane if required. Thankfully no plane was needed and Katy had a very nice chat to her flying doctor. In theory, using the medical box is made straightforward by having everything always in the same order, so the doctor can quickly direct you to the right treatment. In reality, Banjo (and I suspect many others of his ilk) don't work like that. Not only were the contents in complete disarray, but also it was missing key ingredients (any usage should be notified so they can send a replacement). So, in the absence of the antihistamine that should have been there, Katy was instead told to use Phenergan. Many Australian parents will be familiar with the power of Phenergan for it is a child's medecine. So with the instruction to swig half the bottle before bed and then another hit in the morning and hope for the best. The main advice was get out of where you are, but that wasn't going to happen for another couple of days. So with Phenergan in hand after we'd eaten she said she was off to bed and that was the last we saw of her, out for the count.

Afternoons afterwork were spent consuming huge numbers of yabbies (freshwater shrimps) and - of course - drinking beer. Tim tried a few yabbies but still not a lover of crustacea.

After our final long day of Goorimpa we set off to one of Joe's other properties; a pub in a place called Wannarring. We got in late, but had a comfy clean bed and a hot clean shower. The bar maid turned out to be a young english girl called Rachel, from Leeds (you have to understand how out-of-the-way this place is to fully appreciate just how improbable this was)! Better yet,she had antihistamines, and handed a pack to puffy-face. The next monring we headed to another station, to draft some more goats then thankfully we were heading 'home'. It was a long ride but so nice to be back, but everyone was out so it was just us to sort things out, have a shower and get ready to be re-united with the rest of the Baty clan.

The family were so lovely; in some ways the children were very typical (eg, fighting over the TV... or just fighting - remember William... not in the kitchen!). But in other ways so much more advanced. During the previous decade, this part of Australia suffered major drought and many stations couldn't continue; they just couldn't feed their livestock. And so it was that whilst Joe had to work in other parts of Australia, the children had to be trained how to knock over trees with a digger / tractor to give their animals something to eat...they would have been around eight years old at the time.

William is a real boy's boy. Loves shooting things, riding motorbikes and wrestling... in that order.

Meagan is amazingly capable. Rides bikes and horses, never afraid to get stuck in but also I think likes the usual girlie stuff.

Bec seems to have had all her fear removed. There are occasionally tears, for example when she's being trampled by a rampaging flock of sheep in a small pen, but it never holds her back for long.

Jack is just adorable (and for those who know just how ambivalent we are towards children you know that this really is an amzaing compliment). Always smiling and chatty (except for the day he was left with just Katy & I!), why can't all children be like this.

Joe is a formidable character. Sturdy would be one word for him; scary another. But when the work is done and its time to relax he is just such the nicest guy.

And Kylie... She is the glue that keeps the whole place stuck together. She's juggling so many balls it unreal: the home, business paperwork, the children... and she does it all with relentless patience and a wicked sense of humour. As Katy has just pointed out to me, we laughed every single day.

Aside from a few other mustering occasions (Tim's biggest compliment came when Joe admitted he was 'half useful' when erectng panels). Time was largely spent at the home, during which time he had his first close encounter with a red-back spider. Tim became responsible for checking / refuelling waterpumps at the wells / bore holes. So every few hours would go bouncing off in a Landcruiser, tapping on the side of water tanks, switching water flows and praying that he didn't cock it up and blow a pipe.

During this time we were also joined by Anna from Oxford... you can never have too many HelpXers! She was great and it was interesting to watch as she got to grips with the place and realising thats just how we must have been too!

With the cold store looking empty, it was necessary to re-stock. Not beer this time, but meat. After the recent mustering, some sheep were retained for eating and were slaughtered by Chopper & Luke while we looked on, lending a hand where we could (I don't know many children back home who would be so unphazed by the event).

But a while later it was also time to slaughter a cow. This time, Tim wasn't really given the option as Joe handed him a freshly sharpened knife. I'll save you the gory details but I think I did a pretty good job of cow skinning. Anna joined in too for a photo opportunity. After skinning the animal it was then jointed. I never appreciated how heavy a cows leg was until i tried to lift it (extra difficult with skin removed). Yet another unique experience.

At any time of day 'neighbours' might stop by for a chat / meal / beer on the deck. All of which were in constant and hearty supply, such a great laid back atmosphere. There was a bit of a get together to watch the royal wedding so we were joined by Sue, Anna and Dave from nearby stations. They were clearly very emotional and could only stop themselves crying by taking the mickey out of it ;o)

On a weekend off, we all went away to Wanaaring for the Wild Goat Muster. I would equate it with a UK country fete, but as the name suggests a hell of a lot more goatee (I'll never forget the smell of feral goat).

William took part in motorbike competitions whilst the girls were on horses and Jack was on Fatty Jack, a thoroughly Thelwell shetland pony.

It was great to see everyone enjoying themselves. Katy and Anna got dragged into an assault course by Matilda and Aussie Anna. Called The Bushman's Challenge, Katy was blindfolded and led around the course whilst Matti had to do things like down a raw egg, then eat 2 weetabix followed by drinking a can of XXXX... that kind of thing. Katy & Maddy came in 3rd with a prize of $10.

We camped in a huge tent but i think its fair to say the Batys were more glamping in a pop-up trailer-tent type thing. Breakfasts around the campfire were great and gave Tim a chance to apologise for his snoring again.

Our departing was both sad and happy. Sad obviously because we were leaving, but happy because as we left the station we agreed to meet up in town as it was a saturday and the kids were all playing football (soccer to avoid confusion). We had to suffer the final ignominy of a Landcruiser full of Batys flying past us and pinging stones onto Clives delicate paintwork. By the time we arrived ('just'three hours later) it was like a mini reunion. We stayed for hours, then we all went off for a takeaway lunch but time was against us and we just had to go!

There are so many more things we could write about this place and our time with the Batys. Our thirst for sightings of kangaroo and emu were thoroughly quenched... they were everywhere. The sunrise and sunset was always majestic. The goat's 'special' odour. The way Joe would be up at 4:00am at home to watch the stockmarkets on Bloomberg (and he must be REALLY clever, 'cos whenever I saw him he was watching it with his eyes closed and snoring).

(our tribute to the Batys and Joes favourite saying)

1 comment:

  1. We can see why you enjoyed your HelpXing with the Baty family. We just love that Logo/Motto/saying... never a truer word. So pleased that you met such lovely people. Love, Mum&Dad M. xxxxxx