Sta­tion break

Af­ter ini­tially join­ing the crew on a re­mote Kim­ber­ley cat­tle sta­tion as a gar­dener, Jury Rubel­ing-Kain gets in­volved in the work of jacka­roos and jil­la­roos, and finds an out­back cul­ture as strong and re­silient as the Brah­man cat­tle they han­dle.

Australian Geographic - - CONTENTS - STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY JURY RUBEL­ING-KAIN

Jury Rubel­ing-Kain gets in­volved in the work of jacka­roos and jil­la­roos on a re­mote Kim­ber­ley cat­tle sta­tion for a unique in­sight into out­back life.

Fol­low­ing a maze of pad­dock fences, and keep­ing the snaking Ord River on my right, I’m head­ing back to the home­stead for the day and should reach it in an hour or so. Cob­webs f ill the air-con­di­tion­ing vents of my four-wheel-drive and a busted CB ra­dio sits idle on the dash. Then the chirp of a hand­held ra­dio bounc­ing on the seat next to me halts my move­ment.

Head stock­man Joe Ma­her’s voice breaks through the blanket of static: “Hey! Can you get back here? Mulga has had an ac­ci­dent. The bloke got knocked off his horse. We gotta keep mov­ing. He’s wait­ing for you back where you left us.”

I quickly turn the car around and re-trace my tracks.

I’D COME TO CARL­TON Hill for a cou­ple of months to take on the role of gar­dener, look­ing af­ter 4.5ha of grounds around the home­stead. That in­cluded two vegie gar­dens, the chicken coop, a pool and sev­eral f lower gar­dens. But it was the mid­dle of the dry sea­son, and my main job was to keep the lawns around the home­stead from dy­ing. When I ar­rived at the end of June, per­fect cir­cles of green grass sur­rounded sprin­kler heads, but be­yond their reach the ground was brown and torn up by ag­ile wal­la­bies.

My days were rou­tine at f irst: ris­ing with the other sta­tion hands be­fore the sun; eat­ing break­fast pre­pared by a cook; f ix­ing sprin­klers; and tend­ing the vegie gar­dens and chooks. But, as time went on, I be­came more in­volved in sta­tion work. I’d re­place age­ing road signs to help truck driv­ers get around the vast prop­erty, or join jacka­roos and jil­la­roos as they drafted cat­tle in the yards, spend­ing nights with them out at a mus­ter­ing camp. Oc­ca­sion­ally I’d help the man­agers load live­stock on a road train. On Tues­days I made the weekly run into Ku­nunurra to pick up food, the mail and any other sup­plies.

BOY’ S BEST FRIEND

Ned Alexan­der kneels in a feed­ing trough with a cat­tle-dog pup. Ned’s par­ents, Karla and An­drew, moved the fam­ily from the Queens­land coast to East Kim­ber­ley to man­age Carl­ton Hill and for Ned and their other two boys to ex­pe­ri­ence life in the ‘bush’.

Carl­ton Hill cov­ers a vast 3675sq.km of wild al­lu­vial f lats, black-soil plains and jump-up coun­try 50km north-east of Ku­nunurra. Man­aged by Con­sol­i­dated Pas­toral Com­pany (CPC) – a huge agri­food busi­ness that over­sees 55,000sq.km on 16 cat­tle sta­tions across Aus­tralia – Carl­ton Hill and its neigh­bour­ing sta­tion Ivan­hoe hold up to 50,000 Brah­man cat­tle that fat­ten on couch and buf­fel grasses. The prop­er­ties turn off about 20,000 head each year, mainly for ex­port.

Carl­ton Hill and Ivan­hoe were first leased by Kim­ber­ley pi­o­neers the Du­rack fam­ily. In­spired by ex­plorer Alexan­der For­rest’s re­ports of coun­try with an abun­dance of wa­ter and a trop­i­cal cli­mate that could be home to a ro­bust agri­cul­tural in­dus­try, the Du­racks set out from Queens­land in the 1880s with 7250 head to take up the re­mote sta­tion leases. Only half the cat­tle and not all the men sur­vived the 5000km trip. The Du­racks gave up the Carl­ton Hill lease in 1894 to fo­cus on Ivan­hoe.

Parts of Carl­ton Hill were later req­ui­si­tioned by the Western Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment for devel­op­ment of the huge Ord River Ir­ri­ga­tion Scheme. In 1963 one of the f irst steps in the scheme – the Ku­nunurra Di­ver­sion Dam – was com­pleted. The town of Ku­nunurra, ini­tially es­tab­lished as the ser­vice cen­tre dur­ing con­struc­tion, was one of the project’s by-prod­ucts. In 1972 the sec­ond stage of the ir­ri­ga­tion scheme was com­pleted, cre­at­ing the coun­try’s largest ar­tif icial reser­voir, Lake Ar­gyle. Today Ku­nunurra is the re­gion’s largest town and a cross­roads be­tween the North­ern Ter­ri­tory and the Kim­ber­ley.

CPC took on the Carl­ton Hill lease in 1992 and a cou­ple of years ago Karla and An­drew Alexan­der be­came tem­po­rary man­agers of the vast sta­tion. An­drew grew up on large prop­er­ties that his father man­aged and Karla’s par­ents owned a small hold­ing in Queens­land. But for the pre­vi­ous few years the cou­ple had been man­ag­ing a tyre shop in Biloela, cen­tral Queens­land, and in­creas­ingly wanted to give their three boys a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence life on a re­mote sta­tion. The Alexan­ders saw it as an ed­u­ca­tion – the same ed­u­ca­tion they both had grow­ing up. “You may work hard out here, but peo­ple would pay a lot of money to live they way we did,” An­drew said. “Where else would the kids get a chance to f ly over to Dusty’s Yard [on the op­po­site side of the Ord River] and help the blokes draft cat­tle, or hop in a road train to Wyn­d­ham to

load cat­tle onto a boat for ex­port…go camp­ing…or f ish the mighty Ord River?”

Two of their sons, Mac and Will, are board­ing in Queens­land and re­turn to the prop­erty on school hol­i­days. Their youngest, nine-year-old Ned, lives at Carl­ton Hill study­ing in the one­room school house through the Mount Isa School of the Air, with the as­sis­tance of his gov­erness, Ash­leigh Bie­len­berg.

IDRIVE DOWN A dirt track and the huge mob of sev­eral hun­dred Brah­man walks to­wards me and splits around the ve­hi­cle like a rum­bling brown f lood­wave. I can see Joe, with his hard-work­ing crew of stock­men and lone stock­woman, So­phie Don­ald­son, driv­ing the cat­tle to­wards the rich grass­lands. Brah­man orig­i­nated in In­dia, but are ide­ally suited to Aus­tralia’s north: they are tick-re­sis­tant, can with­stand harsh heat or wet con­di­tions, and can cover large tracts of land to search for wa­ter.

It’s 19-year-old So­phie’s sec­ond sea­son at Carl­ton Hill. She grew up work­ing with cat­tle on a small prop­erty in Croppa Creek, north­ern New South Wales. “I used to brand calves with Dad at f ive in the morn­ing, be­fore school,” she told me. “When we got home from school we’d hop straight on a horse and walk the cat­tle to the yards.”

Joe waves me on and the sur­round­ing ground seems to vi­brate and rum­ble with the pass­ing mob un­til they are gone. Fi­nally I see Jamie ‘Mulga’ Macken­zie up ahead in a stand of shady trees. He’s comforting his horse, but is un­steady on his feet, and his blood­shot eyes, with pin­prick pupils, are sug­gest­ing a con­cus­sion. Mulga doesn’t re­mem­ber much, but he gets in the truck with a smile and laughs it off. He tries to re­call what hap­pened: “I was cov­er­ing the point [usu­ally to the right or left front f lank of the mob] and three clean­skin mick­ies [young bulls] didn’t want to stay in the mob. I was con­stantly pok­ing them in for a good half-hour un­til they got sick of it and broke from the mob. All I re­mem­ber is tak­ing af­ter them, then wak­ing up on the ground next to my horse.” A low-hang­ing branch had knocked Jamie for six.

Mulga, also 19, came to the Kim­ber­ley to broaden his knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence, hav­ing grown up around cat­tle in Mor­ven, in south-western Queens­land. “The Kim­ber­ley is the best place to get a grasp of it [stock work], with the huge mobs of cat­tle

Joe waves me on and the sur­round­ing ground seems to vi­brate and rum­ble with the pass­ing mob un­til they are gone.

and the amaz­ingly vast land­scape,” he says. “Es­pe­cially in this day and age, where tech­nol­ogy has com­pletely taken over, it is good to get away from it all and fend for your­self.”

Our long drive back to the home­stead is in­ter­rupted sev­eral times as Mulga’s nau­sea gets the bet­ter of him. Karla is wait­ing to take him to see a doc­tor in Ku­nunurra. And af­ter just a few days rest Mulga is itch­ing to get back to camp.

ON MY SEC­OND LAST DAY at Carl­ton Hill, I ac­com­pany young Ned and Ash­leigh up the slopes of House Roof Hill, a moun­tain of sand­stone and stark cliffs fa­mous for be­ing the set­ting for the f ic­tional sta­tion of Far­away Downs in 2008 epic film Aus­tralia. The three of us set out in the late af­ter­noon, mak­ing it to the last band of cliffs be­low the sum­mit be­fore the sun sets. Ash­leigh builds a f ire and pre­pares din­ner for Ned and me. Ned moves his camp a few paces away from Ash­leigh’s fire to build his own small camp and brew his own cup of tea with a tin ket­tle that he proudly car­ried up the moun­tain. Ned lies be­side his small f ire and nods off as the moon rises and the stars slide across the sky.

The brim of Ned’s hat is al­most as wide as his shoul­ders, but his imag­i­na­tion and his conf idence im­press ever yone he meets, whether he’s be­hind the wheel of a truck driv­ing around the home­stead with sta­tion hands, ex­plor­ing the prop­erty with his black labrador, El­roy, or chat­ting with the stock­men at din­ner like he’s one of the blokes.

Most of Ned’s free time is spent on his prop­erty, a minia­ture cat­tle sta­tion his father and broth­ers helped him build. It has laneways and pad­docks and 10cm-tall toy cat­tle that he has branded. Road trains welded to­gether by his father nav­i­gate stretches of track with minia­ture posted signs. Live­stock get in­ven­to­ried and hauled from yard to yard – even to a port built along the banks of a f looded bil­l­abong. He knows that when he is older he will be work­ing in the cat­tle in­dus­try, and hopes to own and man­age a f leet of road trains.

As the sun breaks in the morn­ing, we reach the sum­mit and I watch Ned walk along cliff edges. Fol­low­ing the cliff con­tours to the south, my eyes drop to the val­ley f loor, where a bend in the Ord turns south to­wards Ku­nunurra while the wa­ter f lows north to Cam­bridge Gulf. To our left we can see stand­ing out in the dry land­scape the lush patch of trees and grass that mark the home­stead sev­eral kilo­me­tres away.

It’s quiet there now. The sta­tion hands rose well be­fore the sun, and have al­ready been at work for a cou­ple hours in the north of the sta­tion, where they muster cat­tle for trans­port to Wyn­d­ham. Back at the home­stead Karla and An­drew are in the of­fice han­dling pa­per­work and mak­ing phone calls, while on this moun­tain their youngest son, ex­cite­ment in his eyes, qui­etly looks out over the land. SINCE Jury vis­ited Carl­ton Hill, the Alexan­ders have moved on and the sta­tion is now man­aged by Glen Brooker and Lisa Walker.

Af­ter mov­ing the stock camp to ‘Mick’s Yard’, north of the Carl­ton Hill home­stead, Cameron Butt (at left) and Jamie ‘Mulga’ Macken­zie take a break while wait­ing for the rest of the crew. SMOKO TIME

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