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.
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