A CITY TEACHER MET HER MATCH IN A MAN DETERMINED TO BUILD A LIFE IN THE COUNTRY.
Farmer John Blackburn and his wife Karolyn, a teaching principal, open up about their country life.
NOTHING BRINGS a couple together more than the birth of a child — especially when that child arrives in the car on the side of the road, 30 minutes from the nearest hospital. While John and Karolyn Blackburn thought they had plenty of time to get to the maternity ward in Bathurst, their second son had different ideas. “When Karolyn’s labour started the hospital said to just make her comfortable at home until things move along, but I told them I’d bring her in just in case,” John recalls. “It was 11.30 at night with fog everywhere. We got as far as Rockley and I had to pull over.” Despite little hiccups like this over the years, John, 59, and Karolyn, 47, have no laments about living in the tiny hamlet of Mount David, about 60 kilometres south of Bathurst in the NSW Central Tablelands. There’s no shop or local pub but their five-year-old kit home perched on a hill provides tranquil respite from otherwise busy lives. As teaching principal of the small primary school at nearby Black Springs, Karolyn often works 12-hour days. Meanwhile, John covers bus duty for their son, David, 13, who attends high school in Bathurst — Liam, 11, is in Year 5 at Black Springs Public School — before heading out to the paddocks where he runs dorper-cross sheep. The couple live at Braevale, an eight-hectare property with undulating hills, but have another 1011 hectares at Tuena, about an hour west of Mount David. Karolyn says she’s happy the boys have plenty of space to ride their motorbikes, catch yabbies and help dad muster and shear. “We encourage them to be out a lot. I just can’t imagine them living in Sydney like I did, where the schools are getting bigger.” The boys have inherited their father’s love of animals with australorp and Rhode Island red chickens, muscovy ducks and, more recently, ferrets joining John’s collection of working dogs. Competing in sheepdog trials has been John’s passion for many years and ultimately garnered more than just prizes and ribbons. “I’m Sydney born and bred but my parents were involved in dog trialling, too,” Karolyn explains. “Every now and then I’d go to the dog trials with them and that’s where John and I met.” The pair married 14 years ago and, while they often pass each other going in and out the door, they make it work. “I think I have adapted to rural life quite well,” Karolyn says. “I love the scenery, fresh air, space and the privacy. I’m quite a private person so it suits me — especially when you’re screaming in the middle of nowhere having a baby and there are no neighbours around to hear,” she says with a smile. >
KAROLYN We had our first date on Australia Day. It was pretty clear from the start that if we were going to be together I had to live out here because John wouldn’t move to the city. It’s just not what he was interested in. When I met John I was teaching at Mount Druitt and after we married I did a bit of casual work in the area until a job came up at Black Springs. Before coming here I hadn’t experienced a school that small before — it just doesn’t enter your mind in Sydney. Back then I was one of two teachers and had a multi-grade class so it was a real learning curve. After I had our two boys I got the teaching principal position. I’m now the full-time teacher for K–6, with a learning support officer four days a week, a senior administrative manager five days a fortnight, and one day a week two other teachers do special programs. This year we have nine students but there are new kindies starting next year so the numbers fluctuate up and down, just like any other school. Both big and small schools have their advantages. I love that our students are like a little family and the older kids really look after the younger kids. We’ve also got a pretty committed staff and P&C, plus the local community is very supportive of the school. I’ve taught both our boys and it’s a unique situation. It’s nice to have them around and be involved in that part of their life but it’s also finding that distinction between being a mother and a teacher. At home, John and I work together to balance family life and other commitments. There’s always room for improvement in finding time for each other and we’re constantly adjusting routines as things change, such as when David started going to high school in Bathurst this year. When he’s not working, John’s the kind of person who will always give a helping hand if someone’s in need. He’s president of the Bathurst Sheepdog Club — it’s not the kind of role he’d normally go looking for, but he does it to keep the local sheepdog trials running. John’s plan is to move to Tuena when we retire. There’s an old house on the property that has lots of period features but it needs to be done up. That’s probably what I’ll put my time and energy into when I finish teaching.
“I love the scenery, fresh air, space and the privacy. I’m quite a private person so it suits me.”
JOHN I grew up in Yorkshire and when I was seven we moved to Rhodesia in Africa [now Zimbabwe] for six years. My dad was a journalist and when things got a bit heated over there we went back to England. But my mother didn’t like it there; her brothers were living in Australia and said to move over, so we did. I left school in fourth form [Year 10]. I just wanted to save up and move out to the country; I like nature, the open spaces and working with animals. I worked on dairy farms at first but there wasn’t much money in that so I was a taxi driver for about three years. When I was 24, I moved to Oberon and worked in the pineboard factory for 16 years. I started out with a few sheep and some agistment with the forestry and other local properties. After buying and selling a couple of places I got the deposit together for Tuena. When I met Karolyn I was living a bachelor life in a rough tin farmhouse and had a beat-up old ute. She liked coming to the country though. I was in the car when Karolyn had Liam, but she did all the work: all I did was catch him and wrap him in a doona! It all happened in a flash. The ambulance met us at Rockley and I was just happy they were both OK. I think the country is a good place to raise a family because of the sense of freedom and the relaxed lifestyle it offers. Growing up I always had lots of animals, but dogs were my favourite. While I was working at the factory in Oberon I started competing in yard-dog trials, then moved into three-sheep trials. I’ve got 13 dogs altogether, including a couple of old pensioners who just lie around the house. They’re kelpies and collies. It’s hard to get the time to train them, but I still go to three or four trials each year and I run the local sheepdog trials at Rockley. The boys usually come out [to Tuena] on the weekends even though they don’t have to. They ride motorbikes and they know what to do with the sheep. I don’t know if they will take over the property one day when they’re older but they seem to like it there and they learn a lot — it’s a good life for them.
THIS PAGE, CLOCKWISE, FROM ABOVE As the teaching principal, Karolyn teaches all stages from Kindergarten to Year 6; David and Liam round up the sheep on motorbikes, helped by border collie Danny; John describes the landscape as “very hilly basalt”. FACING PAGE, FROM TOP On the back of the ute are Ben, his daughter Moss (a border collie–kelpie cross) and Danny; dorper sheep dot the landscape.
The view from John and Karolyn’s property in the NSW Central Tablelands.