There I was in Rundle Street Mall, Adelaide, at Mrs. Mac’s guesthouse. I’d been there for a year, wasting and drinking, when I saw a job ad in the Adelaide Courier. “Wanted: Jackeroo, Balcanoona Station, Northern Flinders ranges.”
With a Diploma in Agricultural Science, I could have done better, but needs must. Well, I got the job, and there I was, anew – a jackeroo in remote South Australia, 300 miles down from Adelaide. I’d never been in a more isolated place.
Like it or not, I now had a new family: Mr. Philips the manager, his wife Anna, their kids David and Julia, Annie the governess, Wick the overseer, Harold the camp cook, handyman Cliff, and his seven brothers, the stockmen.
Pay was $120 a week, with a room in the stockmen’s quarters: six foot square, tin roof, dirty concrete walls. An old wardrobe, a rusty bedstead and lumpy mattress. Five panes of glass, two cracked, a torn fly screen, one dirty lightbulb on a ten-foot ceiling, and dead flies and goanna shit everywhere.
I was the quintessential pommie jackeroo, as green as Adam’s apple.
The brutal starkness of the landscape was awesome, and its beauty only grew over time. In the sweet-smelling salt bush, the rugged range trails, the searing heat, there was only one road: graded dirt, it ran 50 miles north to Arkaroola station, where it ended.
Cliff and his brothers taught me the essentials of working on a sheep station, all 1500 square miles of it. I watched and practiced how they went about their jobs, and by leaps through rings of pain, physical toughening, and often humiliation as the butt of jokes, I gradually learnt to be self-sufficient and competent.
Never in a million years did I expect to become skilled in throwing a 500kg bullock, branding, castrating and dehorning it with my team. I learnt to throw a freshly shorn sheep’s wool on the tables, crutch sheep, de-tail lambs, castrate and ear tag. I could kill, skin, and chop the weekly ration wether; maintain windmills and water troughs, do basic fixes to generators, water pumps and cisterns.
I never thought I’d learn to shoot rabbits, goats and roos, or tan roo skins to trade with RM Williams for a knife or a hat.
I had been riding since I was a boy, and was confident in the saddle, had ridden at hunt and played polo, but that was in sedate Kent, in southeast England.
I never thought I’d learn to muster and drove on horseback in the high ranges and the flat plains down to Lake Frome. The boys showed me how to saddle up, tighten the girth, adjust the stirrups and bridle. How to shoe a horse, to bring the herd in from the night paddock to the yards.
I learned how to get on with the tough men on camp, growing a thicker skin; to light a camp fire with a few twigs of blue bush, boil a billy and throw in a gum leaf.
Life did get easier. I began to smile and laugh at the stockmen’s jokes, to join in as they made fun of each other in a friendly way.
And I never expected to be out there and not drink – but I did it, the first time completely sober in 10 years. I felt well: body, mind and soul.
Only once did I witness something ugly. It was a Sunday morning, a bright blue sky and already a sun shimmering in fierce heat over Lake Frome. Around dawn I heard a commotion and stepped out onto the verandah.
Harold, a big man, was incredibly drunk. He was staggering across the yard, slamming a piece of four-by onto Cliff’s shoulders. Cliff whimpered and stumbled, bent over, walking crablike in his cowboy boots, spurs jangling.
“Get outta here, ya mongrel” Harold screamed. In due course Mr. Phillips, an even bigger man, subdued Harold, then frog-marched both men to the gate. “Get on to the mission, come back when yer sober,” he said. They slunk off to the Catholic mission for the homeless.
Round the dinner table that night we heard about the drama. Harold had drunk his stockpiled quota of beer, 14 cans (that’s two cans a day), then proceeded to drink the metho used to start the generator. He was in the shed when Cliff burst in, howling that Harold had stolen his beer ration. Nobody ever found out if Harold did take Cliff’s beer.
We all had a laugh over it at dinner. Just as well it was a quiet time in the station’s cycle, because we didn’t see Harold or Cliff for a week.
As I put my head down that night I pondered on how booze can destroy a man’s life. It made me feel grateful for my sober year as a jackaroo.
Not long after the Harold incident I got a new job in Papua New Guinea. As I left for the Leigh Creek airport, I thought about how lucky I’d been to live and work in outback Australia.
I waved Mr. Philips goodbye as I boarded the plane for my next destination.