Working on an Australian Station
Whether it is the red pindan of Western Australia, the lush wetlands of the Northern Territory or the rolling grasslands of Queensland, working and living on an Australian cattle station can be a unique and enlightening experience.
Casual, seasonal work on Australian stations is often fulfilled by touring backpackers, tourists and the adventurous. Highly paid, comfortable jobs in the cities and mining sectors mean that Pastoralists often struggle to find employees using conventional methods like newspapers or job boards. As often as not some of the country’s most remote employers utilize some of the most advanced recruitment techniques in their quest to fill positions. Specialist Recruiters have sprung up all over the web, putting prospective workers in touch with needy landowners. Many positions are filled by foreign backpackers fulfilling working visa requirements so they can extend their Australian holiday.
Working conditions and expectations vary from place to place and the management of a station is as much influenced by the pedigree of the owner as the geographical location.
Pastoralists may be newcomers to the industry who have bought into the land to fulfil dreams of farming or fourth and fifth generation veterans who have never done anything else. The individuals running the operation will affect your experience of outback Australia more than any other factor. And this really is where you will find the true outback. It isn’t found in the main street of any town or by the tourist sign proclaiming ‘The Outback’. In fact if you can see a tourist you are probably miles from the real outback.
Depending on the size and location for many people getting to a station may involve turning off the bitumen and spending hours travelling dirt roads. It is possible that you won’t see another living soul until arrival at the homestead. The homestead is by and large the centre of a micro community and the lives of the people living there revolve around the workings of the station.
A large part of the attraction can be the isolation and remoteness. A million acre property is a huge place and the terrain and features can vary considerably over the span of the property. If you haven’t arrived in your own vehicle you are for all intents and purposes fully dependent on the people around you.
Looking After Yourself
You are responsible for providing your own entertainment. Shops, nightlife, pubs, cinemas pharmacies and doctors can be a four hour drive. The Royal Flying Doctor Service usually supplies a well stocked first aid kit containing emergency medications like morphine and hopefully the training to administer correctly. In a real emergency the RFDS is a crucial lifeline back to civilization and has saved the lives of countless people who have come to grief in the bush.
The Tucker (food)
Meals and mealtimes will usually be communal and depending on the season food will be dispensed by a paid cook from a central kitchen. Supplies often arrive courtesy of the ‘mail run’ contractor who may only service the station weekly - bringing milk, bread and fresh greens as well as fuel and the mail.
Beef, eggs, chicken and fresh vegetables may or may not be produced on the station depending on the infrastructure of each individual station.
At some stage the ‘opportunity’ may arise to sample kangaroo, donkey, camel, or bungarra (monitor lizards). We did some work for a station and were lucky enough to be offered on four consecutive nights; kangaroo, kangaroo, rooster and donkey. While I don’t deny that some of these things may be tasty and considered a delicacy by some and that kangaroo, culturally, is an accepted table meat I am of the opinion that there are far better things to eat in this world.
Why does kangaroo sell for 80c a kilo as dog food and fillet steak $35. I maintain if kangaroo, donkey and camel are such fantastic food why populate remote Australia with useless beef and sheep? The point is take the opportunity to sample some of the wildlife if you want to but nobody should be expected to consume it on a regular basis. Again, food and the quality will be unique to each property.
Work on stations will vary depending on your experience and what you were employed to do. Jobs may include mustering stock, windmill runs (checking windmills), cooking, cleaning, repairs and maintenance, servicing vehicles, caretaking, looking after gardens, being a nanny or a combination of all. Skills like electrical, plumbing and building can be hard to source and if it’s discovered you are particularly useful you will probably find yourself working at your trade at some stage. The conventions of the industrial relations act can become a little vague in the station environment and things like routine hours and designated tasks can easily become redundant. Again every situation is different.
Woofing is a common method of putting together willing employees and needy station owners. The concept simply involves swapping four hours of labour a day for board and lodging. Primitive but effective. Originally devised as ‘WWOOF’ (willing workers on organic farms) the theme has had to broaden its vision to accommodate demand. The chances of running a cattle station truly organically are unlikely so providing the work doesn’t involve pesticides etc. the organization seems happy to supply contacts.
Time and days can merge outback and routines and guidelines are often flimsy. Most employers expect their pound of flesh and financial reward is often unlikely to equal effort and time. The guaranteed or award wage is low and the people that choose to live and work on stations do so for lifestyle reasons or because they were born to it and want to continue a legacy.
The station experience is unique and memorable and should be undertaken at least once by anyone with a curiosity for the lifestyle and the environment. Understanding that no two places are the same and no two experiences will be identical goes a long way towards approaching the experience with an open mind.
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