A change for the better

This entry was one of the finalists in our 2015 Birthday Competition and was written by Grace Hambling.

During 2009 to early 2010 my life had been spiralling out of control with the constant parties, drinking, and even a lift home in the back of a police car. I really needed a change, and fast.

About six months earlier I had put an application in to work for a company in the Northern Territory as a jillaroo on a cattle station, and I had been accepted but until this point I had no intention of going. I went home one Sunday after a particularly big night and informed my parents I was going north. They were shocked but realising how much I wanted to do this they said OK. Two weeks later in early March I was on a plane to Darwin. I looked down at the vast land beneath me and my heart skipped a beat, I was going into something I had no idea about except what I had read in books, and I knew no one.

Upon arriving in Darwin I felt like I was walking through glue, it was so humid and within five minutes I was sweating, I really hoped where I was going wouldn’t be like this! That first night I stayed in Melaleuca backpackers. I ordered in because I was too afraid to leave my room, I had grown up in a reasonable sized town only 45 minutes from Sydney but I’d never liked the city and was never able to find my way around it. I laughed out loud when I saw what was on the local pizza take away menu! There was crocodile and buffalo – this was unlike anything I had ever seen!

At 6am the next morning I was on a bus to Katherine where I was to spend the next 12 days at Charles Darwin University Campus to learn all the skills I would need on the station. I didn’t realize I was a day late and all the other first years that would be working for the same company as me were already there. I was sweating profusely, dragging my two enormous bags and a swag down the driveway so by the time I got to reception, I was red in the face and ready to drop. The heat wasn’t quite as intense as Darwin, and I was now three hours and 314km south but I still felt like I was melting!

The lovely lady showed me to my room and waited whilst I splashed my face with some cold water. I was wearing a black singlet (I thought it was too hot for sleeves) with my wrangler jeans and my black Bronco hat. I walked into the room and wanted to die. EVERYONE was wearing long sleeved and collared work shirts and everyone had white Akubra’s. Not only was I now the late girl that knew nobody, I clearly had no idea about the dress code. Over the next half an hour I tried to hide my head in shame and I tried really hard not to cry. Lunch was called and as much as I wanted to hide in my room I was starving. I got lucky and two really nice girls introduced themselves to me, Sarah and Lina, they were to be my saving Grace over the next 11 days.

We covered skills like tyre changing, basic mechanics, chemicals, first aid, and horse riding. The last one was a huge relief because I could ride and I thought pretty well, I had been riding since I was a little girl and had been camp drafting since I was 14. I believed this gave me quite an advantage over most people including the boys that had grown up on family properties where most of them had learnt on motorbikes. I finally felt like I could do this!

It was onto another bus and another 400km south I arrived at my station, it was the middle of the night and the sound of frogs and whatever other insects was deafening, I was shown to my room and I thanked my lucky stars I had air conditioning! I was told we had a 6am brekky so after a shower I promptly fell asleep.

Over the next few months I became firm friends with Sarah as she was on my station and in the room next door to me, and I was getting along well with the boys, I still felt like the odd one out most of the time as I was 19 and had been out of school for a year already and all the boys and other girls, apart from Sarah who was 25, were just out of school and pretty much all knew each other from their different boarding schools.

I had been shocked by the early starts, our ‘normal’ breakfast was 6am, I was used to sleeping until eight on weekdays and all day on weekends, oh and weekends didn’t exist up here. The food was ok, I mean it was 99% beef that was killed here on the station and let me tell you Brahman is nothing like the tasty Angus steaks you get in restaurants! The upside was we got cooked breakfasts pretty much everyday unless we had to get up at an obscene time like 4.30am. I loved eggs and occasionally we would get bacon instead of sausages and that would make me very happy. Our station had an on sight ‘Bar’ or better known as ‘rec room’, it sold cigarettes, chips, sports drinks, and beer; we weren’t allowed spirits on the station and on weekdays we were only allowed four beers, Friday and Saturday nights they upped it to 12.

I was physically and mentally exhausted at the end of each day, not only was I working really hard but I was learning and seeing things I never thought I would be able to cope with let alone do myself. The first time I saw them ‘de-horning’ calves (this involves cutting away the section on their heads where horns can grow from to prevent them growing them and potentially injuring other cattle or humans later in life) I wanted to cry. The poor sweet things being treated like that! Soon enough I saw some full-grown Brahman cows with enormous horns and when they were cranky you soon realized why they were much better off without them. I also got to see the damage they had done to our station manager. I learnt not only to tolerate the de-horning but I became quite good at it, girls can be a little bit more delicate and accurate at these things!

I was learning how to walk large mobs of cattle, often thousands, long distances and to communicate and work as a team. Pretty quickly the people you are working and living with become your mates, there is no room for unrest in an environment like this. The lines between your boss and workers becomes pretty blurry when your eating dinner and having beers with them every night. Never forget they are your boss though, as soon as you do something wrong you will know it!

We didn’t get our weekends but we did get breaks when there was an event on and these were the best times! We would often drive for hundreds of kilometres to a rodeo, show, cricket match, or even just a road house as there would be no restrictions on what we drank and we got to catch up with lots of other people from different stations. These were the best memories and there was no need to wear expensive shoes and feel like your feet are going to explode from the pain of wearing heels, we mostly wore boots and were free to dance the night away on a dusty dance floor with the workmates who now seem more like family. I had thought it would take longer for me to be accepted, a lot of boys were off big family stations so had been around cattle or sheep most of their lives, when first asked where I lived and how much land I lived on and I told them one acre they laughed and asked if I farmed grasshoppers! I just smiled and at the time I was riding and pointed out my superior skill on a horse, they shut up pretty quick then.

Everyone would be extremely hung over and exhausted by the time we got back to the station, no one would be looking forward to the next day of work. That was unless you were lucky enough to be sent fencing somewhere far away so you could have an extra long lunch and smoko, you would actually spend most of the day sleeping and driving around.

What seemed to get me every single day (even when you are hung over) I was up there was the absolute beauty and harshness of the territory combined. It would have been a hot as hell day and it’s still not over because you need to feed out 50 enormous round bales by hand, just taking a second to stop and look up – the moon is rising over the Barkly plain and it looks so big and close you feel like you could touch it. There were the nights it was so hot and you were sure you were going to die of blood loss because of the mosquitoes, then a storm breaks and the lightning over the plains is unlike anything you have ever seen and a light breeze cools you just a bit. Every night I camped in my swag, laying there sweating I could look up and wait to see a shooting star. It became a ritual for me, I wouldn’t allow myself to fall asleep and make a wish until I saw one it usually took no more than a few minutes. One of the biggest things was the heat, flies, and always being thirsty. I had grown up on town water and all we had was bore water, at a few campsites we had rainwater and that was like a blessing from heaven. It’s surprising how the body can adjust to such hard work, I lost weight not by eating right and working out but just purely because we worked so hard, I ate more than most of the boys a lot of the time!

I will admit there were times I could of easily packed up and gone home, I actually did pack up to leave until one of the many friends I had made stopped me. It was one of the best things he did because I ended up staying for two years.

It wasn’t all pretty sunsets, sunrises, and long rides on a horse, it’s utterly exhausting work often with little thanks at the end of the day, your horse becomes your best mate, they carry you through the hot days and keep going when you feel like you can’t any longer. My first mare I had ‘Bandito’ was a lovely little stock horse mare, she was reliable and quick and we got so close, if I rode off to pee behind a bush I’d be holding the rein in one hand and she would pee to!

I learnt to be myself and accept myself, you couldn’t cover up your imperfections whether physical or emotional, you couldn’t wear make up to work here! If there was something bothering you, you learn to talk about it. People you didn’t know from a bar of soap become your brothers and sisters, sharing all the ups and downs often fighting and then making up and having a beer (or 12) at the end of the day. The conditions you work under prepare you for life, you can do any job or work for anyone once you have succeeded up north. There is much more to a cattle station than just cattle. It changed my life, I had no direction and no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had been drinking so much I often wouldn’t show up for work and I didn’t work hard once I was there. I came away from my two years with knowledge on cattle and also myself. I have also made friends I know I will have for life even if we all live far apart and don’t see each other for years.

Station life was the best kind of life.

1Working on the Barkly.

2A little rain didn’t stop work for long.

3Cows for days, or months – actually.




4Five years later with my boyfriend who I met that first year on the station.