Host: Nerrima Station
Written by Mick and Sally Courtney – Managers, Nerrima Station.
Welcome to the desert and Nerrima Station!
My wife Sal and I moved to Nerrima early 2012 with our two girls, Grace and Lilly and then young Jack came along just before Christmas, and previous to that we had spent two years at Liveringa Station. Once the decision had been made to move, it had to be made in the wet so we could get settled in before the season would kick off. Well working around storms and the wet in January 2012, after three days of bogged removalist trucks, graders, tractors, and a big hand from Shane Bailey at Yakka Munga, we arrived here to find cattle grazing on the 4ft high lawns at the homestead. The place was very quiet, the generator wasn’t running, there was no water to the station complex, and UHF, internet, TV all non-existent, the kitchen was flooded from a broken pipe sometime that week, but at least the phone worked, albeit inconsistently!
A few days later the caretaker ‘Pigsy’, whom was responsible for looking after Nerrima prior to us moving over, arrived back. Pigsy is a law unto himself, those of you who know him will understand where we are coming from! Pigsy and I then set about restoring some order and normality to the place. It was at this time I realised Pigsy was one of the most likeable and hardworking characters I have met. Keeping Pigsy off the yellow cans before lunch and constantly reminding him of who was the Boss was a difficult task!
At this point I realised my single only employee at that stage was one of the biggest drinkers but also one of the most reliable men I have met to date, and to keep this harmonious working relationship I decided on only two rules and the big fella took some convincing; 1 – No more than 10 cans prior to lunch. 2 – No rum before 3pm. This meant there was still room for the remaining 20 cans after lunch to keep him content. Although Pigsy was happy with this arrangement he still always maintained that he didn’t need to pace himself. The next two months were lively to say the least, it would have been an incredibly hard transition without him here. Thanks Pigsy!
Even after Pigsy left Nerrima, he continued to come over when needed and helped out with anything, from pulling bores, laying concrete slabs or as here, trying to save this poor bull that was badly bogged.
We found that the amenities and infrastructure was somewhat more basic at Nerrima, as we are reminded regularly – “Nerrima ain’t no palace, but we love it”. I’m sure the very basic infrastructure and amenities both at the homestead and the paddock motivated me the most. As strange as it sounds I clearly remember saying after having a close look around ‘what an opportunity’, much to Sally’s amazement and confusion. What I actually meant is that Nerrima is a great opportunity to put our own brand on something that is reasonably undeveloped. Sal and I then embarked on the rebranding.
In a very short time period I found myself with a growing ‘wish list’, containing everything from new yards, machinery, bores, upgrading dilapidated water infrastructure etc., with a view to bring Nerrima up to its full potential. Currently the focus is on developing new water infrastructure to utilise previously unused pasture. This has been an ongoing project since our arrival. I believe water is the most important resource on any station and has always been number one on my priority list.
For Sal and myself Nerrima has been a welcome change of pace from Liveringa and all the other previous properties we have worked at. Mainly as we have a young family, the work schedule can be a bit more flexible if I want it to be. We feel the kids have a much wider range of experience growing up in this lifestyle, although there are some harsh realities of life out here, it is a more genuine representation of real life, and we don’t think that this detriments them in any way. They are confident, outgoing children, with plenty of manners when they decide to use them, but also importantly they have developed a love and appreciation for the outdoors and animals . . . If you have to make the comparison between town living and life in the bush you can’t beat the simple freedom that kids can enjoy and the opportunities they have to become adventurous little people and use their imagination to amuse themselves in the outdoors. The kids are lucky this year attending Catholic primary school in Derby and all the social activities associated with school, but importantly spend as much time as possible back at Nerrima. This may sound abnormal, but for the kids’ sake we were quite happy to make a few sacrifices, we feel that the social interaction for the kids in town is invaluable, even if it’s only for a year or two.
I first came to the Kimberley in 2000 after leaving Ag college in Western Sydney and our family property in central-west New South Wales to work on contracting camps and in stockcamps. After spending time at Carlton Hill, Springvale, and Moola Bulla stations I met Sally while being head-stockman at Moola Bulla station in 2004. When Sally turned up to work at Moola Bulla my first impression was that I already had too much to worry about without adding a woman into the equation! I’m sure Sal thought my ego was out of proportion, and it possibly was. The comment was also made about my aspirations far outweighing my abilities. Little did I know that I would spend the next three months working hard to convince her she was wrong!
Two years and a couple of stations later we found ourselves married and living in Darwin where I was employed as an Elders agent covering the Katherine and Darwin area while Sally, went back to working in her Marketing/ Public relations area, and commenced as Marketing Manager at the Darwin Entertainment Centre. A couple more moves later with Elders, including being based in Katherine, then Broken Hill (last place we thought we would end up!) we drove across a lot of country and met some great station people throughout Cameron corner, the Stezlecki, and Birdsville tracks, even so, the desire to head back to the Kimberley only increased over time. Incidentally we accepted a job at Liveringa Station in late 2009 and made the move back to the Kimberley, where we knew we would be happiest.
I credit a lot of my understanding of running an efficient, well structured, animal welfare-focussed station to one of my earlier employers at both Springvale and Moola Bulla stations Damien and Kirsty Forshaw. Damien being a hard man, but fair, brought me from a young carefree, wanna-be ringer, with no real direction, to showing me the responsibility of running camps and junior management of breeder and sale cattle programmes, and the economic benefits/consequences of our actions as managers in the cattle industry. It was at this point I knew I wanted to achieve higher goals within the industry, and the Kimberley was the place I wanted to do it.
Having the opportunity to manage Nerrima lets me get ‘back to the basics’ with high emphasis on best practice. Being a traditionalist, coach mustering, solid horsemanship, and Low Stress Stock handling along with animal welfare are high on the agenda. Since my association with Jim Lyndsey which dates back to 2004, Low Stress Stock handling has become more than just an obligation to the company, it has become a keen interest of mine, and our staff would probably tell you it’s an obsession! I truly believe the economic benefits/consequences can be quite significant. Because we manage the station for someone else, it would be easy to cut corners in cattle management, husbandry, and welfare with no one looking over your shoulder daily. Although having a solid grounding and confidence in my abilities I do, at times find myself second guessing a lot of what I do nowadays. I feel an obligation to our company and the rest of the industry to do our part in animal welfare due to bad publicity in the live export industry in recent years. The cattle here will be a reflection upon our work ethics and practices for years to come, and it is a legacy that we and our staff are proud to be a part of.
Onto Sal . . .
A word from my wife Sal . . .
Two and half years ago, whilst living at Liveringa Station, Mick put the question to me – “The Managers job is coming up at Nerrima, would you consider going over there?”. He followed on saying, “It is over the river and bit tricky at times to access in the wet and a bit further south, however . . .” and then he proceeded on with the long list of points what Nerrima has to offer and why it would be good for us to make the move there. I wasn’t that convinced, but continued to listen thinking simultaneously, Mick does have a good salesmen streak in him at times, can talk anything up if he wishes to . . . !
Looking for a change at the time, and I have learnt from history ‘never say never’, as things can happen, soon enough, decision had been made, and we were off to Nerrima. Once I remember saying to a friend “I will never have three kids and live on a station and or do school remotely” as I knew it would always be so hard to get out of the house and be able to keep working!” Well that was life for us last year and it wasn’t so bad, in fact it was a great experience being a part of the Kimberley School of the Air.
Now in our third year at Nerrima, the place is operating well, from bores running well and to capacity, on the cattle side of things, overall numbers and calving rates above average, and the general infrastructure is at a good standard and we have some good staff working here. Everything is where we wanted it to be and it’s a nice stage to be at where the focus now can be more on cattle breeding strategies, increasing carrying capacity, expanding new paddocks/ bores, improving water infrastructure rather than initially just trying to run an operation which was constantly interrupted with breakdown of bores, machinery have experiencing major water and power problems at the station itself . . . the first year, we were grateful to have the staff that we did, as they played a big part in making improvements to the station (We had an electrician Tom and Joe a plumber who both worked in the stock camp, they proved in being invaluable bringing their trade experience with them!).
In the dry, Nerrima is just two hours from Derby, a straight forward drive on the Camballan road and over the Fitzroy River. The Wet however, is a different story, an alternative route has to be taken via the Gee Gully Road, which is 160km of dirt driving through all paddocks as opposed to the 90km on the Camballan Road. Doesn’t sound like much, but it has it challenges getting gear in and out over the four months because your travelling time is twice as long and you run the risk of getting bogged or stuck at the Gee Gully itself if it’s up. Making our move in March in the middle of the Wet, was pretty stressful for all involved! The removalist truck arrived at Liveringa, I said to one bloke, “You’re welcome to stay the night when you get out to Nerrima”, he replied, “We will be right, we will back to Broome late tonight”. He didn’t realise it was 5.5 hours from Liveringa to Nerrima . . . one way . . . and they had to unload everything at Nerrima, then 5.5 hours back to Broome . . . “I hope you brought your toothbrush” I said half seriously . . . Three days later, the poor two fellas made it back to Broome, after getting bogged on the way in 70kms still from Nerrima and again on the way out and sleeping in the truck both nights with little food . . . I’d say we will be using a different removalist company next time when needed!
Since moving to Nerrima, it has involved having some time in town as well, so our girls can attend school in Derby. Over many years, it is has been a choice of mine to try and have the best of both worlds, the bush life and being involved in the cattle industry combined with what town offers as well. My interest in the cattle industry kicked in when I made the move to the Territory at twenty and since then, I have tried balancing a life in the bush, whilst pursuing a career in Marketing.
I spent ten years throughout the NT, I worked in a few different roles, starting as a Govie at Camfield Station, then as station hand on a large export depot/station in the Douglas Daly region between Darwin and Katherine. During the three years there, I also managed to spend some time at uni and complete a degree in Business/Marketing. Next station was 120km south east of Darwin towards Kakadu, a few years later, made it over to Canada- Alberta on a ranch for six months through a rural exchange. Awesome experience!
Back in the 1990’s/2000’s the live cattle Export industry was booming and it was an interesting time to work in the industry. Having been with the same company for four years, an opportunity arose for me to fly to East Malaysia (Sarawak) and meet up with my fella (Manager of the depot) who had gone on the boat with 200 Buffalo, that was sent over for the Malaysian Government for the first time. Slightly alarming for me as all being last minute arrangements, he actually didn’t know I was coming, only a fax had been sent to the boat that he was to meet me at small little airport, north of Sarawak!
Fortunately he got the message as I also had money for us! They were domesticated buffalo, but still wild, the idea of going over was to give them some help in handling the animals. We spent ten days with local vets looking after the Buffalo. It was an eye opener seeing how they managed looking after the Buffalo with basic yard infrastructure and also trying to transport the buffalo with little body trucks that just had portable panels/bamboo tied together, 5 head at a time, then to be jumped straight onto a barge with no panels, just pallets lined up made some kind of laneway?! It all seemed to work, but only over there!
Whilst working at the Department of Asian Relations and Trade a few years later, I did a trip to Jakarta representing the government at a Trade show. Even though I was just starting out in the department, I learned more about the government role in building relations with neighbouring Southeast Asian countries to try to develop new markets for the live cattle trade and other industries. I am fortunate to have had great experiences in the industry and meet and work with motivated, likeable characters.
It wasn’t until 2004 that I headed to the Kimberley and worked on Moola Bulla supposedly as the Camp cook but also self appointed station hand. Coming later in the season, I only worked there for four months camping out, but it was one of the memorable experiences I’ve had, worked the hardest I’ve ever had, but never forget the captivating country and rugged landscapes . . . not just about meeting you Mick!
Back to now, a lot of miles later, perhaps going through a car and tyres a bit quicker than what Mick would like, also having a bad track record of getting some unwanted scratches and dents on our vehicle . . . our way of life at Nerrima does incorporate both worlds. Having had some hairy trips over the Myroodah crossing, almost tense trips at times with just the kids via the Gee gully road slipping sideways off roads on the black soil, dodging cattle and driving through the Gee Gully River at higher levels. On a weekly basis we did this trip, three and a half hours later finally arriving in Derby on a Monday morning, after dropping the kids off to school . . . it got to the point that I almost felt like asking for a shot of rum (Café royale) rather than a latte to calm the nerves at the local café!
Since coming to Nerrima as Managers it is great to have the flexibility of running your own show, but the other side to that, you can no longer rely on someone else to fix things as on previous places we worked. We have no designated handyman, gardener, or mechanic so everyone has a diverse role here and are expected to turn their hand to most things. I soon realised that applied to me as well . . . I couldn’t go asking Mick every time something broke down as he was busy, at times, you would be here by yourself and suddenly the water stops running to the house, cold room almost dies again or the generator goes off. On many occasions I have given my diagnosis of something not working to Mick and he quickly replied, “Just look at it Sally and work it out” . . . not the answer I wanted, but so second time round, looked a bit closer and much to my surprise on a couple occasions, I did work it out! Quite satisfying!
I clearly remember, I had been on a lovely holiday back down south, got back to Nerrima in the middle of the day after four hour drive from Broome, (in October so up around 40 mark) and I had only been home quarter of an hour, and silence . . . the generator went off. Both the govie and myself spent the next three hours trying to get it going again, no-one was here . . . I was cursing dusty dry powerless Nerrima – just when you need a little air con comfort! I wanted to get in my car and leave again but thankfully got the generator going again and I soon discovered the beer fridge had remained cold and a couple rums went down very nicely! Things were looking up again! It’s the simply things you have such an appreciation for . . . i.e. power and alcohol!
Living on a station as a mum with three little ones is completely different to the days of being a care-free stationhand. Getting out of the house for more than three hours seemed like an achievement let alone getting on a horse. It is becoming easier now that the kids are getting older, my role here has incorporated doing things from home, i.e. office work/ordering anything required, food/parts, recruitment, but also fighting fires, cooking for staff, offering first aid to injured staff and trying to be of some help when vehicles, trucks, graders are bogged (knowing not to ask any questions on arrival!) It’s the simply things going mustering and or walking cattle away and seeing a mob of cows mother up with their calves is what is really rewarding . . .
Summing up, I love the fact that our three children can experience the freedom of the bush, it’s an environment that encourages them to be adventurous and curious, to learn about their surroundings and things such as life cycle of animals, how to look after them, the seasons, and just understanding where our water and food comes from! Combined with having their mates in town, breaks up the isolation of living with just adults. Having said that, we have been fortunate that living in this close environment, regardless of their age, our staff have been so good with our kids over the years and a positive influence (except you Baydo Adams!).