The Back-Packer

Host: Country Downs Station
Written by Mary – Governess/Au Pair, Country Downs Station.

Today I am heading into to town to do a ‘stores run’ and a general run around . . . you know, the Post Office, various local businesses to pick up parts for our broken, run-down or just plain neglected machinery/equipment, the local Landmark “one-stop-shop”, the supermarket . . . and if I am efficient enough . . . maybe a coffee in a Cafe somewhere . . . and if I’m not . . . then a take-away coffee for the trip home!!! Because we are only about an hour and a half out of town (well, during the dry season!!), I usually just do day trips into town, which in some ways, is luckier than some stations, and in other ways, not so lucky . . . we rarely stay overnight in town and catch up with friends or go out. 

The prospect of a ‘town trip’ is always exciting to some degree to anyone who lives ‘out of town’. Some depend on it, others find it a source of strength and hope (something to look forward to), many of us feel it to be a major chore, but deep down all of us need it.  ‘Going to town’ galvanises something in each of us. From the people who think “Thank heavens, I needed that break” to the people who forcefully espouse “I am never going back to town”, the town run has the potential to incite our true emotions and thoughts about what we are doing and why. For myself, I mostly enjoy going to town. It’s a much needed break (even though I usually take the kids with me!) and more importantly . . . I get to wear my nice clothes and jewellery! I literally have three or four sets of ‘town clothes’, so, for obvious reasons, I wear them when I go to town as well as my jewellery . . . which is not a lot, but all on at once does tend to make me look like a ‘posh, well-to-do, rich farmer’ that I have been accused of being (and yet is so far from the truth, I can’t even laugh about it!). It seems ironic to me that whilst I seem to have less lovely clothes than my town/city counterparts, because that is all most people see me in, that is how I am represented.

Nevertheless, I will don my finest garb and head on in to Broome for a day of racing around and trying to get at least three quarters of what is on the least of ‘things to do in town’, done. So today, you are all going to have the pleasure of meeting and reading about our courageous and plucky “Back-packer”, Mary. She more than looks after the kids for us, she teaches them, plays with them, deals with their tantrums, feeds them, and pretty much takes on the ‘mum’ role during the ten hour days that she works! Without Mary, I would, quite possibly, be a blithering mess by now. As it is, I am just a dithering mess! So with no further ado, I will let Mary tell her story and hopefully you will appreciate what she does for us as much as we do! Ciao ciao, Nikki

I am a long way from home. Originally from Scotland, I left for Australia to do a bit of travelling over a year ago. My aim was simple: to get out of my comfort zone and do and see things you don’t get back home. Which is why I ended up at Country Downs working for Kurt and Nikki.

These past few days they’ve tried to explain why anyone would want to live out here and why they would choose to stay. I on the other hand went to great lengths to actually get here. I was down south when I applied to be their governess and drove up all the way from Perth to come and work for them. The last stretch of my 2000km journey was the Cape Leveque road. It has a reputation for being the worst road in the Kimberly and it lives up to it on every trip to town. With only an automatic licence I travel the road in my little two wheel drive Camry whilst I’m learning to drive one of Kurt and Nikki’s manual four wheel drives. I chose to go live and work in the country purely because I wanted to see something different.

5.1Choking on dust on Cape Leveque road . . .

5.2. . . hoping I don’t end up like this!

Before I arrived I had absolutely no experience of cattle stations. All I knew about cows was to keep your palm flat when you feed them grass or they’ll bite your fingers! However I was excited about living in the country and experiencing the outback way of life. As I had nothing to compare it to I had only a few simple expectations:

I expected that Kurt and Nikki would not be afraid of hard work and, naturally, would put a lot of time and energy into running Country Downs by themselves. And I expected that I would be able to quickly learn and adjust their way of life.

The reality was quite different. Though I was correct in my assumptions about Kurt and Nikki I was wrong in thinking I could learn to live the way they do. Or that it would be easy. In reality, I struggled. To live in the country, you need a very specific set of skills. And put simply, I just don’t have them.

For example:

  • When asked to collect some fresh rocket and basil from the veggie garden I was stumped. Despite some very helpful diagrams from Nikki to guide me in what I was looking for I still managed to return with the leaves of a tomato plant . . . which I am reliably informed are a derivative of deadly nightshade.
  • I get my hot water in my ablution block from lighting a fire under the water tank every evening. Even with the driest of wood my fires will not stay lit without a (generous) splash of diesel.
  • When fresh mud crabs are served up, I require some serious mealtime assistance to eat my dinner.
  • I have irrational fears of getting pecked by clucky hens in the chook house.
  • And as Kurt will tell you . . . never ask me to help back up a trailer.

What’s galling about it is that I’m really quite clever! I am university educated, have been through several years of academia and am known in my family as ‘the smart one.’ Here . . . I don’t look so good. If anything my time here has caused me to radically re-evaluate my opinion of myself. What I am is book smart. I am not street-smart nor indeed country-smart. And the knowledge and skills that I lack are not the sort of things you learn overnight. Whilst Kurt and Nikki have run this show single-handed for over a decade, if left alone I would be dead within the week.

I should add at this point that despite the above I have never felt criticised or undermined by them. They realise that I’m not from this sort of world, and are supportive and tolerant of my ignorance of their lifestyle. They laugh with me not at me . . . at least when I’m around. As their only employee I knew before I came that there would just be mum dad and two kids living here. But I had to actually see it with my own eyes before I could actually believe it. With a hundred million hectares, or however big it is, surely they must have some sort of seasonal crew? Nope . . . there’s literally no one else here. So I guess at the very least I add value in that I’m someone else to talk to!

When they talk about their business I am always amazed at how much detail is involved. Apparently, it’s not just a matter of buying cows and selling them when their fat enough. There are so many factors to consider in order to make the station and their livelihood sustainable. The impression I get is that it’s impossible to survive without knowing your property inside out. Knowing what grows in it, what lives in it, and what is a threat to it. And this connection to their land shows.

They will sniff the air and ask what’s burning before I am even aware of the smell of smoke. Above all the noise of dogs and kids running around they can hear a rustling in the trees and look up to catch the Bowerbird eating their paw paws. They notice things that aren’t even on my radar. Sometimes in a quiet moment when the kids are resting I will stand in the yard, look around and try to . . . I don’t know, sense things. Which is ridiculous because I have no idea what I am supposed to be sensing. And then I get back to work before I’m caught idle and asked to do something I have no idea how to do . . . water the nightshade perhaps.

One evening before dinner Kurt’s mother, Jean, spotted something slithering behind the TV and jumped to her feet “Shit it’s a snake! . . . No . . . Wait . . . It’s a python.” And then promptly sat back down. I continued to watch the telly with one eye on the snake climbing up into the roof cavity all the while thinking: “Right. Got it. We relax on . . . ‘Python.’ What!!!!”

You would think that my main purpose for being here, taking care of the kids, would be easier. I have after all, plenty of years of experience working with children. But no, even here, I have to make significant adjustments.

For starters Nikki chooses to use reusable cloth nappies over disposals, which makes good sense if you think about it. Being 90km from town there is no rubbish collection and Rory’s . . . ahem, output . . . makes  good fertiliser for the garden. Still, it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of natural sustainability when you’re washing off poo with a hose into the bushes. Then there’s the five time daily challenge of wrestling an uncooperative toddler into a fresh nappy without sticking him with a pin.

While most kids develop motor skills and learn to climb and explore in safe plastic playgrounds with bouncy tarmac, here the boys like to play on the ride on lawn mower and will hop over the fence in the goat yard or pig pen before I’ve had a chance to open the gate. In the early days I’d watch them play and think ‘well that’s a bit dangerous!’ but after being here a while I realise there’s no point stopping them. The fact is their environment is dangerous and they need to learn what not to do. And the lessons they need to learn are particularly specific to their daily life. If you annoy the pig it will bite you. If you walk barefoot in the hot sand you will burn your feet. If you share your icy pole with the dogs you won’t get another. They are good lessons and good priorities to have, many of which I’ve also had to learn from scratch! None the less the line between keeping them safe but encouraging their independence is much thinner out here. Especially considering if something big does happen, we’re pretty far from help. Still, the best policy I’ve found is to just relax. It’s okay, if something happens we’ll  deal with it.

 5.3Bath Time rule #1: Never, ever, look behind you.

5.4A wee boy in his big red car.

5.5Family Quality Time.

Being here, I’ve also had to relax my standards for what I’d consider good, polite, and appropriate behaviour. That goes for kids and adults. If you need to pee it’s alright to pull your pants down in the garden rather than running all the way to the toilet. It’s perfectly acceptable to lie down on the flat and make a ‘dirt angel’. It’s okay to affectionately refer to your children as ‘rat-bag’, ‘vermin’ and ‘feral’. And, as William delights in telling everyone . . . sometimes him and Dad do farts.

The main advantage of having me here is that Kurt and Nikki don’t have to take the kids to work with them. Whilst they make a real effort to involve their boys and get them out and about the station, the fact remains that some jobs just aren’t child friendly. So most of my days are spent around the homestead entertaining the kids. Although I am someone different and new to play with, there’s many ways in which I feel I am a poor substitute for mum and dad. Having been born and raised here they often know more about their environment than me. William will inform me that that machine dad is driving is not a tractor but a grader. He calls me over to ‘come play with this spider’ and is surprised by my lack of enthusiasm. Unlike his parents, it took him a while to realise that I’m not from around here. And then there’s the questions:

“Can you hold this lizard’s head so it doesn’t bite me when I pet it? What kind of animal made this track? How are mum and dad going to cut off that goat’s nuts?”

There are plenty of times and situations where I am simply don’t have the answer. And shockingly nor does Google.

 5.6William in action.

I believe the best example of what life is like at Country Downs happened one lazy Sunday afternoon. A flock of cockatoos were being particularly loud and annoying around the homestead until a mysterious banging noise frightened a few of them to death. I was quickly removing them from the yard before Rory decided to make them his new playmates when William caught me flinging them over the fence. With solemn, sad eyes he asked “Will they go to heaven?” I gently told him that despite being loud, irritating pests that yes they were in a better place and gave him a beautiful embellished version of cockie heaven. He looked over the fence at the dead cockies and then angrily back at me. “You’re Lying! If they’re in cockie heaven then why are they still here?”

For a typical child in a typical urban area cockie heaven works great. It’s a rose tinted, sugar coated version of the truth. Critically it’s not marred by the reality of having to actually see a dead animal. At Country Downs, they don’t accept that shit. This is real life with real consequences. And often, bad things happen. Pet cats get bitten by snakes, machinery breaks down, rain leaves you stranded, live export suspensions cripple your business. There is no point in dumbing it down or sugar coating it. It is better to face up to your problems, acknowledge they’re bad, and then get on with making things better.

So, to wrap things up. I came here to get out my comfort zone and I succeeded. Life at Country Downs is nothing like back home. After nearly six month here I still feel out of place. There are often many days I feel I am firing on all cylinders yet still not doing my best work. But, the question is: Does that mean I don’t belong here? Would I be better off in the not so real world where meat just appears on a plate and hot water just comes out a tap? At this stage, I can’t say. But what I can say is this: If given the choice, I would do this all again.

But let me leave you with some parting advice: If you’re planning a visit to the Outback . . . beware. Even if you don’t stray further than the homestead, it’s easier than you think to feel lost in the bush.


 Success!! . . . Well . . . kind of! xxx