The El Questro experience – Part 1

Host: El Questro Station
Written by Kirsty Carmichael – Stationhand, El Questro Station.

4.1 Kirsty & Grayson on Cockburn Range copyKirsty & Grayson on Cockburn Range.

My name is Kirsty Carmichael, I am 25 years old, and originally from a small village near Lockerbie in Scotland.

Leaving home and travelling is something I have wanted to achieve for a long time. It has always been one of my ‘Australian dreams’ to go mustering on horseback and work on a cattle station. I had this romantic idea of spending all day in the saddle, chasing cattle, and watching the sun set in the Australian outback.

I set out to find a place where I could become a ‘Jillaroo’ and see how close I could come to my dream. I was slightly apprehensive about placing myself in a remote, over million acres of station full of potentially tough and rowdy cowboys. However, I came across El Questro station in Kununurra and I got in touch with the Salerno Pastoral Company to see if I was able to spend time with them during their mustering season. Before I knew it I was heading into the middle of nowhere.

I arrived at El Questro on the 1st of June and was introduced to the Salerno family where I had my first experience of their family life. I was invited along to a group birthday celebration (three or four), including an Aboriginal man who was taking part in one of the indigenous horsemanship programs. The party was held at one of the mustering camps about two hours from the town.

I was instantly impressed by the scenery, we were directly under the Cockburn ranges in a paddock with a large billabong, there were huge old boab trees and the sensation of tranquillity was impressive. It was my first time on the station and I remember feeling incredibly charmed watching the sun set on the ranges and changing its colour to a deep red, providing a magnificent backdrop for our party.

The large family made me feel instantly welcome, even amongst the commotion it was easy for me to distinguish that they were all extremely happy and powerful people, my next biggest challenge would be to remember everyone’s name. The team were running a program for indigenous men, teaching them horsemanship, cattle skills, and life skills such as dealing with money and people. Over the next week or two my time was spent helping at the station household, assisting with cooking for the boys who were running the indigenous program and getting to know everyone.

4.3 Hawkeye leading a mob across the saltwater flats copyHawkeye following a mob across the saltwater flats.

My first real cattle station experience was about one week into my stay, when one of the men, James, a.k.a. ‘Hawkeye’, said I could join him to do a ‘killer’. I quickly learnt that a ‘killer’ is where we go out and get a cattle from the station to kill and butcher it out in the paddock.

My first concern was that I was a little overdressed in my Akubra and boots when I saw Hawkeye wearing thongs and shorts, however we drove off in search of a good killer. When we spotted the cattle we wanted as the killer, Hawkeye jumped out of the ute and walked into the bushes with his rifle. With his thongs left behind, I heard a bang, he returned and we went off to pick it up.

Firstly you have to bleed the animal so it doesn’t spoil the meat, and this made a brilliant mess for some great warrior photos where I could pose with a huge knife, bullets, and a gun. I soon discovered a knack for skinning cattle, and found it very satisfying to separate the fat from the hide. Hawkeye would expertly cut off the fillets and explain to me the different cuts of meat. Dealing with a killer made me appreciate where our meat actually comes from – it was very clean, even on the ground, and I was impressed with the amount of meat that comes from one animal. It was a lot less bloody and smelly than I expected, that was until I accidently popped the guts! Thank God it was time to leave.

I was enjoying life on the station, doing odd jobs, and joining in with everyone’s busy lifestyle. Even emptying truckloads of melons for the horses and poddy calves in the 30-degree heat didn’t put me off – the local melon and pumpkin farms have to throw away tons of product everyday because it has either a blemish or an irregular shape and the supermarkets won’t buy it. Showering felt pretty good after squelching around in the sticky mess for a couple of hours and I think the animals appreciated a change from the dry grass.

Come mustering time, a team of about eight of us packed up and set off to the first camp on El Questro station, it was the same one where the party took place on the very first day I met everyone. When we arrived, I set up my mozzie dome and swag under a big old boab tree, and then it was time to check out the yards and make sure they were set for the influx of cattle.

While the boys got stuck into the welding, Kerrian and I set up the kitchen and cooked up some dinner. This camp kitchen, I would later find out, was luxury; we had a trailer with running water from the billabong and a stove as well as gas rings. Kerrian was the camp cook on this muster and she was a seasoned professional; she taught me tricks on how to use up leftovers and the best place to hide treats from the boys.

4.4 drunk cowboy copy

After enjoying a drink around the fire, we all hit our swags around 7.30, which felt more like 11 pm, and I couldn’t help already feeling like El Questro was the most stunning scenic cattle station in Australia; the vastness of the land and the colours of the ranges were like the background for a wild west movie set. I would later find out that it was in fact used as a setting for the movie ‘Australia’ starring Nicole Kidman, a story to tell my grandchildren one day.

The next day we rose at 4.30am and sat around the campfire with steaming bowls of porridge – surprisingly I didn’t mind getting up so early, probably because of the excitement. Day one of mustering involved following the two choppers with tanks of fuel on the back of the ute, it was slightly less dramatic than I had imagined – there was no stampeding wild cattle yet, however none the less I was enchanted by the surroundings and enjoying spending my time with and hearing the stories of the station workers.

The same thing happened over the next two days as the choppers worked with the motorbikes to bring the cattle closer to the yards. One of the most exciting things I have ever done is go for a ride in the chopper – the pilot picked me up with only half a tank of fuel so the extra weight would be more manageable and we took off into the sky held in by tiny seatbelts, it was amazing.

I felt as if I could just fall out at any moment as the pilot swooped and dipped amongst the trees and bumped some stubborn scrub bulls at the rear, it was definitely a highlight. We flew alongside the Cockburn ranges and as the pilot pointed out where the cattle hide and where we were aiming to push them towards. I witnessed amazing teamwork between the choppers and boys on the ground.

It was my first experience in a chopper and it will probably be the most dramatic I will ever have. Standing back after a few days and watching the stampede of Brahman and Shorthorn was a magical sight, the trail of dust as far back as you could see. We got around 3,000 head into the yards in that first muster. We left them, and the dust, to settle in overnight and rehydrate after hours in the hot Kimberley sun. Kerrian had prepared another brilliant dinner followed by guitars, singing, and a few ciders around the fire – at this point I was well and truly feeling a sense of home in the Outback.