The El Questro experience – Part 2

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

Catch up on part one here.

Working in the cattle yards was unlike anything I have ever experienced before; the noise, the high demand, the sun, the danger, and the absolute excitement and terror I was experiencing was amazing. These guys face death every day and brush it off with the dust. Hawkeye, a 6ft 4″ cowboy, who can pull a one-tonne bull down with his bare hands and tie his hind legs together with his belt, was our boss, and it made sense that he was in charge.

Our day’s started with a brief on the plan and a safety reminder, which was basically a reinforcement that we were never safe, even behind the steel bars of the stockyard. I loved it. It is safe to say that Kimberley cattle are a very different temperament to Scottish cows and the ringers our here are just as wild. My job was very simple, I thought, to count the mickeys and heifers and to replace the ear tags as they were used.

It turns out that the boys worked very fast, I spent most of my time watching my back for the parading, agitated mickeys – young bulls in our pen, however I don’t think I missed too many (none if the boss asked). The day flew by, pushing all my comfort barriers to the maximum and driving me to learn more about this lifestyle.

Things I learnt about cattle . . . they are unpredictable, huge, and scared which makes them angry and sometimes bad-tempered. After a successful first day in the yards dehorning, counting, branding, and tagging, it was time for a debrief.

I tried my hand at branding, tagging, dehorning, and castrating weaners; castrating a mickey with blade, while putting my trust in a cheerful cowboy to hold him down was definitely not something I would have experienced in Scotland.

I stayed clear of the big scrub bulls and watched the testosterone bubble from a distance when they foamed at the mouth with fury as their huge horns were sawn off. One of the lads, Navarone, even managed to convince me to try toasted testicles delicately cooked on the branding stove – I think my bravery levels were at their optimum that day. After two more weeks of mustering in different directions we had enough beef cattle to fill a huge truck, as I watched the beasts being loaded I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that mustering was over.

One week later, cattle prices went up, and to my delight, off to another part of the station we went to muster again. This time with a smaller team, myself being the camp cook and four of the boys. We headed out towards Wyndham and across the salt flats, around three hours from the farm at Kununurra.

4.2 Yard at cockburns copyThe yard at the Cockburn Ranges.

I was once again mesmerised by the landscape – it was like a scene from my romantic Australian dream. The salt flats were a dry white cracked mud, so vast it created a mirage; they lead to the Cockburn ranges, incredibly tall, rising to 600m and made from beautiful auburn sandstone. When we did reach the camp, I have to say, I was initially unimpressed, we were situated on the edge of a salt water crocodile filled dam in a muddy valley. The boys assured me there was no large crocodiles that they had seen – which was not very reassuring. After the shock, I settled in and the camp became like home again, a lot less luxury than the last kitchen and a lot more traditional gigantic Aussie flies, however it got the job done and the boys arranged plenty of shade for us.

For the first week I helped during the day with fencing, welding, checking dams et cetera, making packed lunches to take and preparing dinner when we got home, if we were at the yards I would bring the motorbike home early and make time for a quick shower. We were joined later in the week by some more helpers to start tailing the cattle in preparation for the drove.

This time the mustering had a whole new level of interest for me as there was horses involved, I was promised by Hawkeye that I could ride along the salt flats with hundreds of cattle just like Nicole Kidman in the movie. He did not seem to be as excited as I was but did a good job to indulge my enthusiasm. The plan was to drove 1,500 head of cattle across the salt flats alongside the Cockburn ranges and into a paddock 50km away, it should take eight hours and there was to be five horses and a quad bike working together.

Tailing is like training for the cattle in order to prepare them for the drove. I was terrified – I love horses and riding but am an inexperienced rider, so when Hawkeye handed me the saddle and bridle and said “You’re on Bambi, she’ll be right”, I thought “here we go!” Bambi had never worked with cattle before either, or motorbikes, or hessian or anything really! She had just been broken, so we were in it together, a few jumpy situations passed and I think we got the general idea.

Hawkeye was shouting orders from his horse and I soon realised if you don’t yell the cattle or anyone else will probably not listen. We walked them out of the yards and around a paddock for hours until they started to get the idea. I had a few exciting chases where Bambi and I attempted a race with a large steer, who lost and we turned him back in to the mob.

4.5 Hawkeye in the yards copyHawkeye in the yards.

After a few days tailing it was time for the drove. I swapped my white helmet for my Akubra and set off with the others around 5am. We drove the cattle for hours, the scenery was outstanding, and I am proud to say I have witnessed some of the best views in Australia. I took turns being on the wing of the mob and pushing the strays back in, being at the rear, and leading the mob. I enjoyed being on the wing the most as we were able to do a bit more fast work. I can still vividly remember happily trotting along and joining in with verses from ‘Wagon Wheel’ by Darius Rucker. Eight hours later we arrived. I could barely get off because my legs were so stiff, but I could not wipe the smile off my face after one of the best experiences of my life.

Some women prefer the sharp suits and high flying business men you find in the city, personally I have always thought I would warm to the tough and brave nature of an outback cowboy. I met Grayson during that first family party, when he took it upon himself to keep me chatting and introduce me to all of the family. After that night Grayson swapped his role as a ringer for a different kind of boots and hat and left the station to work on a construction project in Tamworth. There was something, I am not sure what, that encouraged us to keep in touch.

One month later I decided to collect my car from Sydney and drive back to the Kimberley, and we worked out to stay a night in Tamworth. This eventually turned into a week and I reluctantly left with a promise I would see him again soon. Three weeks later, Grayson arrived in Kununurra to help with our muster, take part in the Salerno Pastoral horse race and of course, most importantly, to visit me! I was looking forward to seeing my cowboy in action.

As romantic stories go, this one is pretty predictable; we spent hours together fencing in the baking sun and chasing wild cattle in bull buggies. My favourite time of the day was watching the sun set over the ranges as he stood behind me, his arms around me as we headed back to camp on the back of the ute. Out there on the station there are no televisions, no phones, no hot showers or hairdryers, and I didn’t miss them one bit. We had so much fun with everything I almost forgot that it was work.

When mustering season was over, we decided I would head back to Tamworth with Grayson and check out the nursing opportunities. It was not a hard decision for me, even after a short time with him it just felt right – and I haven’t regretted it yet.

Before we left there was one final event that we were looking forward to, a 30km horse race along the salt flats between the ringers with the spectacular Cockburns in the background. The race was amazing, all participants on a chosen Arab, and I was extremely nervous having never been in a race before. I used all my concentration to stay aboard, coming in second last. Grayson, on the other hand, accomplished a win, taking the lead long before the finish line, almost making up for our aching muscles on the long drive home.

To conclude, I would say that my whole experience of this country has been a positive one, so exciting yet terrifying at the same time. I am extremely grateful to everyone at El Questro station for sharing with me the valuable life skills and way of living. The passion for working on the station is entwined in their blood, and now it has seeped into mine – I can’t wait to join the mustering team next season!

4.6 Grayson & I in the paddock copyGrayson and I in the paddock in our Ringers Western shirts – he’s a bit cheeky!