When a calf testicle flies over your head, it makes a swish like a cartoon bomb: a prolonged hiss followed by a splash of mud and blood exploding in every direction. When I raised my head I crossed Monkey’s amused look. He was smoking a cigarette, covered in blood up to his elbows, while working on a calf placed in front of him, legs in the air.
Of course “Monkey” is not his real name. At Strathmore Station, all the jackaroos (the cowboys) earn a nickname sooner or later. Fluffy is the chubbiest, Gangles is tall and lanky, Chris became Uncle Fester because he is Swedish pale, Alex is Alì for his Tunisian origins, Sofien is just Sully, his real name too difficult to pronounce in the mumbling Queensland dialect. Andrea became Mario, for some obscure similarity with the Italian video game hero. I’m just Ssebrinah, or Cookie, the cook.
is the largest estate
owned by a private
It’s as massive as
2,5 millions football fields
We are about twenty people here: a dozen of Australian and European jackaroos, two helicopter pilots, a mechanic, a guy for the maintenance of the station tracks plus three or four road train drivers who come and go. As you have probably guessed, I’m the only woman (excluding the dog), in a 2.5 million acres estate (the farm we worked for in Western Australia counted “only” fourteen thousand acres). Strathmore Station Queensland is the largest estate owned by a private in Queensland. Roughly, it’s as massive as 2,5 millions football fields. Most of the workers are contractors that come just for the mustering season.
If you are new to the livestock world, “to muster” means to collect as much cattle as possible in order to select which animals to sell, move, mark, castrate, vaccinate, etc. In smaller stations, mustering is still made on horseback, with the help of dogs. However, this “cowboy mode” is impracticable in vast properties such as Strathmore. Here cattle are gathered with the cross effort of quod bikes and helicopters.
The concept of moving herds with a helicopter was so absurd that I had to try. The day that Mike the pilot offered to take me with him, I took my camera, a handful of motion sickness pills, and I jumped aboard. My Nikon has sure been of great use, but unfortunately I can’t say as much for the pills. Mike’s chopper looked closer to a mechanic dragonfly than to an aircraft made for actual flying. With zero doors and seat belts that look like those of an 80’s Fiat, “stability” surely isn’t among the features that I would quote to describe it.
The first thought I had
during the vertical
take-off at 100km/h
was: well, that’s how I die
Especially when Mike started for his unpredictable chase of cows: nosedives, lateral swings, screws, sudden bangs, leaps. I think I’ve been up there for three hours before I vomited what was left of my breakfast. A positive record according to Mike. Not too bad anyway, considering that the first thought I had during the vertical take-off at 100km/h was “well, that’s how I die”. But let’s get back to the flying testicles:
So, how is it to work in cattle station as a backpacker?
Well, if you ever manage to ask my then-boyfriend, I’m sure he still has plenty of military-like stories for anyone that would listen.
The boys work non-stop from sunrise to sunset under the boiling sun of the southern hemisphere dry season. They move the animals in the midst of perennial red dust and extremely large and not human friendly cattle. Kicks and wounds happen on a daily basis and nearly-death experiences are as punctual as electricity bills. In the yards, the Australians (everyone is under 30 but has been working in the industry for 10+ years) spend the days ripping each other pants, pulling dung, eating raw bull balls on a dare (no joke) and so on. You know, all those playful pastimes that solitary men like so much. And of course the backies are always selected for the worst chores.
The back stories of the Australians that work here are all very interesting. Some, under the most unlikely goatee, tattoos, or mirrored glasses hide an open mindset and incredible travel experiences. Others have had such an absurd life that they can’t be blamed for how they act. Charlie, the head stockman is twenty-eight years old, has four children and a fake leg because of a bull chase gone wrong at the age of sixteen. Monkey is twenty-seven years old and bounces his head in rhythm every time a song passes on TV. He often sneaks into the kitchen to secretely steal the sweets. Before becoming a jackaroo, he was a crab fisherman. He dived as deep as thirty meters using just a rubber tube to suck air from the surface. Unaware of the meaning of decompression, he quitted his job when the veins of his arms began to burst. The last one broke a month ago, while he was working with cattle, hundreds of miles from the sea. The flyng doctors came to pick him up. Fun fact: in Australia sometimes they use planes instead of ambulances.
Charlie has a fake leg since he was 16
because of a bull chase gone wrong
Ricky turned seventeen two weeks ago, but he has been working here since he was fifteen. Frank is no longer working, he’s serving four months of jail for truck and road offenses. In short, they’re tough guys. You forgive them the constant sex talk and the bad habit of drowning all of my meals in barbecue sauce. They’re nice guys in their own way, as long as you don’t have to work with them fourteen hours a day of course.
So, what does a girl do in cattle station?
She works in paradise. That’s what she does. My day starts at 7am (boys’ begin as early as 4.30am), and by 9.30 I have to cook breakfast (smoko) for anyone working in the yard near the house. Once I’m done with cleaning I’m free until I have to start cooking dinner: by 3.30pm if there’s many people, 5.30 if not. In the afternoon I usually bake cakes, I lazily handle irrigation, I feed the pig and the hounds, I play with the dog, and scare the occasional cow out of the garden. I spend the rest of the time reading between lemon trees and Banksia flowers, white parrots and kangaroos that nap in the shade. They say that the lagoon is populated with crocodiles and pythons, but so far I just encountered a lazy goanna in the garden.
If it was for me I’d stay here forever, but Andrea is becoming tired of “slavery” (100 AUD per day, working dangerously from dawn to dusk). So, because we have finally completed the eighty-eight days of rural labor that the government requires to apply for a second year visa, tomorrow we will load the van and leave for the East Coast! From Cooktown’s tropical forests we will slowly move southwards, waiting for springtime to warm up the long road waiting in front of us.
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