Apart from working on horseback as described in Part I, I experienced true remote living on a cattle station in the Australian outback of the Northern Territory. I vividly remember my first day at work having to vaccinate about a 1000 yearlings of wild Rahmen cattle. Not that I knew much about it; I had once vaccinated a pig during a school internship with the local vet… And here I was again, 14 years wiser and holding a gun like syringe in my hands dreading to hurt any animal. I also had a drenching gun in order to spray worming liquid onto their backs. So these were to be my guns in the Australian Bush…
First of all you have to understand that cattle out there are not like friendly pet cows in the Alps with their lovely bells that walk towards you to say hello…
The Northern Territory is a wild, rough environment and cattle only see people for a few days each year when they are herded into the yards to receive vaccines, worming, ear tags or hormone implants. They are wild, scared, and at times aggressive, and can get pretty nasty charging after you. Some females show bull-fighting behaviour, no joke! I ran for my life quite a few times!
I was hired as a station hand during the yearly task of treatments. I have to say in advance: I love animals and I am terrified to hurt any of them. This is exactly why I had decided against becoming a vet: having to hurt animals in order to help them is not my thing. So, on the job my focus was on getting the cattle through and back out ASAP in order to keep stress for the animals as low as possible and sending them back out into the field quickly until next year’s procedure. Not exactly a laid back job to do when you are just a handful of people to work 1000 cattle a day. In all that rush I probably vaccinated myself every now and then hitting the needle by mistake. And for sure I heard a lot of swear words being shouted on those days…
Here is what we did: We used a metal fenced yard to guide one by one into a cattle crush, which is a stall or cage for holding cattle safely while they are attended. It looks pretty cruel and makes cattle stand still by holding them by their necks aiming to minimize the risk of injury for both animal and people treating it. Once we caught the animal in place I “used my guns” and those without a cattle brand mark I branded with a hot iron like in old cowboy films (I felt sooo sorry for them!) while Shane tagged their ear and placed a hormone implant on the older ones.
I guess living remotely has its ups and downs. To me the area around Kakadu National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth. It still feels like wild, remote nature with water buffalos, crocodiles and snakes roaming about.
On the other hand you certainly have to adapt being so far from the next town: you drink water from your own well which may not be far away from a dumping area risking seepage into groundwater – there is no recycling service picking up the bins! People have to burn their waste, plastics included. And it is a constant worry having to light fire in such a dry environment where bush fires are a serious threat.
Living near the border of Kakadu National Park also meant there was a higher risk of bush fires: following Aborigine tradition, they burn the land periodically to allow it to regenerate afterwards. The natural vegetation is perfectly adapted to it and actually flourishes thanks to this custom, not so much the cattle stations though. Bush fires travel with the wind and can jump across roads, reaching amazing speed. During my 3.5 months at the station we had at least two bush fires nearby and both times I was alone at the station not really knowing what to do.
When there’s a fire, everyone helps and I ended up accompanying our neighbour on a fire fighting water truck putting out flames along the road: at the time I was not sure if 2 people in a little water truck really could win against the elements. Luckily it died down without crossing the road and the station stayed safe. Sometimes we monitored the fire for days, tracking it by satellite view, and when it got close to the station I would drive for miles around the 20km2 area to check.
I vividly remember one night when I could see the fire glowing in the distance. It seriously could have been the sunrise: a vibrant orange horizon shining like a huge bright city in the dark except that civilization was miles away. Being alone on the station with 2000 Rahmen cattle, 15 horses and 6 dogs I dialed my neighbour’s phone several times that night. I kept asking him to check the satellite view if the fire had jumped the river yet which was also the property’s border. The sky looked bright orange and it was an unusually windy night.
“I think it’s still on the other side of the river. It’s hard to tell, the satellite view is not that exact. Keep an eye on it though” was his response – which wasn’t exactly comforting. So I decided not to worry about what can’t be changed and instead called friends in Europe trying to take my mind off it. I wondered if that’s what it’s like when you are waiting for a cyclone to hit your house; it’s unknown and out of your control, it might or might not hit you. I later met people who had lost their homes to fire which is tremendously tragic and had marked them for life – losing every personal item they had while not being able to stop it.
Pickups and quad bikes
are for sure great fun and essential on a station. I loved both, unless I hit a puncture. One time I drove about 50km to check up on my colleague Brian who camped out while cutting fire breaks after the fires near Kakadu National Park. It was hard enough to find him following all sorts of unknown-to-me graveled or sandy roads. On my way back, I hit a stone while crossing a shallow ditch. First of all there was no way to jack it up in the ditch and secondly I couldn’t figure out how to use the old car jack which later turned out broken… What a bummer! In the end I had to walk back for about a mile hoping not to meet any snakes and for Brian to tow me out.
Outback Night Life
Remember the bar scenes in Crocodile Dundee? This is exactly what it was like in our local bar, about 3km down the road. People come up with the funniest of games…
Also, on a Friday night boys like to go off to shoot kangaroos driving their pickups with huge headlights through the night. 1-2 days later they go back to shoot the wild boars or dingos who might feed off the dead kangaroos. It’s something I have seen in most rural parts of Australia, they also show it in Crocodile Dundee – I reckon it might be Australia’s unofficial national sport?
Another one could be driving over a cane toad when you see one on the road. They were introduced from South America for sugar cane farming and without natural predators they grew to be a real pest up north poisoning snakes and birds. I swear, every night hundreds of them came out and made it disgusting to walk at night. If I had to pick an Ozzy sports favourite it would definitely be squashing cane toads!
Food on stations
Working on a cattle station, clearly you eat a lot of beef. Although I was sure it came from happy animals, my work experience really changed my eating habits and I didn’t eat meat for quite some time afterwards. Here is why:
- I learned, that cattle bred for meat get ear implants which release hormones over a period of 5 months so that the animal grows bigger – they are sold by weight.
- I also saw animal transportation. Most of Northern Australian cattle are exported to Asian countries like Indonesia who consume more than they produce. Livestock is transported on vessels which take 12 hours to ship. Now, if you know about export shipping, you can imagine it can take days to load and unload cargo. One day we loaded a road train with cattle to be sold to Adelaide which took them all across Australia through desert country. The top level of the trailers did not allow for shade. Apparently cattle get unloaded every 6 hours or so to water them which is probably putting even more stress on them. The Indian truck driver seemed to know even less about cattle than me and kept waving his electric prod at them. Surely some of them wouldn’t make this 3 day trip. Nowadays food production has to be cheap and meat is cheaper in northern Australia. I don’t know why but I had always naively believed meat would rather be shipped frozen than livestock. It doesn’t seem logical to me to go through all that. How is Argentinian beef shipped to Europe?
- I later understood they must have been shipped to Food Locks, something I have never seen in Europe, at least not on the scale like in Australia and the States. A Food Lock is a vast feeding yard to systematically feed cattle to make them gain weight over a few weeks before slaughter. It must be amazingly stressful for an animal that grew up on a huge, wild station to then be locked into a crowded confined space. Growing up where food is scarce and suddenly being over fed on grain can’t do any good.
We mustn’t forget where the meat we eat comes from when we buy over the counter. It is up to every single one of us to make the difference and demand appropriate livestock farming. Start today and
- Buy meat from a butcher who sells local products and might even be able to name you the farmer.
- Eat less meat.
- Buy eggs from small suppliers at local markets: they normally know the farm from which the eggs are from; or at least choose organic free range eggs over battery farmed eggs.
If you haven’t already, you can read more about Life as a Jillaroo in Part I .