Working in Australia’s red outback – my life as a Jillaroo

Red dust. Shimmering heat. Endless dry landscape. Silence. A chirping noise every now and then. Underneath the leather cowboy hat my hair is sticking sweaty to my head. Arms and legs are covered in dirt and scratches. I put my gloves back on, grab another roll of barb wire and keep on walking.

I’m living in the Kimberley, Australia’s north-west. Working on a cattle station as a Jillaroo – the Australian name for a cowgirl. It’s not like in the movies. Well, it probably is. Just not that romantic. We don’t ride horses and not everything goes smoothly and in the right order. No, we’re driving 4-wheel-drives, flying helicopters, getting called from one job to the other via mobile radios. From the early dawn til far after the sun sets behind the few isolated dry bushes you are running, yelling, sweating. At night you close your eyes, in a small room in the quarters, where the jillaroos and jackaroos stay. Between spiders and grey concrete. Still listening to the wild lowing of the newly mustered scrub bulls in the yard. This is my life for three months. I’ll tell you about it. If you’re tough enough, continue reading.

Cattle Station Dampier Downs Cattle Station Dampier Downs Cattle Station Dampier Downs

I arrived from Perth, where I was living a well civilized life: job, friends, my own flat close to the beach. Leaving all this behind I board the plane. “Just‘ heading up the coast, to the far north of Western Australia, but it still is a three hour flight. Pretty quickly the landscape far below changes from city and houses to brown with a few bushes, just brown, red. On the left is the constant, endless blue Indian Ocean.

Getting off the plane in Broome, into a tiny ancient appearing airport, I begin to sweat in this humid heat straight away. At that point I never thought that I will end up spending half a year up here in this remote little place, surrounded by a sea full of crocodiles, itinerant Aborigines, giant cattle stations and red desert.

My boss for the next months picks me up: cowboy hat, ripped jeans, leather boots and a face and hands that bear witness to rough work under sun. During the three hour drive over gravel roads and through the dry bush I’m excited to hear about the work, the life out there, simply whats lying ahead. Results of the conversation are: some peopele make it, some people don’t – those that don’t often don’t last longer than 3 days, changing tyres is basic knowledge (I will never forget that I didn’t know the translation of „tyre“ at that point..), we will be driving trucks and tractors, we live together with 12 cattle dogs (yay – I’ve been afraid of dogs my entire life. Until that point. Again. Heaps of things changed up there.), lots of Europeans left during their stay up there ’cause they couldn’t handle the isolation and loneliness, there is no seperation between male and female – jobs must be done by everyone, jobs must be done as you are told and they must be done straight away. And you will be yelled at. But don’t take it personally. Right. Now I’m really excited. I turn my head towards the window, still the same dry sand. No one around. The hot sun is blinding my eyes.

Cattle Station Dampier Downs

Arrival

After hours we can see a dark spot in the far shimmering heat in the wide and dry lonely landscape: the homestead. As we’re coming closer, I have to jump out of the car every few minute to open and close gates. It’s quiet out here. Really quiet. The homestead is a few selfbuilt houses: the headquarters where the boss, his wife and his father live (who came from America in his early thirties and built up the station all by himself), the workshop, the quarters for us stationhands and the boss’ sisters house. Plus a couple of minutes walk away the cages for the dogs. On the other side of the homestead is the yard, which at times can host thousands of bulls, steers and cows. All together we are seven people on a 265.000 ha property.

You can drive for hours without leaving the property, without seeing a street or a sign, without seeing anyone, without any connection to the world out there – no phone signal, nothing. That’s why I have to learn a lot during the first days: never turn off a car when you’re out there by yourself, never leave the car when you’re lost, never turn your back towards the bulls when you do a job, always carry a spare tyre with you, every kind of tool, a knife, a shovel, pliers and a 5 liter bottle of water.

Cattle Station Dampier Downs Cattle Station Dampier Downs

I have to learn the names of every single yard, paddock, watertank as well as how to get there. You‘ve got to be confident in changing tyres, driving in soft sand, and get the car out when you’re stuck. Sometimes when I was all alone out there, in the heat and the silence between dry wilderness and bulls I was thinking back one year ago, when I was sitting in my university, staring out of the window and dreaming about Australia. And here I am. Living the real outback experience.

Cattle Station Dampier Downs Cattle Station Dampier Downs Cattle Station Dampier Downs

Days off

We – the boss, his sister, an English farmgirl and me – work ten to twelve days in a row, then drive the long way through bush and desert back to Broome, to the beach, for having four days off. Well, half a day is already gone for getting there and a whole day to do the shopping for the next ten days and getting back. Distances are so different here..they do the six hour drive just like that, to bring us in and pick us up.

For the days off we check into a hostel at the beach. Quickly taking off the belt with the knife and the ripped shorts. Changing into a bikini, trying to cover the scratches and dirt you just can’t get off, under a beach dress. After a swim you just fall in a deep recovering sleep. It’s like being in a different world. Restaurants, camels at the beach, tourists taking pictures, traffic. After a while we meet the same people in the hostel for our days off – backpackers who are working on other stations or pearlboats on the sea (Broome is famous for its pearls). We understand each other. All working around this remote place in the rough outback with people marked from a life in tough conditions.

So different and far from home. I tell you more about Broome and my life in paradise. That will be the next article 🙂 Living there is like a dream made off endless sun and white sand far away frome the hustle of the world. But first we need to finish our farmwork – 3 months for the visa to stay another year. So hop in the dusty landcruiser 4wd – it’s going back to work.

Cattle Station Dampier Downs

Everyday life on a station

I’m thinking how to describe a general day on the station, but a general day simply doesn’t exist. Every single day is just so different, so individual, so full of new stuff I never imagined to experience. Yeah it’s a very special job – it’s never ever getting boring.

Usually my alarm clock rings at 5am. It’s still dark outside. I wake up sweating, feeling every muscle from the day before. I kill a few bugs crawling over my blanket. Watching a spider building a new web over my bed. The heat finally gets me up. I put my boots and the cowboy hat on ignoring the painful blisters and scratches, shuffle out of my room in the dark early morning. I open the old heavy door to the community kitchen, boiling water for an instant coffee and make myself comfortable on the frame outside, watching the sun rising. The stars, the sunrises, the sunsets out here are simply amazing. For five minutes you’re filled with peace, enjoying the beauty of the first light in complete silence and sipping your coffee. Quickly coming back to realty when the twelve cattle dogs leaving their cages, running and barking to the quarters, jumping up on me and making me nearly spill the coffee.

It’s time to get going anyway. I put my belt on, put my knife and gloves in my pocket and fill up my waterbottle. Morning routine. Together with the English jillaroo we make our way through the sand towards the workshop. „Morning“ our boss shouts over and giving us instructions for the first jobs. I jump in the next empty four wheel drive (they sit around everywhere), fill up the fuel with our own tank, drive over to the yard, start the tractor and pick up a few hay bales to feed the cattle in the yard. An easy job.

Sometimes you have these days where you just drive around. Following the grader, checking watertanks and cattle all over the property, fix gates and pick up dead animals. Where there is life, there is also death. The circle of life. Other days you cut meat and inject it with poison to prepare baits for the dingos, wild dogs which attack weak cattle. A bloody job. But still easy once you get used to cutting still warm meat from a fresh dead cow.

It’s getting hectic once we start mustering, other helicopters come around to bring all the cattle together and you drive after hordes of scrub bulls, run to shut gates while listening to other commands via the radio. Everything needs to be quick, you need to concentrate very hard not to miss anything – there is no time for questions.

After the mustering it comes to the processing. With music and every team memeber’s help we come together in the yard: branding, dehorning, treating cattle from early to late day after day. No grace from the hot sun. The days when the cattle are getting sold are hectic. We have to get up even earlier, get hundreds of bulls and cows on the cattle trucks, climbing around on top, shouting instructuions and running to shut gates when one tries to escape. In the early morning hours it’s done. You can literally feel how everyone starts to relax. Take a break, lay down in the shade, pull the cowboy hat deeper in your face.

For all the time between the mustering and processing there are heaps of general farm duties to do: I learn how to dig deep holes with the tractor using it’s massive drill, lifting heavy metal pipes and smashing them in the ground without killing myself. Welding, grinding, fencing, measuring, calculating, digging holes for water pipes. And in the end of the day, there’s a new paddock. And you built it. With your own hands. Take a second, be proud of the result and allow yourself to smile underneath all the sweat and dirt.

Cattle Station Dampier Downs Cattle Station Dampier Downs Cattle Station Dampier Downs

I tell you something. The jobs are hard. And long. And you have to do it again, day after day. But it’s the greatest feeling in the world, when someone trusts in you. No doubts when they give you jobs you never never ever thought you’d be able to do. But you are. I changed tyres of a truck, cruising around in tractors, getting comfortable with every different kind of tool, finding solutions on my own when you’re far out there, fixing a tank or a motor..You ARE able to do so much more then you think. And my biggest thanks goes to my bosses who gave me the feeling before I even believed in myself.

And after all, you are all in there together. Five poeple smashing the work on an entire cattle sation. That’s how real teamwork occurs. It’s an unbelievable feeling to be part of it. Sure, there are situations – heaps of them – where you can kill each other. There’s just noone else around. But then you finish this damn job, hand in hand. It’s dark already, bright stars in the sky. We hop in our four wheel drives, one after the other turns it’s lights on, and we start driving our way back to the homestead, through the black night, through sand, bush and endless nothing. And you can’t help it but smile. Being exhausted to death but proud as hell. And then you arrive, barely able to keep your eyes open and your bosses words „good work mate, you can sleep in tomorrow, take a rest“ are the most beautiful words you ever heared.

Sometimes I catch myself wishing that a camera team would come around, to show the world what these people are doing, every single day. For me it was just a three months experience, but for the Dampier Downs Crew, it’s what they do their entire life, for that they earn all my respect.

Read more about the stations and the Jillaroos and Jackaroos out there on Central Station. Have a look, it’s worth it. I never want to miss this experience in my life. I’ve never been that proud in my life. And maybe one day, when I come back for a visit, the fences I’ve built as a very normal German girl, will still exist, for years and years in this far remote, red, dry Outback.

Cattle Station Dampier Downs

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