Australia’s vast heartland is one of the last truly wild areas on earth – running from the Kimberley across to Far North Queensland, from the Top End down to the Flinders Ranges – encompassing 70 per cent of the country, an area roughly half the size of Europe but home to fewer than 800,000 people.
There is a deep and ancient Aboriginal connection to these parts, but more recent mythology has long been centred around the romanticised fables of rugged men: Ned Kelly bushranging across frontier Victoria; The Man from Snowy River in pursuit of a colt that had joined a herd of brumbies; Crocodile Dundee killing snakes with his bare hands. There have, of course, been hardy women, but they’ve always been hidden in the landscape. Astonishingly, it was only in 1994 that females in Australia won the right to be named as a farmer or stockperson, and since then fresh generations have ploughed out their place in this red-brown earth, which today is having to adapt to survive new threats.
Now a field guide at Arkaba in South Australia, Melissa Robertson swapped busy Melbourne for the solitude of the outback after travelling to the glowing, flame-coloured Kimberley. She fell for ‘another world and life, meeting phenomenal people who I made honest connections with, something I lost living in the city’. After a few years on various cattle stations, Robertson moved into a full-time conservation role at Arkaba, a former sheep station turned homestead on a 60,000-acre wildlife conservancy a four-and-a-half-hour drive inland from Adelaide. Her long days are spent trekking and heading up safaris, teaching visitors about the Dr Seuss-like critters that inhabit the region – from the mousey, fat-tailed dunnart to spotty-backed western quolls.
‘Not a lot of people get to experience the authentic outback and I love being able to share it,’ says Grace Mitchelson, who left her job as a jillaroo (station hand) to become a guide at Bullo River Station, a cattle ranch with a Sibella Court-designed guest lodge in the East Kimberley. She grew up on a farm in Tasmania before working at stations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and the bush is in her blood. When not leading tours, Mitchelson is in the yards mucking in with everything from repairing fences to processing and mustering the 4,000 or so cattle managed across 500,000 acres. ‘It’s a bit of a power role. You are strong and can do everything the guys do,’ she says.
The siren call of station life can also be heard in Far North Queensland at Mount Mulligan Lodge, another cattle ranch, which recently added eight bedrooms. Here Jody Westbrook, who spent her childhood on a farm, has slotted right into her role as manager. ‘For me, living in the middle of nowhere and being able to focus on what I’m doing without any distractions is what I enjoy,’ she says. And it’s not only in its attitude to women working the land that the outback is shifting; climate change is upsetting its delicate balance, putting it under growing threat from wildfires, floods and drought: ‘The mindset these days is very much geared towards local, sustainable and regenerative practices, and showing people the new ways of the bush is really special,’ says Westbrook.
‘There have always been female farmhands – they were made invisible by government policy, but things are changing,’ says Tauri Simone, whose Koa heritage and years of experience on one-million-acre Barwidgee Station in Western Australia led to her PhD thesis about the part Aboriginal women have played in the country’s pastoral industry since the 1860s. Today, Darrylin Gordon is one of those trailblazers. She was raised on Ngunjirirri Aboriginal Corporation-run Lamboo Station in the heart of the Kimberley. As the only woman operating on the ranch, trained by her father, grandfather, uncles and brothers, she insists that no one sees her as someone who can’t do the job. ‘I love station life; it is where I’ve learned my skills and what has made me who I am,’ says Gordon. Having won the Western Australian AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award in 2018, she now runs a three-month training programme to teach those skills to the local community.
And there are plenty of others who are making their mark in Australian agriculture, piloting helicopters to help rally livestock or saddling up as a ringer at first light. A case in point is Camille Camp, head stockwoman at her family’s Kalyeeda Station in Kimberley. She captures her dusty day-to-day on social media, mustering and galloping on horseback in unapologetic bright-pink work shirts. In charge of 300,000 acres, 10,000 cattle and a team of eight men, Camp doesn’t feel the need to be ‘one of the blokes,’ she says. Because, on the modern-day frontier, it’s not daring tales and brute strength that are needed, but determination and innovation.
A day in the field
Spot the cattle-rearing-wild-roving-epic-aussie-stockwomen
The camp is up before sunrise, drinking black coffee and waiting for first light, which cues the start of work, before the 45°C-plus heat sets in. Usually on horseback 12 hours a day, a CamelBak hydration pack slung over shoulders, jillaroos sport a uniform of worn-in RM Williams boots, Ringers Western shirts, wide-brimmed hats and bootcut jeans. The hard yakka includes processing cattle, building temporary yards and driving Land Cruisers with camping swags in the back, just in case. Always on the go, they only stop for lunch – a no-nonsense sandwich. The day closes with an ice-cold stubby of beer and a hearty dinner before lights-out at 8pm in a simple, demountable donga. Days off are spent exploring new bush territory, swimming in isolated water holes and taking part in rodeo. Spy them in town every few weeks to make the most of Wi-Fi and phone service – after all, the real outback begins when the signal ends.
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