An outback gap year working on Kimberley cattle station
WHEN I left home to start my gap year on a remote Kimberley cattle station I was 17, shy and slightly naive about what I was getting myself into.
After a year of hard work I returned to Queensland a few kilos lighter, with rough hands and decent savings in my bank account.
I would recommend a gap year to anyone. But there are positives and negatives to any experience.
The debate about whether to take a gap year, or go straight to uni, was fierce in my household.
My father thought if I worked on a station I would never return to study. But Mum was on my side.
In the end I had the support of both of them.
Dad bought me a custom-made saddle and a new swag, and Mum helped me plan my trip from Tully, in North Queensland, to the Kimberley in Western Australia.
Ruby Plains is an S.Kidman and Co owned property managed by the Wortley family. Combined with the outstation it runs about 28,000 head of cattle.
The property had a reputation for providing ringers with solid horse work, and the Wortleys were known to be die-hard campdraft and rodeo competitors.
It sounded perfect to me.
I wasn't nervous about moving to the outback. It wasn't until I got off the bus in Halls Creek at midnight, and looked around the small town that I released I had stepped into what felt like another world.
That feeling was one that stuck.
The majority of my time on Ruby, I felt like I was out of my depth. My first job working as a station hand was to load 10 road trains.
I had never seen so many head of cattle in all my life.
I also got a shock when I noticed the stark difference between the way you work a couple of hundred head of quiet bullocks, like I was used to doing in Tully, compared to walking a few thousand head of cows and calves for 12km straight. And yarding mobs of 3500 was normal.
In Tully paddocks are cleared and most have fresh creeks or rivers running through them. On Ruby spinifex and black spoil plains make up the scenery and the only water comes from bores.
Every day was a learning curve and I picked up quite a few things the hard way.
Shoeing horses proved to be a big challenge. My legs and back muscles would burn and I always ended up making my hands bleed from a horse pulling away or a loose swing of the hammer.
A horse called Quickstep, who became my arch nemesis after she threw me on a clay-plan flat, managed to pull away and jump on my thigh, just above my knee.
It hurt like hell and the bruise ended up being bigger than a dinner plate.
There were many mornings I woke up feeling bruised, battered and tired. There was no denying station work was hard going.
And even the little things were tough. The stock camp slept at different yards during the season.
In winter it was freezing. A few months of bathing in cold dams has made me appreciate every hot shower I have had since. It also turned me off camping.
But then there were the good days.
I was lucky to ride a horse called Cadillac. He was just magic.
He was a handy old mustering horse that would shoulder cattle when he had to, without needing much spur. I learnt a lot from riding that horse.
The Wortleys let me barrel race, rope and campdraft off him.
I never had much style or success, but I did have an absolute ball at every rodeo.
With determination I did improve. When I left I was never faster than the boys at shoeing, but if I had a string of quiet horses I was definitely getting close to catching them.
Learning about training horses was the biggest benefit. There wasn't ever a time I would ask a question that someone wouldn't have an answer for.
And although I wasn't successful competing when I was in the Kimberley, I feel my knowledge of stock helps me when I am in the arena campdrafting now.
But were those skills useful for me when I started my tertiary education?
In my opinion the answer is absolutely "yes".
I went to university knowing how to work hard. I think working on Ruby Plains gave me a give-it-a-go, and give-it-your-best-try attitude.
There were certainly subjects I struggled with at uni.
But I gave everything my best shot and my lecturers loved me for it.
My friends were happy to pass, but I was striving for top marks.
Working somewhere remote also meant I didn't spend much money.
In fact, the only things I remember spending money on were campdraft nominations and new boots.
Before I started uni I was able to buy a good second-hand car, a new computer and still had money in the bank.
Working on Ruby also taught me there is good and bad in every job.
I remember the joy I had when the chopper pilot chased brumbies for me so I could get some good action photos.
I was thinking "life can't get better than this!"
This was a day when it was my job to throw out 1080 baits from a helicopter. I remember I couldn't understand why no one else put their hand up for the chance to spend a whole day in a helicopter.
But after a few hours of nursing a bag of half-rotten meat pieces, and several quick landings so I could crawl behind a tree to throw up on all fours, I realised I was in for a long day.
After a 12-hour day of tossing out baits from the open window I couldn't wait to see that chopper fly away.
The biggest pitfall of a working gap year is the danger of not returning to study.
I must admit spending another year on a station was something I thought deeply about. Even after a year of uni, I missed working full- time, the rodeos and the lifestyle. It's the sort of thing that gets into your blood.
But I was determined to complete my course.
When I was in the Kimberley I met others who were planning to stay only for a while.
They had plans to go to uni, get a trade or complete a course. Many never did.
But I'm not convinced they are any worse off. They have found what they love the most and have stuck with it.
For me, it was an experience of a lifetime.
I have listed working on Ruby Plains on my resume for every professional job I have applied for.
Even people with limited knowledge of the cattle industry are impressed by a year in the outback.
Gap years are there for the taking. My advice is to go for it.