Testicles. They’re slippery little buggers.” I was sitting in the front of a beaten-up 4WD and Steve was explaining the fundamentals of farm life. “If you try to use a knife, you’ll slip and cut your thumb open; scissors are much too imprecise. No, when it comes to castrating sheep, you need something with grip: I always use my teeth.”
Today’s Australia is too cosmopolitan by half. Since the ‘Best Games Ever’ in 2000, chic sophistication has gone to its head. Melbourne, the tourist brochures boast, has the best coffee culture in the world; Sydney’s fashion and club scenes rival those of New York; Perth is the ‘most liveable city on earth’. It’s all great for the locals but hardly a draw for tourists from the other side of the world.
On my two previous trips Down Under I’d never been Outback, never seen a marsupial that wasn’t on a postcard. This time I wanted a bit of the good ol’ Aussie stereotype: kangaroos, koalas and acres of empty space. To do that I’d need to spend time as a type of ‘roo’ myself: learning about farm life and bush survival as an Australian cowboy – an Aussie ‘jackaroo’.
You wouldn’t know it from the brochures but, in Australia, agriculture remains big business. This vast country has 133,000 farms, ranging from bijou ‘hobby’ properties to individual cattle stations the size of small European countries. Farms need workers and workers need training.
Twenty years ago, a small number of farms began offering jackaroo instruction on the side: sessions in horsemanship, cattle-mustering and sheep-shearing for Bruces and Sheilas hankering after the simpler life. Today, those same farm schools cater as much for the chic-weary international tourist as born-and-bred Aussies. In a week, they promise a taste of the Australia increasingly hidden behind the gloss: a glimpse of the country’s pumping heart and, more often than not, a sheep’s still bleeding one, too.
The problem was, the closest I’d ever come to livestock was the meat counter at Sainsbury’s.
I travelled first to Tamworth. A mere centimetre from Sydney on my pocket map but six hours away by train, Tamworth is Australia’s Nashville – country music central. Every January, stars from all over the world gather to compete for the ultimate Antipodean country music honour, the prized Golden Guitar award. A Sunday evening stroll through town took me past busking cowboys playing banjos and fire-swinging cowgirls with straw in their hair. The talk on the streets was whether Tamworth would reclaim its line-dancing world record. “They beat it every yeer,” explained my taxi driver on the way into town. “Round here loine-daancin is much more than a matter of proid.”
In an estate agent’s window I got a glimpse of Tamworth’s underlying economy – agricultural properties for sale like a London estate agent sells one-bedroom flats: a ‘300-sow piggery’ for half a million dollars, a ‘dairy property with Peel River frontage’ for a just over a million; a ‘ten-acre hobby property, ideal for the first-time farmer’. Tamworth, as they say in Australia, is country.
Monday morning and, along with a small group of visitors – European backpackers and a smattering of Aussies – I was met in town by Tim Skerrett, a tall man with the distinguished features and pronounced lines of an ageing movie star. He wore a calf-length oilskin overcoat that gave him the look of a 19th-century nightwatchman – albeit one in soiled jeans and an Akubra cowboy hat.
Tim runs the Leconfield farm, where we’d be spending the next week. Before we began the 90-minute dirt-road drive there, though, we had two stops to make: first to the Salvation Army’s second-hand store – “If you value the clothes you’ve brought with you, leave them in your bag and buy some old ones here” – and, second, to the bottle shop: “You can’t buy booze on a farm,” Tim explained, “and the nearest late store is a hundred miles away.”
Set at the top of a spectacular valley, Leconfield long gave up the pretence of earning its keep through farming. It now operates as a centre for tourists wanting a taste of Outback life and for Aussies training as genuine jackaroos.
But just because tourism rather than farming now brings in the bacon, it does not mean the rural routine has gone to the dogs. We’d sleep, we were told, 20 to the equine-themed barracks known as the bunkhouse; we’d rise at daybreak and sleep shortly after dusk. Days would be divided between working with the animals and attending to the property. Eating was to be outdoors – crumbs attract mice and mice attract snakes. Big ones.
Back each other up, we were told; trust one another, communicate and only strike in the direst of circumstance. My partner, Cheeky, was a five-year old mare.
To large, outback properties, the horse is by far the most important piece of machinery. Tim’s assistant Steve, a former mechanic from Sydney, explained that, although some Aussie farmers get around by motorbike, 30,000 hectares of hills mean that Leconfield is largely the preserve of working animals. It’s a place where four legs are good and two wheels get stuck.
Leconfield swears by the ‘natural horsemanship’ approach: coaxing, rather than commanding the animals, learning to read the horses’ body language and letting them read yours. Much of our week would be spent on horse work: as with anything, you need to learn how best to use the tools before applying them to the job. Every day began with pre-ride checks: if we could get our horses to do what we wanted on the ground, it would come naturally once in the saddle.
Steve talked to his animal as if it were a drinking buddy and we took our cue from him, mumbling sweet nothings as we ran brushes through tangled manes and chiselled away at hooves, whose shavings fell away like desiccated coconut.
We were broken in gently with a horseback tour of the Bush. We learned how to pick and eat a nettle without being stung – sneak up on it from behind and seize it like a crab; how to work out direction using the sun and a watch; the vocabulary of the hills – ‘skyline’, ‘saddle of the ridge’. And I discovered that the sound of hooves through a pebbled creek is the most satisfying noise on earth.
We also got an introduction to the Aussie it-does-exactly-what-it -says-on-the-tin approach to naming things: “That’s a stringy bark tree,” Steve explained, pointing at a tree with stringy bark; “That’s a rock wallaby,” pointing to a wallaby sitting, mid-distance, on a rock. “That,” – more worryingly – “is a red-bellied black-snake,” as a flash of black and smidgen of red shot across our path.
In the days that followed we took to our horses again and again, rounding up sheep and mustering cattle. This, essentially, was foxhunting though slower paced, with larger prey, and without the trumpets and silly costumes.
Get one animal going in the right sort of direction and the rest of the flock would follow like, well, sheep. Cows, on the other hand, were another matter entirely. Individual heifers would lollop off up wooded hills, with me astride Cheeky in hot pursuit; a mother and calf would break from the main group en route to the pen.
“Call to them,” Steve shouted from his mount. “Get behind them and make a noise to scare them back into line. Wooooupppp! Chewruppp! Moooowuppp!”
That, I thought, is just noise – and ridiculous noise at that. He sounded more like a cow than the cows. I’d treat the animals with more respect. Like adults. Well, like adult cows.
“Go on,” I urged them, “into the pen.” The nearest cow stared at me, and then blinked – deliberately slowly and with, I’m convinced, disdain. “Go riiii-ght,” I commanded, louder.
It blinked again, then did a pat.
“Wooooupppp,” I cried, giving in.
To my immense surprise, the nearest cow lumbered forward a step. “Chewruppp!” Another followed. “Moooowuppp!” – with real conviction now. They started sloping right and, aided by other student/ horse partnerships with whom I formed a ring, we slowly manoeuvred our herd of 20 beasts into the pen.
There was more to the week than horses and play. I spent one afternoon with a pickaxe, spade and crowbar, bashing my way through rocky ground in order to lay a fence. Another day, I spent the morning struggling with shears and a sheep, and the afternoon wrestling calves to the ground in order to apply a brand.
Two evenings I spent in a paddock with fellow students, tossing a lasso at a cow’s skull mounted on a wooden post and trying to master a whip. I never did crack it, in any sense, but others did, sending echoes ricocheting around the valley.
More traumatically, towards the end of my stay, I had to sit on a ram while Steve cut its throat. “Let me know when he’s stopped blinking, ‘cos that’s when he’s stopped thinking,” he explained.
Tim had warned us when we’d first arrived that this wasn’t to be a ‘fun farm’ experience for softies. We weren’t here merely to pat cows and stroke sheep.
In the heat of summer, I sweated. And I mean sweated. Not the sanitised, dehumanised condensation that you get in a gym while working out to MTV. I mean a real sweat, a sweat dirty in the sense that it’s actually mixed with dirt and dries to leave a crust.
Leconfield is the sort of place where you earn your drink by more than simply elbowing your way to the bar; a place where you eat because you’re genuinely hungry not just because the sandwich man has come round; a place where yesterday’s blinking sheep satisfies today’s worked-up appetite.
I flew back to Sydney, which meant that I was with friends in the Opera House Bar within only three hours of leaving the farm. As sunbeams skipped across the harbour – one of the world’s greatest vistas in its prime – a friend, champagne glass in hand, turned and grinned: “What have we done to deserve this?”
For once I had an answer.
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