88 Days: The Lowlights

Like many other backpackers heading off to do their 88 days, the four months I spent working on a cattle station was the first time I’d ever worked on a farm. Add to that being 136km from the nearest town, on a farm which is 31 times the size of my hometown Colchester, on the other side of the world. It’s not surprising that I found myself feeling completely out of my depth.Prior to coming to Australia, I’d worked in a supermarket and the most I’d had to take care of was a Guinea pig. The level of responsibility that came with my job at the farm was greater than I’d ever experienced before. I had hoped, in a very naive way, that I’d take to farm life like a duck to water, if you’ll pardon the pun, but despite my best efforts I screwed up a couple of times.

Okay scratch that I screwed up a few times.

Seriously as someone who thought of themselves as a sensible and relatively able person, the amount of times I fucked up on the farm mortified me and I’m surprised I got to day 88. After each incident I apologised profusely to my bosses, and even asked why it was that they let me keep working, they told me that they understood that each fuck up was an accident, and that I’d learn from my mistakes.

I have no doubt in my mind that I am now the subject of many a cautionary lecture at the farm now, alongside providing many funny stories. On the road you find that the term “backpacker” carries with it negative connotations, through various ways we have become known as a lazy, disposable work force, who descend on the outback in search of farm work without the faintest idea of what they’re doing. Having been made aware of that, I wanted so much to be a good worker and to redeem myself as a backpacker.

Unfortunately this was not to be, and these following stories though I’m ashamed to be involved with any of them, are funny to me now. And I definitely learned something from each one!

I crashed a quad

(Photo from the time I went mustering at Gameda, Opalton)

The story of the first and only time I went mustering is featured in one of my Wanderings posts, however I didn’t write about how that story ended at the time because I was too embarrassed. At the end of the muster, my boss came over to me and asked me if I knew my way back to the homestead, I had no idea where I was on the station and told him I didn’t.

This was my second time riding a quad bike and so my boss told me to take it easy on the ride back and that he’d wait for me and show me the way back. In fact he took me a different way back to try and get me familiarised with the property. At various places along the way my boss stopped and asked me if I knew where we were or which direction we’d come from during the muster, each time I responded no, I had no idea where I was. Eventually we pulled up alongside the lake, which was right next to the homestead, where we’d stopped was right before a steep-ish downhill turn that I didn’t like the look of. “Do you recognise the lake?” my boss asked, “yeah.” I said, and then he set off down the hill with no trouble. It was my turn to turn down the hill, my nerves got the better of me and I screwed up the turn and ended up driving off the hill into a ditch, where in my panic I pressed the accelerator instead of the brake. I went into not one, but two trees, before stalling the quad. I called out, but my boss was gone, and I was surprised when I managed to reverse the quad out of the dip and continue back to the property. In my shocked state I didn’t think to check the bike over, or report the incident properly, and so I got on with the rest of work back at the homestead.

Later on in the afternoon as I was doing the watering, my boss caught me and asked ‘what did you do to that four wheeler Holly?’ I followed him to the shed where the quad bikes were kept, and he pointed to a massive crack in the body. In my shock I hadn’t thought to check the bike after I got back to the homestead, and though there had been a couple of small branches caught in the frame, I hadn’t checked the bike’s body after the crash. My boss was furious, and wanted to know exactly what I’d done, and so I explained that I’d screwed up the downhill turn, panicked and accelerated into a ditch, hitting two trees. My boss couldn’t understand how I’d managed to crash the quad, and after telling me the damage I’d done to the bike was worth a week’s wages, I was given a driving ban. I was officially banned from driving the quads and the cars, except from the staff hilux, and if that wasn’t available I’d have to walk to feed the animals. Clearly I was a dangerous driver, and the ban was for my safety, after the crash I wasn’t keen to ride a quad bike again, and thankfully I only had to take a wheelbarrow and feed the animals on foot a couple of times.

I felt so terrible because I had wanted to make a good impression, as my first couple of weeks at the farm had included a couple of meltdowns, I thought maybe if my mustering session went well I’d redeem myself. Seeing my boss so upset, honestly felt like that bit in Tarzan where Kerjack tells Tarzan he betrayed the family, bizarre reference I know but yeah I felt that bad about it.

Needless to say I never went mustering again, and though I’d still like to give being a Jillaroo a go one day, I’m weary of quad bikes.

I lost the dog

(The one and only JD)

A few weeks after mustering ended my bosses were heading back to the UK for a family function, and I was going to be the only backpacker working at the station under the supervision of a farm sitter. I was to carry on my jobs as normal, and to enjoy the peace and quiet, “People pay thousands for this kind of peace and quiet, going to Buddhist retreats, you get a whole farm to yourself, enjoy it.” My boss said, she’d also recently told me how once a worker who’d spent time with the Tibetan monks had broken down from the stress of working at the farm, and after my shaky start at the station I wasn’t feeling too confident about working on the farm by myself.

I was to carry on my usual jobs: looking after the animals, the grass and myself, but I also had to keep an eye on the dogs, Diva and JD. Both dogs were loved by my bosses, but JD in particular was special. She was my bosses’ baby before they had their baby, and JD still is and always will be their favourite dog. Under no circumstances was anything to happen to JD, just before she left my boss said ‘You know nothing can happen to JD,’ which I told her I understood completely.

Two weeks into my bosses’ holiday and with nothing catastrophic having happened, I dared think to myself ‘wow nothing catastrophic has happened, I haven’t even lost JD!’ I began to let myself think that nothing terrible would happen whilst my bosses were away, and they would return and marvel at what a good job I had done in their absence.

And then one day, after going to pick up Duncan the farm sitter after he punctured a tyre, we returned to the homestead in time for smoko. Before leaving to pick up Duncan I had tied up Diva and JD as I had been told to do since I started working at the station, my boss had had a dog that had been run over by the mailman when he was a child, and as a result the dogs always had to be tied up when leaving the property. When I got back to the property I let the dogs off, as I was going to have a cup of tea and then come out and do the watering which meant I’d be out in the foreground of the homestead and able to keep an eye on the dogs. I went inside for a drink, and Duncan stayed out in the shed which overlooked the foreground and the general area where the dogs run around.

After smoko I changed my mind about watering, and decided to carry on pruning hedges in the house yard instead, however I called the dogs to check that they were both still near the property. Only Diva returned. I wasn’t initially concerned, as earlier in the week I’d let the dogs off whilst I was watering, and had spent ten minutes calling for JD and she hadn’t returned, this prompted me to get in the car and drive around looking for her, only to find her sitting in her usual spot under my bosses’ car in the shed. This time however Duncan noticed that it had been about an hour and a half and JD hadn’t come back, so he went out for a drive to look for her. He returned without her, and at this point we started to worry.

We decided not to leave the homestead in case she came back by herself, so we could make sure she’d come back. After lunch we decided to go floodgating, hoping that she’d come back by the time we got back. When we returned she still wasn’t back and so the panic began. That night we had to inform my boss that JD was missing, I couldn’t bring myself to message my boss, because what could I say, “Sorry I lost your dog,” didn’t seem to cut it, it seemed empty and void of all meaning, especially knowing what JD meant to my boss made it even worse. How could I apologise for losing her dog, when there was a chance JD could be lost forever, lost somewhere on the 250,000 acre property. I tried to tell my friends how terrible it was, how not only the vastness of the property counted against us finding her, but also the presence of venomous snakes, poisoned dingo baits which had been laid out around the property, the chances of her collar caught on a tree and killing herself, drowning in the lake, being ran over on the main road. Each and every possibility terrible, and with every hour that passed the more likely that she was gone for good.

The next day was spent looking for JD, Duncan patrolled the nearby paddocks, drove up and down the main road, and drove a quad bike around the entirety of the lake. I took Diva for a walk around the paddocks in the hope that she’d find something. I had no idea what to do, we were looking for JD but did I also need to keep on top of my usual jobs? What if she wasn’t found? Would I get into trouble for not watering the grass because I was looking for JD? What should I be doing? And what would I do when my bosses got home if JD wasn’t found? I knew I probably wouldn’t be kept on if that happened.

As our searches around the station remained fruitless, we began to lose hope. And then that afternoon we got word from our boss that workers from the neighbouring station had picked up JD, thinking it was their boss’s dog. The panic was over, and the next day Duncan went and picked her up, I got back to work, and thankfully the rest of my bosses’ holiday passed without incident.

My boss’ best horse ate string

(Photo not taken on day of incident)

It was day 87 and I was still the sole backpacker working on the station, my bosses had returned from holiday and my boss was excited to work with her horses. She was looking to sell one of them, an ex-racehorse named Riley, who she’d brought in to the horse pen to separate him from the rest of the horses. I was given new instructions to feed Riley, and usually the horses brought to live around the homestead tend to follow the sound of my car to the pig and sheep pen, as they know I have hay slabs. I had got into the lazy habit of feeding Tonto and Blaze at the pig and sheep pens, just because they were always there waiting for me and would stand in front or around the back of the hilux making it difficult for me to drive away.

So this time around I decided to go and feed Riley first and then go and feed pig and sheep, I drove across the grid to the horse paddock, and was met by ALL the other horses my boss owns, who had come to visit Riley. The horses flocked to the back of the hilux where I had two bales of hay in the back. I climbed onto the back and started pulling the strings off the bales in order to separate the slabs so I could feed Riley. The horses immediately started trying to eat everything in sight, the buckets of pig feed I had fetched, and the bales. I’d managed to take one string off the first bale and was starting to untie the other, when Lady ate a clump of hay with the blue string attached. I watched in horror as the string dangled from her mouth, and at first thought she’d spit it out. But then she kept chewing, and chewing and slowly the string began to disappear inside her gullet. I tried to approach her and to get the string out her mouth but because I was panicking she backed off. I jumped off the back of the hilux and ran back to the homestead to tell my boss what had happened.

By the time my boss drove down to the horses, Lady had eaten the string, I was sent away to do the rest of my jobs, and returned to the homestead feeling absolutely terrible. I had been told many times to be wary of the string attached to the bales, and not to let any of the animals consume any little pieces of string, if they got caught in the animals’ guts they’d die. Lady was my boss’s best horse, the beta horse of the pack, and one of a few that were broken in. I felt terrible, and was utterly convinced that I was going to get fired, alongside all the other fuck ups I’d done, alongside losing JD this had to be the worst, and on day 87 of all days I was definitely going to be fired.

Lady was kept under observation for a couple of days, and luckily is still alive, and despite ‘half-killing’ Lady alongside all the other times I screwed up I didn’t lose my job, and from that point onward made sure to put the strings in my pocket as soon as I removed them. My boss thanked me for telling her what had happened, telling me other backpackers would have kept quiet about it.

I lost a dead cow

(The Poddies who survived, Buster, Stefan and Ee)

A week before I left the farm, I had spent most of the week teaching the new staff my job as my replacement had pulled out just a few days before, when my boss came back from a water run and told me I had two new poddies to look after. I didn’t take the news as badly as I did when I had poddy calves brought back to me during mustering, however I was concerned that if they needed milk they might not be brought round by the time I left for the new backpackers to take over. It turned out that the two new calves didn’t need milk, but one calf was severely dehydrated and needed to be given water.

The calf was very weak, and from my experience on the farm I knew he wasn’t going to pull through, I made sure to bottle feed him water three times a day, in the hope that it would make him well enough to get up and start feeding with the other calves. Initially I didn’t think he would make it through the night, but the next morning he was still alive and appeared chirpier than the day before, despite the fact that when I went to stand him up, he wouldn’t support himself on his legs, which was a really bad sign.

On my last day I prepared a bottle with a re-hydration tablet in it and went to feed him, at first he suckled well, which seemed promising and I thought there was a chance he’d pull through. And then slowly he began suckling less, so I removed the bottle, and sat with him for a little while, and then slowly it dawned on me that he had died in my arms. I went to tell my boss, to ask which vehicle I could use to take him to the boneyard, and my boss had said she’d take him, as it was my last day. I told her I fancied the drive, it would be one of my last around the property, and so I went to get the car and to move the calf.

When an animal dies you have the choice to either put it in the tray in the back of the hilux, or tie up its legs and drag it to the boneyard, driving a different route to the boneyard in order to avoid the grids. Because the calf was bigger than the ones I’d dealt with before, I decided to drag it to the boneyard. My boss caught me as I was preparing to leave and told me that I needed to take our new worker Erica with me, Erica was Spanish and vegetarian, and in my haste to get the job over with I wasn’t as sensitive as I could have been in handling her first time assisting me with the removal of a dead animal. I told her we’d be going to the boneyard and that I was going to drag the cow, we got in the car, and drove through the paddocks to get to the boneyard avoiding the metal grids. We arrived at the gate before the boneyard, and Erica went to open the gate for me, as she pulled the gate open, she called out to me “Holly!” she cried “We’ve lost the cow!” She burst out laughing in shock and disbelief, I quickly turned the car around and we headed back the way we came. We’d driven over a couple of bumps in the road which made me think we’d have lost it somewhere between the hay shed and sliding door shed. When we got back to both sheds the calf wasn’t there, we drove back the way we came and there we found the calf, lying beside the yard.

We got out of the car, and saw that the string had broke, abandoning my original plan of dragging the calf to the boneyard, Erica and I struggled to lift the calf into the back of the car. Eventually we managed to get it in and set off to the boneyard, where we left the calf in its final resting place. By that time the sun was starting to go down and I needed to feed the other animals in my care, thankfully none of those had perished and so the day ended just like any other. But in true Holly fashion my last day at the station had to be filled with one calamity or other and certainly one I’ll never forget, though I’m sure Erica will remember it for different reasons!

Though I wish that some of these stories weren’t connected to my time at the farm, as I’m sure I will now be the subject of many of my bosses’ lectures to new backpackers, each of these events were accidents, and unfortunately they happened when I was working. Most recently when I told these stories to a new recruit at the farm he said I was like Bridget Jones, and though I would have liked to have come away from the farm confident that I did a good job, I still find these stories hilariously mortifying, but worth telling and I hope that though you may never trust me around animals or quad bikes again, that you may have found these stories slightly entertaining… if not completely disturbing.

Thanks for reading!



One thought on “88 Days: The Lowlights

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s