My Life as a Cowgirl Down Under

cattle station work in AustraliaIf there is one memory that I hold closest to my heart from my solo trip, it’s my four month stay at Kroombit Tops National Park.

After stumbling across this perfect slice of real Australia whilst on my outback road trip, I fell in love with the place after just one night and just knew I had to return.

Team together some of the best scenery in Australia, the friendliest Aussies you could hope to meet and a bunch of the most fantastic travellers – and you’ve got yourself a life changing experience.

THE KROOMBIT LOWDOWN

kroombit 4WDKroombit Park is located half an hour East of the small Central Queensland town of Biloela, which is just 2 hours inland from Rockhampton. The location is perfect. It’s hard to believe a place that feels so remote and authentically Australian could be accessible from the touristy coast within a few hours.

Kroombit is nestled within the stunning landscape of Lochenbar Cattle Station. This working cattle station spans an incredible 10,000 acres across Central Queensland and is home to 12,000 cattle. In addition to this, there is no shortage of beautiful horses roaming free. I became an expert at spotting the many kangaroos, wallabies and emus that have made it their home (it was my job!)

As well as being a working cattle station, 20 years ago Alan Sandilands and his family opened the doors to Kroombit as a tourist destination. This allowed passers by to experience the true Australia in this truly magical place. The activities offered to tourists by Kroombit were endless, goat musters on horseback, quad-bike and 4WD tours of the station, goat rodeo, learn to crack a whip, learn to bush dance, try your hand at trap-shooting and even take on the mechanical bull! Every day of the week a bus full of tourists would drive down the dusty drive way, excited to experience a little slice of the outback for a couple of nights. Every single one of those visitors went away with the biggest smiles on their faces. A hugely enriching experience and travel story to add to their collection.

SOME VERY SAD NEWS

This post is written with a fair amount of sadness. Last month, Kroombit Park found itself slap bang in the path of Cyclone Marcia. This storm resulted in a wall of water cascading through Kroombit, taking the majority of the buildings and structures with it as it went.

Despite an incredible crowdsourcing effort raising  $13,460 to help with the clean up (testament to the amount of lives they changed), the damage has proved too much. Today I found out that Kroombit have been forced to close their doors to tourists.

It will continue on as a working cattle station but this is a great loss to Australia and a great loss to anyone who visits the country and no longer has the opportunity to visit this incredible place.

MY KROOMBIT EXPERIENCE

After spending a night at Kroombit on my road trip, I knew I had to return. So much so in fact, that I made the decision whilst in Melbourne, to forfeit my flight to Asia and make my way back up to Kroombit Park to work for the next four months.

I was nervous. I was alone and making my way into the outback to live a completely different life style for the next few months. I got off the bus at the petrol station on the outskirts of Biloela. A small dusty outback town which had the real feeling of being in the middle of nowhere. I chucked my backpack down on the dust and perched on top of it as I waited for my ride. As soon as Kerry (The daughter of Al Sandilands) pulled up with her son Jesse in the car, I was at ease. She beamed at me, gave me a big Australian welcome and off we went.

The moment we arrived at Kroombit Park I knew I was going to love it. Three young travellers wearing ragged checkered shirts and bandanas were raking the drive way. They came straight up to the car, grabbed my backpack and introduced themselves as they led me to my home for the night.

This friendly welcome set the tone for my whole experience of Kroombit Park. The other travellers who worked there and the amazing Sandilands, became my family. This post has the potential to form a short novel, so i’ll try my best to categorise my key memories under the headings below.

 


 

Quad bike guide at Kroombit Park

Working as a quad bike guide

One of my main responsibilities whilst living and working at Kroombit Park was to lead guests out on quad bike tours around the station grounds (that’s me, third from the right!). Being a bit of a petrol head, I couldn’t believe my luck. I will never forget my first tour. Leading a group of ten tourists through training and safety procedures, before heading out for an hour long ride over hills, across streams, through paddocks and lots of mud. This is one of the best jobs I have ever, and ever will have. The stunningly beautiful scenery, the adventure, the freedom and the danger were apparent at every turn and I was in my element. The potential danger was made particularly clear one afternoon when a King Brown snake (one of the most deadly in Australia) slithered straight across my path, under the wheels of my quad. My legs went straight up in front of me through fear that it would lash back, but I made it past unscathed!

There was one other ride that I’d rather forget. It was a particularly muddy day and I was doing my usual checks over my shoulder at every turn. One minute I had a line of eager tourists riding behind me, the next, it was just me and two others. I pulled up for a second, my heart slowed. No one else came around the corner. I jumped back on my quad bike, asked the others to wait and doubled back. Just a few hundred yards back around the course I found my missing riders. A girl from Colorado had hit a pothole at speed, lost control of the quad and driven into a ditch. As she hit the wall of the ditch, the pressure on her left leg was enough to break it. I’m lucky that this was the only air ambulance I witnessed at Kroombit, but it didn’t make me feel any better that this happened on my watch. It brought home to me the true nature and responsibility of the job I was doing, but it didn’t make me love it any less.

 


 

Castrating, tagging and dehorning cattle

Castrating, branding, tagging and dehorning cattle

This is the job that I usually remind James of when he steps out of line ;). Every year at Kroombit, new calves are born that need to be mustered, castrated, tagged and dehorned. Boy oh boy was this an experience and a half. This definitely required a ‘get stuck in’ attitude and it wasn’t at all pretty. The poor calves don’t enjoy having their nadgers off or their ears pierced, but Kroombit is a working station and it needed to be done.

In just one blisteringly hot day, we processed 82 calves. Without going into too much detail, everything was done as quickly and painlessly as possible. The ear-tagging and branding were purely to help identify the cattle that belonged to Kroombit. The dehorning was to ensure the young calves wouldn’t bruise the skin of other males when fighting (this would lower the profit made from the meat sales). It was done quickly and although there was a fair amount of blood at times, to the calves it’s almost like cutting their finger nails a little too low. The castration part wasn’t as messy as it perhaps sounds and was done using a rubber band, winched around the manly region and winched tightly until circulation was cut off and they dropped off in their own time. (Sorry lads!) Castration was standard practise at Kroombit for three reasons:

  1. To eliminate the chance of inferior breeding with superior females that would produce less-valuable offspring.
  2. Castration helps to calm the males, making them less dangerous towards other cattle and humans. It also stops them from chasing the females around too much, causing them to shift weight too quickly. In the cattle world, fatter is definitely better.
  3. The castration process also helps the station to meet market demand as far as beef quality and sales are concerned.

Although far from glamorous, I feel so lucky and honoured that I was able to experience this process at Kroombit. It was real and it was necessary. I was part of the team, a proper cowgirl and I loved it.

 


 

Me and my cow Milly

 The love of a girl and her cow

This is Milly. She is without doubt one of my fondest memories of my time at Kroombit. Milly’s mother sadly died shortly after giving birth to her and she was rescued by the Kroombit team and reared by hand from the day she was born. Milly was about 5 months old when I arrived at the cattle station and Beth, a girl who very quickly became my friend, was her main carer. When Beth left Kroombit, I was so honoured that she chose to pass the role over to me.

For the next three months, Milly became my responsibility. It was up to me to feed her, ensure she had all the water she needed and make sure all was okay. I’d take her for walks, she’d chase me around her paddock and kiss me goodbye. I even saved her from an angry emu once – but that’s another story! I loved that cow. She had the kindest nature and temperament but my god when she stepped on your toe did you know about it. When I left Kroombit, parting ways with Milly was one of the hardest goodbyes.


 

Kroombit friends

Making friends and family

The people at Kroombit were the best people. As well as the tourists who visited Kroombit daily, there were about 16 of us who lived and worked there seven days a week. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for these people to become my family. Fellow travellers from all over the world; Germany, Luxembourg, Canada, Denmark, America, Ireland and more – all working together and enjoying a common love for this fantastic place.

The Sandilands – Al, Carol, Brent, Kerry, Andrew, Kayla and Jesse. Kroombit is their home, their creation and quite rightly, their pride of joy. They are incredible people. They open their doors to travellers every day. The kind who stay for the night and the kind who stay for the year. I would love to see a tally of how many people from all over the World consider Kroombit to be a second home. The Sandilands family and Kroombit have changed the lives of hundreds.

Ryan and meThe locals. As well as the others who worked and lived at Kroombit, locals from Biloela would often swing by for a drink in the evenings. They were brilliant. One guy in particular deserves a special mention here. Ryan Muller. Ryan was one of the loveliest, warmest people I’ve ever been lucky enough to meet. A gentle giant and true Aussie with a heart of gold. He would bring us all KFC when he knew we hadn’t been out in a while and he’d light up the place as he arrived. He had this infectious nature where he created smiles wherever he went. I left Kroombit in February 2012 and in October that same year I received the horrific news that Ryan had died in a car crash on the road leading to Kroombit Park. Still today I struggle to believe he is really gone. In my thoughts, he’s still there at Kroombit, propping up the bar and telling me to “shut up, you’re drunk.” I feel proud to have been able to call Ryan my friend. He was the best kind of person and I know he will be causing havoc up there. Forever loved, forever remembered, forever young.

There was very much a work hard, play hard attitude at Kroombit. Every night the campfire would be lit, the country music would come on and the fun would start. From whip cracking to bush dancing and bull riding, the evenings were jam packed. I would work all day every day out in the sun and then man the wagon bar into the wee hours of the morning. Kroombit possibly wasn’t too good for my liver, but it was good for everything else.


Goat Muster at Kroombit

Mustering cattle and goats

Mustering cattle and goats was a big part of daily life at Kroombit. Every day I would do the rounds in the 4WD with Al, checking all cattle were in the right paddocks and mustering the ones that weren’t. Then every afternoon, guests would have the opportunity to go out onto the station and muster the goats on horseback – a great experience.

 


 

My Kroombit home

My home

My home for my four month stay at Kroombit Park was the most adorable little caravan. (Well, I say adorable – some may say ‘seen better days’.) I had everything I could ever need. A double bed, a fridge, my netbook complete with a massive movie library and a wardrobe to house my every growing collection of checkered shirts. Plus a peacock alarm clock every morning (check out the roof!).

The only problem was the toilet situation. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I have the bladder of an 85 year old. I wake up numerous times in the night needing to go and I don’t like knowing I can’t. At Kroombit our toilet facilities were basic. There was a communal toilet and shower block about 200m from my caravan. This may not sound like far, but make it 2am, pitch black in the Australian bush and it’s not such an appealing prospect. After two weeks of getting attacked by goats every time I ventured across the park, I decided it was time to accept defeat. As unpleasant as it sounds, the back of my caravan became my en-suite – I just did all I could to stop myself thinking about the two snakes that I knew had made their home underneath mine.

 


 

Controlled bush fire

Starting a controlled bush fire

Bush fires are a big killer in Australia. However, controlled bush fires are a necessary part of bush life. The land relies on these fires to wipe out all of the old dry bush and clear space for the reproduction of fresh, green bush. This is crucial when running a working cattle station to ensure there is enough for the cattle to graze on.

This day was without doubt the hardest days work I did at Kroombit. In scorching heat (40 degrees to be exact!) Al and I made our way out into the bush to start a controlled fire. Al is obviously an expert in this, it’s all about the area you burn and the direction of the wind. The idea in short is that you burn around the edge of the area and the fire burns in on itself, stopping it from spreading to any unplanned areas. My god I was exhausted after an hour or so. Climbing up and down hills, dragging a heavy, flaming gas canister through the bush as I went. The heat from the sun combined with the heat from the flames was indescribable. It was bloody hard work and resulted in Al hosing me down at the nearest cattle yard – he found this hilarious, I was just happy to be cool!

ONE OF THE BEST PLACES IN THE WORLD

I consider myself so lucky to have been able to call this magical place home for 4 months of my life and I hope to be able to visit again one day. I am so sad that the Kroombit I knew is no longer. It’s hard to picture the place without backpackers in cowboy hats and bandanas sat around the campfire, propping up the bar and having the time of their lives. However, the family who made Kroombit what it was are still there and that puts a smile on my face.

I wish I could finish this post by urging you to plan a trip to Kroombit Town. I would never have recommended anything more. However, as that’s no longer possible, just spare a thought for this incredible place and this fantastic family living the cowboy lifestyle in the heart of Queensland.

We love you Kroombit Town.

 

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