BootsnAll Travel Network

One eighty

It was starting to get dark as the sun set behind the few scattered trees and the main house. They were ahead of me in the truck, driving slowly to a large tree around the side of the house. I was walking slowly, making sure not to trip on any wires or big rocks in the low light of dusk. I could just make out the high beam of the gallows behind the tree, and the truck was parked beside it. Barry was already out of the truck by the time I got there, and a tied up sheep had given up trying to escape from the pickup and lay still. The deed was already done by the time I arrived, as the other sheep lay dead with it’s throat cut on the ground and Barry was starting to remove it’s hooves. It didn’t affect me as I thought it would, though maybe if I had seen it killed it might have been worse. This was a normal part of life out here on the sheep station, but it felt like a million miles away from Sydney and the opera, where I had been just a few days before.

The road out to see my friend and her family’s sheep station Polpah was a long, endless highway, with semi-desert earth stretching further than any eye could see. My train left Sydney Central Station on Wednesday, March 15th at 7am, and it would be almost 6 hours before we pulled in the large transit town of Dubbo, where I would connect to a bus for a 9 hour bus ride to Broken Hill. Just the night before in Sydney, I stood patiently waiting at the standby booth at the Sydney Opera House, hoping that someone’s husband was stuck in traffic or decided not to see the opera that night, and that I would be offered a ticket. My hostel told me sometimes they resell tickets that are not picked up by people in time for the opera, but the squirrely man behind the booth sighed, as he probably has a million times before, and said they do not do that, but I was welcome to wait for showtime to see if anyone had an extra ticket. Luckily, I was the first one in line, as three middle-aged men waited after me. I thought I might miss out if there was a bidding war for a ticket, as the time clicked closer and closer to curtain call, I had about given up hope. There were a few offers to see Olivia Newton-John and the Sydney symphony, but I wasn’t interested. I wanted to see The Magic Flute, but like everything, I waited too long to buy a ticket and it was sold out. It was my only chance to see the opera, as I was leaving the next day, and they didn’t have a performance the previous night.

The opera was to start at 7:30, and at about 7:25, a thin, nerdy guy approached our anxious group. He asked if we were the standbys, and quickly strained our necks to see what tickets he held. Luckily, this wasn’t a Chicago Cubs Saturday game, and it was first come first serve. He had an extra obstructed view ticket for AUS$50, and I quickly agreed to the price. It was probably a good thing they were obstructed view, as a normal seat started at about $90 and rose steadily. I wouldn’t have been able to afford much more than I paid, and Ted and I quickly made our way to his seats. He was an interesting guy, a retired historian who did contract work at archeological digs, most recently taking him to Syria to identify some Roman coins. We didn’t have much time to chat though, as the orchestra began it’s warm-up and the lights dimmed. For anyone not familiar with opera, The Magic Flute is probably the best one to start off with. The music is light-hearted and familiar, and the story is easy to follow. The stage production was quite strange, as they had these Cirque de Soleil type acrobats writhing around on ropes overhead. We missed most of that with our obstructed views, but it didn’t matter, as they didn’t seem to go with any part of the opera as I could tell. It was really weird to hear them speak, as the speaking parts were in English, not German, and with Australian accents and modern slang thrown in, maybe to appeal to the masses. Intermission at the Sydney Opera House is probably the best in the world as far as I can imagine, out on the steps of the Opera House, overlooking Sydney Harbour and the bridge, with the lights of downtown glowing brightly. After a quick 15 minutes, we made our way back inside for the rest of the performance. It was a great experience to be able to see an opera inside the house, as most budget travelers can’t really afford it. I made my way back to my hostel to pack for my long journey the next day.

The previous few days weren’t anything memorable really. I wasted a few days in Airlie Beach, waiting for my flight to Sydney. Airlie Beach isn’t the best place to not have anything to do. It’s a small town, focuses primarily on reef and Whitsundays trips. The first day, I was happy to see Jade and Matt and Denise on the lagoon, and we hung out most of the day together. They were catching the overnight bus to Hervey Bay and Fraser Island, and it was nice to see them again and see them off. But I had two more days before I left for Sydney, and the lagoon quickly got boring and I finished my books that I had with me. I found a used book store and resupplied, but found my mind drifting. The flight to Sydney was uneventful, and after arriving in my huge hotel-like hostel directly across from Central Station, I went walking to explore parts of the city I missed during New Years. I was staying close to Chinatown, and wandered around the shops and malls there. I decided to head back to my hostel, and met Lisa, my British bunkmate. We chatted for a bit and went out for dinner, but didn’t feel like going out afterwards. The next morning, after a long sleep, I took the train and bus to Bondi Beach again. It was overcast but muggy, and though I brought my bathing suit with me, the real reason for my visit was to do the cliff walk to Coogee.

I heard it would take anywhere from an hour to three to do the walk, along narrow cliffs and stairs from Bondi to Coogee. I passed a few smaller towns and beaches, all with their own history and purpose for being. The cliff walk was really stunning, and good amount of exercise that I needed after my lazy days in Airlie. I arrived in Coogee after about 2 hours with the intention of swimming, but the sun still wasn’t out, and I didn’t feel like getting wet before my bus ride home. The bus meandered it’s way through Coogee and the surrounding towns before arriving at Central Station, and I quickly got showered and ready to try and score some opera tickets. It was a nice long walk to the Opera House, but I arrived in plenty of time, which seemingly was the only reason I managed to get a ticket, as I was the first one in line.

I tried to hum parts of the Magic Flute on the bus, but I couldn’t remember any of it. What bloody time is it? How long is this road? Does the scenery ever change? Why have I read this same paragraph over and over again? I couldn’t concentrate on anything, except the time and lack of anything to do. The train ride had been fine, nice even, as I had two seats to myself for most of the way. An Aborigine with bright blue eyes sat next to me for part of the time, and we chatted about this and that, but mainly his life and difficulties. It’s interesting when you talk to strangers on a train, the amount of information they share with you, willingly and without question. When he found out I was from Chicago, he asked me, of course, if I liked the Bulls. Was I carrying a gun with me? So, is it really windy in Chicago? I am starting to think I should tell people I’m from a place they couldn’t possibly have heard of, so they can’t ask me if I know Oprah or if I know anyone in the mafia.  It would be funny, if it weren’t so unoriginal.

We parted ways in Dubbo, as he boarded a different bus to a different Outback town. The bus driver looked at my curiously as I showed him my ticket to Broken Hill,but didn’t say anything. I knew they probably didn’t get a lot of tourists on this bus. Most tourists who visit Broken Hill go by the Indian Pacific rail or on a tour bus. I settled into my seat, fully prepared for a long drive. It didn’t reach epic proportions until around 9pm, after our last stop at a “town” which consisted of a fuel pump, payphone and a liquor store. The bus driver asked me why I was going to Broken Hill, not in a bad way, just out of curiousity. “I’m visiting my friend’s sheep station, near White Cliffs,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about. He quickly replied that I should have gotten off in Wilcannia, which I knew was closer, but I explained that my friend’s mom was already in Broken Hill and I would get a ride from her. He nodded, accepting that I was on the right path, and we boarded the bus for the last two hours.

Somehow, I managed to fall asleep in that time, and woke up when we stopped in Broken Hill. Considered a big town by Outback standards, Broken Hill was asleep when we arrived at 11pm, or 10:30pm Broken Hill time, as they are half an hour behind the rest of New South Wales. I heard someone call my name, and Denika’s mom was standing there. Dazed, I gave her a quick hug and asked her what she was doing there. She was supposed to pick me up in the morning, but wanted to make sure I got in okay, and to tell me we’d be leaving at 6:30 instead of 9:30 as originally planned. I couldn’t stay at her relatives house, so she dropped me at the only hostel in town, and I quickly showered and went to bed. Like with anything, when you really want it, it doesn’t happen, and I couldn’t fall asleep for hours. A few hours later, I woke up to my alarm buzzing, and I sleepily gathered my things, threw the same clothes on as I had the day before, and went outside to meet Annette. We stopped at the butcher to pick up some supplies, filling up every inch of the car with groceries. Since they are a three hour drive to Broken Hill, which is the closest big town, they don’t go in very often. When they do, they stock up on everything, from food to chicken feed, and the last decent cup of coffee, at the McDonald’s McCafe no less, for 400km.

The road to White Cliffs was the same road I came in on the bus, but we turned off before reaching Wilcannia, onto a dirt road, or unsealed road as they call it here. Annette and I chatted away, about life on the station, Denika growing up, and anything else we could think of. Annette was distracted as a kangaroo hopped in front of the car, and though I pointed it out, the words didn’t come out fast enough, and we heard a thud. The car stopped, and we looked back, relieved to see the roo hopping merrily along. They are really tough animals, mostly muscle and we seemingly only swiped it’s tail. The car was a different story, the headlight jarred loose and the license plate bent at an angle. Hitting roos is really almost a joke out here, as it happens with such frequency that it’s almost comical.

After about 85 km, we drove through White Cliffs, a small opal mining town surrounded by hills in the middle of the desert, where locals escaped the heat by building dugout homes underground. We kept driving, and after 20km, we pulled off into the driveway of Polpah homestead. I expected Denika and her boyfriend Martin to come out and meet me, but Annette told me they were working at the Underground Motel, so we unloaded the car, and she let me settle in front of the TV and satellite cable to take a nap. Denika and Martin arrived around 4, and we quickly caught up with everything that has been going on with each other. We had, of all things, tacos for dinner, and after an exhausting trip the day before, we all went to bed early.

The next morning, Martin and I helped Denika get some sheep into a holding pen. Her family was hosting a huge group of tourists for dinner on Sunday, and her dad had to kill a sheep or two for the BBQ. Denika went off on her dirtbike, and about an hour later, Martin and I went out to meet her and help bring them into the pens. I learned a lot about sheep that day, the different names for them, how they muster or herd them up, etc. They only eat the weathers, or castrated males, and Denika needed to separate out a few for her dad from the rest of the group. Polpah Station is about 64000 acres, and the amount of sheep they can raise is regulated by the government. I think she said they have about 5000 sheep right now, less than they are allowed. Since the land is so dry and water is so precious here, too many sheep can completely ravage the land. This part of Australia has been in a drought for years, and annual rainfall is measured in centimeteres. Surprisingly, the house uses rainwater for their drinking water, and her dad told me they never have run out of rainwater. The rest of the water, which is needed for daily household needs such as showering, laundry, dishes etc, is ground water, or tank water. It’s what they call dirty water here, and you can see the color of the red earth as it comes out of the taps.

For some reason, I was expecting complete desolation out here, eating canned vegetables and conserving water. But surprisingly, Polpah had a bright green lawn, greener than mine in Chicago this past summer. Orange and grapefruit trees were growing in the yard, and the walk in refridgerator and freezer was full of fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses and meats. While they are isolated, they are not as bad as some of their neighbors. They luckily can pop in to White Cliffs, only 20km away on a rocky dirt road, where as some of their neighbors live hours away from the nearest town. They have satellite TV, internet and plenty of water for the house. But some things did take getting used to, like the resident frog in the shower, and the crickets that fly straight at your face while your are eating dinner. The flies are an absolute nuisance, though local people don’t seem to be as bothered by them as Martin and I are. Martin is from Germany, and he was here for two weeks before me, so he was showing me the ropes of feeding the chicking and the dogs, and giving me a tour of the property while Denika was out helping her dad.

Denika grew up in a very different way than I did, her closest friend was about a half hour drive away at the next station. She was a student of the School of the Air, the school program for rural kids held daily on the CB radio. If someone was ill or injured, the Flying Doctor would come out to collect them and take them to Broken Hill or even Adelaide if it was serious. But I can imagine she had a great childhood, with huge expanse of land to play on, helping her dad out on the station and raising animals. As quickly became tiresome when other people said it to me, much different from Chicago, eh?

On Sunday, Denika and her family hosted a variety club, or charity group, of 75 people from Melbourne. We spent all day cooking and preparing the yard, and while her mom warned me they hated having the tourists out, I didn’t understand why until they arrived. While most of them were good natured and friendly, their attitude about country folk and the station was aloof at best, and condescending at worst. One guy had the stupid idea to ask Denika’s dad what kept him busy all day, as if running a sheep station wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t, as her dad rattled off all his odd jobs he did on the side, mustering feral goats for the National Park service, driving a loader to clean out other station’s water tanks, etc. The man seemed nonplussed. I volunteered to man the BBQ, and quickly caught all the chops of the sheep we had butchered the day before on fire. The BBQ was a huge flat metal surface, and the wood fire underneath raging hot. Lucky for me, everyone was drinking and we had plenty of meat and other food to spare. The night wore on, and the as the guests slowly left after dinner, making their way back to the Underground Motel in their city SUV’s and rodeo cars, her mom sighed, and said “That’s definitely the last time we do that.” And I understood what she meant. The life and station was seen as sort of a show or performance, and real country and station life wasn’t at all understand, though the adults seemed to think that was the purpose of the trip out to show their kids. It gets dark really quickly here, and once the sun sets, there are no streets lights to keep you up, and we sank into our beds.

The following morning, we got up early to go with Denika’s dad Barry to help load the goats he mustered the day before. Feral goats are a huge problem, both for the National Parks and the stations, and Barry gets paid for every goat he rounds up. He has a special license to do it, and that earns him yet another way to make a living. It wasn’t as difficult as I anticipated, and we quickly got the odd hundred or so onto the truck. After that, we went to work at the Underground Motel. The motel was built in the side of the hill by one man with a dream basically. It has changed owners throughout the years, and the new ones seem to have a problem keeping staff. So I went with to help clean and make beds after the huge variety club vacated, and the work was hard, bending over to make beds and vacuum all day. Since Denika and Martin had to work at night in the kitchen as well, I sat outside to watch the sunset and read, but again, couldn’t concentrate on my book.

We left after 9pm, and collapsed in bed. We went back again the next day, and my back gave out a cry as I bent over to make my first bed. I went off to do some laundry and polish some of the woodwork, leaving Denika and Martin with the beds. We finished earlier this time, since they didn’t have a full house, and we went home for lunch and a nap.  Today, Wednesday, was our first day of not having any work to do. It also rained here last night, a rarity in the Outback, and certainly in this drought year. Our plans to go to town changed. Her mom was going to have the house sprayed for spiders,but most people don’t drive on the roads during or after rain, since they ruin the dirt roads. So we’ve stayed in, relaxing and talking. We went with her dad to another station where he was doing some work, driving the back way through their station and his adjoining land. Things take a lot longer to do here than you think, and the trip took us almost 4 hours, a 60km drive on the dirt in their 4 wheel drive truck. It’s getting late here now, and dinner should be ready soon. Maybe the spider man will come tomorrow, and we’ll go into White Cliffs like we planned on today. Soon will come shearing time, and the list of things to do to get ready for shearing is a mile long, and then some. But there is always something to do here, and life is never boring, shockingly enough. It might not be the Opera, but for now, there is something new to discover and learn every day for me, and I can’t wait to see what we do tomorrow.


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One response to “One eighty”

  1. Shawnna says:


    I’m so glad you are enjoying farm life. The details are surprisingly similar to life on my grandfather’s farm when I was growing up. Juts replace the sheep with pigs and it’s about the same. We weren’t quite as rural and the Midwest rarely sees those kinds of droughts, but nonetheless, I could relate. Please keep us all informed about the shearing process. I imagine that will be quite the undertaking. Glad to hear you weren’t on the coast when the Typhoon hit.


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