BootsnAll Travel Network

The Daily Grind

Sheep shearing finally started yesterday, and after such anticipation and build-up, it was slightly anticlimatic. Because the start date kept getting pushed back, we actually had quite a lot of free time on the station, apart from getting everything ready for shearing. It was initially supposed to start on the 20th of March, but some of the sheep had lambs late in the season, they needed to wait a few weeks to let them get a little bigger to be able to make the long walks from the paddocks to the shearing shed at the house. It is also really difficult to book shearers, and the station they were at before Polpah took longer than expected, so instead of the 27th, we started yesterday, the 30th. There is a lot to do around a station to prepare for shearing, everything from going into town to get supplies to cleaning the shearers quarters to repairing fences and sweeping out the shed. But because we had so much extra time, we were able to do some fun activities as well, and the wealth of things to do out here continues to amaze me. I had been warned repeatedly that the weather out here was hot and hot. Last week proved no exception, and it was sunny and warm for most of the week. We had a free day last Wednesday, and Denika decided it was time for us to get some yabbies. Yabbies are what Australians call fresh water crayfish, and they live in, of all places, their water tanks. The tank closest to the house provides all the water they need for showering and laundry and basic household chores, except drinking water. So that morning, we suited up with nets, twine, buckets and some raw meat for bait, and walked a short bit over the road to the house tank. Denika showed us how to put the bait in the big nets, and cast them into the shallow parts of the tank, where the yabbies tend to hang out. Then we set up our own little fishing lines, with twine and meat attached to a stick in the mud. She warned us that we might not get any, as in previous years people had overfished the tanks to near empty. But no sooner had we set out meat-laden string in at the water’s edge, did the little strings start moving away from the edge. We aren’t sure if the yabbies actually eat the meat or not, but for some reason they are attracted to it, and attacht their claws to it. You slowly and gently start pulling the string back towards shore, and once you see their little antennaes, you try to pull them out of the water at the same time you stick the bucket underneath them. It definately takes practice, and I lost more than I actually got in the bucket. We also threw a lot of them back in since they were too small, but by the end of the day with both our sticks and the two nets in the water, we managed to get quite a lot of big yabbies to eat, probably about 100 or so. Denika’s parents drove out to the tank to meet us with lunch, and sat out in the sun, enjoying our catch the nice weather. Surprisingly, that took most of the day, and we made our way back to the house and relaxed for a bit before dinner.

I commented to Denika once that the days seemed to go by really quickly here, and she said she found that as well. Even though we were getting up early most days, our time was quickly spent doing chores or other activities around the house. The days also seem to blend in together, and you forget what you did one morning versus another. The other thing that surprised me about the Outback, was the effect that rain had on your daily life here. If it rains, most work and things come to a standstill. No one drives anywhere during or after a good rain, because it ruins the roads, so plans to go into town or elsewhere get postponed. You also can’t really work out on the station, so most people use it as an excuse to relax and do things in the house that have been put off.

The following day Denika, Martin and I went out to visit another station with Barry. In his spare time from running a huge sheep station and mustering goats for the National Parks, Barry also does work for other stations, and this usually involves using his loader to clean out other tanks. Over time, the tanks fill with dirt, dust and sediment, and once they dry up, they need to be cleaned out before filling them back up with water. Since Barry has his own loader, other stations pay him to clean out their tanks for them.  A neighbor to the south, Coona Coona station, which is owned by a man nicknamed Blue, was having Barry do some work, and we went to drop him off at the station. Blue’s station is more than twice the size of Polpah, and along with sheep, he grazes cattle and goats as well. It took us almost an hour to reach Coona Coona, their closest neighbor to the south, by the backroads and through the fences of their adjoining properties.

Since White Cliffs is such a small town, it is almost impossible to get all the supplies you need for the station. Even if they have what you need, it’s almost double the price of what you pay in Broken Hill. Since I didn’t have a chance to look around Broken Hill when I arrived in town before, we decided to go with Barry to town to help run errands, but also to do a little sightseeing and shopping. After the three hour drive or so, we arrived in Broken Hill early in the morning. Our first stop was the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service,  a service made famous by a televison series a while back. The Flying Doctor is exactly what it sounds like. Because of the remoteness and inaccessability of many towns and stations, their only access to both emergency and basic medical care is by the Flying Doctor. Each town and station has their own medicine chest, and after calling the Flying Doctor, they diagnose certain things over the phone and “dispense” the medicine. In the event of an emergency, they fly a small plane to the sight and pick up the ill or injured person and bring them back to either Broken Hill or as far as Adelaide for more specific care. They also provide some basic medical care to people in the Outback, such as semi-regular dentist appointments, pediatrics, ob/gyn and things like that. We watched a quick video, and then took a tour of the facility and the hangar where the planes are kept. It was really interesting, and while Denika said it doesn’t always work as perfectly as they make it sound, it really is the only medical care some people have, and it has to be better than nothing.

We made our way to the town center, which was bustling on a Friday afternoon. Broken Hill has about 21,000 people, and is considered a big town in comparison to places like White Cliffs. During the mining days, it was much bigger, but the population seems stable right now, though many younger people leave for Adelaide or Sydney to find jobs. After having lunch at a new Thai and sushi restaurant, I split up from Denika and Martin and went to the Regional Art Gallery. It is a pretty big gallery, which a permanent collection of local and Australian art, and then temporary exhibits. The most famous person arguably to come out of Broken Hill is the artist Pro Hart, and a few of his paintings were in this gallery. He basically started the large art scene that is still thriving in Broken Hill. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to go to his gallery, but what I saw of his work I really liked. After looking through a few cute shops and things along the street, I met up again with Denika and Martin, and off we went to the Living Desert and the Sculpture Symposium.

In 1993 twelve artists from around the world were recruited to create stone sculptures in the desert. Because of their unique backgrounds (Mexico, Syria, Georgia (country, not state) and Australians, the sculptures are all completely different. They were chiseled into hard sandstone from Wilcannia, another close town to White Cliffs. After a 6km drive out into literally the hot desert, we made out way up a short, but very hot 15 minute hike to the top of a ridge to see the sculptures. While it was an interesting project, and the stone was obviously hard to work with because of it’s hardness, I was not very impressed with some of the sculptures. Some were beautiful, but others fell flat and dull against the desert color. Sunset is supposed to be the best time to view the sculptures, and maybe that would have made the difference, but I didn’t find them worth the steep park entrance fees.

After the sculptures, we found our way to the mall and grocery store, and spent some time searching for individual things we needed. Martin needed some work boots and jeans, I needed to finally replenish some toiletries, and Denika found some gardening equipment and seeds for her veggie garden. We also bought a few odds and ends in the grocery store, and most importantly, the liquor store as we stocked up for the following two weeks and shearing. And, like any other day, it was suddenly 5pm, and we finished up our shopping, picked up our order at the butcher, and met up with Barry for the long drive back. The one thing you notice about these long drives between towns, is the availability, or lack thereof, of anything in between. So when you do come across a gas station or something, you almost always stop. About halfway home, we stopped for a drink at the Little Topar Roadhouse, which provides fuel, food, drinks and a chat for any  motorist or trucker that needs it. Barry makes it a point to stop every time he heads home, as the owners are friends of his. So we stopped with him and said hello, and had a quick steak sandwich and a rum jungle, which is a Coke and rasberry cordial or syrup. After about an hour, we finally said our goodbyes and headed for home, narrowly avoiding many kangaroos along the way.

The next few days involved a lot of preparing the station for shearing, and I mainly helped get the shearer’s quarters ready for them. Since they aren’t used most of the year, they get pretty dirty and dusty, and Denika and I spent hours dusting and vacuuming and rewashing all the dishes that they provide for them. In between all the cleaning and station work, we did manage to get out to the Coona Coona lake for some swimming boating. We had been looking forward to going to the lake all week, and I didn’t really know what to expect when we go there. While it is on Blue’s property, he is good to let everyone use the lake for recreation, provided they follow all his rules and clean up after themselves. Because he and Barry are good friends as well as neighbors, Barry is able to store his boat there. We arrived at the lake about 2, and quickly unpacked a quick picnic lunch that Annette and prepared for us. I was shocked to see huge pelicans flying around the lake, and there were some other water birds as well that I couldn’t name. It was just really strange to see pelicans flying around the desert. After lunch we got the speedboat in the water, and hooked up the Wakester, an innertube you ride on behind the boat. Denika and Martin went first, and I rode along with Barry. Then it was my turn, and we found it was much easier to ride on alone than with someone else. Unfortunately, this was the worst possible place to run out of batteries, but that I did, and the rest of the afternoon of water skiing and the BBQ at Blue’s homestead will have to be evident only in our memories. It was pitch dark when we finally left Blue’s, and I sat in the back of the pickup to look at the stars on the way home. They are so bright, and there are so many of them, it’s almost fake looking.

Once shearing actually starts, it is impossible to get away from the house, and we decided to go into White Cliffs the following morning to have a proper look around. There are huge opal fields in White Cliffs and there are a few  jewelry and opal shops still in town, so we visited them and the two little corner stores in town. We drove past the small hospital and town hall, and then needed to stop in the post office as well. One thing that I found really strange, is that the post office is privately owned, and they get paid by the Australian post to run the office. Apparently, this is a common practice in the smaller towns where there might not be a service otherwise. Polpah gets their mail in White Cliffs, but they also get airmail delivered on Saturdays by a small plane that drops it off at the end of Barry’s hangar. That night, after more station work, I experienced a real rain in the Outback. There was thunder and lightning, and it rained off and on all night. Since they get so little rain here, they measure it by points of a millimeter, and while it wasn’t as much as they needed, they managed to get about 19 mm.

The following day, Barry took me up in his plane to look at the position of some sheep. I’ve never been in a such a small plane before, and it did freak me out a little bit. My constant question asking always gets me into trouble, and instantly regretted asking how old his plane was. He told me it was basically a family “heirloom,” as his dad bought it in 1968! Of course, he takes good care of this little 4 seater, and we easily lifted up and over the station. It was a great day for flying, completely calm, and after finding his sheep, we flew over White Cliffs and the opal mines, which look like little rabbit holes and burrows from above. After a few more minutes of cruising, we landed quickly and safely, and I can honestly say, after flying in such a small plane, I don’t think I’ll be at all nervous about flying again. It was such a strange feeling to look down and be able to kangaroos hopping along, and spot water in patches along the ground.

The shearers finally arrived on Thursday after finishing their last job, and settled into the quarters which we had so lovingly cleaned. Barry, Denika and Martin went out to finish mustering sheep, and I joined them after a while on foot. They were on motorbikes, and while I had started to learn how to ride one, I wasn’t near good enough to go out on my own to muster. So I joined them when they got a little bit closer and walked behind the sheep. Sheep are strange animals, and the first rule you have to remember when dealing with them, is to never stand in front of them. They will go in the opposite direction of where you are standing, so it is always important to stand behind them. We finished bringing them into the yards, and Barry went to work on drafting, or sorting, them. They try to separate the rams and lambs out, and then all the ewes and weathers, or castrated males, get shorn. We had about 600 ready to go in the shed and the yards for the shearers the next morning.

Sheep shearing is a really difficult skill to learn, and most go to school to get their certificate for about 6 weeks. This particular crew had 4 shearers in it, and they were fast at work by they time I got out to the shed in the morning. They wanted to finish early that day to head into Broken HIll for the weekends St. Patty’s Day races, and were happy to learn we didn’t have as many sheep as normal for the day. Along with the 4 shearers, there are also two rousabouts, who help pick up and clean the shorn wool. There is also a classer, who picks through the wool and divides it by class of wool, also another difficult job and one where you need to get proper training and a certificate. Lastly there is a presser, who presses the sorted and picked through wool into bales, and the stamp of the station and the classers’ number gets stamped on the bale, so they know who classed the wool. Unfortunately, sheep shearing isn’t something that I could just try out, and I had to be content with watching them do their work. After they shear a sheep, they send it down a ramp back out into the yard. I was surprised to see so much blood on the sheep, but Barry assured me that was normal, though some shearers are more rough than others.

After enough sheep are put back into the yard, I went to do my job for the day, which was helping Barry’s friend Raymond, brand the sheep. I was very relieved to learn that they don’t brand them with fire-hot brands anymore, but with special blue paint that can be washed out of the wool once it is shorn. It was fairly easy work, but I was glad to be given a job to do, as I felt sort of useless around the yards once the sheep were in place. Because their work is so difficult, the shearers eat 5 times a day, three meals and two smokos, or snacks. Their snacks are what we would call full meals though, with sandwiches and things like that. I was under the impression initially that Annette cooks for the shearers as well as us, but they bring their own cook and food with them. They decided to work through their afternoon smoko so they could finish early and head for “the Hill” for the weekend. After they were finished, we went back to the yard, and redrafted the sheep, putting the weathers in one area, and the ewes back with their lambs. We woke up early this morning, and brought the shorn sheep back to their paddock, about a 4km walk for them. Since the shearers don’t work on weekends, we have a day off today basically. Tomorrow we’ll muster another paddock and bring in more sheep for Monday, and that is how the rotation goes every day, bringing in new sheep, moving out the shorn ones on a big rotation. Since Polpah is almost full capacity, about 4500 sheep, it will take about 10 days. Unfortunately, I won’t be here for most of it, as I’m going to Perth on the train on the 6th. I’m meeting Lora, the Canadian girl I met in New Zealand out there on the 8th, otherwise, I’d stick around for all of shearing, since at the end they have a big thank you BBQ for the shearers and everything like that. But it was really interesting so far, and if I’m not too embarrassed, I’ll take some pictures of the shearing on Monday. It’s been a full couple of weeks, and it will only continue on next week.


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3 responses to “The Daily Grind”

  1. Brian says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading about your trip. The detail you have in your stories makes me feel like I am right there. I’m leaving my job in June and will be doing a similar trip … I can’t wait! Your blog has given me lots of ideas about how to write mine and things to do while I’m on the road. Getting to meet up with people you met elsewhere on your trip sounds like it has led to some unique opportunities. Keep enjoying yourself.


  2. admin says:

    Hi Brian,
    Thanks so much for the nice compliment and for reading my stuff. It’s nice to know someone is enjoying it. Make sure you let me know your blog address, so I can keep up with your travels. Have a great time!

  3. Brian says:

    You can click on my name and it is linked to my blog. Only one entry so far, but it will be picking up as my trip gets closer. Have fun in WA!

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