Sadly our time here has come to an end. We have certainly enjoyed our first taste of the Aussie outback and couldn’t have been luckier with our super hosts, Frankie and Jake, ably abetted by Banjo, Julio and even Cowgirl. The station has been a revelation about how demanding this environment can be. We have seen it at its most benign; warm temperatures, not the searing heat of summer when high 40s and 50s are common, and some light but consistent rainfall, very unusual but extremely welcome and the best winter season for over a decade.
Frankie is an extraordinary woman and soon-to-be mother. This is a difficult country for humans to exist in, particularly as a woman but she manages to maintain her femininity whilst still being tough enough to support Jake in all aspects of station management (within reason!) I hope she does manage to get her blog ‘diamonds and dust’ off the ground as the tale of a lass from West Yorkshire (previously Lancashire) coming over here and starting up a life with an Aussie outbacksman is fairly unique and would make remarkable reading. Her background in farming and degree in agriculture certainly help but nothing really prepares you for the reality of this inhospitable country.
Unless, of course, you hitch up with an equally extraordinary guy, to the outback born! Jake’s family had a station near Mt Isa Queensland and moved to South Australia some years ago. He has an extensive breadth and depth of knowledge of all things out here. Whether it be how to manage the water flow from the bores to the showers at the new camp-site, use natural resources for energy (and diet!), know which animals will eat which grass and plants and their names (plants not animals), spot a four-legged intruder away in the distance (and dispatch it humanely!) and how to keep his woman happy with a beautiful bunch of desert flowers. It may not be necessary to be built like the proverbial brick ****house nor be as strong as an ox but I suspect it helps.
Their constant companions are Banjo, the floppy eared, wonderful, loyal and loving, immaculately behaved guardian. Julio, the 7 month old fox terrier, still exploring his surroundings with unbridled pleasure and excitement, still getting himself in to trouble but learning fast, particularly the pecking order. Finally Cowgirl who has yet to come in to her own as a breeder. Apparently Dachshunds are in great demand out here and fortunately Frankie’s brother in Adelaide has a male. For a small dog she is neither yappy nor precious, her big brothers see to the latter but she does have quite an intrepid spirit of adventure for a 4 month old.
The station couldn’t survive without the big machinery but also the motorbikes. They can go where vehicles can’t pass and be much quicker as well as causing less damage. If we had been mustering, horseback would have been too slow and limited as underfoot is too uneven to do more than a walk and these cattle are quite lively. On our final day with Frankie and Jake he suggested a bit of a play around on the bikes as we hadn’t had them out up until now apart from when he went off checking stuff on his own. (Fuel isn’t cheap out here either.) Roger used to ride but hadn’t done so for a number of years and I have never learnt. I can ride a push-bike and a quad but never had the opportunity (nor reason) to learn.
Jake put me on the 650cc trial bike (there being no lesser alternative) and showed me how to make it go, where the brakes and gears were positioned and set me off. After a few circuits of the yard I started down the drive with him as escort. Over the creek I came to the first turning where I thought there’d be enough space to turn around but decided not to so continued on. Now that we know the place reasonably well I realised that there was nowhere wider until we reached the highway 15km away! I had to yell back to Jake that I couldn’t stop either as I was concerned about being able to support the weight of the stationary bike when I could only just reach the ground on each side on tip-toes! He came along side and held the handlebars whilst I got off and pushed it round, stating that he wondered how far I was going to go.
On my return to the yard I thought I would manage to stop safely but thankfully Roger had mentioned that as the bike is so heavy, if I felt it starting to go over, to jump out the way so I ended up executing a tumbling dismount in a very ungainly but effective manner. Having accomplished the first lesson Roger and I were sent off to enjoy the countryside. Initially I practised some tighter turns in the yard so that I’d be able to do a U-turn when necessary. I managed to drive a reasonably narrow figure of 8 between the fences and felt quite chuffed with myself.
We set off down the road and I even got into 3rd gear! I knew there were a couple of low creeks to cross with steep sides and negotiated the first without too much difficulty. On approaching the second I suddenly decided that the speed needed to get up the bank on the other side was more than I was comfortable with, but neither could I stop easily without falling off. I know I had managed in the yard but out here the track was shingle and smallish rocks! (I thought I’d done quite well not to skid over on this rather unstable surface.) They did not look too soft a landing. Roger went ahead to try to find somewhere for me to turn around as the road was too narrow for my practised turns but I had to take emergency action as the hill was looming and decided to risk the ground. Not a good decision as it transpired. For some reason I didn’t manage to get clear and landed with an almighty thud on my left side, arm underneath my ribs and bike on top of my left leg.
When Jake had first suggested going on the bikes my initial reaction was reluctance. We didn’t want to sustain any significant injuries, especially not this early on in the trip, although later wouldn’t have been any better! Motorbikes have that dangerous combination of power leading to speed but no protection for the rider and I knew this, but…. Perhaps 55 is a bit late to be learning new tricks but then this is what we are doing all the time now so it seemed like an ideal opportunity. Perhaps a smaller bike would have been more suitable for me but one wasn’t available.
Roger looked back to see me rolling around the track in agony and came hurrying back. By the time I had sorted myself out (stopped cursing and swearing) my bike had been on its side for over 5 minutes and wouldn’t start. Roger’s was a kick start but just a bit too high for him. Eventually we got his started and he went to fetch Jake for the rescue. By the time he arrived my bike was resuming normal service and he started it for me. We set off at a very steady pace but I did realise that we’d need to go a little faster if we were to get back before dark. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get it out of first gear, the lever was bent in so had to putt-putt all the way back with him riding cross legged and one handed whilst I clung on for dear life.
Roger knew of my concerns about stopping so was waiting in the yard but on a fairly minuscule rise which I decided was far too steep for me to stop on. As I yelled at him that I was going round again and to come down from the slope up to the Old House, Frankie came out to see what the problem was. She’d heard me shouting and thought that the dogs had got in the way. The problem with wearing a full head helmet is that it covers your ears and combined with the noise of the engine it is difficult to know how loud you have to shout to be heard. Not as loud as me apparently! Anyway he managed to control the bike as I stopped on the second circuit and I leapt off as best I could in the circumstances, all the aches and pains coming to the fore. The gear lever was indeed bent inwards, possibly by my fourth toe which seemed to have borne the brunt, although there isn’t a mark on my boot.
Roger went off for a ride on his own and had a great time. I would ride again but it would need to be a smaller bike, both height and weight, so I’d know that I could stop in control but am very grateful to Jake for my first ever lesson and no serious damage done (although it still hurts my ribs to turn over in bed!)
They went off to the Alice Springs Show and ball early on Saturday morning and will return after we have left. They are not going to the station owners ball this year as they reckoned to have been 25 years younger than the next youngest last year so are going to give that one a miss. We were flattered to be left in charge over the weekend and although missed saying a proper goodbye to them it would have been very difficult. It was bad enough going to bed on Friday night knowing that they were leaving at 4am and we wouldn’t see them. They are a fantastic couple, hard-working, resourceful and fun. We couldn’t wish them more happiness in the future as they carve their life out together at Wintinna and hope to see them again one day.