There are horse crossing signs and deer crossing signs, and even camel crossing signs in other parts of the world but only in Australia will you find a kangaroo or a wombat crossing sign! This photo was taken in 1990 when we were driving across the Nullabor plain of Southern Australia. A few hours after this photo stop we left the highway and set off north along a dirt track following the Dingo Protection Fence. The liminality of this journey cannot be underestimated. We had begun our journey in Sydney and come through Melbourne and Adelaide and now we were on the threshold of a real adventure.
We were travelling in a Toyota truck campervan with our two children; our son aged 4 and our daughter aged 2. A friend of mine had an uncle who managed a 3 million acre sheep station in the Outback and he had invited us to come for a visit. He had also instructed us that it was imperative that we had enough food and water to last for two days. If our truck broke down we were to stay with it and if we did not arrive by nightfall he would send someone down the track the next day to find us.
A sheep station. My idea of sheep were fluffy white sheep grazing on green grass. There was not a blade of grass to be seen as we bumped and jostled up that red dirt track. The fine red dust seeped into every crack of the campervan and soon everything, including us, was covered in fine red dust. The journey took us almost a full day although I doubted we covered much mileage.
We arrived in time for the annual shearing at the station. A team of Maori shearers was there from New Zealand. Our first day we watched as they expertly sheared the sheep bringing the fleece off in one piece and throwing it onto a table for sorting. The sheep bounced out into the open air looking like they were happy to be more naked. David and our son assisted with some of the sheep herding during the day.
In the afternoon one of the shearers became quite ill and the Flying Doctor had to be sent for. When I was young I had seen a TV series about the Flying Doctor so this was amazing for me to now see it in real life. The airplane arrived and our son and daughter were shown the inside of the aircraft while the shearer was assessed by the medics. He was diagnosed with appendicitis and had to be flown to the hospital in Perth.
The second day of our visit my friends Uncle took us out to examine the water troughs. This is a daily task as there is no surface water on the entire 3 million acres. Not a stream, a river , a lake or even a pond. No water! So the 10,000 sheep who live on this land must have water provided by bore wells that pump water into troughs. Each day the troughs must be inspected to make sure there is water and to make sure that a sheep has not fallen in. If one falls in and drowns the other sheep will not drink from that trough. In the day we went round one had fallen in but was still alive and so we pulled it out and it cantered away.
At lunch time we stopped and the station manager made us some tea to go with our sandwiches. He scraped some twigs and small branches together, filled a metal tin with water and set the twigs alight. They burned and by the time they had burned out the water was boiling. He threw in a handful of tea leaves and put a lid on the tin. I should call it by it’s proper Australian name…..a billycan. While we had our tea and sandwiches he told us that now they use motorbikes to get around the station to round up the sheep for shearing and for checking up on things. But previously they had used horses. He told us that one time he had been out with his son and the son’s horse had spooked and the young man was thrown off and badly injured. They were a long way from the station when this happened. He radioed back to the station and told them to call for the Flying Doctor. Then he had to make the decision of whether or not he could get his son back to the station. He knew the injuries were very serious and that moving him could make it worse. But he knew if he did not the young man might die. He rigged up a litter and attached it to his own horse and pulled the injured son back to the station. He was flown to the hospital in Perth but died a few days later.
As he told us this story I could see that is still weighted heavily on him. If he did not have this job in the Outback his son would still be alive? He struggled with the idea that he was responsible for his son’s death. David and I spoke with him about all the unique and wonderful experiences of living in the Outback that most people, even most Australians never experience. We reminded him that there are also many dangers in the city that can cut a young life short.
The next day we left the station and headed west along a corrugated dirt road toward Perth. The visit to that station and the marvelous hospitality we found in this remote outpost was something I will never forget.