Originally published in Shoestring Magazine.
Jackaroo Schools across Australia prepare willing workers on organic farms – Wwoofers – for life in the Outback. Study. Read. Write’s Conny Kaufmann took the 11-day course at Leconfield Farm near Tamworth, New South Wales in 2007 to find out just how hard the cowboy life really is.
My alarm rings at 5am, but instead of jumping under the shower, I jump straight back into my dirty jeans and top.
My mud-encrusted boots are waiting outside the old homestead’s door. It’s my turn to yard and milk the two dairy cows so that my fellow Jackaroo and Jillaroo students have milk for breakfast. By 6.30am, we are in the horse yards, getting ready for another hot and long day on the farm. The shower will have to wait.
The horse I ride for the duration of the course is a feisty grey one called Ralph. Col, our coach and Leconfield’s overseer, gave us our horses according to our riding abilities. My ten years in the saddle are of advantage, but some of the others have never been on horseback before. We are 24 wannabe Jackaroos and Jillaroos on Leconfield, and most of us are European and on a Gap Year. There is just one Australian among us, who wanted to “go bush” for a while.
Our days start early on the farm, and since Leconfield is a working cattle and sheep station, we all have to help run the place. Set in 4,600 acres of New South Wales countryside, about an hour away from Tamworth, the homestead looks tiny compared to the vastness of the surrounding hills covered in scrubs and dried-up grass. The house itself is surrounded by horse yards.
It only takes Col a few hours to get the beginner riders ready to survive a full day muster, while his wife Kat teaches the rest how to catch a log of wood with a lasso. I soon learn that you have to move your wrist just right and fast enough for it to work, and I could have sworn that the log moved every time I tried.
Mustering on horseback is the only possible way on Leconfield as the terrain is too stony and steep for vehicles and bikes. Therefore, we are out and mustering 100 cows on the second day already. It’s a test of communication and coordination, as well as for our vocal chords, as we have to make a lot of noise to keep the cattle moving in front of us. Soon enough, we sound like we’re on a pub crawl, singing and shouting gibberish at the top of our lungs.
Although the official trainer on Leconfield is owner Brian Skerrett, he seldom interacts with us. Col trusts us and our abilities enough to take us on an all-day muster, to get the cattle herded and loaded on the truck for a big sale. Brian, however, is of little faith, and arrives with the truck – and our lunch packs and water – an hour after we’ve finished herding, and separating the heifers from their mothers. He spotted a few strays on the way down the paddock, and sends me and a British lass called Natasha to round them up.
After eight hours in the saddle, all of us are glad to get back to the homestead, although we saw a few fences on the way back that will need to be repaired soon. The McLeod girls made farm work look easy and idyllic on TV – but I can guarantee they too had sore muscles every night.
Never skipping a beat, Col turns fencing into a lesson for us. 100 metres of straight fence, uphill, and build from scratch. We’re not allowed to wear our cowboy hats while riding. Instead, it’s shiny white helmets for us because safety always comes first. That day we’re glad we’re wearing our wide-brimmed hats though, because the sun in the bush knows no mercy.
Getting off the horses for a day was especially appreciated by the cowboys, and it finally gave us a chance to take in the spectacular scenery. On a muster, you concentrate on the horse and your task. From the ground, we actually noticed the kangaroos jumping across the paddocks.
Farm work never stops, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of fun while you’re at it. Col shows us how to throw calves – that is to pick them up and throw them on their side so they can be branded and tagged for identification. And while we’re at it, we have to castrate three bulls as well. Col is having a bit of a chuckle, seeing us chasing the young bulls around. It’s amazing how fast you have to be once the bulls are on the ground.
One person tags, one brands, and one castrates, all at the same time, and it’s over in seconds – and then you have to be pretty quick to jump out of the way and over the fence, as the now-steers do not like you anymore.
It’s a dirty and smelly business – definitely not for city princesses – but if you think cows smell, wait until you’ve worked with sheep all day. The muster was not as smooth and tranquil as usual, as one of our horses collapsed and died on our way across the paddock while we were rounding the sheep up. We even performed CPR, but there was nothing we could do. When we finally got the mob back to the shearing shed, Col, who would describe himself as “one tough mother”, was still in tears. After all, those horses are his best mates.
By now we know the drill, so we start sorting the lambs out for castration by ourselves. And while all of us would use a knife for the castration, Col did it with his teeth – grossing all of us out in the process. Delighted to get out of the midday heat, we can’t get into the cool and dark shearing shed fast enough. I am grateful for the invention of electric shears; although I still ended up sweaty, hot and covered in wool and grease.
“Beer o’clock” can’t come too soon when you work on a farm. At the end of the day, all you want is a cold shower to clean yourself up, and a cold drink to kick back with. Showers are wasted in the mornings, if you are going to get dirty during the day.
Becoming a Jackaroo or Jillaroo is probably the most challenging but also the most rewarding course you’ll ever do. Just don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty in the process.