Brunette Downs: Kingdom of cattle

By Diana Bagnall 18 December 2009
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Up before daybreak and labouring under the scorching sun is all in a day’s work for the citizens of Brunette Downs.

THE WORKING DAY ON Brunette Downs station begins well before dawn. The cook is cranking out a hot breakfast from about 4.15am. By sunrise, the boremen and the grader drivers are heading out; the mechanic’s wondering which engine to fix first as the pilot taxis down the runway, watched only by kangaroos; and the ringers are in the saddle (horse and motorbike) mustering at the yards or with helicopters in distant paddocks.

“That’s just working with nature,” Brunette’s manager Henry Burke says, explaining the early call. Cattle are more active when it’s cool. No animal, two or four legged, is eager to put one foot in front of the other when the sun is on high grill out here.

Covering 12,212 sq. km of the Barkly Tableland, in the Northern Territory, Brunette Downs is one of Australia’s largest cattle stations and bigger than some countries. It’s one of several Barkly properties owned by the Brisbane-based beef-producing Australian Agricultural Company (AAco), which controls 77,000 sq. km – about 1 per cent of Australia’s land area – across Queensland and the NT.

Brunette runs 72,500 head of cattle, including the 6500 bull-breeding herd, and lies about 430 km north-west of the mining metropolis of Mount Isa, a dusty six-and-a-half-hour drive, and 350km north-east of Tennant Creek’s bare-essentials hospital. In between, civilisation holds on by the skin of its teeth. A sign at the top of Brunette’s 10 km long driveway proclaims Sorry No Fuel, although 120,000 L of diesel are stored on-site. A cattle station’s first obligation is to its own community.

About 52 people work and live at in this outback station during the reliably dry March–November ‘on’ season. Most are young, single and male: those who aren’t understand that here stockmen rule and the rest serve. Station employees receive free housing and food and a daily wage that starts from $150 a day for those aged over 21.

(Photo: Jacynta Coffey)

Image from the Ringers’ Photo Album View Gallery

Fringed by horse yards, workshops, generators, dry stores and cool stores, and serviced by fleets of small aircraft and large vehicles, including a road train, Brunette is more oasis township than lonely outpost. Its neat rows of offices and company houses are linked by well-watered lawns, rose beds, trellised bougainvillea and mature trees. At the centre of the complex are blocks of dormitory accommodation, a health clinic, butchery, commercial-grade kitchen and the social club – an open-sided shed where alcohol from a lock-up bar is served for one hour at sundown. The illusion of connectedness is powerful: common rooms and offices have internet access and TVs, and the workers’ quarters have phones. Beyond the boundaries of this small community, it’s flat for as far as the eye can see and all the clichés about heat, dust and flies stick.

Cattle country of the Northern Territory

The Bakley’s black soil is covered with a thatch of robust golden Mitchell tussock and reddish Flinders grass. But a range of delicate herbs and other native grasses also appear after rain. “We have plenty of grass in an average year,” says Suzie Kearins, AAco’s Brunette-based NT rangelands manager. “Water is the most limiting resource here.” By extension, harvesting the water table is Brunette Downs’ most important activity – despite what the stockmen think. The station’s first sub-artesian bore was sunk in 1903. Now 180 bores pump water from depths of up to 100 m into a network of 220 ‘turkey nests’ (water storage ponds) and 400 troughs.

Brunette is particularly fortunate to sit in a shallow basin. Much of the water that falls on surrounding properties eventually finds its way to Brunette’s three lakes, which spill and merge after heavy rains. When Australian Geographic visited in mid-April, three months after significant downpours, pelicans were nesting in a gravelly rookery amid 2000 sq. km of inundated paddocks. The pastoral bounty will be richest when the floodwaters dry out completely after about a year. Suzie – known as the “weeds and seeds girl” – is paid to understand the science behind grazing management. After the most recent rainfall, she explains, the grass yield per hectare should be 20 per cent higher than the 3000 kg per hectare average.

The men who from the early 1870s began bringing cattle on to the Barkly figured they could make money combining vast land areas, cheap labour and easily managed stock. The formula worked for well over a century. But recently the land and labour components have shifted. “We’ve run out of land,” Henry, who’s also AAco’s Barkly group manger, says. “It used to be that if you wanted to get bigger you bought another property and all you paid was the value of the cattle. The land was almost a given. But in the last decade, the cost of land has been going up on average about 9 per cent per annum.” During the same period, it’s become more difficult to recruit and hold on to station workers.

Some suggest it’s because young people have more options than they used to. Very few among the annual jackaroo and jillaroo intake return for a second or third year of chasing cattle from dawn till dusk.

Itinerant saddler Bonny Young, a legendary rough-rider in his day, who travels between big stations and rodeos making and repairing harnesses, has a theory. “I reckon what’s buggered a lot of employment on these stations is the mines,” Bonny tells me over a drink by his gooseneck trailer.

Brunette, with its 150 horses, keeps Bonny busy for a week or so each time he passes.

Whatever the reasons, the stock camps (teams of ringers) are short-handed and inexperienced compared with past generations. It worries Henry. “If you haven’t got good people, you haven’t got a business,” he laments, sounding more corporate than cattleman. 

launch gallery

Brunette Downs: all about the people

Each Brunette resident has their reason for being in the middle of nowhere. For some, it’s about saving money, although the peachy-skinned jackaroos apparently spend much of their earnings on alcohol and fuel. By and large, they are in thrall to the romance of the frontier.

Older employees – mostly station and vehicle maintenance staff – are a mixed bag of grey nomads, refugees from marital war zones, Tidy Town runaways, modern-day swaggies and non-conformists. For them, the attraction is lifestyle. “It suits me,” head bore mechanic BJ (Bernard) Vankuyk, 34, says. He’s a qualified fitter and turner from near Moree, NSW, and BJ – only his mother calls him Bernard – has been at Brunette for six years; an eternity compared with most. “I have my little routine, I have my pattern.” He likes the people he meets here: “Pretty fair dinkum, no bullshit.”

What matters more than a person’s age, sex or experience is their attitude to work. Forget work-life balance. The usual roster allows two days off each fortnight, but there’s a lot of slippage in that.

Bore-runner Rob Kupsch, 60, used to operate a piggery on the NSW north coast. Now he spends his days in perpetual motion, checking bores and troughs. “The work is there to be done,” he says. “No-one else is going to do it, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes, or how short it takes, as long as it gets done.”

“No-one minds working all the time because what are you going to do on your day off?” helicopter pilot Winston ‘Wal’ Hazlett, 27, reasons. Wash your clothes in readiness for work, is the usual answer.

The Burkes are deeply conscious of managing the fine line between overwork and boredom. They’re always looking for signs of burnout. “You have to be intuitive, not in their face. If I miss it, Bern picks it up,” Henry says. Bernadette adds: “We need to entertain our staff as well as employ them.”

The trick is to get people away from the station even before they themselves realise they’re due for a break. A couple of times a year the Burkes lead a convoy up to King Ash Bay in Borroloola fishing country where the Brunette social club has a boat and a shack. But the regular entertainment in the NT is campdrafting, an Australian bush sport where riders compete to chase cattle around three poles.  Henry is keen and encourages staff to compete.

Once a month, the younger recruits drink themselves silly at an all-night barbecue and there’s the occasional fundraiser or formal do. The biggest event on Barkly’s social calendar is Brunette racecourse’s four-day mid-year carnival, which celebrates its centenary in June.

A remote station, like any closed community, breeds a special kind of intimacy. Inevitably, with a million or so hectares of emptiness on their doorstep, Brunette’s employees end up sharing not only horses and vehicles but washing facilities, gossip, music, holidays and, yes, beds. 

At the pub and at meal times, there are unspoken rules about who sits where and with whom. The head stockmen, head mechanics, the governess and the pilot tend to cluster and the older couples talk among themselves. The old stockmen put out to pasture as grader drivers and gardeners make little effort to engage with each new season’s recruits. Nor does it occur to the youngsters to sidle over for a chat with the veterans. “They are all nice people, they come for a few beers, but they stay to themselves a little,” jackaroo Charlie Begg says. He was at a Sydney boarding school last year, and expects to have a hand in running the family property near Tamworth.

Characters of the outback

Each Brunette resident has a lot of yards, some 90 km from the homestead. Economic pressure to produce and move meat more quickly to market means much of the dirty work of cattle production – vaccinating, tagging, branding, dehorning, desexing – now happens in the yards, rather than the paddock.

Working with cattle is hot, filthy, physically ruinous work. Nobody pretends otherwise, but the place runs on machismo and stoicism. Boils and concussion, fatigue and broken bones come with the turf.  But, these days, so do air-conditioning and hot showers. “They live like royalty,” gripes Eugene Kostin, 84, a one-time drover who’s worked out his twilight years as Bernadette’s gardener.

If they are close enough to the homestead, the stock camps return late afternoon. By 6 p.m., when the bar opens, they’re talking about “how many cows they’ve chased and how many bikes they’ve flipped”, head mechanic Isaac Dayman, 23, says, rolling his eyes. At 7 p.m., the cook pushes the dinner bell and it’s a stampede to eat. The food is plain, but not dull, and dished up in copious quantities. The older station staff drift off early to their quarters, leaving the kids to entertain themselves.

By 9 p.m., the few young ringers still on their feet are heading for their bed. In the pre-dawn testosterone fog of each working day, there’s no quarter given to stragglers.