In my CDU blog I mentioned producing resources for Pacific countries. Shortly after leaving the Department to be an education consultant in 1986 – at that time a rather unusual and rash step - the Consortium approached me to write a wrote a text-book for New Zealand Schools titled Australia Nearby. Part of it was built around the lives of four Australian secondary students. The first was on correspondence in a remote station in the Pilbara region in West Australia. That visit enabled me to experience the outback vastness, such an ancient immense area.
Here in New Zealand nowhere is far from the sea and the most common colour is green. The Pilbarra consists of kilometre upon kilometre of red earth, with rows of gum along the banks of waterless streams. The rainfall is 22 millimetres, just enough for sparse vegetation, mainly mulga shrub. The small plane that took me to Paraburdoo the nearest town made several landings along the way, mainly at iron ore towns providing dramatic views as it flew low over the massive open-cast mines with their gigantic machines, From Paraburdoo there was a four hour jeep journey to the station called Pingandy.. Emus raced alongside the jeep. “Crazy birds. Are they racing us?” I asked. “Too dumb to swerve away,” the student’s stepmother replied. “They’re real bird-brains.” When the jeep stopped what struck me was the silence. And the late spring heat. Summer is the rainy season. Late spring, everything is very dry.
It’s half an hour from the station gate to the homestead. We arrive late afternoon as the heat dies down and a slight breeze starts. The animals come alive. We go past a bore, free range cattle and kangaroo drinking along with cockatoo and galah. As it’s nearing the end of the dry season the stock do not move far from the troughs. When it does rain the vegetation quickly flourishes and the cattle and the wild animals range further afield. Kylie, the student, starts her schoolwork about 6 30 am. Apart from helping neighbouring stations muster she’s only left her station three times this year. Basically the station closes down in the middle of the day – siesta time for everyone though I’m too hot to sleep even in the veranda shade. The generator is turned off at 8 30 pm. By that stage we are all under mosquito nets on the veranda. The kikuyu grass around the homestead is green – the good bore there can supply enough for a sprinkler as well as the household and a large trough for the animals. And there is a big veggie garden. I watch the dogs chase a goanna out of their melon patch. “If it comes towards you fall over,” Kylie advises. She saw my bewilderment. “If you don’t, it will try to run up you to get away from the dogs.” I hurriedly look round for the best place to hurl myself. The reptile with its huge claws goes over the high fence with ease.
Kylie’s parents take me bush bashing – in the buggie we drive through the mulga towards water-holes they’ve only seen from the air. Pelicans and galahs take to the air as we arrive. They are delighted to find their prize Hereford bull with a harem of cows. In the last roundup he’d been missing and they were worried he’d died. I pull my shirt off to enjoy the sun. “Put it back on” they tell me. “It’ll fry you.” I don’t argue. They have one big round-up a year and truck the stock out for sale. “A good sale means we can sink another bore.” “And a bad one?” “We pull our horns in.” On the way back they point out some holes in the dry river-bed where they have dug temporary watering holes. They identify the best places to dig by kangaroo scratch marks.
During my last evening, Kylie taking the meat out to the freezer almost steps on a brown snake. If it had bitten there was no way the Flying Doctor could land at night. She would not have survived. I’m more concerned than they are. “We live with this.” Kylie says “I wouldn’t like to be anywhere else.” At night, under bright stars, I hear the heifer calf savaged by dingos cropping the lawn. Miles to the west there was a flash of lightning. In time the rumble of distant thunder arrived. Could the much-needed change in the weather be coming. I sensed Kylie, her parents, the animals, the bush all willing it to rain. No, it was a dry blow.