I was raised to be a straw-chewin’, corn-pickin’, haywagon-ridin’, chicken-slaughterin’, Midwestern country girl. I thought I knew all about country life – until I studied abroad one semester at the University of Western Australia in the early 90’s.
There I met a friend named Amanda.
“Want to come home with me over break? You could see our sheep operation.”
We headed for her home in the outback, about four hours east of Perth in Western Australia. This state was as big as the entire landmass east of the Mississippi River!
The terrain reminded me of Africa. Gray birds with pink heads and necks dotted the landscape. I saw my first skinny, six-inch-wide “roo trails” created by kanga tails. The red-red, rocky earth grew low, dry-looking shrubbery. Small, tenacious-looking trees seemed almost uprooted and upside-down to me, with their tufts of waxy, floppy leaves on top instead of spreading boughs.
Occasionally I noticed areas where both earth and foliage became deathly gray. “What are those?” I asked Amanda. “What happened?”
“Oh, that’s where the salt-water-table rises. The salt kills everything.”
I squinted my nose. “That’s…odd!” Obviously I knew nothing about this country, or this down-under-country-girl’s lifestyle! I began peppering Amanda with questions. “How many live in your hometown?”
Amanda chuckled. “Just a few people. It’s not really a town - just a place to pick up mail. About ten ranchers use Muckinbudin; we all have to drive about an hour from our homes to get there.”
“Tell me about your family,” I coaxed.
Conversation flowed easily; Amanda seemed to enjoy educating me. “There aren’t any schools out here in the bush. Kids attend boarding school in Perth if they want an education. My brother went for a while…but he’s planning to eventually take over the ranch so he quit last year when he was fourteen. My sister’s done with school and works at a coffee shop in Perth.”
“What about your parents?”
“My dad’s a classic rancher - wiry, strong, tough - like Crocodile Dundee! My mom’s tough, too – she has to clean up wounds on the sheep during shearing and feed the ten or so shearers who come for a couple of weeks at a time.”
Finally we arrived at a square-shaped, ranch-style house with an aluminum roof. A pet parakeet sat idly on his perch on the back porch. Low sheds surrounded the house. I would learn later they were for bedding vegetables for this remote, primarily self-sufficient family.
Amanda’s mother welcomed me warmly and served a dinner of stringy but delicious, free-range beef followed by rum and coke! Everyone wore homespun wool sweaters she’d knit by hand, and wool-lined “ugg” boots, since the house had no central heat. Later she would introduce me to the fine art of spinning raw wool at her wheel.
Amanda’s father was the tallest man I’d ever seen and spoke with a very thick accent I could hardly understand. I was told his world revolved around his 4x4 diesel “ute,” a wide, flatbed pick-up truck complete with a “roo bar” on the front and searchlights on top for roo hunting.
That night the temperature inside the house was only forty degrees when I went to bed. I slept with a small heater beside my bed, a box-like contraption like a toaster with exposed, red-hot coils. I shivered for a while until I warmed up, and lay awake listening to the rain drumming on the aluminum roof.
The next morning Amanda’s dad showed me the barn.
“See these straps hanging from the ceiling? They hold the sheep on the table while they’re being sheared.” The shearing table resembled a stage platform. He gestured toward bales of waxy, lanolin-coated wool wrapped in brown paper. “Those are ready for market. C’mon girls, we’re herding two hundred sheep to the other paddock today.”
The ute took off behind the herd with Amanda’s brother behind the wheel. Amanda’s dad whistled various commands to Spriggy, the family’s well-trained blue healer, who guided the sheep around scrubby trees. Amanda and I followed behind to retrieve the youngest lambs that couldn’t keep up. Sometimes we draped as many as 3 tiny bodies over one arm!
I stopped a moment to comfort a tiny, frightened newborn female.
“Hey,” I whispered as I nuzzled her face, “Wish I could take you back to my farm.”
She bleated softly. It was the cry of an outback lamb, complete with an unmistakable Australian accent.
I smiled. “Alright, let’s go find your mama – you Down-Under-Country-Girl…”
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