The first job I had when I left high school was working as a jackeroo (farm hand) on Nareen Station, Western Districts, Victoria. Nareen was the family home of Malcolm Fraser, an unusually tall ex-prime minister. Not only was I fresh out of school, but I was a city boy with limited farm experience, a passive gentle nature, and hearing aids and glasses.
Living on a sheep station
The first three months on the station were hellish. Living and working with four other blokes I had never met before created many conflicts. I feel like I learned more in that first year than the previous school years put together. My hearing loss didn't help, as I was often required to hear instructions via two way radio, and struggled to understand without the help of lip reading. I learned to repeat the instructions back to the overseer to ensure I had heard correctly.
On the positive side, I worked outside with animals, ate healthy farm food, and every day was an adventure. A typical day could vary from mustering (rounding up) cattle or sheep, to tractor work or maintenance in the giant workshop on rainy days. We were taught how to slaughter sheep and prepare them for the station cook, who then cooked our lunch and dinner. There was also a station mechanic, full-time gardener, overseer, head stockman, and the Fraser family. Nareen Station was a small community in itself.
After a day of checking boundary fences on a motorbike I noticed a bull among a mob of heifers (young cows). A quick lap of the paddock identified a smashed fence where the bull had busted out. I carefully herded him towards the broken fence. There was a sound behind me, which I thought may be the heifers following, so I swung my head to check.
As soon as I was distracted, the bull smashed me off the motorbike. Once I could stand up he charged again and lifted me off my feet. He bashed me around the paddock for a while and then went back to the heifers. When I slowly wobbled back into the workshop later that afternoon, the other jackeroos all burst out laughing. I was covered in mud and bruises but was just happy to be alive.
The skills I learned in my first year as a jackeroo were a valuable foundation for my career. Experience as a jackeroo was vital to gain entrance to the farm management course I was interested in. Getting work as a park ranger in the Northern Territory was easier as I had experience as a jackeroo. I not only learned about farming as a jackeroo but a lot about myself and how to function out of my comfort zone.
As an added bonus to my jackerooing experience, the Fraser family would sometimes invite us to have dinner with them in the homestead dining room. Having dinner with Malcolm Fraser was especially thrilling for me as I had studied his political history during my final year of school. These occasions were a real privilege, and the jackeroos were taught social graces and etiquette. We learned about wine tasting, table manners, and how to converse with distinguished guests such as American senators.
Working with animals
My fondest memories of this time involve working with animals, as long as they weren't smashing me off my motorbike. I had a couple of sheep dogs and loved spending a whole day shifting cattle or sheep around the property. The Frasers had an amazing red kelpie dog that taught me more about mustering than anybody else. Big Red would stop and give the new jackeroo a dirty look if they were pushing the sheep too hard or making a mistake. The only aspect of this job I didn't enjoy was when I had to put animals down due to sickness or injury. I've never liked killing anything.
A privileged job
I've worked as a jackeroo on other properties since Nareen Station, but nothing will equal the lessons I learned from that first year out of school. It was a beautiful property to work on. The Fraser family were very generous with their staff, especially Mrs Fraser. Jackerooing was one of the jobs I dreamt about doing when I was staring out of the schoolroom window as a boy.