Six months into my exploration of outback Queensland, my money supplies – vastly under-calculated in a country where even a few beers can run up a small fortune – dwindled to a measly wad of $5 bills.
By this time I had already mastered the art of cheap living, working my way from farm to farm and volunteering to work in exchange for a bed and a few home-cooked meals. The time had come, however, to find a ‘real job’.
In the Australian outback, ‘real jobs’ come in the form of backbreaking harvest labor, cattle mustering or sheep shearing, and somehow I landed a job in the latter category. Packing a holdall stuffed with op-shop t-shirts and battered shorts, I left the comfort of my borrowed mattress and headed out into the bush.
I’d never before thought of sheep shearing as a quintessential Australian activity – kangaroo shooting, maybe, but sheep? England has fields full of them. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. It turns out, there really is no better way to experience the outback than through the murky windows and blistering heat of the shearing sheds.
Our first location, like many to follow, was a tiny complex of sleeping quarters, kitchens, shearing sheds and sheep pens, set in the midst of a vast stretch of nothingness. These sheds are home to the workers for a week or two before the team moves on to another shed and another job.
It’s a nomadic lifestyle, where workers (mostly men) are hours from home in the weekdays and return to their families only at the weekends (if they’re lucky enough to be less than a day’s drive away).
In fact, I wasn’t shearing the sheep. That’s a job left to the men and for once I was happy to admit defeat and step aside, for the sheep are huge, heavy, stubborn and covered in spiky burrs that leave your legs and arms scorched with red scratches.
Instead, I worked as a rouser. Rousers pick up the ‘fleece’ (the wool coats sheared from the sheep) from the shearers and carry them over to be sorted (or ‘classed’ as its known in the trade). Sounds easy but there’s an art and a technique to picking up these huge mounds of wool that can’t be learned overnight.
Add to that the pressure of working under two other rousers twice my age, both of who grew up in the sheds and can pluck a gigantic fleece from the floor in seconds.
My job as a shearer lasted five months before I finally buckled to the pressure of my sore knees and aching back and headed back to the city to recoup.
By this time I was super-fit and covered in bruises, and I’d discovered muscles I never thought I had.
But more than the physical pressures and the unique skills I had mastered, those long hours spent in the middle of nowhere stuck in my mind. The juxtaposed moments of solitude and camaraderie could never be experienced in a country that didn’t possess such wide stretches of uninhabited land.
I learned more about the Australian outback and the vastness of the landscape in those months than I could ever have learned by driving through. More importantly, I learned about the people – the resilience of the country people and their deep connection to their environment. I learned that I am stronger, more determined and more capable than I ever knew I could be.
I learned what it means to really work, physically work, for a living.
So many travelers come through these sheds, picking up a few wage packets in exchange for a half-hearted attempt at living in the outback. So many buckle to the physical and emotional pressures of the job in weeks.
But for the rest of the workers, this is their life, their day-to-day routine, and there is no leaving town or gaining a promotion. It’s a way of life that may seem simple and tough in a country of white sand beaches and laid-back cool, but this is the outback, and this is a different Australia from the one so often seen from abroad, or from the eyes of travelers passing through on holiday.
Thinking of visiting Australia? Check out 10 places in Western Australia you don’t want to miss or 15 things you can’t miss in Australia. Or map out a road trip from Melbourne to Sydney along the Sapphire Coast.
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