Sitting through a cyclone
New Italy, Northern Rivers, NSW
Two weeks have passed since I arrived back in Australia and though I seem to have plenty to say in my head none of it is making its way out of fingers and into this blog.
I had 4 interesting days in Singapore with a good set of photos I have yet to type about, I have met up with the Maltese/Australian connection of my family and I have reinstated myself on the little farm belonging to my mum’s cousin, whilst I look for a new job and a new challenge.
All of that is a little stilted at the moment as ex tropical cyclone Oswold is traversing down the East coast of Australia and here on the little farm my second cousin, the cows, horses, dogs and the cat are waiting to see how bad it will get and what it will do when it hits us.
It’s already caused tornados up in Bundaberg and the Sunshine Coast, widespread flooding throughout the East and South-East of Queensland and winds of up to 144km are pushing down into New South Wales as I type. The rain is lashing on the windows, the wind is whipping round the house, the trees are bowing and Sky news is informing us of its route and what it’s done so far.
It doesn’t make for a very good night’s sleep when you wonder if a tornado will come, or a tree might fall on the house. Or you worry that the horses are distressed, as dear Kasimir didn’t know what to do with himself yesterday – galloping from one side of his paddock to another, bucking, rearing and farting wildly – which did make it quite amusing.
I feel thankful that we are not on the coast itself, seeing the terrible devastation this cyclone has left in its wake, knowing there are people waiting to be rescued from their roofs and seeing people whose houses are submerged up to the bedroom windows. But instead we play a waiting game. We wait and see what will happen, when the news tell us it’s “not arrived here yet”.
Maybe I will at least get some writing done, as sitting here, in the safety of a one storey, brick house, on a hill, all I can do is sit and wait to see what happens.
In total contrast to my cattle station experience is a week in organic bliss in Northern New South Wales. I sit here, almost on my last day, enjoying the cool breeze that a passing thunderstorm has left, contemplating the simpler things in life.
Although my host is currently working hard studying a degree, she is able to enjoy and appreciate some of these simple pleasures. Up with the sunrise before 6 am, her day starts when the animals are ready for breakfast, which is usually early. The Dexter cows, rescued horses, her funny looking chickens, her cattle dog Ruby who is scared of calves, Little Doggie who spins on his bottom and Sweatpea the not-so-innocent cat all have an important role to play in the daily happenings of this little farm. Each animal named, each loved, each with a personality and story of its own make up the cast of this wonderfully unique setting.
Playing with Spartacus, Venus, Poppy and Violet has become part of my daily routine since arriving here. These relatively new arrivals were in utero on my last visit and now enjoy having their chins scratched and their necks rubbed, whilst curiously licking my hands, undoing my shoelaces and bunting me to see what happens. Their adorable faces and fearless charm has had me in raptures all week, making them the subject of my camera and the highlight of my afternoon.
As well as the joy the animals bring into this welcome dwelling there are the pleasures of growing and harvesting your own fare. Something I have not experienced since setting food on this land is sharing a space and time with someone who has extensive knowledge and uncompromising enjoyment in food. I have been able to take part in this pleasure; learning this week how to make jam from the plums picked in the afternoon, sharing some Mediterranean memories by making Gazpacho from tomatoes in the garden and being able to use at least one ingredient everyday knowing it has been nurtured and cultivated with no added anythings right here on the property.
I have also enjoyed going on egg hunts to find the one egg that gets laid in a different location daily. Today’s egg was delivered on a scrap of hay on the floor of the barn. Neither in the hen house, nor any of the attractive egg laying places arranged this week, but right in the middle of the barn where Ruby the dog is free to gobble it up if she finds it first.
I have joined in on all activities regarding farm life here, which include the ride-on lawn mower, bathing/showering the dogs, putting the chickens to bed, praying for the rain to come and eating wholesomely and whole heartedly. There are also a great many cups of tea consumed, moments laughing at ridiculous animals and dealing with the odd unexpected disaster.
Before I sign off, it is also worth noting that I have, after nearly 14 months in Australia, encountered my first snake! I was cleaning the pool one hot afternoon and noticed a piece of hosepipe on the ground which I hadn’t seen before. Moving closer to pick it up, it moved provoking a reaction involving words rhyming with “duck” and a lot of shouting. I was told to keep still and get a look at it, whilst the snake, seeming unbothered by my outburst raised its head and slithered right past me. It was, on later investigation, discovered to be a yellow faced whip snake. A couple of days later I saw the same, but bigger chilling out on the grass as I was thundering towards it on the lawn mower. It seems my list of “only in Australia” experiences gets longer and longer.
What a lovely week on the organic farm leaving me nice and relaxed before my next adventure.
Lessons from the Bush – a reflection.
Some time after leaving the bush, having had another stint in the city, I am sitting on a rainy afternoon in Northern New South Wales, taking a moment to reflect on what was gained and learnt out there.
It seems obvious to say that I learned a lot from that experience, but when you take yourself away from an existence you understand and place yourself in that of another family, another way of life, another way of seeing things: it stands to reason that you’ll start to think and feel differently about a number of things.
My attitude to that number of things has, of course, changed since being on a cattle station. My aversion to animals I don’t know, particularly dogs has changed drastically. I have never really liked dogs, perhaps because I never had one, nor really knew anyone that did when I was growing up. We were a cat family through and through. Dogs have a horrible smell, need their poo picked up and often dribble. Then there are bush dogs, who roll around in dead things, shit everywhere, live outside and eat anything. Yuk. Yet today, when I was cuddling the cattle dog where I am staying, who was sitting on my lap, frightened of the impending storm, smelling like a dog, I realised how far I had come. I never used to like touching a dog unless I knew I could wash my hands immediately afterwards. I never wanted my clothes to smell of a dog, nor to have a single hair on me that wasn’t mine. But as I was sitting in the paddock, with my arms around this dog as if she were a small child I laughed at the girl who used to hate them.
Living out in the bush, miles away from anything and anyone but the people you work for, you soon learnt to adapt your way of doing things to make life easier. I quickly had to get over the fact that I couldn’t always wash my hands when I wanted. I had to get past my food anxieties regarding use-by dates. I had to rapidly defeat my fear of what might be outside my room at nightfall.
I also stopped wearing make up, sometimes didn’t brush my hair and never did any ironing. I had to swallow my thoughts regarding safety and logic on a number of issues and try letting go of my need for logic and planning on a number of activities.
I swam in a damn that had cow shit around the edge and a number of interesting insects in or around it. I walked and jogged through the bush knowing there were snakes ready to visit. I played with dogs who smelt of dead things, or hunted pigs.
I had to learn to feel ok about a ten year old driving a car, and then that ten year old driving me in that car, and better still, that ten year old driving the 5 of us from a party in the early hours of the morning. I had to learn to let go of the idea that shoes should be warn, helmets on heads and rules should be followed.
Above all I had to learn who I was, so I could effectively live in a place that challenged some of my ideas and compromised some of my beliefs. I had to reassess what was important to me, what was necessary for me and what was acceptable for me. I adapted my eating habits, sleeping patterns and exercise routine to fit in with my surroundings. I learnt to laugh when things annoyed me. I learnt to make things simpler if they were too complicated. I learnt to trust people younger than me, and learnt what it was to be trusted too. I learnt to teach everything I know and make it a learning process. I learnt to take myself away from certain situations and give myself time out. I learnt to look at the sky and see it differently every day.
I learnt that I can make a situation that is wildly unfamiliar for me familiar and that I can make anywhere my home if I need to. I also left that cattle station for the second time, knowing that I had done my best with what I had and can absolutely definitely say that despite moments of sheer frustration at times, or confusion, or just bewilderment, I absolutely definitely wouldn’t change a moment of it.
I was told this an uncountable number of times in my first two delicate weeks here and it puzzled me each time as I never thought I was being particularly weak!
However, life in the bush IS tough, it IS harsh and it’s not for the fainthearted.
I have never considered myself to be a girly girl: although I do like to paint my nails occasionally, I am not afraid to get my hands dirty. I also enjoy wearing a pretty dress and heels occasionally, but I am just as happy in jeans and trainers.
The family obviously consider to me to be more delicate than daring and simply because I wasn’t brought up in the bush, I have the disadvantage of being much more sensitive and affected by the ways of life out here.
My second day here was a good introduction to what was to come, when the cut up carcass of the cow we have been eating for the last three months was dragged through the kitchen, leaving a trail of blood and hung in the cold room for several days before it was butchered.
When C put an axe through his foot and didn’t go to hospital because “it’ll be alright”, I was shocked. When K’s horse tripped, threw her and rolled over her, she didn’t go to hospital for scans or x-ray, cos “she’ll be alright”.
When the puppies were born to a work dog and fathered by the randy Labrador, I was told we’d be lucky if any survived. The previous three litters didn’t have a very high survival rate, thanks to bush harshness. In this litter, one of them escaped watchful eyes, and was savaged by its father at 6 weeks old. The puppies had a deadline too, and i did my best to help rehome them, having been told that their fate would be sealed with a pair of pliers if they couldn’t find homes to go to.
Their mother, apparently a useless dog, was “dealt” with once the puppies were weaned. Thank goodness it was done whilst I wasn’t on the property. The Cats here have a pretty harsh life too, and I have learnt that no animals get buried if they don’t make it.
The work dogs have a very short life: It’s rare that they reach retirement. If they don’t get killed by something, they are done away with once they no longer serve their purpose. If they hurt themselves they either have to get on with it, or they are shot. There are two right now running around with open wounds. When I asked if there was anything that could be done (thinking that despite the idea of touching it making me heave, perhaps I could sneakily give them some care), of course I was told that could lick it so they’re fine.
Then there are us humans, who are not allowed to feel pain or emotion sometimes. Only the other day I was eating lunch when a particularly strong onion in my potato salad made my eyes water and my nose run, when I remarked upon it at the table, simply because I was surprised, I was told to “suck it up” and “move on”. Thanks
And that’s not to mention the other dangers here like spiders and snakes that could kill you. Or dingos that can rip young cows to pieces. Naturally I was worried about all of the above and asking the relevant questions regarding my safety. Some of the responses I got were that dingos can’t pick locks (goodness, there I was thinking they were the local locksmiths) and that I was obsessed with snakes! Well, I said in my head, Obsessed no: well-read, concerned, aware: yes!
Every time we go for a drive I pray we don’t see a Dingo or a wild pig, as I know there is a loaded rifle in the Ute, and every time I go for a walk I desperately hope I won’t see a snake.
And if I dare to mention something that hurts or upsets me I know that I will be told to Toughen Up, which on them the irony is lost when I think about just how silent I have been …
Dear Old Tiger
Tiger is not a tiger, despite her name. She is a cow. A milker, to use a local term. That means that we don’t eat her: she makes babies and milk and if she doesn’t have her own calf to feed, she’ll feed whatever poddy needs feeding. New word for Grace and maybe some of you: Poddy – An orphan calf.
This old dear usually has those two words in front of her name, as she is a longstanding member of the crew here. She’s about 9 years old, which is fairly old for a cow, and looks all skin and bones but I am assured she is very healthy indeed.
She has been hanging around the paddock closest to the house recently, because loved as she is, she gets fed Udder Buster to help her produce good quality milk for her offspring. Apparently she can produce bucket loads of the stuff, which is supposed to be my job to milk her for the family, but I am not akin to just walk up to a cow and start pulling on her udders unless someone shows me how to do it. And her udders, despite being fed Udder Buster (is anyone else finding that funny?) are in a pretty bad state after a little trip she took the other day.
I had gone for a walk with the girls, and Tiger who was in the house yard saw us walk over the cattle grid, and started to follow. I got anxious, wondering what we would do if she got herself stuck in it. She thought better of it though and moved away from it, along the fence. The barbed wire fence. A determined old dear found a slightly weak link and pushed her way through it. I stared aghast wondering how the cow was going to get through, but a trained pro, she stepped her way through the two levels of barbed wire, udders and all! I was alarmed, but as always E wasn’t, so we carried on. I wondered where old Tiger was off to, as she determinedly walked off down the track.
3 quad bikes went out later (this was before we lost one) to try and find her, and she had walked all the way to the other yards, several kilometres away to get back to her calf that had been weened off her that day.
Dear old thing was brought back up here, with cuts on all her teets after her treacherous journey. She mooed and moaned for days to come, despite being patted and fed on a daily basis. This saddened me, as many things do about harsh cattle station life, but I was told she has made many many trips like this before, and would walk the 26km breadth of the property to get back to any of the calves she has fed and mothered.
Bush Diaries: killers and carcasses
Friday 1st June
Today we killed a cow. I didn’t kill it, of course, but now I am considered part of farm life I am told what is going on and invited to be part of it should I desire.
A cow was going to be shot in the paddock today and skinned and cut up for family consumption. Did I want to watch? No thank you. The little girl (E) did, as this is something that happens about once every 4 months or so, so she had the afternoon off classes to watch the event. Lovely.
I went into the house at about 4pm and found a trail of blood going from the front door through to the kitchen. I looked at the floor, looked at the dad (D), then looked at the trail again.
“Trouble is,” he says: “ this house isn’t designed very well, so the beast has to be carried through it all to get in there”. By beast, he means the cow that was killed today. “No one has been injured, don’t worry” he adds, realising why I was puzzled about the trail of blood. “Spose I’d better mop that up,” he adds as an afterthought.
We go for a quick walk before dinner, just up the track to give the 9 DOGS a run! During our little jaunt I learn and am tested on all the dogs names. In case you are interested: Milo, Missy, Maggie, Middy, Henin, Shake, Kelly, Kaneesha and Yana. Milo is bounding along with a large item that looks like a piece of severed rope in his mouth. What is it? The cow’s throat. Enough said!
Later, in the kitchen again for dinner, I spy a few pieces of meat that the mop missed, still sitting on the kitchen floor. “Take a look in the cold room Grace” says the mum (K) “Nah, don’t out her off her dinner” says dad (D). Well, I don’t want to see it, but should have a look in case I forget and go to put something away in there after dinner.
I open the cold room door and am greeted with a scene that would fit well in a horror movie. In my face are four piece of carcass hanging from meat hooks. The floor is covered in newspaper decorated with pools of blood. And then I am told it has to hang there until Monday when it’ll get butchered. Won’t be helping myself to anything cold til Monday then.