‘There’s so much freedom out here’: life in the outback offers thrills, but population dwindles

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In March last year Doreen Pitman was mustering cattle on her 70,000-acre property in central west Queensland when the motorbike she was riding hit a wheel rut.

The grazier, now 62, was knocked unconscious as she hit the ground. “It might have only been a couple of seconds, it might have been a minute,” she says. “I wasn’t sunburned or anything so I wasn’t there for that long.”

When she came to she fumbled for her mobile and called for help.

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From the local clinic at Jundah, a town with a population of only 106, she was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital at Longreach, about 220km north, where her injuries were treated.

The morphine eased her physical pain. But Pitman’s yearning for her husband, Tim, who had died the previous year from a rare cancer, angiosarcoma, only intensified in the days that followed.

Doreen Pitman

And now that she’s living alone in the homestead, Pitman is considering what to do next. She still runs about 200 head of cattle but the couple destocked their sheep in 2016 during the drought which, despite some rain, is yet to break.

“I’m not 30 any more, things take a lot longer, and I don’t have the strength that Tim had,” she says. “My sister says, ‘Why don’t you sell up?’ Well, I don’t want to yet.

“I want to hang on to it for the grandkids, to give them the opportunity if they want to go on the land. Because the way things are going they’re never going to be able to afford to otherwise.”

Like many living in the outback, the dilemma of what to do in the face of changing circumstances is felt right across the Barcoo shire, a vast area covering 61,974 sq km.

In the late 1800s there was a rush to claim land on Queensland’s ever-expanding pastoral frontier, in the belief that fortunes could be made, according to Peter and Sheila Forrest, the authors of Their Promised Land, a history of the area.

By 1921 census figures recorded a 1,125-strong population. But as floods, drought and vagaries in wool and beef prices took their toll, people began slipping away.

This trend has accelerated as large agribusinesses buy and amalgamate properties, then use technology like drone mustering and remote trough monitoring to rationalise operations, according to the Barcoo shire mayor, Sally O’Neil.

“All the houses on all the properties here [used to] have families living in them,” says O’Neil. “Now there’s only one family there, with a few ringers, and perhaps a cook, and then there’s all these other houses that are just falling over because there’s no one on them any more.”

O’Neil says the shire, like other rural and remote areas of Queensland, struggles to attract and retain workers, and those who do stay often end up wearing multiple hats.

“If you want to work, you can get a job in the bush without a doubt,” she says.

Sally O'Neil at home

Housing workers can be challenging as there is no real estate market to speak of. Given the distances and labour costs involved, it would cost approximately $500,000 to build a home, which could then be sold for $40,000 to $50,000.

“No one’s going to do that in their right mind,” she says.

“That’s why local government, as in Barcoo shire, owns a big percentage of the houses, especially in Jundah, and they rent them to staff when they come to work for the shire.”

Life on the land

Mike Pratt, 68, and his wife, Sue, 62, are also weighing their options, as they run their fingers through a fleece destined for the Isisford sheep and wool show.

The couple own a 35,000-acre property north of Stonehenge, running 4,000 merino sheep, 1,200 head of cattle and 600 goats.

A home in the small outback town of Windorah.

They’re proud of the quality fleece their flock produces, and keenly aware of market demands for fine wool given the challenges of the terrain.

“Fine wool sheep are not as hardy,” Mike Pratt explains. “Sheep that live in this environment have got to be able to walk big distances and withstand 40C temperatures for weeks in a row.”

They also confront drought and dingo attacks. Like other graziers in this area, during times of drought the couple maintains a core breeding herd but otherwise destocks, to maintain the integrity of the land.

“We never intentionally chew our country out because [you’re] too far behind the eight ball once it rains again, for the grasses and herbage to come back,” Sue Pratt says.

In 2015, between shearing their flock and trucking them off for temporary agistment in damper pastures, the couple found that 200 of their prize ewes had been mauled or killed by wild dogs.

A windsock at Windorah airport

Since then they’ve spent about a million dollars on wild dog exclusion fencing, after traditional methods, such as baiting, trapping and shooting, were no longer effective.

Through the Queensland feral pest initiative, regional communities like those in the Barcoo shire have received almost $20m in state government funding since 2015 to construct cluster fences and control invasive plants and animals. The federal government has provided an additional $14m.

Overall though, there is a sense that those delivering policy from the big cities don’t get it. “We’re not very vocal,” Sue Pratt says. “I suppose you just put your head down and do your job.”

Power, water, telecommunications and other amenities are not the same as those in cities. Jundah and nearby Windorah, for instance, run off generator power, while most property owners meet their water needs using dams, tanks and bores.

When it comes to digital connectivity, in 2017 Telstra completed the $22m Barcoo-Diamantina project, including 600km of new fibre optic cable and seven base stations.

This provided mobile phone coverage to the three main towns of Stonehenge, Jundah and Windorah, but people working even more remotely must carry satellite phones to stay in touch.

Despite such improvements in services, the Barcoo shire’s total population fell to 266 this year and is projected to fall even further, to somewhere between 171 and 258 by 2041, according to the Queensland Government Statistician’s Office.

Meanwhile, the average proportion of over-65s is projected to grow from 16% in 2018 to 28% in 2031. This has knock-on effects for outback communities, with fewer people managing the land or taking part in community life.

Yet those who remain seem bonded by the hardship and the small size of the community. Newcomers, too, can find there’s lots to keep them there.

In 2018 Corey Kempthorne, 28, took up the role of principal of Stonehenge state school. Stonehenge is the smallest of the Barcoo’s three towns, with a population of 11.

When Kempthorne arrived, there were four students at the school but, as older students prepared to start their secondary education at boarding school, numbers shrank further.

“It was certainly on a pathway to closure,” Kempthorne says. “We were thinking, ‘What do we do here? Are we going to fold or are we going to really fight for this?’

Corey Kempthorne in the school grounds

“It was the consensus of the community, and the staff here at the school, that we needed to fight, because in these small towns, to lose a school is to lose a big part of the community.”

The three-teacher school arranged with Barcoo shire council to use a community vehicle as a long-distance school bus, scooping up students living along a 75km route who would otherwise attend the Longreach school of distance education.

For six months Kempthorne was not just the principal but the bus driver. “I’d get up at 4.30am … and work from 5am to 7am, then jump in the bus, and drive the bus up and back and then work all day teaching and then do the same in the afternoon,” he says.

Stonehenge state school student numbers rose to 12 – a number not seen since 1964.

Eventually the school gained a new minibus and driver, freeing Kempthorne to focus on teaching.

He acknowledges that while he came to Stonehenge with one eye on career progression, he has fallen in love with the place, people and lifestyle and has no plans to leave.

“There’s just so much freedom out here and, believe it or not, there’s a lot of opportunity.”

Navigating the challenges

When people fall ill or are injured in this area, health services are provided through small community clinics staffed by nurses and run by the Central West hospital and health service.

The Royal Flying Doctor Service also provides fortnightly “doctor’s days” within the clinics, and is there for 24-hour aeromedical emergency services. Most people feel that their health needs are addressed as well as they would be in urban settings.

Dawn in Windorah.

But there are some pressing health issues gaining traction. At a community health meeting at the Jundah Roadhouse, Daniel Carter, the Central West hospital and health service’s first executive director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, is introduced.

“We’ve got a bit of work here to really engage with communities … and ensure services do meet their needs,” he says.

For example, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the central west region have a life expectancy of 55.2 years, compared with 80 years for others.

Other healthcare challenges in this area include timely and equitable access to services, ageing infrastructure and higher costs associated with service delivery.

There are also difficulties in attracting and retaining a skilled and locally appropriate workforce. For example, a new X-ray machine has been sitting idle in Jundah since 2018 because there were no operators licensed to use it.

Jane Hancock, Health Service chief executive with the Central West Hospital and Health Service, says prominent health risk factors in the area include obesity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption.

“People work really hard … it’s [how they] relax, interact with each other,” she explains.

As the publican of the Jundah hotel, Warren Hansen, 60, knows more about that than most. While the flow of customers can be unpredictable, pay weeks are busy, rowdy, too. But in more than six years, he’s never banned anyone because it’s bad for business.

Staying the course

George Gorringe, 73, has lived in Windorah almost all his life. His father, Bill, was a drover and one of the last speakers of the Mithaka language.

In 2015 the Mithaka people were awarded native title over an area of land that sprawls over 55,425 sq km and includes parts of the Barcoo and Diamantina shires.

As a traditional owner, Gorringe knows the country well. He led a group of scientists heading out to the Brumby Yard and Quarry to conduct research on archaeological remains and features that have remained largely unexplored.

It was his job to make sure they reached the site safely. “They don’t have that knowledge and it’s a bit scary, they get lost,” he explains.

George Gorringe

He feels deeply connected to this country – leading us on a walk to view ceremonial stones and sites where initiations once took place.

He would like to see a research institute established so scientists can process their discoveries in the field. He would like to add a “keeping place” museum for artefacts with an educational centre that tourists could visit, and a cafe serving bush tucker.

But there is a lack of funding and Gorringe believes his plan has lost some momentum with a change in the council, which was sworn in a year ago.

Marilyn Simpson, who owns the Western Star in Windorah, also sees tourism as crucial to the future of Windorah and the broader area.

She was pivotal to the formation of the Windorah development board 23 years ago which, among other initiatives, introduced the Windorah international yabby races, which attract 2,000 people to the town each year. It’s held to coincide with the outback event circuit featuring the long-established Birdsville Races.

According to figures provided by the council, 1,700 day trippers and 25,500 overnight visitors visited the shire in 2018-19, spending a total of $2.6m, which equates to about $100 a person.

Despite the relative isolation and the challenges, Simpson anticipates spending the rest of her life helping Windorah and the surrounding region thrive.

“The outback is a vast area but a small community,” she says.

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