Moonrise over the Yunta Hills & saltbush plains

Outback hills with the scrubby saltbush in the foreground. Trees mark an ephemeral watercourse.  

When I was a young man, still a teenager really, I’d dropped out of university and took a break as a jackaroo on a station north of Broken Hill. While I grew up in the mallee country, which I thought was the pits, the real outback was something else again.

The road from Adelaide to Broken Hill saw a transition from some of the finest cropping country in Australia to the pastoral lands that host our extraordinary and famous merino studs. Finally, travelling further north into the wild grazing country where each sheep would need many acres of land just to eke out enough food to stay alive.

This is laughingly called two sheep country. It’s said they worked in pairs. One sheep would lift up a rock so the other one could eat whatever crawled out from under it. This was going to be a tough country for a city boy.

Then on to Broken Hill – the silver city – which was another culture altogether. There was a way of life, an ethic, a sense of class distinctions apparent in the houses and shops that would take time to understand. But time was short, and the road north called, proving itself to be an endless journey into seeming nothingness. But hey, young a stupid men have done worse and learned something from the experience. I guess eventually, the outback managed to teach me a thing or two.

This photograph shows a small set of hills with the scrubby saltbush in the foreground. A few trees lined up to mark an ephemeral watercourse at the foot of the ranges in the middle distance. The hills themselves were some hard rocky remnant that proved more resistant to the flood-plain erosion that had levelled the surrounding landscape over the millennium. It has a story.

As I worked as a jackaroo, husbanding sheep, sweeping the sand out of the workshops that had blown in on the previous night’s wind storm, and that would blow in again any day now. Fixing fences, windmills and keeping the meat lockers full of mutton was my life. There, on this sheep station, I learned the clash of the two world-views – two ways of interacting with that environment.

Slowing down and looking taught me the endless variation and patterns that even the most uninviting outback landscape could offer. The earth’s surface out here was not uniform as it first appeared but richly varied within its own limited palette. Little pockets of land had their own micro-climates, their own vegetation types. The grazing patterns of the sheep told of how they knew how to get the different kinds of nourishment they needed in each of these places. So in one way, I learned to listen to the land and go with its flow.

The other side of it was running a large sheep station was a business where you had to impose your will upon the land – to tame it, fear it, and hold it at bay. That was what sweeping out those sheds every time there was a dust storm meant. Nature would overrun you unless you pushed back to maintain your authority, to keep your settlement from the ever-present descent into chaos. To wrest from the land, some form of a living.

And to survive out there, you had to keep these two conflicting attitudes in balance. One is to be open to the lessons of the land: to understand and appreciate what it was while fighting back against it. Enacting your desires upon that land in whatever way you could, just to survive and so, to exploit it.

It took better men than me to be able to hold these conflicting things in balance. When I left and returned to university, I was a relieved and happy person. I knew then I was born a city-slicker and acted upon that knowledge and never looked back.