Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Room With a View


It has been a while since I last wrote. Now there’s an understatement.

But now I have a LOT to write about. Yesterday for the first time in nearly 2 years I realized that my whole life doesn’t fit into 2 suitcases. Large suitcases, certainly, but how many suitcases would it take to pack your world? I had this epiphany while Nelson (my little brother) and I were loading everything I own (on this continent) onto the back of a ute (that’s a “pickup” to the rest of us) to take to our new apartment.

There are several significant parts to the above statement:

1. I have an apartment! Not a room in someone else’s place, but a WHOLE apartment! I will concede, it is a very small apartment, but every inch of it is in my name. That has never happened before! The photo is my apartment, but not with me living in it - I stole it from the ad on the real estate website - I will post real photos when we are less exploded all over. The flat consists of a kitchen and living room separated by a counter, and 2 bedrooms. The smaller one is small but not quite a closet and has windows on two walls. Both rooms have built-ins (closets) with giant sliding mirror doors – which means there is a lot of room NOT being taken up by a wardrobe. The master bedroom is larger but not palatial. It has a sliding door in the wall between it and the living room, which both makes the whole flat feel slightly bigger and renders it almost impossible to put the bed in a logical spot. The best part of the whole place, however, is the windows. The whole back wall is solid windows that slide open like Japanese walls. This opens up first to a little patio planter (more planter, less patio) and a stunning view of the city. If you stand on the window ledge, you can even see the harbor and the ferries plugging over to Manly in the North and the cruise ships slipping out to sea.

I know how first-apartment-owner that last sentence sounded “If you stand on your toes and lean over the ledge, you can even see the Harbor Bridge!” (which, by the way is true without even a step ladder OR a climbing harness!) But yes. I am totally smitten with my flat. I am in full on nesting mode. We bought a blue couch, some bar stools, blue plates, and a small pile of kitchen wares. Do you have any idea how much STUFF it takes to furnish even a small flat? It’s the little details that trip you up. Yes, you may have worked out a fridge and a bed, but what about a can opener? Do you really need a can opener? Real people own can openers. Maybe I’ll just cross that bridge when I’m staring down a can of tomato soup and it’s raining and cold outside and I’m hungry enough to eat a can opener. Can openers weren’t even invented until half a decade after the invention of the can, so clearly this must be a non essential item. Right?

At the moment I mostly only feel like we’re lacking a television, a coffee table, and something to go on the white brick walls. I am impatient to have the whole place settled, but Nelson keeps reminding me that there is no rush. While true deadlines and simple impatience might actually be different, they don’t FEEL very different!

Apart from being an charming and bright flat, it is also in the liveliest, most wonderful neighborhood in Sydney. Think SoHo, southern hemisphere style. My flat is a stone’s throw from Oxford Street, the area’s main artery, and by proxy, a bevy of caf├ęs, pubs, restaurants, and shops. Centennial Park is also just around the corner – a vast expanse of park land, running trails, live music stages, outdoor movies and best of all, the stable where I have started riding.

2. The second enormous part of that early statement is that my brother is in Sydney! Not just IN Sydney, but living with ME! Many of you probably know that he had been living in Egypt for the past half year and I’m sure most of you are probably aware that Cairo is an iffy place to be at the moment. I’ll let him tell you about his experiences himself at http://preposterouslies.blogspot.com/. The moral of the story is that he landed in Australia on Tuesday morning. The very first thing he did was come with me (and my dad who was here at the time) to sign on my lease. Ever since he has been hard at work making our apartment happen – from finding us a couch to helping me actually move said couch from some guy’s 3rd floor apartment to the new place. It has been fun (and extremely helpful!) having him around so far. Now though he can stop playing personal assistant and start exploring the city a bit more. So far I believe he and I have totally struck out on the tourist essentials. I have not taken him to Circular Quay, he has not been up the Sydney Tower or to the Botanical Gardens or taken a ferry to the North Shore. All in good time, but starting tomorrow, he needs to start living like he’s in Sydney – the greatest city on earth.

3. The 3rd enormously significant point, which was inferred if not stated, is that I actually LIVE in Sydney now! My company agreed in November to sponsor me. They hired me permanently as part of the Operational Risk Management team for the pastoral fund (the same cattle and sheep fund I have been working with all along). In particular, I get to work on the environmental and animal rights policies that we have in place for all of the company's cattle and sheep properties. In particular I have some thoughts on rangeland management that I'm really excited about rolling around. This might (MIGHT) even lead to an online range science Master's program(!). My visa, when it finally comes through, will let me to stay in the country for another 4 years if I chose (and more importantly, allow me to get a smart phone!). At this point I am 90% certain that my visa will in fact be approved, which is important since I just signed a 1 year lease on my flat!

If anyone is considering a trip to paradise, there is a couch here with your name on it. The one thing this little flat is sorely lacking so far is visitors. If you find yourself on my continent or you just want to mail me something, or, most likely, Google Earth stalk me, my new address is:

25/8 Bennetts Grove Ave
Paddington, NSW 2021
Australia

I love and miss you all and I hope you are as happy in your life as I currently am in mine.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sydney!

So, in spite of the keyboard upgrade, the promised updates just never happened. Sorry about that!
Between then and now an awful lot has changed! I finished my time at Walhallow in mid August. I flew to Brisbane where I met up with my sister Lauren who joined me for a 2 week Brisbane-to-Sydney road trip. It was amazing.
At the end of August Lauren flew back to Florida just in time to start her senior year and I started my new job! I'm working for Macquarie Bank - the company that owns the cattle station I worked on. So now, in an delightfully cyclical chain of events I am still working with Walhallow (and the company's 13 other properties), but this time I look after car insurance, account details, employee records and the like - basically the other end of keeping a station running.
Soon, I will write real updates of all these things (right, like you haven't heard that before...). I will tell you about pig hunting in Brisbane, petting with sharks in Port Stephen, the Opera house, dodgeball, and, best of all, my new apartment! But at the moment, I have to go to work!
For those of you who are interest, my new mailing address is

Jena Clarke
Apt 2 / 311B Edgecliff Rd
Woollahra, Sydney, NSW 2025
Australia

As Gus learned the hard way, you do in fact have to write "Australia" because otherwise your letter might end up in China.

Friday, July 2, 2010

'I' is back!

Literally, 'I', the letter, is back in action! Not to mention u, n, k, j, and all the other letters that had punked out on the old keyboard. Hooray! I want to write sentences brimming with 'i's. So now, after what has felt like a long absence, I will try to be more committed to my blog and give you an Outback update more often.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What Australia Doesn't Have

Suddenly on the 1st of June it got cold! Like 50 degrees cold! I realize that in the global scheme of things, this is still pleasant, and yes, we’re only wearing coats in the mornings, but after 3 months of 100+ degree heat, 50 is FREEZING! And besides. It’s JUNE! June is summer! It’s strawberries and ice cream trucks, sprinklers and bicycles. Instead I find myself craving new school supplies, apple orchards, fried bologna sandwiches, and pumpkin spice coffee. I can barely even fathom the thought that almost everyone I know is going boating and playing baseball while here it feels like September.

Speaking of things that I crave, I have been here for just over ¼ of a year, which I believe entitles me to at least one rant about the things that Australia does not have. Bear in mind that for me, “Australia” means “Northern Territory,” which is kind of like equating America with North Dakota. However, in the version of Australia that I am living, I have found these things to be missing:

Pumpkin pie. Although Australians eat more pumpkin than anyone I’ve ever seen, they don’t have pumpkin pie, or any sweet pumpkin foods, for that matter. To them, pumpkin is a vegetable, and pumpkin pie sounds about as appealing as pickle ice cream. I came to this realization one night at dinner when “it’s like pumpkin pie spice” drew total blank stares as I tried to explain to one of the guys what nutmeg tastes like. Overhearing this conversation, Di, our cook, actually made me a pumpkin pie the next day. It was strange to eat one in May but SO good! None of the Aussies would touch it because they thought it smelled like curry, which meant it was all mine!

Fried bologna sandwiches. Actually, any bologna at all. When I tried explaining bologna to Millie, our govie, she came up with a few potential Aussie replicas, but nothing in its true, delightfully over-processed unique glory. When 10 year old Tom asked me what was in it, it took me a minute, but I finally settled on pig. Sounds plausible enough. But ambiguous content or otherwise, I miss it!

Any spicy food, especially Mexican. The Aussies I work with have an embarrassingly low tolerance for spice. Black pepper can be too much for them. For such tough folks, this strikes me as surprisingly soft. Meanwhile, I would kill for some salsa and tortilla chips.

Saddle horns. The saddles look almost like Western saddles, except… no horn! I’m not sure whether it’s the explanation for or the result of this, but they also don’t use ropes. Instead they tend to tackle stray steers and hog tie them with hobble belts. Also, as a result, rope based rodeo sports – team roping, calf roping, etc, are significantly less popular. Instead (at least in the Territory) they camp draft.

Real coffee. Ok, so this is mostly just a Territory thing. Instead of drip coffee we drink instant. Even at the road houses this is true. I’m not sure why except that I guess it means they can just put on one urn of hot water for coffee, tea (which is more popular) and Milo (similar to hot chocolate but less sweet), and saves them from having to throw out coffee to make a fresh pot. The effect of this is that the Starbucks Via instant coffee that my family sent with me has gone from ‘pretty good’ to ‘phenomenal’ in my estimation.

Hot dogs. This might just be out on the station, but here we don’t have hot dogs. Instead we have a sausage that functions as both breakfast sausage and barbeque food. If you know me, you know that I love hot dogs, and these are just not an adequate substitute.

Ice cream floats. I was overcome by an ice cream float craving one particular hot, dusty day at the yards, so when we got home I fixed myself one and brought it to the Rec Club. Everybody recognized it as an old fashioned drink they call a “spider,” but no one had ever seemed to try one and were astonished that it would occur to me.

Reruns. This is strange, but since they get their TV shows a year late anyway, they don’t seem to bother stretching them out with reruns. As far as I can tell they just run a show all the way through and then quit til next season. One result of this is that individual shows seem to be on for less time during the year and their start dates are staggered so that new ones start as old ones end, unlike at home, where almost everything starts in the fall and end in the spring.

Memorial Day, 4th of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, or any other American holidays. This should be a no brainer, but it’s weird to realize that all of these people don’t celebrate out staple holidays, and generally don’t know anything about them except what they’ve seen in the movies. By the same token, they don’t hold in high esteem the related foods and symbols that we treasure – white can be worn year round, grills are meant for steaks and not hamburgers, and turkey is rarely eaten. To their credit, though, the Australians do have their own beloved holidays – Australia Day in January, Anzac Day in April (which I think is the day that Australia and New Zealand joined WWII), and Boxing Day in December, to name a few.

Baseball, football, basketball, or hockey. All of the major American sports, although known, are essentially overlooked here. Instead they play cricket, Aussie Rules, rugby, and field hockey (which is just called hockey). The absence of these sports also means that the Superbowl is meaningless, “baseball caps” are just “caps”, and cheerleaders are essentially nonexistent.

My list seems to be almost entirely food oriented. I guess this makes sense, since I am a fat kid in a skinny kid body and food is my one true love in life. For the record, the point of this post is NOT to get you all to send me these things. As much as I would love a package of hot dogs and a baseball player, I don’t think they would make it through customs, so mostly I just wanted to reminisce with an audience that I know would care as much as I do that there is a whole country of people who can’t sing the Oscar Meyer Weiner song. Because I’m sure you do care.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Photos

Here are some random photos of my life here in Australia. It's hard to take photos while working, and even rarer for me to actually be in them. Oh well.

Some of the folks I work with.

Cattle in the yards.

Mustering.

The station from the air during the wet.

Cattle from the air.

Bulls in the yards.

LOTS of hay.

Me & the Melbourne boys.

Me mustering on Candle.

Lucy on Smokey.

Me & Dingo.

Weaner camp.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Road Trains


Before coming out to Australia, I was talking with my Aunt Dacia about what I knew (or assumed) about the station. Over the course of the conversation she asked how one moves the product of 50,000 cows from the land to market. Unlike America, Australia is not a country whose development was heavily shaped by trains, so how then does one transport that volume of animals? The answer – road trains.

A road train is an 18 wheeler on steroids. More accurately, it is a 62 wheeler. One truck pulls 3 trailers at once. Given the remote nature of life in the Territory and the huge distances between population centers, road trains are the dominant means of transporting goods. On the road you will pass trains with 3 tankers full of petrol, some of standard box cars, and sometimes combinations – a truck pulling a freezer car, a box trailer, and a flatbed, for instance. Livestock is transported in double-decker trailers – 3 cars each with 2 levels of cattle. It’s a LOT of cows.

Walhallow, like almost every station, owns its own road train, which we use to move cattle around the property (usually to bring weaners back to the house yards from a paddock yard). When we sell cattle we use a trucking company like Currlie’s or RTA (Road Trains of Australia) to haul them for us. Our cattle end up in several different places depending on their fate. Older culled cows go straight to the abattoir (slaughter house) in Townsville, all the way toward the coast in the east. Young steers are sent to a fattening station in Davenport, also in Queensland, where they grow a while longer before moving to the feed lot. Last week we filled an order for over 1500 culled heifers to go to the Philippines, where they will live in a feed lot eating pineapple pulp. We loaded 9 road trains that went to Darwin where the cattle would be moved onto a boat and shipped overseas. What a strange life for a cow!

Our road train is a giant black and red serpent of a vehicle with a matching white and red cab named the Georgina Drover. On trucking mornings Cameron sets out early since the truck has to drive fairly slowly over the dirt roads. You can see it for miles by the plume of red dust it throws up in its wake. In spite of his early start, we usually beat Cameron to the yards to get the cattle loaded into the bugle and set the gates for the truck to pull through. All of our yards are designed with the road train in mind, so they allow for exceptionally wide turns and have “trucking gates” that allow the truck to pull up next to the loading chute and then drive straight out. Unlike American stock trailers, road trains load from the side. Obviously backing one of these rigs is a bit tricky.

Each trailer has 2 levels and each level has 2 bays. With cows we usually load 15 to a bay, but with smaller weaners we do 20-23. That’s as many as 276 animals per load. To move the cattle between cars there are “load throughs” – bridges that fold down between trailers and have sides that swing out and are chained into place. As soon as the truck hisses to a stop we all scramble up the sides, first setting the bottom load throughs and then balancing on the gates of the lower ones in order to set the top ones. This is hands down my favorite activity on the whole station. It’s like a jungle gym for adults. And they pay me for it.

Once the gates are all in place, we send the cattle up the race, one bay at a time, starting with the top level, loading from back to front. As each bay is filled, the gates are shut behind them and the load throughs are put up. To reach the top deck, the floor of the first trailer is lowered to form a ramp. Once all the top deck cattle are in place, the ramp is raised and we start with the bottom deck. When the cattle load fluidly everything moves quickly and we can usually load a road train in under half an hour. Unfortunately, when weaners get stubborn and start bailing up in the race it can take much longer. The whole process is VERY loud, with the deafening rumble and clatter of cattle trundling through the cars and ringers whooping and hollering, driving them up the race and to the back of the truck. The noise and the dust gives the process an air of excitement that would not be out of place in the Fort Worth stockyards at the turn of the century, loading trains of cattle bound for the east.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Beauty to Riding Breakers


Today I rode Wilbur, my 3 year old breaker. It was, shall we say, a bit of an adventure. For the past week or two we have been doing a lot of yard work so I have had very little time in the saddle to split between my 5 horses. As a result, young Wilbur has been out to pasture for a few weeks and today had forgotten much of what we had covered previously – namely focusing on the job and not your friends, and not throwing temper tantrums at work.

We started the day tailing cattle – leading a mob of cows that had been penned in the yards out to graze in the paddock for a few hours before returning them to the yards. This is a fairly low key activity and is usually Wilbur speed, but today he was just not in the mood. He was stubborn and fussy and cried out constantly to the other horses. However, we made it through 4 or 5 hours of calmly herding cows, including riding in the lead, the rear, and as point – all more challenging positions than simply the wing and all new for Wilbur.

Then, at about 1:30, with ominous clouds sweeping in from the south, Cameron drove up and reassigned us. Instead of lazily following cattle, we would be moving 1,500 heifers back to the house yards – a trip that would take several kilometers and several hours. Not only that, but unlike the doughy cows we had been moving all morning, these heifers were feisty and pushy. To top it off, once the motorbikes and chopper had gathered the cattle in from the holding paddock, it started raining, a slow, steady drizzle. Needless to say, these were not optimal conditions for Wilbur on his best day, and, let’s be honest, this was not his best day. Not by a long shot.

With the mob all gathered, Adam, our head stockman, said “Jena, take the lead.” A whole muster riding lead! I haven’t ridden lead for a muster on ANY horse, let alone Wilbur. I was stoked! I gathered my reins, urged my steed full speed ahead and then… disaster. Wilbur lost his mind. He reared and whinnied, he kicked and spun, and then he learned his new favorite trick – he took the bit in his mouth and violently shook his head. With this one moment’s outburst, the whole tone of the day changed. Suddenly I was demoted back to the wing, and instead of riding a charmingly inexperienced breaker, I was seated on a monster.

Although the drive went well, Wilbur’s mood did not improve, and he spent the whole afternoon pitching a fit. Imagine a 2 year old going to pieces in the floor of a grocery store. Most of it was manageable and we were able to get our work done in spite of him. After a few hours of this, with the cattle moving smoothly, we reached the point in the drive where the road passes through thick scrub. After only a few minutes of this, Wilbur thrashed his head so hard that his bridle was thrown forward off his ears and was left with only the bit dangling from his mouth. Suddenly I was riding a half trained, unbridled breaker in the bush. With images of me being run off with helplessly, I leapt off my horse and grabbed the reins around his neck. It seems like I saw it happening even before it did, and, as I pleaded “No, no, no!” Wilbur reared up, broke away from my grasp, and bolted. He didn’t just run off into the bush though. That would have been bad enough. No, my horse burst into the mob of cattle, setting them into a gallop and scattering them into the bush.

There I was, on foot, bridle in hand, alone in the bush, swearing profusely. Within a few minutes Adam rode up, following the stream of profanities. “It happens,” he said. “That’s the beauty to riding breakers.”

I spent a few minutes walking behind the mob, watching the helicopter sweep up the debris and listening to Adam and the other horsemen mending my mistakes. As I watched, Fonzie, the chopper pilot, swooped back around the tail of the recollected mob, and settled in the road in front of me, shaking his head and laughing. He then pulled out a second headset and pushed open the passenger side door. In a few short seconds, my whole day turned around. Suddenly, instead of being the idiot who loses her horse and has to walk home, I'm the idiot who gets to fly!

We spent the next hour watching the progress of the work below, first as the long line of white cattle filed down the red dirt road and pooled at the fence line waiting to be let through the gate, and then the drama as Adam and Jesse, the top hand, tried to catch my renegade mount. Clearly Wilbur was pleased with the freedom he had stolen, and he gave them the run around for at least half an hour - coming just out of reach and then dashing off again. In addition, Fonzie pointed out landmarks that I had only ever seen from ground level and showed off a little with his chopper, zooming down on cattle in an adjacent paddock, hovering just above the swishing treetops, and climbing high into the air so I could get the full view of the landscape.

Later that evening I had to go to the Rec Club and sheepishly apologize and profusely thank everyone who had helped retrieve my horse. In the end they simply added him to the herd of cattle and drove him to the house yards with the rest of them where they were then able to catch and unsaddle him. I am truly and immensely grateful and I do feel terrible that I made so much extra work for everyone. but honestly, it's hard to fully regret the situation when I got a helicopter ride out of the deal! And let's be honest, that's worth a few blows to my pride.