The “Real Australia” alive and kicking in Bingara

April 30, 2009

So says Amy Cooper in her blog.  This is how Amy describes her taste of Australia.

"Amy Cooper pulls on her riding boots and hat in time for the first day at jillaroo school.

When I was little, I wanted to be a cowgirl. England, however, does not breed cowgirls. Our paddocks are smaller than Aussie backyards, herding is a job for one old bloke with a stick and the only people trained to use lassos and whips work in the city with a red light over their door.

But now, decades later, I’m dusting off those dreams on my way to Jackaroo Jillaroo School in northern NSW.

I’m going to learn outback skills such as shearing, mustering, shoeing and branding, all in the true-blue surroundings conjured up by the school’s promotional promise: "Mate, if you’re looking for the real Australia then here’s how to get into it the station way of life that city slickers can only dream about…"

John and Cathy Wade run the school at their working property, Garrawilla, two hours north of Tamworth and 25kilometres from the nearest town, Bingara. They share their 1200 hectares on the banks of the Gwydir River with 220 head of horses, 250 head of beef cattle and up to 18 head of wannabe farmhands from around the world.

As the road meanders out of pretty little gold-mining town Bingara, through cypress pine and ironbark, Cathy, a blonde, capable 48-year-old, tells me what to expect.

"We ride out in the paddock, not the arena. We can still teach people from scratch that way. They love just getting out there and riding all they want," she says.

She asks what I’ve packed and I sheepishly reveal jodhpurs, gloves and a velvet riding hat. This is like turning up to the Bingara pub in a ball gown. Country people ride in jeans and an Akubra hat. Luckily, there’s a stash of long-sleeved shirts and jeans for all sizes at the farm.

At Garrawilla, John strides out of the tack room like a walking Banjo Paterson poem: Akubra, spurs and cattle dogs at his heels. Around him, my fellow students are hefting stock saddles onto their horses and beyond; paddocks filled with more horses stretch to the horizon. Very shortly I’m aboard Joe Taylor, a statuesque, laid-back fellow. "He’s a stallion," says John and I nearly tumble off in shock. I’ve never ridden a stallion, largely because they’re giant bullets of testosterone with an overriding fondness for fighting and shagging. But Joe turns out to be a gent.

The Wades mix heavy breeds such as Clydesdales with standard-breds to produce kind riding horses like Joe. But his compliance could also be fatigue-related; Garrawilla’s most prolific daddy sires about 35 foals each season.

On the course are 12 girls and four boys from Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Holland, Scotland and England. Only two are Australian. Nearly all are backpackers keen to experience an alternative to bars and beaches and qualify for rural work but two are professionals in their 30s who just wanted to escape urban living for a while.

"I love watching McLeod’s Daughters," says Melanie Sohnel, a 33-year-old physiotherapist from Germany.  "I wanted to see if Australia was really like that and out here it is."

Luxury addicts beware: the accommodation is authentically earthy. Everyone sleeps on bunks in three mixed-sex rooms. Bathrooms are shared too. Cathy delivers a home-cooked dinner to the communal kitchen daily, along with the basics to make snack lunches and breakfasts. Everyone mucks in with the cleaning.

The shortest course is five days but many stay much longer than planned. "They learn fast," says John. He indicates Andrew Bridgewater, a 22-year-old Scotsman who sat on a horse for the first time the week before and is now cantering through paddocks like a pro. "He’s a pretty useful bloke now."

On the first afternoon we watch John shoe a horse and break another to saddle. Then we ride around the property to check on the mares and foals. We’re on horseback for four hours and I’m so exhausted I slumber on my top bunk like a roosting chook.

Next day we’re up at dawn to catch the horses and then off again. John, who’s been in the saddle practically since birth, is a well of direction and information laced with stories of bush characters with improbable names and colourful lives.

For our first shearing lesson, he introduces us to 15 complaining sheep. He knows each creature by name and accomplishment.  "That’s Lippy he’s a prizewinner," he says, indicating a chunky ram. John flips one of Lippy’s slighter companions onto his back. He cranks up the shearing machine, which resembles a cross between a petrol pump and a drill, and then I’m crafting the hapless sheep’s new look.

The handset is heavy, the sheep is wriggly and my first wobbly stroke gives him an instant bad hair day. "Waaaaa!" bleats the sheep, which roughly translates as: "You’re no Joh Bailey."

John shows me how to apply more force for a closer shear and everyone has a go. "It’s like shaving your legs," says Belgian Tinne Coveliers. The boys look horrified.
By day three, it’s time for the real action: a cattle muster. John wants to bring in about 60 head and cut out some bulls.

We intercept the herd down by the creek, surround them and, with the help of the dogs, collect up the stragglers.

"Bring ’em in," cries John and then there it is the dream moment. We’re riding along behind the cattle, dogs at our feet, breeze in our hair.

My obliging mare, Leah, is doing most of the work but I still feel so much like a real jillaroo I have to fight the urge to shout: "Yeeha!"

After four days, you grow used to early mornings, screaming leg muscles and a throbbing butt. The beauty of the place is soothing and it’s a pleasure just to sit on the homestead veranda, watching Joe’s newest offspring frolic just metres away.

My last lesson, says John, is important. He drives a young bull into a pen, then whips out a surgical knife and before the boys can even flinch, the bull becomes a bullock.

John holds one of the detached bullock bollocks aloft. Then the unfortunate creature’s crown jewels are dinner for Blaze the dog. The boys are in shock and the girls are silently pondering how we might employ this new skill back in town.

By the time I leave, we’ve also tried whip-cracking and shooting and most of us can wrestle a calf and round up a recalcitrant steer. This is why no one ever argues with a jillaroo.

"How did I do?" I ask John, as I clamber into the ute for the ride back to Tamworth. "You were a little beauty," he grins.

I suspect he’s being polite but so he should be. He knows too well what a jillaroo can do with a sharp instrument.

[Click Here] to visit the Gwydir River Trail Rides site.