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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Outback trip proves life-changing
By Dan Parry

Prince Harry is to try his hand as sheep farmer in the Australian Outback. One would-be adventurer who became a "jackaroo" offers an insight into what the prince can expect from his gap year.

Life on a cattle-station is not for the faint-hearted.

Dan Parry in the outback
Life on a cattle ranch proved to be a challenge
Fortunately I was too stupid to know this and the time I spent as a "jackaroo" in Western Australia was surely the most life-changing thing I could have done on my year off.

I traded in my name (I became simply "Pom"), collected a swag and spent two months living in the desert.

A job agency had put me in touch with the 15 stockmen who were working the three million acres of flat grassland that some wag had named Flora Valley.

They managed their 20,000 cattle with five 4x4s or "utes", one lorry, a light aircraft and 500 horses.

Most of the men had a pistol licence - I had a Swiss Amy knife.

Most of the men had a pistol licence - I had a Swiss Army knife

They pulled steers to the ground using bulldogs - I winced when our pet cat needed stitches.

At first my jobs included clearing frogs from the dunny to avoid attracting snakes and sweeping the ants nests from the dilapidated huts we were sleeping in.

But after a week in camp we set off into the desert.

Ten-hour days in the saddle were interrupted by an occasional gulp from some muddy borehole as we took 800 head of cattle from one "pen" to the next.

Along the way there would be frequent gallops as we chased after some mutinous calf that was charging towards the bright lights of Hall's Creek, 1,000 miles to my left.

At the end of the journey "road-trains" would collect the animals and take them to the markets at Katherine or Darwin.

Mercy mission

In between these adventures I learnt to shoe horses, brand "weeners" and to speak to the flying doctor.

The first time I did this was for an Aborigine woman suffering labour pains.

The second time was for me. I had fallen off a cattle gate and got concussion. "Don't worry Pom", they said, "You can lie in 'til 6am tomorrow."

Prince Harry with a Koala

Maybe it was this or maybe it was the moment I was thrown into a barbed wire fence - either way I came to realise that Flora and I would be best off going it alone.

We'd then move on to some other untamed corner of the wilderness before rounding up the next group of cattle.

Three thousand animals would be scattered across the "flat" munching the virtually indigestible spinafex grass when three helicopters would suddenly arrive from nowhere.

With flashing lights and police sirens they would drive the animals into an area where the stockmen could nudge them into a tight herd before sending them into a corral.

At the end of the day the chopper pilots would join us for dinner.

This would still be munching grass until someone went over and shot it.

The meat would be carved up, some would be salted, some would be sent back to the station's main house and the rest would be left for that night's barbie.

Anyone who chose a steak needed two hands to carry it and the spare ribs I had one night were two foot long.

It was not so much as Down on the Farm, more Apocalypse Now.

Before we ate everyone would troop off to the river to wash.

They would strip off and charge into the middle of the river shouting warnings about the Australian piranha.

There are not any Australian piranhas, I said over-confidently to one bloke.

"No", he replied, "not since they were eaten by the crocodiles."

Tall stories

Sitting eating their food near the fire the men compared their positions in the on-going dingo-shooting competition or swapped tall tales, usually involving the ubiquitous "dumb Pom".

But beyond the macho stuff they were kind-hearted and interested in each other's stories of life as a bouncer or winning a local rodeo.

My life had been confined to the north London suburbs and I had won nothing more than a place at college to read English.

I kept my stories to myself.

The guys were great, the memories would last a lifetime but frankly I was just too damn scared to stay a moment longer.


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