Continued from Outback Adventure: State Route 19
Our new friends at the local hotel (we discovered that hotels are actually taverns and motels are places to sleep) eagerly welcomed us like long lost cousins to the family. Pretty soon, Shona, behind the bar, and her daughter, Kalani, were trying to get us to sing karaoke and everyone was telling us off-color jokes. It was all good-natured fun and felt like we had stepped onto the set of a Crocodile Dundee movie. Some people went by a nickname and they’ve had the nickname so long, people don’t even remember their real name. There was Shakespeare, Winky (Peter), and Grub (Grub). Sheri became besties with Ona (Fiona), who owned the store and petrol station next door. Soon she was joking with Sheri and urging us to go see a sheep shearing, because that’s where Grub was working tomorrow. Everyone was fairly drunk, so we took it all as pleasant banter brought about by alcohol.
As they were closing down, they suggested we not go any further that night because of all the killer kangaroos and recommended we stay in the little caravan park on the edge of town. Fiona continued to talk about the sheep shearing, and convinced us that we should go see it. She said to come by her shop at 8:15 and she would take us if nobody else could. We bid everyone good night and drove out to find our campsite. I was a small caravan park with toilets, shower, and powered sites. It ran on the honor system, so I deposited our money for the evening into their lockbox. As soon as we turned off our headlights, we were amazed. We were so far from any city, and Muttaburra had so few streetlights, the Milky Way looked so incredibly bright and distinct, it was almost surreal. What we thought was a cloud in the sky was actually a cluster of stars. It’s so rare that we are able to see so much in the night sky. Like an accident on the highway, we just couldn’t seem to look away.
The next morning, we awoke before well before 8 a.m. and packed up the camper. Sheri decided she wanted to go see the sheep shearing, but didn’t want to hold Fiona to anything she promised in an inebriated state. We showed up at Fiona’s store and she remembered what she promised the night before. Apparently, nobody could take us out to the ranch for the shearing, so Fiona took it upon herself to make good on her promise. She decided to call a friend to come and take care of the shop while she drove us out to the ranch. We gave Fiona the opportunity to graciously bow out, but she would have none of that.
Going out to the sheep ranch in Fiona’s ute was an experience in itself. We quickly left paved roads and traveled through rutted tracks, muddy pools of water, and a few cattle grates. After a couple kilometers, we encountered a particularly deep watery rut, and Fiona says that maybe she should lock the front hubs and put the ute into 4 wheel drive. The whole time I thought she already was in 4 wheel drive. After about 30 minutes of off-roading, we arrived at the sheep farm.
Shearing was already in progress, amid blaring 70’s music, and we were just in time to watch the shearers in action. Fiona introduced us to Bill, the ranch owner, and his son, Ron, who were outside the shearing barn spraying the shorn sheep with de-licer. Lice on a sheep can cause them to lose all their wool. Fiona explained what was happening and what each person’s role was in the shearing process. She knows this because she did it once too. So did her husband, Winky (Peter), which is how they met. Fiona was also a true-life jillaroo, the female version of a jackaroo, or Australian cowgirl, so she’s quite familiar with life on a ranch.
Shearers use a shear connected to a large suspended motor with a flexible cable. A good shearer can shear a sheep in under one minute. In competitions, the best shearers can do it in 40 seconds. When they’re finished with a sheep, it’s sent down a slide into a separate pen for each shearer. They keep count of how many sheep they finish and the number in the pen confirms it. What we noticed was that good shearers can do their job fast without nicking or hurting the sheep as much as an inexperienced shearer. Grub was one of the better shearers as his sheep looked less bloody than most of the others. The shearers get AU$2.90 per head and in a typical day can easily shear up to 200 head of sheep or nearly AU$600 worth. That’s about AU$150,000 annually. Of course, that’s assuming they can work all year, which they could only do if they travel…a lot.
In addition to the shears, there are other people with various tasks. The roustabouts gather the shorn wool and sweep it off the ground, placing it on a table for the classers to sort the wool into different grades based on its length and quality. They place the different grades into separate bins. The presser takes the wool from each bin and puts it into a bundle using a machine that compresses the wool into a bag that eventually weighs up to 200 kilos (440 pounds). The filled bag is then marked with the grade of wool and where it’s from. Bill gets paid up to AU$12 per kilo of wool depending on the quality. That’s about AU$2,000 to AU$2,400 per bale. The presser also has another duty, as the sheepo. When the shearers run out of sheep, they yell out, “SHEEPOOOO,” and the sheepo rounds up more sheep for them.
The sheep cost AU$80 to AU$90 per head, and a sheep has a lifespan of 10-12 years, so it would seem like a lucrative business. However, sheep need land to graze; land with grass. But with a drought in Queensland, grass was in short supply. Unless you have a good supply of water. Bill had a well. The Queensland government subsidized the drilling of his well about 960 meters down into the earth, to the tune of AU$300,000. The water out of the well comes out at 68°C (154°F), so it needs to be cooled before it can be used. So he has a holding pond to cool the water. Problem solved. But just one problem. As a sheep farmer, there are numerous problems, including disease, dingos, wild dogs, kangaroos eating the same thing as the sheep, etc. Which probably explains the large number of abandoned properties we saw along the way back into town. It would appear that sheep farming in Queensland is a dying profession. It’s truly unfortunate, because the all the folks in Muttaburra were some of the nicest, down-to-earth people we met on our road trip.
We headed back into town and we at least tried to pay Fiona for the gas she used to drive us out to the ranch. Again she refused. Outback hospitality. We felt very fortunate to have witnessed a real Outback sheep farm in action, something few people will experience. As we continued south from Muttaburra that afternoon, on paved roads, we left with lots of memories and some newfound friends. If you ever want the true Outback experience, take SR 19 (from the south) to Muttaburra and pay a visit to Aunty Fiona’s Super Store in the center of town. Give her our regards.