I was probably only going 20 mph but it felt like 100. The chalky red earth caked my trousers and motorbike as I revved the gears and dug my heels into the pedals, racing up the hill and into the open paddock as the fire red sun made its way toward the horizon. It was 2008 in outback Queensland Australia, and the only things I needed in life were my bike and that sunset.
Ambling along the lively east coast from beach town to beach town was a worthy journey for a twenty-something, but after life in Sydney and the constant buzz and extroversion of coastal living, I longed for the dry air and red skies and quiet, for the long empty roads stretching out all the way across what seemed like the universe. The outback sounded like a last frontier. Like a departure from all that was ease, comfort and modernity, and an arrival at something more pure, raw and ultimately more hard work. I wanted a piece of it. I said goodbye to my apartment, my roommates, the ocean and the friends I’d made in the previous weeks on the road and boarded a bus inland.
After several hours on the road staring out at sunburnt fields, I arrived at a sprawling outback ranch in early evening. Turning into the dirt drive I quickly scanned the property. Stables, a tractor, a pickup truck, a modest house and miles and miles of nothing. The sun was low in the sky but still beat down harshly on the land, painting a yellowish hue and long shadows over all it touched. This was the outback I’d seen in my mind.
My host Bill welcomed me to the property and showed me my quarters, a room full of bunk beds in one of the outhouses nearer the stables. They were modest but clean, with pillows and blankets folded neatly at the bottom. I threw my backpack onto one of the top bunks and quickly followed Bill out as he carried on with the introduction. The stables were full of horses, and before I’d even had a chance to look from one end to the other he’d thrown me a saddle and said to follow him outside. She was a beauty, maybe five or six years old, with burgundy coloured hair and a soft black mane. Brushing her was easy, but the saddling was new. Bill walked me through the knots, ties and tugs and within a few minutes she was ready. She was also mine. For as long as I was staying at the ranch she would be my ride.
The next morning, I woke up to sunlight bursting through the window and the faint scent of frying bacon. I was greeted outside in the garden by a table of fresh cow’s milk, granola, fruit, buttered toast, bacon, eggs and an abundance of strong black coffee — a rancher’s breakfast. Hearty and heavy on the caffeine, we fuelled up and headed out to the field at the side of the house. Clocking a dirt bike ahead propped on its stand, I was told to get on it. Bill said there were only two real modes of transport on the ranch; horse and bike. If I didn’t master them both I’d have to settle for walking, and that was a hell of a lot of ground to cover. I’d never ridden a motorbike before but I jumped on and did as instructed. It was trial and error as I practiced switching gears, accidentally stalled, and drove around the field one lap after another. After the twentieth lap, I was good. Feeling comfortable enough with the gears and clutch I followed Bill out of the field as we raced up a dirt track and deeper into the property. We were flying now, but I was keeping up just fine as we rode along the perimeter fence past the livestock. I’d always loved driving back home and the free feeling it gave me, but this was different. This was so uninhibited. I understood why people chose two wheels over four. There’s something carnal and liberating about riding out in the open, exposed to the elements and always only one wrong move away from danger.
We spent the next hour driving around the property over fields dotted with Baobab trees and through wooded enclosures where the cattle took shelter from the relentless midday heat. Bill shouted from a few meters ahead that we needed to get back and start on the afternoon chores. We ditched the bikes where we found them and I hopped in the back of his pickup truck. If this was how each day started I thought, I was excited to see how it continued. As I made a seat out of the bales of hay, I looked down at my arms, now a shade of dusty brown. It could have been mistaken for a tan except for the beads of sweat leaving my paler complexion trailing up and down the length of them, my socks stuck to the surface of my skin and the back of my neck stinging from the grit and sun. I untied the bandanna hanging from my neck and let the breeze cool me as we road further into the paddocks. “Get the bails ready,” Bill shouted over the driving wind. He made a signal and I threw one over the side, leaving it for the horses to find. We went from one end of the property to the other, dropping hay bales every few hundred feet.
When we returned it was midday and one of the other lodgers had arrived. She crouched next to the chicken coop at the side of the house wearing tan khakis, a light flannel shirt, a wide-brimmed hat and sturdy ankle-high boots that looked like they’d seen a mud pit or two in their time. She was oblivious to my approach as she called out for the chickens, watching them as they clucked and pecked.
“Hello,” I said as I stopped beside the coop.
“Oh hi! I’m Casey.” She stood up and held out her hand.
“Annie. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you too,” she said as we shook hands.
“Did you just get here?”
“Yeah, but I’ve already been clothed and shown around.”
“Clothed?” I asked.
“Yeah, haven’t you seen the gear shed?”
“Nope. Bill didn’t give me that part of the tour.”
“Never seen so many khakis, dungarees, and cowboy hats. Amazing. Want me to show you?” she asked.
“Yes!” I shouted as we walked over to the shed just beside the living quarters.
I opened the creaky wooden door into a small room full of shelves, crates and boxes. The dust particles floated around the room and glistened like fireflies in the shaft of sunlight now pouring into the space. I could taste the air, thick with earth.
“Where’re you from?” Casey asked as I walked nearer the shelves. There were at least a half of a dozen pairs of khakis and twice as many button-up shirts.
“Chicago.” I grabbed a pair of trousers. “You?”
“Vancouver. What brought you to this dusty middle of nowhere on the other side of the world?” she asked.
“Everything.” I slipped on a pair of old boots.
“Me too,” she said with a smile as we grabbed a couple of work gloves and walked out of the shed.
As we strolled towards the front of the house for lunch, three girls sat at the table chatting as they picked at a spread of cold meats, bread, boiled eggs and salad. We sat in the empty chairs.
“Hi,” one of the girls said in a thick Nordic accent, “I’m Marja and this is my friend Olga. We’re from Finland.”
“And I’m Hanna,” said the other girl, “from Germany.”
We talked for the next hour in between mouthfuls about each other’s travels, each other’s countries, and how it was that we all came to be here, at an outback ranch miles from civilisation and a world away from the well-trodden scene of the Sunshine coast.
“Mostly, I just wanted some peace,” said Hanna.
“Us too,” said Olga.
“There’s only so much surfing and socialising a person can do!” said Hanna laughing.
“I know what you mean,” I said. “Wasn’t it tiring? I wanted to break away and find some head space, do something with my hands, go to bed feeling exhausted from a day’s work, maybe go to sleep with the sun and wake up with it too.”
They all nodded their heads in agreement as a dark-haired girl wearing jeans, riding boots and a white straw cowboy hat approached us, about our age, early twenties, carrying a soft and long-strapped shoulder bag.
“G’day. How’s everyone doin?”
We nodded and smiled.
“I’m Mia, the ranch-hand, and this right here is Roxy.” She hung the bag on one of the wooden posts. The lilac coloured pouch wriggled and bounced as a tiny furry face poked out. “She’s just a young joey, found her a few days ago alone out by one of the boundary fences. We think her mother may have been hit by a car. Isn’t she a beauty? You can hold her if you want.”
We all held and coddled her as we finished lunch, and placed her carefully back in her pouch, ecstatic in the realisation that lunchtime activities would include kangaroo cuddles.
“Well that’s about enough of that for now, who’s already done their morning chores and been given a horse?”
“I have,” I said as the other girls informed her they’d just arrived.
“Alright then, I’ll let Bill get you four started with some chores and some horses, and you can come with me.”
The afternoon sun was hot and bright as we sat low in our saddles, sauntering out to the southeast expanses of the ranch. Our hats and the occasional shade of a bottle tree were the only things keeping us from sun stroke. Mia pointed out toward where the boundary fences end and briefly explained the workings of a modern cattle station. As she spoke she held the reins loosely in her right hand and kept her left hand casually on her thigh, hat tilted back off her forehead as she scanned the horizon, an expression of comfort and ease on her face, and the distinct look of someone who was raised on a saddle.
“Are you from here?” I asked.
“Yep, born and raised, on a small horse farm not too far from here. And yourself?” She took her eyes off the trail and turned toward me.
“From the states, Chicago.”
“Ohhhh the Windy City right?!” she shouted with a proud smile.
“That’s the one.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to America’s big cities, but I’ll admit, it intimidates me.”
“Yeah, me too, and I’m from one.” I readjusted in my saddle.
She gently picked up the reins to guide her horse left, mine following closely as we continued at an unhurried pace.
“What’s brought you all the way out here? Chicago sounds exciting.”
“Been traveling, and decided when I got to Australia that I didn’t want to leave, so I moved to Sydney. But the outback intrigued me. Wanted a taste of it I guess.”
“What’s so intriguing?” she asked.
“The discomfort,” I shrugged. “The work required to exist out here. Maybe I’m just looking for something completely different to what I know. Something closer to the dirt, the animals, myself.”
“Well, you’re definitely getting closer to the dirt out here,” she grinned. “But I get that. Been here my whole life, aside from short trips to Brisbane and Sydney. Never really gotten a taste of something else,” she wiped her brow and pulled her hat lower on her head. “My life has been horses and cattle ranches and rural Queensland and I dream of places like New York and London and Singapore. I am a country girl, but sometimes I feel like I’ll never know another side of myself unless I leave.”
A breeze swept through, cooling us.
“Let’s stop for a drink just over there,” she said as she led us into a small area of woodland.
She hopped off her horse and tied him to a tree. I jumped down and did the same as we perched on a log and I drank hastily from my canteen, letting the water rush down my throat until I had to take a breath. “Well, can you?” I asked.
“Can I what?”
“Leave, travel,” I said.
“Hope so, one day. I’m trying to save money and my folks still expect me to be there to help out with the farm. But I’m hoping the right moment will present itself, and then I’ll go.”
I looked over at the horses happily grazing on the grasses at the base of the tree, and as I took a bite of my granola bar, sweating, hair matted to my face and my filthy, oversized trousers now partially wet from the water that had dripped from the canteen, I couldn’t help smiling as a thought bounced around my head.
“Go on, what is it?” she said.
“It’s just interesting how I’m all the way over here 10,000 miles from everything I know, envious of your lifestyle, and you’re sitting over there thinking the same about mine.”
“Yeah, funny.” She laughed out of the side of her mouth. “So, you ever met a Redback?”
“No. Not close up.”
“You’re in luck. Come take a look at this beauty.”
A few paces further into the woodland was an old safety cone hidden amongst the dried shrubs. Now a dull orange, it perched next to the trunk of a large tree. Mia slowly tilted it over on its side as we peered inside the conical nest, crouching down to see the web near the bottom of the cone.
“You see her?” she asked.
There it was, the bulbous black body with long spindly legs and menacing red stripe painted on its back.
“Bit close for comfort. Couldn’t it move pretty quick and bite your leg if it wanted?”
“S’pose it could. We’ll just have to hope she isn’t in a nasty mood today,” she said.
“Aren’t Redbacks one of the deadliest things here? They kill people, right?” I asked nervously.
“Yeah, they do some damage. Definitely don’t want to find out. Would ruin your afternoon for sure,” she laughed.
I gave the spider one more look and stepped away as Mia lowered her head closer to it.
“What’s the safety cone for anyways?” I asked.
“I don’t know, it’s been here for ages, and once we found out the old girl was making a home in it, we let it be. Don’t wanna go evicting her now do we?” Mia placed the cone right side up again and walked back toward the horses.
We hopped back on the saddles and settled into a slow saunter as the minutes passed silently.
“Awfully quiet there Chicago, what’s on your mind?” she asked.
“Just thinking about how unscared people in the outback are. Like death doesn’t scare you or something.”
Mia was quiet for a moment and turned back toward me in her saddle. “It’s not that we’re not scared, I think we just realise that death is a natural part of life, ya know? Happens every single day ‘round here. We’re close to it. And we don’t try to sanitise it. It just is what it is. Like, the other day I took a group of city folk around the ranch, just like this on saddleback, and we came across a kangaroo carcass on the trail, still fresh enough that it looked like it might jump up and hop right past us. When we approached, they all screamed. I couldn’t understand it. They all went on about how sad it was, and poor kangaroo this and poor kangaroo that. Like they’d never seen anything dead before. I told ‘em it’s not sad when you think that the body might provide food for another animal, or that it’s the natural world’s way of controlling the population, but they just looked appalled. It’s nature. It’s not sad. It just is.”
I thought about how I might react coming across a dead kangaroo on the trail. And though I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have shrieked, I do think I would have reacted with a slight pang of sadness, which made me feel foolish.
“I understand that if it’s not something you have to confront everyday then it’s easy to pretend like it doesn’t exist, or that it doesn’t happen to us all, but out here we don’t have that luxury. Death is a part of life here. It happens and we move on,” she said.
Knowing the truth in what she was saying, I wondered in what other ways growing up in a city had softened me. I desperately wanted to sharpen some of those smoothed edges, dust off the disinfected layer of comfort and see things from a different angle. I suppose it was exposure I wanted most, to different thoughts, different lives, different ways. I felt happy in that saddle, closer to the marrow than I had in a long time, or maybe ever. “I’m glad to be here,” I said, feeling that the sentiment should be expressed out in the open air.
“We’re glad to have you here,” she said as we picked up pace into a trot. “Anyway. There’s no perfect way to see things I guess. No perfect place. No perfect experience. Wherever we are we just use to add more depth to the world we already know.”
“Yeah. Like taking bits of each experience and cobbling together a deeper, more textured view of the world.”
“Totally,” Mia said. “Nothing like sorting out life truths during a casual afternoon ride eh?” she chortled.
“I should ride horses more often,” I smiled.
We spent most of the long ride back to the main house in a relaxed saunter, but knowing sunset would soon arrive we picked up the pace and made it back to the stables while the sun still cast long shadows on the ground.
“The others must have taken the bikes for sundown already, let’s get moving,” she said as we ran toward the paddock to pick up two of the motorbikes. We revved the engines and sped up the dirt track back along the livestock fence and up into the open field where the sun was slowly making its way down toward the tops of the hills.
We walked over to the group, everyone silent and smiling, cross-legged on the grass in their muddied boots and trousers as they watched the sky change colours. Mia and I sat down next to them. Minutes passed as the air got cooler and the sky got darker.
Casey shuffled a bit in her seat and said with an even-tempered sigh, “I don’t ever want to leave here. This is as good as it gets.”
Mia and I glanced at each other with a knowing smile as the clouds turned a deep shade of purple and the fire red sun disappeared from view. There was just enough light left for us to make it back to the house safely, but none of us seemed concerned enough to want to move. Instead, we sat there quietly as the darkness enveloped us, our faces turned up at the sky and the faint sound of howling animals our only immediate thought. We’d make it back somehow.