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Australia From boarding school to station school: Meet the next-generation cowboys of the Kimberley

04:05  29 november  2020
04:05  29 november  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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Tim Mallard has only been riding horses for four months, but it feels like a rite of passage for the trainee stockman

The 18-year-old is part of a new generation of Aboriginal workers embracing the heat and hard work of the pastoral industry, despite being raised in towns far from the dusty yards.

"It's completely different to what I grew up with, but I love it," he said.

"It's really hot out there, and sometimes it feels like the cows want to kill you … but my grandfather was a cowboy, so I'm proud to do it."

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Mr Mallard was recruited to the Indigenous pastoral training program at Roebuck Plains Station in early 2020, after graduating from boarding school in Perth.

Roebuck Plains Station manager, Jak Andrews, said Mr Mallard was quite a character to have on the team.

"He's definitely the extrovert of the family — he's the talker, he's always got a smile on his face even on a tough day, so he's very easy to work with," Mr Andrews said.

"It's pretty impressive how quickly he's learnt — he's got no fear, so that helps."

A new generation of Aboriginal stockmen

Roebuck Plains is a 276,000-hectare station 40 kilometres east of Broome, that carries 20,000 head of mainly Brahman cattle.

The station is owned by the Yawuru native title holders, but is leased and managed by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation.

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Business has continued as usual throughout most of 2020, despite the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic into northern Western Australia.

Manager Jak Andrews said travel restrictions in March created some minor staffing issues, but mustering was only paused briefly.

"There hasn't been a downturn in sales and the boatloads going out of Broome have been close to average this season as well," he said.

"So across the board I'd say the industry really hasn't stopped, apart from a small hiccup in the middle."

When the ABC visited, the eight Aboriginal trainees were hard at work and in good spirits, despite the stupefying heat and humidity of the build-up to the wet season.

Watching the rookie cowboys corralling the cattle at high speed, it was hard to believe they have been in the saddle for less than six months.

Jak Andrews watched on proudly from behind a fence, as kelpies nipped about the herd and the weiners started to flow through the gate.

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"The fellas have come from a pretty low skills base," Mr Andrews said.

"Most of them hadn't spent more than five minutes on a horse — but they've got enthusiasm and discipline, so they're very trainable.

"I guess the way we see it is that there's a whole population out there who could be working on pastoral properties but aren't, and we're trying to tap into that."

He was referencing the long, disrupted legacy of Aboriginal stockmen in the Kimberley.

Long history of pastoral work

Over decades, Aboriginal men were the primary workforce for the fledgling northern cattle trade, with extended family groups living and working on the profitable stations that were forcibly imposed on their ancestral lands.

Conditions were sometimes harsh and the illegal withholding of wages is still subject to litigation.

But the skills and sense of pride that came with the work were abruptly disposed of the mid 1960s, when the requirement for station owners to pay an equal wage caused mass lay-offs.

Hundreds of Aboriginal families were no longer supported or employed, and relocated into towns like Fitzroy Crossing and Halls Creek.

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It was a period of dislocation that many local Aboriginal people said contributed to ongoing issues with substance abuse, unemployment and a less tangible crises of identity.

Work a valuable opportunity

It is a legacy that Tim Mallard feels deeply.

"It used to be mainly Aboriginal stockmen who were working on the station, so it feels good to be a part of the industry," he said.

"It is kind of shocking, because I see all the old fellas, and they're old stockmen, and they know how to fix fences, ride horses and work with cattle.

"But most of this generation, they just want to get drunk, walk the streets at night and not do anything, just waste their lives away."

Mr Mallard is a Nhanda and Bardi man, linking him with the Murchison area of Western Australia's mid-coast, and the saltwater country on the Dampier Peninsula north of Broome.

He grew up near Geraldton in a close-knit family, and then did six years of boarding school in Perth.

While his parents and girlfriend are proud and supportive of his decision to move to Roebuck Plains Station, Mr Mallard has considered doing an apprenticeship in the mines in the future, and maybe studying science at university.

"This is a good job and it's got me a on a good path, and to be honest, it feels good to think I might be a role model for my siblings and other kids," he said.

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