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  • Writer's pictureKate O'Connor

Splendid Isolation

Growing up in rural Australia is an experience which can be likened to no other. We have the reddest dirt, the bluest skies, and the most hard-working people on this planet. While other kids went on road trips with their parents during school holidays, we helped ours with stock work: shearing, lamb-marking, moving cattle, checking fences. Our days were spent not on skateboards but on horseback or motorbikes, and we were often found moving along slowly behind a mob of sheep or a herd of cattle. We didn’t play in the street with the neighbourhood kids; we played in the paddock with our siblings or our father’s work dogs. We made yards in the dirt out of small rocks and stones, and danced in the rain and mud whenever the weather was kind enough to storm. Our food came to us every week in cardboard boxes, brought up the road from Broken Hill (our nearest town) by the mailman, who had collected the orders we’d made by fax to the Broken Hill Woolworths. Any cold items we bought were sent in Styrofoam boxes, and frozen foods were out of the question. Those we’d have to buy ourselves while in town for a day, and take them home in eskies full of ice. In the weeks leading up to the local gymkhanas, we could usually be found spending our afternoons out with our horses, practicing for the bending race or the flag race, or setting up 44 gallon drums for barrels practice. Winter weekends would see us packing a family lunch and heading down to the creek to find a dead gum tree to chop up for firewood. On one of these occasions a man we had working for us was bitten by a brown snake, and we’d had to drive him to the airstrip on the station next door (30 kilometres away) so that the Royal Flying Doctor plane could land to treat him. There could not have been a greater difference between the life of a bush kid and the life of a child growing up in a town or city. Neither could really understand the life of the other. When I was 12 years old the two clashed together in a way that shaped my entire future, and taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons.

Primary school for me was spent in a small schoolroom off the side of our house, with Mum as my teacher and my two older brothers as my fellow pupils. Living 200 kilometres from the nearest town does tend to cause a few problems when it comes to school buses and the like. All across the Far West Division, other families had very similar rooms, with very similar occupants. Once a day, from Monday to Friday, we’d all turn on our radios and tune in to the lesson being broadcast from our school’s base in Tibooburra. We would call in on the radio when the teacher asked if we were present, we’d answer questions related to the subject we were studying that day, and we’d have a chance to tell the rest of the ‘class’ any news we might have gathered since our last Air Lesson. These lessons would last half an hour, and then it would be back into the schoolroom with Mum, who would be our teacher for the rest of the day, and we wouldn’t leave that room until we’d completed our allotted work; 12pm or 6pm, it was up to us. Once a term, we would all travel in to Tibooburra to spend a week actually attending classes at the school in person, mixing with other students, and having a chance to see what life was like for the students who lived in town. We’d have discoes, movie nights, and sports carnivals. These weeks were called Minischools. All of the out-of-town families would stay in the Tibooburra Hostel, right across the road from the school, and for this week we’d take our lunches and our books in backpacks with us each day just like any other student. But most of the time we were Station Kids, sneaking out of the schoolroom window to ride the horses or go on adventures whenever Mum left the room to answer the phone. It was an isolated life, and hard at times, but it was all I knew and everything I loved.

All of that changed for me when I graduated Year Six and high school began looming in my future. No matter where I went, I would have to board away from home. Both of my brothers had gone to a boarding school in Sydney, and so it was decided that I would be on my way to Sydney as well. I was allowed to choose the school I wanted to go to and being new to the big city and always spell-bound by the sight of the harbour and the bridge, I chose the school with the most perfect views and the story-book sandstone buildings. But for all its picturesque perfection, the school had its downfalls. The stunning views and old-style boarding house came with a price greater than money. They would almost cost me my life.

I set off to boarding school at the tender age of 12, naïve about life away from the station and the harsh realities of the wider world. I soon came to realise that some people valued money above all else, and how big your swimming pool was and how much your house was worth were deciding factors on a friendship. The girls I was living with 24 hours a day seven days a week didn’t care about how our shearing had gone, or about how we desperately needed a rain for feed for the stock. They wanted to talk about holidays abroad, makeup, boys, and where they were going shopping on the weekend. It didn’t take long for me to become somewhat of an outcast. I had a few ‘friends’, however they always seemed to tolerate me more than actually be friendly with me. It never mattered much whether I was present in the group or not, or if I contributed to the conversation. I didn’t have much to say that would interest them anyway. I became horribly homesick for station life and my family, 1500 kilometres away and only able to visit once a term. I wasn’t used to being in a classroom full of students every day, with a different teacher for every subject. I wasn’t used to set times for classes, or having to plan and do homework of an evening. And I certainly wasn’t used to being just another face among many, whether it was in the classroom or in the boarding house. I was bullied for my differences, and left out because of the way I spoke. I have to give credit to the boarding coordinators; they did try their best to make me happy and not feel as left out. I remember one weekend when I was the only boarder in my year that hadn’t gone away, and one of the boarding mistresses took me out for dinner and a movie so that I wasn’t sitting in my room all alone for an entire weekend. It was a wonderful gesture but it didn’t seem to count to me, as I still wasn’t with the other boarders and I felt as though the adults pitied me. I was lonely, and I was sad, and I suppose it was inevitable that I would fall into depression and eventually make a move to end my life. It was an unsuccessful move but it got me the help and support that I needed, and finally clued my parents in to how unhappy I really was.

Things never changed for me at that school. Eventually I’d move to a new school for my final two years, and it would be an experience that could not be any more different than my previous one. I boarded with other country girls, girls who couldn’t see their families often, who couldn’t go out every weekend, and who were happy to discuss horses and stock and life on the land. Sure, none of them came from as far west as I did, and most didn’t live as far from a town as I did. But they were accepting of me, and more willing to understand the kind of life I lived. Several of these girls remain my best friends to this day. They’ve been to my family station and they’ve experienced country life as I know it. Likewise, I’ve been to their homes; small blocks of land in the mountains with only a few head of cattle, cropping farms in the Riverland with a small mob of sheep, and city high-rise apartments with amazing views of the Opera House. We have the kind of friendship where time and distance don’t matter. This is pretty damn important when you live 1200 kilometres away from each other and rarely get the chance to travel that distance. We remain friends nonetheless, and the friendship never changes even as the time goes by.

Despite the obvious pain and struggle I experienced during this time in my life, I came away from it having learned possibly one of life’s greatest lessons: this too shall pass. No matter how hard it was for me at times, and despite feeling like things would never get better, they inevitably always do. There have been times since the first when I’ve wanted to end my existence. But I remind myself constantly that that time passed, and this will too. Eventually I changed schools and found myself in a place where I felt I belonged. There I finished my schooling and was able to go back home to the station, where everything was just as I’d left it. I think that’s one of the greatest things about the Australian outback. It never really changes. Dry seasons come and go, floods come and go, but the soul of the country never falters. Whether the landscape is green with fresh grass, yellow with ripened crops or nothing but red dirt, the outback remains a sacred place. We have some of the most deadly creatures on the planet in the form of venomous snakes and spiders, and some of the cutest creatures in the form of the quokkas and the koalas. There is nowhere more peaceful than the middle of a paddock on a spring day, a breeze blowing through the Mitchell grass and lazy puffs of cloud drifting across the sky. This is a place I’ve learned to go to in my mind when I’ve found myself in a city somewhere, feeling alone and crowded at the same time.

I suppose the main thing is that I was forced to grow up very quickly, to look after myself and to know when to ask for help. In a way I was much more mature than the girls I boarded with. I’d seen life on the land, how tough it can be year to year, and the amazing differences between the people of the country and the people in the cities. But at the same time I was naïve and immature in terms of how people treat each other, and how they deal with clashes in character. I’d learned quite a harsh lesson in the way people treat others around them based on their circumstances. I’d only known people like me, and it had never occurred to me that someone might be less than accepting of the life I lived.

In the end, the contrast between my primary school days and my high school life shaped the person I am today. I’d like to think I’m a stronger person for the experiences I had during those very tender and impressionable years. I lived in two separate worlds, and the perspective I gained on comparing each to the other has impacted on the choices I’ve made in my life since, and on the way I treat others around me. Most importantly, I’ve learned that no matter where I go in the world, whether it’s the thriving streets of London or a tiny one-shop town somewhere along the Nullarbor, the outback is always there waiting for me to come home, with the reddest dirt, the bluest skies, and the open schoolroom window.


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