Fitzroy Crossing is nestled deep in Western Australia’s cattle country, submerged in a sea of vast, far-reaching cattle stations and one of the five towns that hosts events for the Kimberley Rodeo Circuit.
When I think of cattle station’s, I immediately conjure up images of akubra donned cowboys in checked shirts and leather chaps galloping across the plains to the thundering beat of hooves, mustering cattle in a haze of dust, sweat and grime, lasso’s at the ready to rein in any beast that wanders too far from the pack. Living in Fitzroy Crossing I had romanticised notions that I would find myself surrounded by horses, constantly in the company of my equine companions, moonlight as a jillaroo and astonish and impress all around me with my horsemanship skills and knowledge, thoughts of competing in the saddle bronc at the rodeo never strayed far from my mind, I’d always harboured dreams of being a cowgirl…..…….. all I had to do was make some contacts with the local stations. It wasn’t hard to meet and befriend the local station workers, but it was damn hard to find a horse! What I failed to realise in my fantasy was that the average sized cattle station in the Kimberley is about the same size as County Mayo (5,586 km2)…….I would happily spend all day, every day in the saddle, in fact that’s what I aspire to do, but at times common sense must prevail and I would have to agree that riding the length and breadth of County Mayo on a continuous basis would be slightly tiresome. There is an easier way and these days the cattle mustering is done by quad bike and helicopter, in fact it is quite unusual to find a cattle station still using horses for anything other than recreation, and even at that, the harsh climate and conditions of the Outback pose many challenges for our equine friends.
I’d spent my life surrounded by horses, if I wasn’t riding one I could at least see one from my bedroom window, starved of contact, I resorted to some pretty desperate measures. On one of my weekend hikes out to Geikie Gorge I spotted some loose wild horses in the bush, so I pulled over and sat and watched them for a while, observing their movements, their interactions with each other, letting them catch my smell to assure them I wasn’t a predator. Then I edged closer and closer, slowly creeping along, stopping every now and then when they showed distress or uneasiness until finally I was within touching distance. I crouched down and waited for them to approach…….horses are generally quite inquisitive and curious creatures, they like to interact and discover the world around them, all you need is time and stillness. My patience paid off and soon I felt the hot air of enquiring nostrils all over me, the whiskers and tiny hairs of their muzzles tickling me as they sniffed and explored my head, and then stillness………….I’d been accepted. I cannot describe how amazing it was to be in the company of horses once again, and for the rest of the day I floated on air. I followed the same ritual whenever I came across the horses again, I did get some quiet concerned looks peering out the windows of cars that would pass by and I can only imagine the thoughts that were circling through their heads! It’s not every day you come across a girl crawling in the bush to catch a glimpse of some horses……but then again a lot of strange things happened in Fitzroy Crossing.
Interacting with the wild horses gratified my appetite and longing for equine contact to some extent, but it also intensified my desire to once again be surrounded by horses, it reawakened that deep connection between human and beast that every horse enthusiast feels. I also needed the escapism that sitting in the saddle gave me, that feeling of being truly content, that meditative state where you can hear your horse whisper, that connection to something powerful and real, that sense of truly living……and then I stumbled across Home Valley Station.
Home Valley Station is located on the Gibb River Road, close to the Pentecost River in the shadows of the magnificent Cockburn Ranges, only a mere 651kms from Fitzroy Crossing. Living in Australia, particularly in the Outback you get very accustomed to driving for hours on end for the simplest of pleasures. At the time of my visit in 2011, Home Valley was operating as a working cattle station still using horses to muster, and they offered a variety of horse riding packages. So I contacted them basically saying that I just wanted to live and breathe horses for a few days, the manager kindly wrote back and Janine’s Jillaroo and Jump-Up Adventure was born, a tailor made 5 day programme that involved trail-riding and camping, cattle mustering, fishing and a sunset champagne cruise……..basically a showcase of all that Home Valley had to offer.
I packed up my beloved Toyota Prado “The Critter Hitter”, and headed towards the Gibb River Road where my love affair with the Kimberley first blossomed five years previously. Driving long distance in Australia can be incredibly boring…………despite the magnificent awe-inspiring scenery of the Kimberley with its giant rock formations erupting from the blood red soil, essentially you are travelling on one long straight road, an expanse of nothingness and nobody to be seen for hours on end………I was thrilled to finally reach the Gibb River Road and let the challenges of driving on unsealed tracks begin……the biggest obstacle to face was crossing the mighty Pentecost River!! River crossings can be daunting, and generally it’s a good idea if you’re travelling alone to wait for another adventurous soul, if anything adverse happens you’ve got another car that can take you to safety or at least help rectify your problems. Its common sense….however I’d been driving solidly for about 6.5 hours my arse was numb and I didn’t want to wait, I just wanted to get to Home Valley……….so I trucked on. Next step was to check the depth of the water, on foot. There’s a general rule in Outback Australia, don’t dip your toes in any water you’re not familiar with, you never know what’s lurking beneath, I almost had a couple of toes severed by a saw fish whilst swimming in the Fitzroy River once, at the time I was just thankful it wasn’t a saltie! Salt-water crocodiles are, by far, the most dangerous animals in Australia. They are enormous, aggressive, territorial and plentiful particularly across the Northern Australian Outback. They generally inhabit mangrove swamps, coastal marshes and river mouths but they will take advantage of seasonal floods to access areas that are difficult to reach. Following this year’s wet season a bull shark and saltwater crocodile were found in the Fitzroy River, the serge of flood water carrying them to a new oasis, where they were subsequently tracked and disposed of. So, with all this information swimming around my head I wasn’t too keen on dipping my toes into the waters of the Pentecost, but needs must and the horses were within reach, so I waded in to the halfway point, confident that my Prado would easily cruise through, turned and emerged with all ten toes intact and finally exhaled!!
Home Valley Station was just the oasis I’d imagined, driving in I could smell the odour of cattle station, a fragrant bouquet of horse, cow, dust and barbeque. Horses stood languidly out of the midday sun, heads drooped and eyes closed in a state of contented dozing, a quick swish of their tails to ward of flies the only movement. The sun’s rays illuminated the expanse of the swimming pool, still and inviting, its cool waters offering a refreshing caress and chilled refuge from the merciless sun. The gravel crunched under foot as I made my way past The Dusty Bar and Grill to reception to announce my arrival and let the fun begin.
For my first night I was treated to a bit of luxury in the Outback. Home Valley’s Grass Castles are situated along the banks of the Bindoola Creek, the floor to ceiling sliding glass doors offered magnificent views of this impressive sight, framing the sunlight beautifully as it danced across the crystal waters. The smell of eucalyptus filled the air and the abundant birdlife sang a melodious tune, I had walked into paradise. As awe struck as I was by this splendid sight, I had to pull myself back from being completely lost in the beauty……..it was time to venture to the stables.
John Rodney (JR), sidled out of the corral, akubra tipped low over one eye………..instead of the gravelly brusque tone I anticipated to flow from this cowboys lips I was met with a beaming smile and a surprisingly soft spoken slightly bashful voice. JR spent his life with horses, working the station’s and rodeo circuit, now the resident horse whisperer and pastoral manager of Home Valley Station. After some jovial conversation and a quick scout through the barn after which I’m sure JR had sized my capabilities up, we settled in front of a beautiful black Australian Waler Horse. Zorro was a new recruit to the Home Valley Station, still finding his feet and was to be mine for my stay, we’d learn the cattle ropes together!!
Early the following morning JR and I saddled up our horses and set off into the bush to explore the area shrouded by the monumental umbra of the Cockburn Ranges. The early morning light displayed the luminescent veil of deep rust reds, rich golden oranges and warm flaming ambers dancing across the craggy mountain faces as we followed its steep curve. Meandering through the dense bush and scrub we came across a stray cow with her calf at foot, one that they had been trying to locate for days, luck of the Irish in action! With the animal expertly lassoed we slowly made our way to camp for the night. The one thing I could never get used to in the Southern Hemisphere was how short the days were……….once the sun began to descent into the horizon it was almost as if the lights had been switched off……no gradual crawl from day through dusk to night, instead the world is plunged into darkness……but the stars, the stars were magnificent. Settling down in my swag that night, an abundance of gleaming, glittering stars overhead, the fragrant woody smell of the campfire wafting through the air and listening to the rhythmic chomp of the grazing horses, I was lulled into a deep slumber surrounded by the senses of paradise.
The following few days I became immersed into the Cattle Station life, and became more of a part of the team rather than a guest. I forsake most of the tourist options such as the sunset cruise on my itinerary and instead spent my stay never too far from the stables. Zorro was solely in my charge and JR really encouraged me to take him and spend time with him, work with him in the round pen and under saddle. I learned how to muster cattle, the gentle easy zig zag pack and forth behind the pack, always keeping your horses eye on the herd, attuning your horse not only to your movements and energy but also to that of the cattle, so much so that they could predict the movements of the herd and break into a quick canter from standstill if a cheeky bull made a bid for freedom. An intricate dance of seamless fluidity that Zorro and I were learning together. As well as learning the complexities of cattle mustering, JR set about teaching Zorro and I how to cut cattle. After a few demonstrations from the pro’s we ventured sheepishly out into the fray, neither of us quiet knowing what we were doing……….but after a few choice words from JR and a continuous cycle of repetition the penny eventually dropped. Here was a horse and an Irish girl who had never done any cattle work before, within 20 mins Zorro was fixating his gaze on the cattle, separating them like an expert and bending and twisting his body, mimicking the movements of the sole cow we were trying to keep separated from the herd and succeeding. It was a very proud moment; we were officially part of the crew and what better way to celebrate than around the camp fire with a couple of ice cold beers!
There is a relatively famous show, particularly amongst the fishing enthusiasts of Australia called “Fishing Australia” hosted by Rob Paxevanos. As it transpired, during my stay at Home Valley, Rob and the “Fishing Australia” team were there to film a show primarily about the Barramundi fishing available at the station and also about the connection that the Indigenous people of the area have with the river and its inhabitants. Of course being that Home Valley is a working cattle station they did film Rob sampling some of the horseback delights. So essentially a mini-muster was created with some of the cows that we had mustered previously in the day…….the whole horse team were present, including their new honouree member, me! If you watched the show you’ll have seen Zorro and I playing cowboy! I haven’t been able to secure a copy of the full episode; it is available to download off iTunes if you’re in Australia (Fishing Australia Barramundi Dreaming – 2011). However follow the link below and you will see a little promo video for the episode and a sample of the stunning scenery and landscapes available at Home Valley.
On my final day at Home Valley, I traipsed down to the stables to watch JR perform magic and display his great “horse whispering” talents. It never ceases to amaze me the connection that can exist between a human and their horse, it is truly amazing that these animals who are a lot bigger and stronger than we, allow us he privilege of their time, beauty, grace, respect, trust and companionship………….the perfect thoughts and feelings to end my time at Home Valley. Armed with the realisation of my cowgirl dreams, the gift of my Home Valley Station akubra perched proudly on my head, I left my little slice of paradise in a haze of dust and turned home towards Fitzroy Crossing.
Home Valley Station June 2011.
Author: Janine Whyte (Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl.)