Making my way up north along the historical “Wool Wagon Pathway,” I reached the World Heritage area known as Shark Bay where I lived and worked on yet another sheep station. This station, comprised of over 500,000 acres, was steeped in Australia’s wool history. I had finally reached what felt like the “real outback.” Red, flat land stretched for miles, camel tracks curved over sand dunes, we had to stop in the road as emus ran across, and mail and food was delivered to the station once a week on it’s way up to the town of Denham. I was lucky enough to have located a station that is known throughout Western Australia for it’s massive wool and goat operations. At some points in the station’s history, the station has owned as many as 20,000 sheep, taking a month to shear. Because of the vast amounts of land the station covers, a method of trapping is used to lure sheep to water during shearing time, otherwise the costs of mustering would be too high. This means that in order to attract the sheep to water, it has to be the dry season, or in other words, it has to be summer. Shearing, as I described in my last post, is a very labor-intensive process. Doing it in the height of a Shark Bay summer, with temperatures reaching into the 50’s (Celcius), is a huge feat.
Another unique part of this station was the fact that it also functions as a tourist facility, hosting a station-stay experience in the converted shearer’s quarters and maintaining a caravan park. Tourists are welcome to come and see work around the barn with the sheep and goats and hopefully learn more about the industry. The fact that stations like this exist across the country for tourists to visit, shows that changes in the industry have motivated pastoralists to seek other outlets for income, whether that means integrative farming (like including goats or cattle on the property) or bringing in tourists. It also shows the desire of pastoralists to educate the general public about what happens on the farm and in the industry.
In Australia, as in the U.S., there seems to be a large discrepancy between rural inhabitants and “city-folk.” When I tell people I grew up in a “small city” of about 200,000 people, they gape and say something along the lines of, “Oh, so you’re a city gal.” 200,000 people is not small by Aussie standards. And indeed, with most of Australia’s population living in cities rather than “out bush,” a large amount of the population is somewhat disconnected from the agriculture sector. This has led to some interesting opinions amongst agriculturalists about politics and policy. This divide is something I’m definitely going to try to prod into in my future interviews.
As I make my way towards my final research site, I can’t help but feel like I know so much about the industry and the people behind it, yet simultaneously have so much more to learn. Every day brings a new player into the web and I now see connections with the industry in every facet of Australian life, from Aboriginal culture to international trade regulations. I’ve been saying all along that the wool industry is deeply entrenched in Australia’s history and culture but it’s only now that I’m really learning what that means.