Rural caretaking: Working the land
Taking on a rural caretaking position can be the perfect hiatus from your touring lifestyle.
My knuckles were catching the brunt of the bone-chilling early morning breeze as I pushed the quad bike into the southern blocks of the 26,000 acre Lilyveil Pastoral Property, hunting out the cunning old ewes trying to evade the wool clip. Over the next couple of days, we would be bringing in some 6500 sheep for their annual appointment with the shearing team.
Lilyveil Pastoral, west of Blackall, Qld, is the second property of Cracker and Deb Macdonald, whose home block Bloomfield is closer to Blackall, some 70km away. By smoko, with the temperature rapidly climbing to the high 20s, we had the mob close to the yards and the contractors had already completed their first spell on the boards for the morning.
We were 12 months into our agreed six month caretaking stay and had recently told the Macdonalds that we were very happy to extend our stay further. In reality, our on-loan working dog Bluey had stamped his paws and refused to go back and live with the other low-bred working dogs in the kennels at Bloomfield. He knew when he was well off – back at Bloomfield there were no guarantees of a ride on the quad bike every day, no air-conditioned cottage or snacks between meals!
A WORLD AWAY
If you enjoy the great outdoors, particularly the countryside far removed from the hectic hustle, traffic and crowds of the urban regions, then taking a caretaking role on a rural property can provide a nice sojourn from your travels, as well as a number of benefits.
As you settle in, you get a sense of ownership – but one without the burdens and financial costs of actual ownership – just the good stuff. We really enjoyed our time at Lilyveil, so extended our initial six month agreement to two years.
At the Lorna Glen and Earaheady ex-pastoral properties in the Little Sandy Desert, WA, where we looked after a 1,267,800 acre spread of country on behalf of the WA Department of Environment and Conservation, we extended our initial six month agreement to 14 months. During that time, we became good friends with our neighbours Rex ‘the Red Centre Man’ and Norma Ward on Millrose Station, 75km away. They were in drought and suffering poor cattle prices, so we later joined them to help out with their mustering and other work on the station for five months.
More recently, we spent three months in central Botswana looking after two adjacent ‘cattle posts’, as they are called out there. A colleague who I worked with on diamond exploration in the late 1960s contacted us and suggested if we got a three month visa, he would happily pay our return airfares. Again, this was another wonderful experience in a very different culture and we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the huge changes to the country since we were last there. We followed this with a two month stint in the Cape Province of South Africa, catching up with many old friends from our diamond days.
Taking on a caretaking role involves considerable responsibility. You are the ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground and are responsible for organising and completing the agreed tasks on a daily basis. Generally, this is not onerous work.
Typically, at Lilyveil, we would take a daily run out through the property, perhaps splitting the northern and southern sections on alternate days, checking all the watering points, starting pumps and directing water to where it was required. We kept a close eye on the stock and looked out for any signs of predator attacks. Fence patrols were done regularly and we repaired any damage we found. General maintenance, mowing and slashing, and spraying feral weeds were typical tasks. A phone call back to Bloomfield each evening put Cracker’s mind at ease that there were no impending issues.
TAKING THE INITIATIVE
To take on a caretaking role, you don’t require a degree or even extensive experience of farm or pastoral life. The key qualities that employers are looking for are honesty, initiative, common sense and the ability to solve problems and ‘fit in’ with a good work ethic. Good people and communication skills are key elements, as well as enjoying life in rural and sometimes remote regions with just yourselves for company the majority of the time.
Obviously, some prior experience of farming, working with stock or machinery, or other handy skills such as trade experience will make you a more desirable applicant. Employers are looking at the prospective applicants’ ability to adapt and learn new skills, as well as their enthusiasm for the role. They will also be looking for staff who are prepared to commit for at least a six month stay as they cannot afford the time and cost of recruiting new staff every few weeks.
Our induction at Lilyveil commenced as we left Blackall in convoy with Cracker and drove the 70-odd kilometres out to the property. What followed was a whirlwind tour – visiting all the dams and pump stations, opening and closing the many gates as we criss-crossed the country while my head tried, in vain, to retain a mental map. Back at the caretakers’ cottage, we had a quick cuppa before Cracker took off back to Bloomfield, where the shearing was in full swing. As usual, he was juggling several jobs at once and his parting comment was, "You’ll work it out" and he was gone.
Work it out we did, and we did not see Cracker and Deb until the shearing was finished at Bloomfield some 10 days later. They arrived with a recent model Nissan tray-back to replace the ageing Land Rover that stubbornly resented starting on cold mornings. On the back of the Nissan were a new quad bike and a large esky full of beef and mutton. Deb, of course, would not consider visiting without bringing along a tin full of her delicious farmhouse-baked goodies.
It was a great lifestyle and we enjoyed the seasons, growing our own veggies and watching the wildlife, including koalas and birds.
There are many benefits to taking on a caretaking role. You get to enjoy a whole variety of new experiences, learn new skills and meet people who often become long-term friends. As you are not touring and spending money on fuel and accommodation, you often save a surprising amount of money.
Many roles are modestly paid and if any wages are split between you and your partner, the income may have little effect on any pension or part-pension payments, or attract any tax. Plus, other benefits may be offered by, or negotiated with, the employer. These usually include free access to power, water, accommodation and transport. It may also include free meat supplies, fuel and other benefits.
It’s a very healthy lifestyle and one devoid of stress. We pretty much planned our day-to-day activities and there was always time to watch the birds, dabble with our hobbies or potter in the garden.
An internet search will turn up a wealth of websites reputedly aimed at assisting you in finding these roles. Some of these may be good, but we have had far more success using other strategies. Our first choice is the weekly rural newspapers like Queensland Country Life, the Countryman in WA, or The Land in the south-east states. Look in the jobs section for ‘caretakers wanted’ and then get on the phone.
You can also approach the local rural supply retailers who deal with the farmers and graziers all the time – they often have knowledge of who is looking to employ caretakers or other staff. Once you have enjoyed your first role, you may well have gathered a range of contacts for future reference. Networking and using your initiative is the name of the game.
If you’re looking to apply for roles, we strongly advise that you do some preparation and get your CV organised – professionally if you are not a good wordsmith – and contact and arrange referees for the prospective employer to approach. Work through questions you may be asked at an interview and determine how you will answer them. I recall Cracker asking what we knew about sheep. "Four legs, woolly coat, makes a baa-ing noise and is good to eat," I replied. This appeared to be a sufficient response, as we were taken on.
Requesting a face-to-face interview is worthwhile, as it gives both parties the opportunity to assess each other as well as discussing and agreeing upon the content of the role. It is important that there is a clear understanding of what the expectations are on both sides.
Good caretakers are hard to find so do not be negative about your perceived lack of experience. Do your homework and give it a go. We have helped recruit new staff to fill our roles prior to us departing from a position, ensuring they get a sound appreciation of the requirements and a thorough ‘on the job’ handover.
If you are attracted to this sort of lifestyle, you will not find a more fulfilling or enjoyable way to take what may turn out to be an extended break in your travels.
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #551 May 2016. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!