Crew help meet challenge of Spring Creek station life

Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

Nothing slows him down, not even the broken legs he's suffered over the years of bull riding in rodeos, breaking horses and battling Brahmans in the Kimberley. Mike Shaw sets a cracking pace from first light until he washes away the red dust with a beer at the end of a long day. And he's as hard and as sharp as any patch of stony ground on Spring Creek Station on the edge of the Northern Territory border, 120km south of Kununurra.

If Mike has a soft spot, it's for youngsters trying to find their feet in the world. He'd like to think those who stick with him for a couple of years as jackeroos and jillaroos leave with Spring Creek branded on their character.

The 51-year-old, who started work on Queensland cattle stations when he was 18 and has been going strong since, believes he has a responsibility to teach his old-school approach to a new generation.

His team of five this year includes three teenagers, and the oldest and most experienced of his workers is a 26-year-old former hairdresser in her third season at Spring Creek.

Mike gives everyone a nickname along with his lessons in hard work. Kate Hamilton is Smiley - she has a smile brighter than any star in the Kimberley night sky. Genevieve Dalco is Shrappie or Shrapnel because of all her earrings, April Huijbregsen is Blondie, Jack Sheridan is Pudsey and Paul Parker is Stretch.

"My job is to turn them into good working people for themselves and for Australia, " Mike says after a day of mustering. "I feel responsible for them. It is my job. Even though I'm not the best person in the world, I feel to turn them into decent people and into good workers, good workers - that's my bit of Australia."

Hard work during muster on Spring Creek can mean 4am wake-up calls and hours on horseback trying to stop cleanskin bulls, flushed from the far reaches of the property, creating havoc on the way to the yards.

And Mike doesn't just crack the whip to muster cattle. There's a never-ending stream of tasks, big and small, including such backbreaking jobs as shoeing the 60-odd stock horses on the property every six weeks or repairing damage to faraway fences.

Some of his team are in bed, exhausted, by 7pm. It all starts again the next day and there are no weekends off except for special occasions such as the Kununurra rodeo.

It's a steep learning curve, even for youngsters who come from rural backgrounds and have the fundamentals of horseriding like most of his current team. They all come recommended by old friends or friends of friends, but Mike has given all sorts a go - young men just out of jail and troubled youths referred to him by counsellors.

Mike drives them hard because he wants them to get the best out of life. He teaches them how to muster on horseback, how to shoe horses, how to weld, how to fence, how to drive trucks and all about cattle. How to draft sale heifers, wet cows, dry cows in the blink of an eye in the middle of a dusty stockyard. How to inoculate, castrate, brand and de-horn. When to wean them and how to weigh up if a poddy calf is worth keeping.

They all found out pretty quickly that station life is not just big hats and horseriding - it can be hot, dusty, dirty and brutal. The days are long, and physically and mentally draining.

Sometimes Kate wakes up and just wants to put on some make-up. Instead, she is saddling up at first light for another day of mustering. Genevieve dreamed of riding for Australia in three-day eventing at the Olympics. Today the 19-year-old is wielding a red-hot branding iron.

April, who never stopped nagging her parents for horseriding lessons, has her backside in the dirt back-legging calves. Teenagers Paul and Jack are banging star pickets into rocky ground and tangling with fencing wire.

Mike says it is a sign of the times that these days the number of young women who call him about work outnumber young men by six to one.

It's a big call to make - 7000 cattle, 121,400ha, more than 3200km to Perth by road and almost 1000km to Darwin. The western boundary is the Ord River and the eastern is the NT border.

The homestead has seen better days and, according to Mike, would fall over "if the white ants stopped holding hands". The whine of the diesel generator stops at 10pm each night before shuddering into life in the early hours. The bloodwood trees and rocky outcrops are beautiful in the morning or evening light but it's hot as hell in the middle of the day when not much moves except the odd wedge-tailed eagle.

Despite the isolation and occasional longing for lippy, Kate is loving the life in her third season at Spring Creek. It's a long way from the Innaloo shopping centre where she finished her hairdressing apprenticeship before spending almost two years cutting hair on cruise ships.

Kate grew up in Geraldton where her family all rode horses and her father had a farm at Moora where he tried to prepare her before she arrived at Spring Creek looking for a fresh challenge and a chance to work outside. Her close friends are getting married and starting families and "all think I'm crazy".

"I don't do anything half-heartedly, it is all or nothing. And Mike's a good man who tries really hard to train you up. He doesn't ask you to do anything he doesn't think you are capable of doing," she says.

Genevieve rides like she was born in the saddle and it's not far from the truth. Her parents breed and race horses from Fairlands stud on the outskirts of Launceston. As well as her Olympic ambitions she always had "wild ideas" about working on a station and mustering cattle in a helicopter. She is saving to get her helicopter pilot's licence and relishing the chance to work with horses for hours every day.

"Mike's got an English style of equestrian rather than a country 'yeeha' way. He helped me break in a horse last year and he breaks them in exactly same way as my mum so it must be a pretty good way," Genevieve says.

April is making up for lost time after taking years to convince her parents to let her ride. The 23-year-old from Upper Beaconsfield in Victoria was working at Doon Doon Roadhouse in the middle of Kimberley cattle country before signing on at Spring Creek in March. "I'd always wanted to give it a go," she says. "It feels like there is so much to learn; it's crazy but it's good."

April and the others couldn't have a better or more experienced teacher. Mike came to WA as a 20-year-old and started work at Moola Bulla Station. He was head stockman within two years, gained his licence as a helicopter pilot in 1990 and became manager in 1993. He ran Moola Bulla - about 650,000ha with 33,000 head of cattle and 30 staff - until it was sold at the end of 2001.

Mike realised a lifelong dream to own his own property when he and wife Jane bought Spring Creek with the help of her parents for $3 million on January 10, 2002.

He is one of the most respected men in the pastoral industry, meeting Federal Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig face-to-face to discuss the temporary ban on live cattle export to Indonesia and sought out by officials from Meat & Livestock Australia, who studied his methods and the exceptionally low mortality rates for cattle on his property.

He has trained scores of jackeroos and jillaroos over the years on Moola Bulla and Spring Creek, and always has mixed feelings when they leave.

"You spend two or three years getting a team together, they move on and you start again," he says. "It breaks your heart when they leave on you, but that is part of it and you can't hold people back in life. I want them trained up and to strive for something, to take responsibility, use their brains. There's nothing better than when someone rings up and says 'You know that Joe Blow who worked for you, gee he's a good man'."

Mike sees that potential in Jack and Paul. Jack is a quiet 19-year-old with a great sense of humour who dreams of one day owning his family farm in Orange, NSW.

He thrives on the physical work and hasn't ruled out trying his hand on a sheep station or in the mining game before settling down to farming. "I'm definitely not going to be a desk jockey. I want to get to know the whole show," he says.

Paul is 17 and in his first year at Spring Creek but already seems like an old hand. He's no stranger to hard work, putting in 40 hours a week at a Victorian dairy farm while in Year 11 before returning to his home town of Kununurra to complete his education.

He worked and studied virtually around the clock last year, holding down three part-time jobs. He already owns "all the toys" - motorbikes, cars and boats - and plans to buy a house in the next 18 months.

"I do this for the lifestyle, not the money. I like a challenge, to take responsibility," he says. "Otherwise you are like one of the sheep, just following the mob."

Mike reckons he only needs two things to keep him happy in his working life - "a good horse under me and a big mob of cattle in front of me" - but he misses his wife and their two children, William, 15, and Sally, 14.

They are spending most of the year in Torquay in Victoria to attend school and so Sally can hone her skills as one of Australia's best young horseriders.

Mike said William could already do "just about everything" on the station but there were three things he would never push his son into - flying the helicopter, riding in rodeos or taking over the reins at Spring Creek.

"I'll never talk him into doing those things but if he does want to I'll encourage him and help him," he says. "If that boy comes back here to run this joint one day it will be because he wants to and not because it is the only thing he knows."

And Mike has no intention of leaving any time soon or changing his way of mustering cattle on Spring Creek, where his ageing Robinson R22 helicopter is the only concession to modern methods.

"I can do with that helicopter in four hours what would take a team of 12-18 men four days in the old days," he says. "You have got to go with the times a bit but we go with horses as far as handling the stock, getting them together, blocking them up and walking them in. You need to be on the ball blocking up a big mob of feral cattle and when they have to walk all hell can break loose."

It is old style "bloody hard work" and Mike wouldn't have it any other way.

Meet the Shaw things

Paul "Stretch" Parker, 17, Kununurra

In his first season on Spring Creek but had worked on farms in Victoria

Genevieve "Shrappie" Dalco, 19, outskirts of Launceston in Tasmania

Part of a leading horseracing and breeding family who wants to become a helicopter pilot

Kate "Smiley" Hamilton, 26, Geraldton

Former hairdresser in her third season at Spring Creek Station

Jack "Pudsey" Sheridan, 19, Orange in NSW

Grew up on a small farm and one day hopes to have his own property

April "Blondie" Huijbregsen, 23, Upper Beaconsfield in Victoria

Dreamt of riding horses as a child and in her first season at Spring Creek

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