A lot of people dream of working on a cattle station in Australia's Outback but do they really have what it takes? Kellie Harpley joins a group of city slickers as they learn the basic skills required to become jackaroos and jillaroos.
I am completely covered in dust. My eyes are squinted against the onslaught and I am breathing dirt in large clouds. But I am having the time of my life.
I careen down a dirt track at the back of a convoy of quad bikes. It hasn't taken long to get the knack of the controls and we adeptly slide into sharp turns and ease our way across a network of rugged creek beds, with some incredibly steep climbs and descents thrown in for good measure.
Every time we stop to open a gate our quad bike instructor, Bob, asks if we've had enough or want more. Each time the response is a resounding yell - more!
The Northern Territory is where you will find Australia's real Outback, from the deserts of the Red Centre to the tropics of the Top End, you can experience station life and vast tracts of land that are unbelievably empty.
We are at the Outback Jackeroo and Jillaroo School, which is run at the rural campus of the Northern Territory's Charles Darwin University, just north of Katherine.
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Get Dirty at The Outback Jackeroo and Jillaroo School
On this journey, everyone comes from a city but has taken to every task with gusto and there have been unbridled celebrations each time another challenge is mastered.
One is a boy from Manhattan who has never ridden a horse or motorbike, or visited the Outback before, but in his Akubra and RM Williams boots, he looks every inch the cowboy. He is already leading the convoy of quads and earlier today was the first to break into a trot as we got to know our horses.
We started our day by saddling up for a horse ride, and stayed out long enough to become better acquainted with our mounts and discover muscles we didn't know existed in our inner thighs and buttocks.
Our own personal horse whisperer, Wayne, paid close attention to our techniques and was willing to spend time with each of us, offering advice on the personalities of our horses and how to get the best out of them. The Northern Territory's answer to John Wayne, he looked as though he was born in the saddle. He sits laconically with one hand on the reins and the other on his hip, his wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling almost permanently from his bottom lip. His tanned, rugged face was offset by light blue eyes and a wry smile that said, simply, he'd seen it all.
The campus is just a 15-minute drive from Katherine on the Stuart Highway (the main artery between Darwin and Adelaide) but the scenery along the trail is pure Outback. The tracks are hugged by the surrounding scrub, which is characterised by slender gum trees and spindly bushes. At this time of year (well into the dry season) most of the tall, yellow grasses have been grazed down by cattle or reduced to black cinders in controlled burns.
In the afternoon Bob takes over the tuition while Wayne watches on, remarkably managing to look just as comfortable on the quad as he did in the saddle.
Wayne is the strong, silent type but Bob has the demeanour of a cheeky, 10-year-old kid trapped in a 50-year-old's body. His bright eyes twinkle above his maharajah moustache and are constantly searching around for the next big belly laugh.
It delights him that we constantly want more and he takes us in search of longer straights, trickier creek crossings and dustier dirt.
We ride for two hours, enjoying the way the back wheels slide out when we take a sharp corner and relishing the chance to front the pack - in the lead your visibility is unhindered by the dust clouds of the other riders and you can go faster.
But it's not all about speed - Bob has spent a lot of time with us teaching us how to ride safely and avoid flipping the large machines. He has also taught us how to get away from the quads if they do look like turning over.
Learn to Live on a Cattle Station in the Outback
The Rural Campus runs a wide range of agricultural certificates and diplomas, preparing students for life on the land, with an emphasis on the Outback's cattle stations.
The Outback Jackeroo and Jillaroo School is a week-long program that provides the basic skills for people looking to spend some time working on a station. Its main clients are international backpackers or Australians who live in the city and want to get a taste of the Australian dream - or just find out how they look in an Akubra and riding boots.
The focus of the course is on horse and quad-bike riding, fencing skills and general machinery and property maintenance. Students take away a raft of new skills, a whole new confidence, and a willingness to try anything. The instructors share their knowledge of the land and skills learnt over a lifetime of working on stations, but even more valuably, pass on their laid back, no worries, she'll-be-right-mate, attitude. It's easy to believe you can do anything when everyone around you knows you can.
For our part, by the time we reluctantly turn the quads to their shed, our legs are aching from the strain of balancing the quads while our thumbs, which control the accelerator, feel as though they are about to snap off. And we feel like completely new people, ready to take on anything, especially the nearest cold beer. If nothing else, we have discovered our inner petrol heads and a whole new way to have fun.
The Outback Jackeroo and Jillaroo School at the Rural Campus of Charles Darwin University, Katherine, in the Northern Territory, runs week-long courses that aim to introduce students to the basics of station life and prepare them for entry-level jobs as station hands.
Get more information on The Outback Jackeroo and Jillaroo School here: www.outbackjj.com.au.