Jillaroos: Australia’s Cowgirls
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Being a farm hand certainly isn’t the most feminine of professions, but an increasing number of women are seeing the appeal of an outdoor life and are signing up to become a “Jillaroo,” Australian slang for cowgirl.
At the Northern Territory Rural College in Katherine, students from all over the world come to learn everything they will need to know to work on an outback cattle station; from horse-riding and cattle-herding to sheep-shearing.
ERIC PASQUIER join the prospective Jillaroos as he prepares to enter a macho world of dirt, sweat and cattle.
How many times have you dreamed of giving it all up and running off into the sunset to get back to nature? Forget the stuffy office, humdrum daily routine and same old nights out with friends – the Australian outback is one big adventure waiting for your arrival. Saddle up, get your leathers on and grab your cowboy hat because it’s time to experience life as a Jillaroo.
Well, it might not be for everyone, but that’s exactly the dream hundreds of boys and more importantly, girls, are following in Katherine in the Northern Territory as they sign up to become Jackaroos and Jillaroos in a career move that’s proving more and more popular every year.
If you thought becoming a cowboy was just for the men, think again. Girls fed up with city life can leave their high heels at home and head to the 190,000-acre Mataranka Station, owned by the Northern Territory Rural College (NTRC), to study general certificate courses and diplomas in anything from Stock and Station Skills to Horse Husbandry.
But female cowboys aren’t a new phenomenon. In the American West, there were hundreds of pioneering trailblazing cowgirls, including Narcissa Prentiss Whitman, the
first woman to cross the Rockies, renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe, sharpshooter Annie Oakley and legendary eight times world champion cowgirl Tad Lucas. More recently there was Jessie the cowgirl of Toy Story 2 fame who was honoured by the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas. More a triumph in modern graphics technology then her trailblazing efforts, she received an award for her starring role in the film and now stands proudly alongside the other famous female cowgirls of our time.
But whether you’re becoming a Jillaroo to get away from the stresses and strains of modern life or to pursue a career in breeding stock, operating hi-tech machinery, branding and castrating animals of all shapes and sizes (and that’s just for starters), it’s a serious business and one which can lead to well paid careers in an industry that needs highly skilled people to keep it going strong. Running since 1979, the Jillaroo courses offered by the NTRC come in various formats: Stock and Station Skills; Certificate II in Agriculture (General); Advanced Stock and Station Skills; Certificate III in Agriculture (Beef Cattle Production) and a Diploma in Agricultural Horse Husbandry.
The courses were set up on advice from workers in the Northern Territory’s beef industry who saw the need for more skilled workers to help control the cattle in the region. In Katherine alone there are over 600,000 heads of cattle, making up 40% of the total in the Northern Territories. Depending on the level of course, girls can train to become a Jillaroo in as little as 15 weeks, although it can take up to one and a half years.
Many, like Shane Brook, come from farming backgrounds. Shane has signed up at the college because she wants to carry on the family tradition, “my parents have their own station in Queensland and later I want to manage the property together with my brothers.”
Others are school leavers with no past experience. The courses also attract more mature students fed up with their careers, looking for a challenge and new direction in life. It’s not just for the tomboys either, even the most demure of ladies have been known to throw it all away to pursue a career in the great outdoors and help maintain a thriving industry that sees more than 252,000 animals exported annually from Darwin to the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East, most of which were sourced from the Katherine and Barkly regions.
Leaving the glitzy city life behind is just what eighteen-year-old Angela Thompson did. “I used to be a model in Queensland, but there was less and less work in modelling and finally after a while, I got tired of that life. I broke up with my boyfriend and decided to try something new. When a friend of mine told me about a rural college teaching girls to become Jillaroos I knew that was what I wanted.” Angela hasn’t looked back and loves the life that she has chosen to lead. She also has big plans for the future, “I want to be my own boss and to run my own station.”
Plans are not enough though. You need a hefty dose of strength and determination. Any Jillaroo will tell you that the work is tough – Jackaroos who say it isn’t are lying! Days start at four in the morning and often don’t finish until eight in the evening, giving a whole new meaning to early mornings. The hot, humid, dusty climate in the Northern Territory is also a big test – temperatures can reach up to 35°C in the height of the summer months – and can be tough for new arrivals. Remote locations in the middle of nowhere are also something to think about. If you’re the type of person who thrives on buzzing nightlife, shops to die for and a la carte cuisine, life on a working ranch won’t suit you. Twenty-two-year-old Katie Kiwikiwi, for example, likes to spend her weekends “reading books on botany and herbal medicine.”
The positives of such a life-changing experience often outweigh the negatives and you’ll soon be wondering why you stuck around in a city when you could have been living life in the outback with stunning scenery, a chance to do something worthwhile with your life and the possibility of meeting that hunky cowboy you’ve always dreamed of.
What is it that attracts women to the relative discomforts of life on a cattle station? It seems that a love of the outdoors is a prerequisite. Katie is certainly no city girl. ”I’m from New Zealand and I love the outdoor life; taking care of cattle and horses and running a farm…I want to live in the countryside.” For most also, the attraction is already there from a young age. Tanya from Andamooka explains, “I had my own horse when I was young and love to muster cattle and milk cows.” Vanessa Hemley didn’t actually grow up in the country, but nevertheless has always had a fascination for country living, ”I’m actually a city girl but studied Agricultural Science. Ever since I was young I dreamed of working on a cattle station. Now my dream is becoming a reality.”
Time as a Jillaroo is spent in various compromising positions – and yes, everyone is required to learn how to castrate a bull and slaughter cattle – if you can get over that you’re halfway there. Other skills acquired during training are riding and handling horses, beef cattle handling, maintaining stock water supply equipment, mustering and moving cattle ready for export all over the world, repairing farm equipment, branding cattle, pest and weed control and operating machinery, including tractors and other farm vehicles. Men may be physically stronger but the girls carry out exactly the same tasks, to great effect.
Mike Donnelli, director of the Mataranka station even goes so far as to say, “Jillaroos are better students then Jackaroos – more precise, reliable, sensitive, sensible, intuitive, tending to pick up skills faster. They know it’s a tough job but that’s what they want, what they like. Although sometimes they’re too good with the horses and they need to be told who’s boss.” Tracey Jones of the Northern Territory University takes a more diplomatic approach saying, “Abilities of males and females differ, different lecturers would give you different opinions and without getting myself into trouble I’ll simply state that some females do things better than males and vice versa.”
So what do the girls themselves think? Katie says, “boys are not reliable, I prefer working with girls.” Shane also feels that “women are more efficient in doing the accounting and managing the finances.” Angela is quick to boast about women’s special talents on the field, “I would have to give orders to the men working on my station because they’re not as good as women in taking care of animals.” In other words, the girls are better!
Fees start at around €440 and increase depending on the duration and level of the course. The college offers students full residential facilities including rooms, meals and laundry services – essential in such a remote location – and a twice weekly bus service runs to Katherine where students can do their personal shopping. A full-time residential supervisor is responsible for the welfare of the students and other staff are there to give them personal and professional advice. It might sound unnecessary, but living in the relative isolation of the outback can affect people in different ways – although from what most people say about their experiences, there’s no need for concern.
Numbers of people joining the course are increasing by a third every year and it’s not just native Australians who can take up the challenge to become a Jillaroo. International students are encouraged to enrol for a diploma and can do so if they have a tourist visa. The NTRC can advise people on how to organise one, otherwise, there’s the option of doing the 21-day Australian Outback Experience, specifically designed for short-stay international students. It’s pricey at €1,545 but trains you in a shortened version of the diploma and gives you time to take in some of the amazing scenery of the Northern Territory on specially tailored adventures.
The flexibility, nature and location of the course are what attract most people but add to that the 90% chance of getting a job at the end of it and the reasons for jumping in the saddle just get better and better. Qualified girls (and boys) leaving Mataranka to go on to work as farmhands, professional Jillaroos and Jackaroos, rural merchandisers, with some deciding to continue their studies on advanced courses. Salaries vary depending on what type of property you work on but most packages include a salary plus living expenses and as living in the outback doesn’t present that many opportunities to blow all your wages on one pair of cowboy boots, the chance to make some money is bigger than it would be if you’d stayed in your mind-numbing nine to five. But money isn’t the motivation; it’s the chance to live in such a unique part of the world doing something you love which spurs most people on. Not many people can say that about their jobs.
And if you’re still unsure whether life as a Jillaroo would suit you, think about what other careers offer you the chance to squeeze into your leathers, work in one of the most stunning regions of Australia on a nationally accredited training course with excellent career opportunities, gain invaluable life skills, have the experience of a lifetime, and maybe, just maybe ride off into the sunset with the cowboy of your dreams.