Upon arrival we were introduced to the family which has been carefully managing the property for 100 years. We had tea and “smoka” (snacks) before Michael, the head of the household, explained every family members role and how each person played a pivotal role in the farms operation. Michelle, Michael’s spouse, provided a personal family background to inform our group of their history. I was also asked to speak briefly on behalf of our group. To the best of my ability I told the family about the nature of our visit, what we were studying, what it meant for us to be sustainable and what each group member contributed. After both sides exchanged introductions Michael launched into a discussion regarding the details of Wambiana’s operation and strategies which make it sustainable. Michael said “We work with nature instead of against nature”. Given the nature of the harsh climate Wambiana uses brahman breed of cattle. Brahman are originally from India, but they were chosen for Wambiana due to their high tolerance to ticks, severe heat, and drought. Brahman are also known for being hearty and durable cattle. To make Wambiana more sustainable, Michael and crew have placed 100 camels on the property. These camels maintain weeds that, if consumed by cattle would result in tainted meat quality. In addition to specific animal selection Wambiana also divides land into specific paddocks, each serving a special purpose. Paddocks are divided by sex of cow, nutrition separation, fattening and breeding. This is done so that when cows reach a certain stage, they can be rotated into the appropriate paddock. This rotation prevents overgrazing and as a result naturally maintains the grazing grasses. To further maintain grazing fields Wambiana has 3,000 lawnmowers, they also use cow dung as fertilizer (to avoid any waste) and they also rotate cattle according to the rainy season. Michael explained when fattening cattle the cows are to be placed on the best country, as to provide adequate nutrition during the fattening process. Meanwhile cows which are breeding are placed on the poor country. Before taking us on a walk-about, Michael spoke of the other business practices Wambiana was involved in. Wambiana hosts a people-to-people group to provide kids with an “outback experience”. This introduces kids to a different lifestyle while at the same time diversifying Wambiana’s income and provides them with cash flow independent of land, cattle and weather conditions. Wambiana also participates in “wolfing” (accommodating and feeding international workers in exchange for labor). Lastly, to promote cashflow, Wambiana owns and operates a local (70 kilometers away) supermarket, which is also an external revenue generator. Now that our group was familiar with Wambiana’s operation we headed out to the land to be further acquainted with the intricacies of the land. We were shown the old house where Michael’s parents had lived and the new house which needed to be built given the growth within the family. Outback was a pump station (powered by electricity) which can pump 550 gallons of water for household use. The water is pumped from a cavity 65 feet below ground. It is filtered only by the earth’s natural sands and it was discovered using electro-magnetism. Our group got to see the detection method 1st hand by simply holding metal polls outright, parallel to the ground. When we stepped directly on the cavity our polls would cross. Further along the walk we learned more about Wambiana’s sustainable practices. To control runoff Wambiana plants and grows legumes and also lays mulch from vegetation waste. Our group was also shown a large kettle once used to boil cow fat, to make tallow for oils and soaps. This was done during the long 1970’s drought to maintain cashflow.
Shortly after the walkabout our group sat down with Michelle, the mother of the household. Michelle spoke to the group about the School of Distance Education and the royal flying doctors medical service. Michelle explained because the nearest school is 70 kilometers away it wasn’t sustainable for the children to commute; especially in times of severe flooding. Our group was given the rundown as to what distance education was all about. School for the children is 32 weeks long and the curriculum is consistent with that in the United States. A focus on english, math, science, history, art and physical education is common. Students follow a written learning guide which also features DVD lessons. Every 2 weeks homework is sent in and graded by the teachers, along with a webcam presentation betwen teacher and student. A typical day starts at 8 a.m. with a teleconference for attendance. School is done at 2 p.m. Several times a year the students go into the school to meet their teachers.
In regards to medical attention, Wambiana relies on the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS).When an emergency happens during the dry season Wambiana can meet an ambulance half way between the station and the town. However, during flooding it is nearly impossible to make it off the property. Wambiana maintains a runway up to RFDS standards so that when an emergency does happen a plane is capable of landing and providing treatment. Emergency scenarios worthy of aerial evacuation typically consist of ATV and dirt bike accidents, snake bites, and severe burns. RFDS also provides a medical chest consisting of over the counter medication as well as prescription medication. A hotline can be called and doctor approval is required for any consumption of prescription drugs. The medical chest is provided at no cost by the RFDS and Michelle expressed how grateful she and the family was for this phenomenal service.
Once again the family fed us some delicious food. After lunch several group members took turns learning how to use the lasso and bullwhip. Some people even volunteered to be lassoed, but not bullwhipped. When break ended we made our way into the cattle yards where dipping, branding, castrating, and pregnancy testing took place. Dipping consists of running cows through a chemical bath to rid them of any possible ticks. Branding is done to label the cow’s ownership and also to label what year they were branded (an indication of age). After being branded the cow is castrated using 3 quick slits to each testicle. Castrating is done to prevent independent mating, allows for optimal genetic selection for breeding (controls which bulls mate. 1 bull for 30 females), it also reduces aggression and improves meat quality. Bull meat is very tough and unappealing to consumers. Once the calf was castrated only the brave group members (including myself) sampled the goods. Known as bush oysters we plopped the cow testicles in our mouth. Chewy and Fresh!! Something I’ll never forget. Next was the pregnancy test which I had the honor of doing manually. I was instructed on how to insert my entire arm up the cows anus and then what to feel for. The cow was unexpectedly calm and I surprisingly wasn’t too disgusted. Two more group members also tried their hand at the manual pregnancy test.
After our day on the farm we were led into the Department of Primary Industries leased paddocks, where we saw Michael off with gifts to express our gratification. Peter explained how DPI was studying the effects of grazing strategies on the sustainability of land. Although his time was short he made it evident that Wambiana’s conservative, moderate approach was crucial in achieving sustainability and long-term consistent growth.
Next stop and also the last stop of the day was Charters Towers a.k.a “The World” to visit the stock exchange arcade. We learned that gold was discovered here in 1871 by a horse boy accompanied by 3 prospectors. Shortly after the discovery of gold a stock exchange was built in 1888 so that mining companies could fund excavation by selling shares of their company. On the floor of the stock exchange the world price of gold was set. Nearly 40 years after gold was discovered the industry collapsed due to an exhaustion of resources. Now the main industry in Charters Towers is cattle, gold mining, and education. Our tour/lecture quickly ended where we then explored the 1 street drag of town. Tired and sun beaten our group boarded the bus for what was a long drive back through the Australian outback to Townsville.