Story telling from Australia
People used to talk about a gold rush in Australia, now it’s the gas rush. The coal seam gas industry has flooded the area around Roma, in Queensland, with FIFO’S – fly in, fly out miners – who arrive in their thousands to hunker down in single accommodation camps at the edge of town. We passed the camps on our way out, row after row of identical, soul destroying huts on land cleared of all vegetation. It was a relief to reach Dulacca Downs, with its gently undulating landscape, mature gum trees and wide creek.
Dulacca Downs is a 3,200 hectare property an hour east of Roma (the name derives from an old aboriginal word for emu tracks) where Adele and Philip Hughes, along with their son Lachlan and his wife, Anna, who live on the adjoining property, run RQM, a paddock-to-plate beef production business. I’m here to interview them for the next book I’m working on.
I was woefully ill prepared for this trip. The move to Sydney took longer than expected and with no time to check the weather forecast or consult a detailed map I packed what I thought was appropriate clothing – light shirt, sun hat and sun screen. The word ‘tropical’ somehow fixed itself in my mind when I thought of Queensland. When Philip picked me up from the airport in Roma and we approached Dulacca Downs, an hour or so later, I was surprised to notice a lack of rainfall. “The grass looks dry,” I remarked. “No, that’s just frosting,” said Philip. “Frosting?” I asked. He nodded. “Gets chilly here in winter. Can get down to minus five at night.”
I’m wearing all the clothes I brought with me and I’ll be wearing them until I go home. In spite of the laughable lack of preparation I’ve been warmly welcomed by Adele and Philip, and exceptionally well fed. After a frenetic week in Sydney it’s a relief to wake to the sound of cockatoos and kookaburras and to see the sky stretch from horizon to horizon.
I’ve learnt a lot about beef production in the past 24 hours. Maybe if there had been more families like the Hughes in England when I grew up there – families concerned with animal welfare and care for the environment – and less focus on intensive factory farming, I might not have become a vegetarian. Who knows? The visit here has certainly made me realise how little I know about the source of meat I buy for Clyde each week. I grew my own veggies in Broken Hill and picked my own fruit, but I didn’t give a second thought to the joint of beef I threw into the supermarket trolley at Woollies.
RQM is the kind of business that supplies the steak those hungry miners will tuck into at the end of a long shift. That’s if they’re lucky. I suspect most of those miners will head for the pub and tuck into a meat pie, not knowing where the meat in it came from.
I’ve loved listening to the yarns Philip and Adele tell of the years they’ve spent working on different properties, the mishaps and misadventures, the challenges and achievements, but what stands out is their quiet, abiding joy of being intimately connected with the land, and their determination to be guardians of this place, improving the soil and working with the country, not against it.