Australia’s boundary riders are as resilient as the landscape they live in.
Kevin Geale gives a dry, dusty chuckle when he’s asked what inspired him to take on one of Australia’s most isolated jobs. “It was a bet,” he says. Kevin was building roads in Bathurst, NSW, when a heart attack in February 2004 left him unemployed. The 56-year-old bet his nephew he’d find another job easily, despite his age. He scoured The Land newspaper, spotted an advertisement for a boundary rider on the wild-dog fence placed by the Wild Dog Destruction Board, and applied. Six weeks later, he and Kate, his 45-year-old partner of 17 years, were settled smack-bang on the NSW–Queensland border, in the drought-hardened heart of Corner Country.
The 1.8m high wild-dog fence traces a crooked line from Jimbour in Queensland’s south-east to the Great Australian Bight, and at 5412km, it’s the longest fence in the world. Without the men and women who maintain it, wild dogs would soon bring sheep farming to its knees. Kevin’s section of the fence starts at Cameron Corner – where Queensland, NSW and SA meet – and runs east for 100 km. Halfway along this section is Toona House – a sparsely furnished, two-bedroom fibro cottage with rainwater (from a tank) for drinking, bore water for washing, and a ground tank that’s been bone dry for three years. The neighbourhood consists of Bill Mitchell, 50km west at Cameron Corner, 10-year veteran boundary rider Mick O’Neill at Warri Gate, 40 km east, and the ‘big smoke’, Tibooburra – population 120 – 80km south along a dirt road.
“It’s all right,” says Kate, a soft, round woman with tumbleweed curls and lively brown eyes. “The isolation doesn’t really worry us. Luckily Kev and I really enjoy one another’s company.”
Kevin’s a rough-hewn boulder of a man, with iron-grey hair and a hooked nose swooping low over a crooked, shy half-smile. They’re both from NSW country towns further south – Kate grew up in Dubbo and Kevin in the bush near Condobolin – but neither was familiar with the Corner Country’s eye-stretching red plains. Over the past seven months Kevin in particular has developed an affinity with the quiet determination of the fence and the countryside it snakes through. “The landscape’s incredible,” he says. “You think it doesn’t change, but it does. It’s changing all the time.”
Every morning at 7 o’clock, Kevin sets out along the fence in his 4WD, fencing tools clanging around in the tray. By about 10a.m. the heat’s hit full throttle, which in summer regularly hovers around 50ºC.
Kevin spends his day plugging up holes formed by dogs or gnawing winds, replacing fence posts and wire, and building new fence on top of old in the places where the sand has built up too high to be dug away. He rattles back along the track to his air conditioned house for lunch, then he’s off along the fence again until 2p.m.
“It’s kind of like working on the Harbour Bridge,” he says contentedly. “As soon as you’ve finished your stretch, it’s time to start from the beginning again.”
Every fortnight Kevin and Kate make the 18-hour round trip into Broken Hill, where they pick up frozen vegetables, fresh potatoes and pumpkins, plenty of tinned food and meat packed in ice. If they need anything during the week they call the store in Tibooburra and get it sent out with the mailman, who delivers bread and milk each Thursday. “If we need anything else we duck down to the corner,” says Kate with a grin.
COPING WITH SOLITUDE IN THE OUTBACK
While Kevin’s clearly enjoying the quiet life, Kate found the solitude difficult to begin with. The first month was “like a holiday”, but as the weeks rolled by she found herself sleeping a lot and missing her eight children and nine grandchildren. “I racked up $800 worth of phone calls in the first two months,” she admits. She’s adjusted now. She joins Kevin on the fence three times a week, and she’s found a passion for the birds that take refuge from the heat in the trees around their house. “The colours,” she says animatedly. “The blues and oranges and greens… Kev puts on the sprinkler [with bore water] and they come in for the water.”
They’re both aware they’ve chosen an unusual place to live, however. “We saw a bloke and a woman from Germany the other day, who were riding bloody pushbikes from Cairns to Melbourne,” says Kevin, shaking his head disbelievingly. “We said to ’em, ‘You must be bloody mad.’ And they said, ‘You must be mad for livin’ here’.” He chuckles. “We couldn’t say anything to that.”
*Originally published in Australian Geographic magazine.