Real Life

Real life: I raised a family in outback Australia, 80km away from the closest town!

I'd let my heart guide me to outback Australia, now I wasn't so sure.
Loading the player...

Jenny Old, 71, Gold coast, QLD shares her true life story:

Orange dust plumed into the air as the Toyota LandCruiser came into view.

I was standing outside Mt Isa airport waiting for my boyfriend, Rick, to collect me.

We’d been apart for over a year, while I worked overseas as a nurse.

Now I was back in Australia and we’d decided to move to the Gulf Country in North West Queensland where Rick had bought a cattle property to fulfil his dream of working as a jackaroo.

Having grown up in rural NSW, I knew nothing about this sunburnt part of the world.

“You’ll love it,” Rick promised.

As long as I was with him, I was happy.

At 22, I was smitten and sure Rick was the one for me.

But as we sped down the road, all signs of life disappearing, I started feeling nervous.

We’d be 80km from the closest town, with no phone or TV.

Could our relationship survive with just the bare basics?

I knew there was no house at the property, called McAllister, and that Rick and I would be sharing a tin shack with his best mate, Paul, who was there to help him run everything.

But when we pulled up and I glimpsed the flimsy looking shed, my heart sank.

“Is that it?” I asked, shocked.

“Yep,” Rick replied. “Home sweet home.”

I was smitten with Rick.

With just three bunkbeds, a wardrobe, kitchen bench and tiny kerosene fridge, it was seriously basic living.

The loo was a hole in the ground outside, with a sheet of tin on top.

“Just till we get on our feet,” Rick promised. “Then, we’ll build our dream home.”

It wasn’t all bad.

Waking to the sound of galahs and magpies each morning was surprisingly peaceful.

We filled our days working the horses, herding cattle and welding fences.

On the odd day off, Rick, Paul and I would play poker, go swimming in the waterholes or travel 80km to our neighbour’s place for a game of tennis.

I’d worried having Paul around might have cramped things a bit, but he was such a sweet guy that I came to see him as an older brother.

“I can’t drink from there,” I told him, pointing to the murky river when we were away from the camp one hot afternoon and I was thirsty.

“Close your eyes,” Paul grinned. “Pretend it’s a caramel milkshake!”

I learnt to trust him as much as Rick.

After just three weeks living together at McAllister, Rick took me aside one night while Paul was in the shower.

“Will you marry me?” he asked, pulling out a ring he’d made out of tyre wire.

The shed that was our first home – there were no mod cons!

“Yes,” I stammered in disbelief.

I hadn’t pictured marriage, but I loved it out here and couldn’t imagine doing this with anyone but Rick.

That night, the three of us cracked open some tinnies and toasted to our future.

We got married in Sydney, where Rick’s family lived, then came back to McAllister filled with excitement.

Just weeks later I fell sick and was throwing up non-stop.

I was pregnant.

“We’ve got to start building the house now,” I urged Rick. “This shed’s no place for a baby.”

We spent every spare minute making concrete blocks and planning our house, which would have two bedrooms and wide verandahs.

As soon as baby Anthony arrived, I couldn’t wait to have another.

“I don’t want him to grow up alone,” I told Rick. “He needs a mate.”

With our house finally finished, Paul moved out so we could be together as a family.

I imagined the home full of kids. But over the next five years I suffered six miscarriages.

Doctors couldn’t work out what was wrong and I started to slip into a depression.

“It’s never going to happen,” I sobbed.

“Don’t say that,” Rick said, wrapping me in a hug.

Me working one of the horses.

Life on the land was tough. To survive, we had to be even tougher.

Not only were we at the mercy of monsoons and crippling heat, but there were brown snakes that could kill with just one bite.

One time, when our doctor friend was visiting, I woke in the early hours to hear Rick coughing wildly and gasping for breath.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He didn’t answer and was turning blue!

Racked with panic, I thought about using the two-way radio to call the flying doctors.

But time wasn’t on my side.

Then, suddenly I remembered our friend, staying out in the spare room!

“Help!” I cried out. “Rick’s dying.”

He realised he was suffering an asthma attack.

He quickly gave Rick a shot of adrenaline from his medicine kit, which he’d thankfully brought with him.

I stood by on tenterhooks as Rick slowly came back to life.

“I almost lost you,” I choked, holding his hand and watching his eyelids flutter open.

Me and Rick with the boys.

It seemed like a miracle when I finally fell pregnant and carried my child, Ben, to full-term.

Anthony, then five, adored his little brother.

I home-schooled them and enjoyed watching their progress.

“What’s life’s next challenge?” Rick mused.

I thought he was just joking, but he wasn’t and so we some bought land and built the Burke and Wills Roadhouse one hour away, so travellers could stop to refuel and have a bite.

We stayed working on the property but it was good to have another business to manage.

For years, everything was great but when Anthony and Ben left for boarding school in Toowoomba, I became lonely.

They weren’t even teenagers and I’d only get to see them in school holidays.

“I don’t want to miss watching them grow up,” I said to Rick.

Rick and me today.

He agreed.

So, after 18 years living on the land, we sold up and left the Gulf Country behind.

These days, Rick and I live on the Gold Coast.

Ben and his family are based here, too, while Anthony’s in Gladstone, over six hours away.

Our days of hard yakka might be over, but our six grandkids keep Rick and me on our toes.

One of them, Mac, is even named after our property!

We’ve told them all about our adventures, and hope that one day they can experience the magic of the outback for themselves.

I’ll never forget my time in the Gulf Country.

It made me strong, and taught me how to live and be truly free.

credit: Allen and Unwin

Back of Beyond by Jenny Old is out now. Published by Allen & Unwin.

Related stories