When you’re a busy mum living on half a million acres in the backblocks of western Queensland in drought, finding a second job to pay the bills isn’t so easy as applying at the local employment agency.
Epsilon, the sprawling cattle station where Sharon and Graham Betts and their family live is 180 kilometres away from the nearest town. Isolation adds to the cost of basics like the groceries trucked in from Broken Hill, 500 kilometres away. Here even the mailman only delivers once a week.
Resilience and self-sufficiency are bywords of raising cattle in this marginal country. The Betts’ breed organic beef for the domestic and international market but the living can be unpredictable. “We’ve had more dry years than good ones,” says Sharon. In the year to February 2013, no rain fell at all.
This dry spell differed from others. “Everyone seemed to run out of water sooner than the feed. There were lots of costs going out, with nothing coming in,” says Sharon. “Rain came just in time, as the cattle were becoming quite poor and weak.” Through the dry, she hand-reared 30 orphaned poddy calves.
Sharon found another income by providing accommodation and meals for the geological workers at the nearby Moomba oil and gas fields. “We built an eight bedroom building and I did the cooking,” she says.
“This extra money was a big help. It enabled us to do improvements to our house.” She admits her biggest indulgence in the dry was keeping the water up to her beloved garden. It was a tiny oasis in the red surrounds. “After being out in a drought-stricken paddock all day, I wanted to come home to my large garden and see a green lawn.” The scent of roses uplifts her spirit.
Rural isolation brings many joys and sorrows, births and deaths. Within their first year of marriage at Epsilon, Graham’s father fell from horseback and sustained serious injuries and he and Sharon stepped up to take on responsibilities for running the station.
They had four children and they were all educated via School of the Air, before going off to boarding school. “Sending the children away at age 12 is hard, as you only get to see them on holidays. If they decide to go elsewhere to work after finishing school they have left the family home at age 12.” This is a story we hear often in remote Australia and just because it is familiar doesn’t make it any easier.
When her eldest son Luke and his wife Nina moved to the neighbouring station Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track, there was a sense of the family dynasty continuing with the birth of their first child, a boy, Jarrad. But then the inexplicable occurred: Jarrad, aged four months, died of SIDS. “We were all devastated,” says Sharon. During this difficult time, the Rev John Dihm was a great comfort to Luke and Nina. “John was a huge help to Luke and Nina.
“He organised couples to go and stay at Mungerannie and help out with various jobs while they worked through their grief as being isolated made it so much harder to cope.”
“When Nina gave birth to a son, Toby, and a daughter, Jade, Rev John Dihm travelled to christen both of our grandchildren,” she says, proudly.
Another tragedy occurred in November last year when Luke’s ultralight plane crashed and he was killed, leaving Nina a widow with three young children. Luke’s funeral in Broken Hill was attended by about 800 friends and family with Rev John Dihm, travelling from WA to celebrate the service and give a moving eulogy to his friend. “That would have made Luke happy,” Sharon reflects.
Life continues. “We are lucky to have our youngest son Clayton helping run Epsilon and daughter Carly came home after Luke’s accident and she is a great help.” Clayton has just married. “It was a happy occasion after the hard times and sadness of the past year,” Sharon sighs wearily. “I’ll be honest, the past few hot summers are starting to get to me and I would enjoy spending more time down south with the grandkids. But we will have to see what eventuates!”