Hundreds of jackaroo’s and jillaroos descended on Newcastle Water Station. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
It’s a dusty, hot day at the iconic Newcastle Waters Station in the middle of the Northern Territory — a pastoral empire made famous by its former owner, Kerry Packer.
Hundreds of jackaroos and jillaroos have descended on the makeshift yards, some travelling more than 1,000 kilometres to get there.
Swags are being thrown down, generous food devoured, horses unloaded and coaxed, and greetings amongst friends heard.
Conditions were hot and dusty at Spell Bore in the Northern Territory. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Spell Bore is a competition run to identify the top stock camp in the north — an initiation rite for young ringers fresh to northern pastures, designed to inject a dose of rivalry but also station pride into the ranks.
Run by Consolidated Pastoral Company (CPC) — one of Australia’s biggest beef producers with more than 400,000 cattle and 16 properties — chief executive Troy Setter makes it his mission not to miss a Spell Bore event.
“Our biggest asset is our land; our important assets are our land and our livestock,” he said.
“[But] our people and the people in the team at CPC and in agriculture more broadly are the ones that actually make it happen or don’t make it happen.”
Coming to the north for a stint on a station is a coming-of-age ritual for many rural kids.
A year to find yourself, toughen up, learn a few life skills, and make memories to recount in years to come.
Moving up north is considered a rite of passage for many rural kids. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
Lily Grimley, originally from Toowoomba in Queensland, is stationed at Manbulloo Station near Katherine in the Northern Territory.
“I came up to the Territory just for a gap year,” she said.
“I’m really enjoying it and I don’t think I’m ever going to leave.”
Spell Bore station teams consist of six competitors who are put through their paces in stock skills, alongside some less-traditional events to determine who reigns supreme.
English-born Becks Thorpe started her cattle career here as a Spell Bore bartender in 2015, and decided there and then that being behind the bar wasn’t for her.
Three years on, she now holds the prestigious post of head stockman at the Newcastle Waters stud.
Spell Bore started in the 1980s as a general campcraft open to the public. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)
“I knew it was going to be big, but I didn’t expect it to be so vast and out there; it’s so different,” she said.
“We all watch them little cowboys and Indians when you’re small and you’re like, ‘oh I want to be a cowboy’, and we actually are now.
“Dad thinks it’s great, mum… she wants her little girl to come home.”
Ms Thorpe relishes her time at Spell Bore for a chance to break between the at-times gruelling mustering rounds.
“It’s so good to speak to other people and know they might be having the same issues, or what’s going better, and how can we get this better,” she said.
“We all work together and we kind of have [grown] with each other, because we’ve gone from the bottom to the top with each other.”
Spell Bore started in the 1980s at Newcastle Waters as a general campcraft open to the public.
The site is where cattle used to spell on long drafts before heading to Longreach in Queensland, some 1,500 kilometres away.
In 2001, it halted before starting up again in 2015 — led in part by manager Troy Setter.
“When I first started at CPC… a few of the team first wanted to get a cultural change going through the organisation,” Mr Setter said.
“We saw this as a great way of getting the team back together and really having a good, fun, competitive weekend between the stations.”
Newcastle Waters Station manager Jak Andrews grew up taking in the action — his parents also lifelong CPC managers.
But he knows the property he now heads is the one everyone wants to knock off the podium.
“It’s a bit like when England’s playing someone in sport you go for —well this sort of competition, people generally go for their team and anyone going up against Newcastle,” said Jak Andrews.
The events are varied — from classic camp drafting like barrel racing, stick events and bareback challenges.
But it’s the more novel events that really get the crowd going — like an 800-metre flutter, akin to a rogue version of the Melbourne Cup, with competitors pausing to cheer their friends home.
As colts sprinted down the runway, some were bucked off early — the smallest of margins separating the winners.
“Proper photo finish, this has gone to the wire,” Jak Andrews bellowed over a microphone from the sidelines.
“There’s like half a nose in it, okay… you shave its nostril [and] you’d be home.”
A new and unexpected hit with crowd came not from paddock, but from the stage in the form of “Ringers Got Talent”.
Station life wouldn’t be complete without a nod to the hard work of station cooks, who fuel workers over the long season.
A damper cook-off brought out some underhanded tactics, with allegations of wood-stealing and recipe-poaching.
The final product showed some ringers are best confined to the stock yards — hard to discern whether the gooey dough or chargrilled bread was worse.
Amongst the makeshift stadium and stalls, and right throughout the weekend, the buzz of laughter and chatter rises amongst the dust.
Socialising may seem trivial, but it’s a big motivation for the event.
The bush can be notoriously isolating, and sometimes contact with the outside world can be hard to come by.
“You work and live with the people you’re with, so you get pretty close to them,” said Jacob Dunn, head stockman from Newry Station.
“But you also need to socialise with other people.
“It gets everyone, you know, the other places in the company… if they ever want to transfer, they know people everywhere.”
For the final contest, an ironman and ironwoman face off — pushing a hay bale, traversing milk crates, scoffing back dry milo, carrying a heavy fence section, sculling a near-boiled beer, and competing in a sing-off before the final sprint home.
As the last of the day fades, it’s time for the announcement of the winners, a moment they’ve all been cantering, roping and cooking for.
The best stock camp this year was Argyle Downs — ironically, the smallest station in the Consolidated Pastoral Company portfolio in Western Australia.
It just goes to show — it’s not the size of the hat but the ticker below that can make all the difference.
Spell Bore is about more than just winning — it’s about comraderies. (ABC News: Kristy O’Brien)