Building a business in the Top End

As a boy from Western NSW, Pat Barrett stepped straight out of a Sydney private school into a role as a station hand – a ringer – in Australia’s top end and he hasn’t looked back. 

Pat Barrett was a difficult man to get hold of – a completely unsurprising fact considering he spends the majority of his time on stock camps across the Kimberly and the Pilbara, where reception and free time are both in short supply. 

When Oli did get a chance to catch up with him he was in Broome, preparing to leave early the next morning to drive a thousand kilometres to meet up with one of his four contracting teams. 

But this commute to work doesn’t bother him, “it’s all bitumen” he says with a laugh. Easy. 

Since leaving school in 2006 he’s hopped to-and-fro across Australia’s north, starting as a station hand – or a ringer, as the job is better known – at Burnett Downs on the Barkly Tableland, 350 kilometres north east of Tennant Creek. 

From then he has worked on stations from North Queensland to WA’s Pilbara. 

He was working for a cattle breeding property on the Queensland Northern Territory border when the 2011 live export ban went into effect, then moved to work at a export backgrounding depot in Territory the year after. He’s seen first-hand the impacts that decisions made in Canberra can have on livelihoods in the country’s north. 

In 2014 he started his own company, PLB Contract Mustering, running four to five teams of stockmen and women. 

“We live in a mobile camp and most of our camps have sort of five different job locations for the year, and most stockcamp jobs average about six weeks.”

The teams work hard, moving large mobs of cattle on motorbikes and horses, often with the help of helicopters. 

They also do a bit of bull catching, using ropes and modified vehicles to chase down feral “micky” bulls, the likes of which you might have seen on shakily-shot videos on social media and ABC’s Outback Ringer. 

It’s a dangerous job, weaving vehicles through scrub at a fast pace, but Pat says you can counter this if you’re set up properly. 

“Most of the videos you will see on Facebook and TV are dangerous because someone’s doing something wrong,” he says. 

At night they hold the cattle in portable yards and head back to camp, where a cook has dinner prepared and they sleep in swags under the stars. 

“We cart generators around for power and we get showers and everything all set up at the camp,” he says, “you get used to it, you don’t really notice that you eat dinner under a tree every night, it just becomes what you do.”

“It’s definitely pretty special. People that come up to this line of work obviously enjoy being outdoors and enjoy the bush.”

But things aren’t all hard work and isolation, long weekends spent at campdrafts and rodeos held across the Kimberley provide more than enough social opportunities, Pat says with a laugh. 

He used to do a bit of bronc-riding at these events, now he prefers to help out by picking up other riders out of the dirt and putting PLB sponsorship behind the events. 

“I’ve got a lot of time for the sport, so we try to help out communities wherever we can.”

It’s a lifestyle that Pat can’t see himself leaving any time soon, and one he’s happy to promote. 

“I think if I could give any advice to anyone, male or female, it would be that it helps develop an 18-year-old to come up here.”

“You get a good work ethic, you get your hands dirty, you learn how to look after yourself and animals.”

“It definitely puts a pretty good foundation in anyone that comes up, I’d be pushing my kids to do it even if I was living in the city, it’s a good stepping stone that sets them up well for their working career later in life.”

Listen to Pat’s podcast on your favourite podcast app or below:

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