Nita Downs, Kimberleys,WA – Damian and Kirsty Forshaw

“It’s the Little Steps”

“Believe it or not,” Damian Forshaw spent his first fifteen years in Sydney, where his Dad was a builder. It’s a long way across the continent to “Nita Downs” on the west coast of West Australia, where he and his wife Kirsty, and sons, Digby 7, and Lochee 5, now live.

Damian “bailed” after Year 10, attended Maitland Agricultural College, NSW, for two years, and worked on a mixed sheep and cattle property at Moree, NSW, “where they did everything themselves… It was a good place. It was also very social… too much so, and by the third year, it was time to get out.”

In 1989, the young man headed for the Kimberleys, with a plan to work there for a year, and return to a sheep property in NSW. By the end of the year, he was offered the Head Stockman’s job, and decided to take it. “The task of managing staff proved to be a “different league” from looking after myself, and that first year was pretty tough. Moola Bulla was a very good place for young people; I worked for Nick Northcott, and Mike Shaw, the Head Stockman, the Overseer, then Manager, was a good teacher.” (See Spring Creek Station story.)

In 1995, one of those young people, namely Kirsty Venn, who had grown up on a farm at Fitzgerald, near Albany, and was living in Perth at the time, decided to head to the Kimberleys, to take a break. She chose “to stay and get a job for a season…” That job turned out to be Camp Cook at Moola Bulla. Kirsty had some cattle and cropping experience, and her Dad’s family had a pastoral background. She laughs, “Camping out for three months at a time … it was a novelty coming in for a shower at the station complex. Cooking and making bread in camp ovens over open Sires… was hard, but that’s what made it fun! At that age, that sort of experience… the harder it was, the better. I got to help in the camp with the cattle too so it was a good all round job. Not many girls worked in the camps at Moola Bulla back then.”

In 1992, Damian experienced near death when he contracted encephalitis. He relates that “I’d been having headaches, and I was having difficulty writing up the cattle numbers in the diary. One morning in the stock camp, I woke up, and I couldn’t talk. I thought I must be suffering from a belated hangover from the Big Wet!” Damian found he could hardly move; he struggled to light the Sire, and then crawled back into his swag. Shawie (Mike Shaw) flew out in the chopper to get me, and I’ll never forget it; he made me roll my swag… I was completely had it, and they took me in to Halls Creek Hospital.

Apparently, during the night I was thirsty, so I walked out of hospital, in my pyjamas, and down to the servo for a Coke. I had no money, couldn’t talk, and was soon returned to hospital. I remember being in the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) plane, and being told to stay awake. Next thing I remember was waking up in Darwin hospital, with my parents at the bedside. I’d been in a coma for four days. I owe my life to the RFDS.”

The next two years were spent in recovery. “For the first year I couldn’t do anything. The next year I started to do a little bit. I was at home in Kempsey, NSW, for those two years, and in the second year, during a drought, I did some droving. That was interesting, droving a few cattle in a community of small farms where the farms didn’t have fences. The cattle were very prone to eating people’s gardens, and on one occasion, drank all the water in someone’s fish pond.” The experience with encephalitis has had a lasting impact on Damian – “the down side is headaches when I’m tired, and the upside is that I really appreciate being able to walk around and do a day’s work – I have a greater appreciation of life – the small things in life.”

By 1995, Damian felt ready to return to full time work, at Moola Bulla. With the arrival of an attractive camp cook, romance between the two blossomed quickly, and in spite of Kirsty’s somewhat negative first impressions of the Head Stockman, 1995 was undoubtedly a significant year for the two young people – a year when two destinies met, and a new future was begun.

Damian explains that mustering at Moola Bulla at that time was “all horse work”… with a lot of bronco branding. Shorthorn cattle were the dominant breed, and small mobs were coacher mustered into holding paddocks or block up points before being processed at the yards.

In 1998 the couple moved to “Springvale Station” where Damian took up the position of Overseer. In 1999, he became Manager (he was doing the manager’s role that whole time). During the next five years, the couple worked within the Company structure (Springvale was operated by Balmoral) and Damian recalls that “the cattle were good… using controlled joining with 15,000 breeders, we were achieving 90% conception rates with heifers, and turning off 10,000 weaners each year.” Balmoral also operated the adjacent properties of Alice Downs, Texas Downs, and Mabel Downs, and Damian recalls, “We were really starting to kick goals.”

Springvale was then put on the market. The Forshaws and other staff at the Station had no guarantee of continuing employment. Damian was approached by a South African consortium which now operated Moola Bulla, with an offer to manage the Station. He accepted, and the staff of Springvale opted to shift as well. Kirsty remembers telling one of the workers that conditions and the infrastructure at Moola Bulla wouldn’t be as good as Springvale, and the response was an excited, “That’s what makes it cool!”

Two hard working years later, the couple realised they needed some time away from the responsibilities of running a cattle station. They relocated to Scotts Head on the north coast of NSW, and even contemplated buying a lawn mowing business. However, after six months of living in a two story, five bedroom home with ocean views, they were restless, and “… didn’t want to be there. We wanted to get out.” Like many young couples, they had been on the lookout for an opportunity to buy “a place of our own”, and at this crossroads in their lives, Nita Downs came onto the market. They hopped on a plane, and travelled across the continent to have a look. It was within their financial grasp, so they grabbed it. To shift from NSW they had purchased a caravan, and Kirsty was looking forward to seeing Queensland on the way. Not so, Damian had had enough sitting around, and it was a quick trip from a beach on the edge of the Pacific Ocean to a beach on the edge of the Indian Ocean.

The development of Nita Downs is a challenge for the Forshaws. When they arrived there were 200 Shorthorn cattle, and Damian laughs… “there to remind me of the old days.” The homestead complex had been burned to the ground ten years previously, so there was lots of work to be done. The first six months was lived “stock camp style” with a new baby. (Lochee was born in 2005. Digby was born in 2002 when they were at Springvale.) They slept outside, except when it rained, and they’d retreat indoors. An air conditioner came a couple of years later. They owned one small bore generator, so they’d quickly do the bore run, and bring it back for the night… hoping it wouldn’t run out of fuel before morning! Kirsty took washing to town (Broome is 200km’s away), and with no freezer, they could buy perishable food to last only three or four days. “At the time you think you’re saving money, but if we’d bought a bigger generator, we could’ve had power. The money we spent on fuel going to town could’ve run a generator and bought in several freezers.”

However, there are no regrets, and Kirsty talks about the gradual improvements. There’s a photo, titled “Celebrating the Septic” which includes the whole family; Damian and Kirsty holding celebratory drinks, and the boys covered with red dirt, all gathered around the septic toilet after it became useable.” There was a fight to see who would use it first!”

Currently they live in an awesomely suitable home consisting of demountables, an expansive floor space for the use of two active little boys; an open plan which takes advantage of a sea breeze from the ocean, about 10kms away. Whenever they visit the beach they find themselves saying, “We should do this more often. We go there – it’s the start of the Eighty Mile Beach – and we don’t see anyone – we get refreshed.”

Damian and Kirsty have a “Grand Plan” for Nita Downs based on the water potential; the main reason they bought into the property. They’ve obtained permission for a centre pivot to irrigate crops of Rhodes Grass, which they plan to use in a feedlot situation, for their own use, and/or other beef growers. Kirsty, with a Bachelor of Business qualification, communicates with other cattle producers in the area. They’re determined to be part of “an integrated approach which will keep the industry going and take it to the next level.”

The nearby Bidgyadanga Community, is also an area of positive employment opportunities, and the Forshaws are keen to be involved with government and community initiatives.

Damian has experimented with various ways to make the most of the land and existing cattle on Nita Downs. He and Kirsty see the cattle as one enterprise, and the water and cropping as another. They are presently growing young bulls to an achievable weight. The 350kg limit placed on the cattle industry is something the Forshaws, and many others, are regarding as a challenge. “You can’t sit around whinging about the 350kg limit, cattle prices, and “the rain thing”.

Damian is philosophical… “It’s all back down to a happy marriage… try to make sure you’re not both having a down week at the same time! It’s about knowing your kids are happy. We want to bring the kids up here, and have enough to live.” He looks sheepish and apologises… “that’s a bit emotional, isn’t it?” He adds, “Kirsty’s Dad really likes it here and my brother, and other family members and friends have all provided practical support and encouragement. We’ve had a lot of good people to help us along the way.”

“It’s the little steps” that have brought this young couple so far. They may not have “made it yet”; they are an inspiration, and hopefully an encouragement to other young people to follow their dreams, roll up their sleeves and become pioneers of the 21st century.