“A heart for the Channels”
Following our 2006 Outback Trip, Lyle and Helen had an idea… seemed like a good one at the time… to include some stories about the people and places we visit along the way. The response from readers assured us that is was a good thing to continue. The 2007 catalogue contained brief accounts of several Outback cattle stations and people and in consequent catalogues, the expanded stories have included more details. Craig Lasker and Nikki Smith’s 2007 story was a sad one, which touched the hearts of many readers and we’re grateful for their contribution to the 2013 catalogue.
Craig Lasker and Nikki Smith have lived and worked in some far flung places of the Outback. Their affinity with the bush and a lifestyle centred around horses and cattle was something which originally brought them together and it remains a strong binding influence in the life of their family. In 2012, Craig and Nikki were entering their twelfth year at Morney Plains Station, a Channel Country holding, one hundred and twenty kilometres west of Windorah.
Craig grew up out of Guyra, northern NSW, and as soon as he could get a break from school, which coincided with his fourteenth birthday, he left. “I had to wait exactly til that day and I had to have a job lined up straight away.” Consequently, the young teenager began work immediately at Douglas Station in the N.T. where Bill Sullivan was the manager. Two years later he shifted for twelve months to Kalmata Station in the Q’ld Gulf and from there Craig gravitated towards the Channels; “I’ve been coming and going out of the Channel Country all my life… a long time.” South Galway, Caldervale, Cluny and Keeroongooloo were places where Craig gained skills and experience, and absorbed the distinctive Channel Country culture… a certain type of talk, stance, and dress and hat code… elusive, yet real.
Enter Nikki Smith who had grown up at Wompah Gate on the Q’ld/NSW border fence near Tibooburra where her Dad was an Overseer for that area. Coincidentally, Nikki too was “just on fourteen years old” when she started work at Naryilco Station about forty kilometres north of Wompah Gate. She was enrolled for correspondence school while she worked in the stock camp, and “I had a lot of help to get me through.” Nikki put in three years at Nary, followed by work at Nockatunga, Durham Downs and then a couple of years of contracting work with Rusty Ferguson. In 1993, she took part in an Agricultural Exchange and spent ten months in the U S of A working with stud herefords, farming and “a bit of everything. It was good, except for the cold.” On returning to Australia, Nikki worked away at “a few different places around Jericho, Richmond, Dutton River, Rosedale, Springvale and Galway Downs.
At the same time, Craig was working independently “brumby running, flying a gyrocopter and all that sort of work.” The two young people, by now living around the same area met when Nikki “happened to be going through Keeroongooloo” where Craig happened to be brumby running. Craig grins at Nikki and teases, “I gave Nik a job; the worst thing that could’ve happened… she wouldn’t leave!” For the next four years they worked together as a team and when Nikki fell pregnant, Craig gave the gyrocopter work away. In March 1998 the couple travelled a long way from their familiar stomping ground to Ruby Plains Station near Halls Creek in the Kimberley, W.A. where there was an opportunity for them to work in the stock camp. Although Nikki was convinced that pregnancy was no deterrent to continuing with stock work, Craig remembers “that last lap… you were too heavy to come in the camp.” Nikki also remembers “being chased off to the kitchen.” Their son Hayden was born in August 1998, and in 1999 they were assigned to manage at Sturt Creek Station, an outstation of Ruby Plains. However, after twelve months, it seemed that the couple were destined to continue with life and work in the Channel Country. They were transferred back to Mooraberree Station, an outstation of Morney Plains and following a brief stay of eight to nine months, they were “shipped over to Morney Plains” at the end of 2000. They’d packed up three times in three years, and in the midst of all the shifts, their baby daughter Ashlee had been born in October of 2000. They were definitely ready to settle down.
2001 was a year of no rain, and the drought continued into 2002. Craig describes conditions as “dreadful” and Morney’s cattle had to be sent to wherever there was enough feed. Numbers dropped from 19,000 to 3,000, and in 2003 a single and sudden fall of heavy rain brought more damage than relief. Then in September of 2003, a tragic event occurred which would change their lives forever. The Morney Plains’ homestead caught fire, and Craig and Nikki’s two precious children, Hayden, aged 5 and Ashlee, aged 3, lost their lives. Good and tragic news travels quickly in the network of an extended outback community. Spontaneous grief and sympathy spread like a wave as the awful reality of the event registered in minds and hearts. Just as quickly, a second wave of practical and emotional support followed.
In 2007, Craig and Nikki were generous and brave enough to share some of their journey at that time and this is what they said. “At first we were down to nothing, but believing that eventually everything’s going to be alright, we began to see some light at the end of the tunnel. We knew that if we gave up and went away from Morney, it would be like the end of it – like giving up – so we decided to stay with the people we knew would support us, keep busy, keep at it, and not crawl into a hole. It was important to walk tall and keep smiling. We wouldn’t want anyone to go through what we did, but if our story helps someone in a sad situation, that’s good”.
In 2012, Craig and Nikki are keeping busy, keeping at it and walking tall; with genuine smiles that match a positive attitude. They share that “it doesn’t ever change; in your mind it’s going to be there forever.” Craig is philosophical when he looks at what’s happened this way. “A drought doesn’t seem like much; droughts come and go. There’s never a drought that hasn’t broken, never a flood that didn’t end…” The sentence remains unfinished; the silence heavy with unspoken thoughts and emotion.
In 2012, Craig and Nikki’s three children, Dusty, 8, Ty, 6 and Casey, 5, are their parents’ collective pride and joy. Each one is full of character, with distinct personality differences. Dusty is the animal girl; guinea pigs, dogs, calves and horses, she loves them all. Ty is quieter, loves sports and his motorbike, and Casey thinks she can pretty well keep up with both her siblings. Their lives are busy and full, with school and school activities, gymkhanas, pony club, and helping with the cattle whenever possible.
Craig and Nikki have their own piece of country just out of Stonehenge, south of Longreach Q’ld which they are improving, developing and enjoying when they take time out from Morney. “It’s somewhere to hang your hat” and they really appreciate the mod cons that come with living in their “town house” on five acres near Stonehenge. Town water, town power, and no close neighbours is very different from the station generator and all that it entails, and pumping water from the water hole at the house. Even as they make the comparisons, there’s an expression of satisfaction about life at Morney. The last three years have been good years; they’ve also been years of flood, followed by harsh bush fires… but that’s life.
Craig and Nikki are also involved, interested and rewarded to be part of a forward thinking project which is taking place at Morney. For the past four years an Artificial Insemination program has been underway at Morney, concentrated on providing “Kidman Coolibahs,” a Murray Grey, Charbray cross of flat back cattle which are tick resistant and can handle conditions of North Australia. Along with a consistently keen group of young people and the long term help of older workers such as Rob Gorringe and Dolly Wharton, Craig and Nikki believe in the benefits of giving the young workers responsibility which usually brings out the best in them. Some workers return for more than one season and Craig is encouraged that “if they come back, they’ll stay and become very handy by the end of the year.”
It’s an exceptional couple who can remain positive and focussed on the job at hand while dealing with heartbreak which “doesn’t ever change.” It’s inspirational then, to hear them laughing at each other as they recall a time when Nikki was being chased by a cranky cow around and around a tree, and Craig, demonstrating the art of catching a calf, fell off the back of a ute and was left behind in a cloud of dust. The awesome letter written by Craig and Nikki in 2007 has, in effect, continued to demonstrate their ongoing resilience. Back then, they said “It was important to walk tall and keep smiling”, and it’s clear that they’re still doing that.