People, Stories and Articles

Steve and Bridget Gaff – Longreach, QLD

“We’ve worked together every day”

On the second day of August, 2014, the late afternoon sun was creating a golden glow that covered the rocky cliffs and outcrops of a portion of Harts Range, north east of Alice Springs, NT. The fading sunlight offered limited warmth and camp fires were beginning to replace sunlight for illumination and comfort.

Sunset marked the end of a day’s competition and events at the annual Harts Range gymkhana and campdraft. People and competitors from Alice Springs, local communities and properties hundreds of kilometres away, were preparing for the evening’s entertainment and rest.

Steve and Bridget Gaff and their oldest daughter Georgie had travelled over four hundred and fifty kilometres to attend the event; driving the Plenty Highway from the Queensland border and the Donohue Highway before that. They had willingly driven from Roxborough Downs Station, another one hundred and ten kilometres into Queensland, where Steve was managing the station for owners John and Kate McLoughlan.

It was a journey they would be unlikely to repeat, for by the end of the month, they would be living in Longreach: Steve preparing to take up a management position at Elders.

As Georgie and boyfriend Tom attended the horses, Steve and Bridget sat on the steps of the station horse truck and generously shared some of their life’s story.

In character, Steve, talkative and enthusiastic, doesn’t hesitate for one moment!

“I spent my early years in Brewarrina, New South Wales where my family lived in and out of town. My grandparents owned country there…Colarina, Mitchellvale and Mum and Dad had some other blocks. Dad was a wool classer for shearing contractors in the area.

Half the blokes Dad worked with were indigenous. Mum was a school teacher in the town so I grew up with aboriginal kids… we had a lot of contact with them. The old fellas who worked out fencing and shearing with Dad; they looked after us kids.”

In the late 1960’s, Steve’s grandfather and his Dad made a trip to Julia Creek, looking at places to buy. His grandfather came to a definite, abrupt conclusion. “Not b…… living way up here,” and they returned home. Steve’s voice reflects a tinge of regret. “They could’ve bought ‘Clonagh’,” he states, smiles, and moves on.

“When I was ten or a dozen, we moved to Tamworth, NSW. My older siblings had gone to boarding school, but Mum decided that my younger sister and I would stay home. I went to the Christian Brothers College in Tamworth ‘til Year ten, then stayed around the area and played football for a couple of years.”

Along with his childhood experience around Brewarrina, when Steve was twelve years old “I must’ve been playing up at school or something, so I visited my brother at Wave Hill Station (NT). He was ten years older than me and ran the camp for seven years. I put in part of a season there; one white fella in the camp… the rest were dark fellas. It was a great experience … I’ll never forget it!”

Steve wraps the adolescent memory in an enthusiastic covering statement. “It gets into the blood,” he explains. “I’ve been in and out of the Northern Territory since the 1980’s.” No small wonder that the fit young footballer from Tamworth headed for the Territory, where he began work, first at Rockhampton Downs Station and then back to the familiar country of Wave Hill Station.

Following station experience and keen for optional employment, Steve joined Primac, at Dalby, Qld, and stayed four, five years before returning to a cattle station lifestyle at several Qld and NT stations including Napperby and Marion Downs. He accumulated hands on experience and expertise in the two fields of rural endeavour, and returned to Primac for another seven to eight years; mainly selling livestock. “Too nervous for auctioneering,” he confides “ … dealing with too much money on behalf of other people.”

It was when he was manager of the Primac branch at Quilpie in 1993, that he met Bridget, who was working at the National Australia Bank in the outback town.

Bridget was born and spent her childhood in and around Mudgee, NSW. When she was thirteen, her family moved to Nelson Bay, just north of Newcastle, NSW. “I went from horse riding to surfboard riding … a lot of fun,” she laughs.

She completed secondary schooling in Nelson Bay, then relocated to Sydney where she worked in administration and entered the world of modelling. (It’s notable that when Kent Saddlery visited stations where Steve and Bridget worked, we were never able to provide Bridget with a pair of jeans that were long enough!)

It’s also tempting to imagine Steve and Bridget’s first meeting; maybe in the Quilpie NAB? Steve approaches the service desk, inevitably looking up into the eyes of his wife to be!

From Quilpie the couple returned to NSW; contracting, mustering, preg testing. “We were around Scone for a while,” Steve informs. Memories of specific times spent in particular places seem to escape this adventurous man: however a pattern of “shifting around” appeared to be developing.

Steve scratches his head and laughs. “That’s the biggest problem … I think I must be half gypsy! Don’t know where I got it… my father had the one job all his life and my mother was a school teacher… never went anywhere.”

During this time, their two daughters, Georgie and Erin were born; Georgie in 1995 and Erin in 2000. Was the arrival of these two endearing little girls a settling down influence? Bridget notes that, while living in Scone, “every Thursday following the delivery of the Qld Country Life and The Land newspapers, I would find the Positions Vacant pages open, with subtle little circles around possible jobs; always up North.”

The circles represented a definite conflict of interests. Steve’s thoughts at the time were, “I’m interested in anything that will eventually lead us back to the North” and Bridget was thinking “I wouldn’t survive up there.” The dilemma remained, but eventually Steve “bit the bullet” and asked, “Well, what do you think?” Gallantly, Bridget replied, “If it’s what you want to do, let’s do it; while the girls are young.”

They packed up and moved to Katherine, NT, and Bridget “ …loved it! … best thing we ever did.”

Once in Katherine, Steve was ready for more adventure; and the opportunity to manage a cattle station came his way.

Again, Bridget’s perceived capabilities were being challenged. “Oh, …OK,” she asked herself, “what do I do here? I’m off a little hobby farm at Mudgee and I’m going to a million acres outside Katherine?”

Trusting Steve’s judgement and ability, she stepped into the role of assisting him in managing Scott Creek Station and she confidently affirms that decision. “We’ve never looked back at all.” Ever so briefly Bridget pauses and then adds, “…being married to Steve is definitely a great adventure. We’ve worked together, every day.”

From Scott Creek, they were persuaded to move back South for contracting work. “After a week, we knew we’d made a mistake,” Steve laments. “It’s a good thing though; … you learn from those experiences.” They found employment with Roy and Janet Chisholm at Napperby Station, and from there took on the management role at Kiana Station, NT, which they describe as “…a different experience”. With the girls enrolled and thriving with Distant Education, Steve lived by a conviction that “… it didn’t matter where you lived. If my wife and kids were happy, safe and looked after I was satisfied.” Included in this strong commitment were Steve’s older children, William and Lucy.

Consequently, Steve and Bridget remained purposefully adventurous; wanting to look at as much country and learn from as many different experiences as they could. They are satisfied with the outcome. “We’ve dealt with all sorts of people, made some terrific friendships and benefitted from invaluable experiences.”

From Kiana they ‘migrated’ back to Queensland for two years, managing Lawn Hill Station (owned by the Waanyi People and MMG Mine). It was a challenging and fulfilling time. “We loved it,” Bridget shares. “I loved ‘the boys’ (indigenous trainees). I miss them.” At the time, Bridget was also personally challenged with the trauma that resulted from a broken neck. The recovery was additionally challenging.

Following Lawn Hill, they were (reluctantly) heading back to NSW. Georgie and Erin had been home for a holiday break, and the family were at Mt Isa airport where the girls were waiting to catch a plane, back to boarding school in Sydney.

In the melting pot environment of the airport, they met up with John and Kate McLoughlin whom they’d met when the McLoughlins bought Scott Creek Station.

Information was exchanged, a lunch appointment and negotiations followed, and almost immediately, Steve and Bridget’s NSW plans were dramatically changed; … their sense of adventure again satisfied.

Instead of the long journey back to NSW, they took an eight hundred kilometre drive due south from Lawn Hill, to take up the management role at Roxborough Downs, which the McLoughlins had recently purchased.

The Gaffs’ three years at Roxborough were enjoyable and productive and they established a mutually satisfying working and personal relationship with John and Kate McLoughlin. Steve and Bridget’s plan to leave Roxborough was with the McLoughlins blessing and Steve describes them as “… the best people to work for… kind and patient… there were never any issues. Very, very good.”

Steve has never had to apply for a job, “… Lawn Hill was the first time I had to provide a résumé,” he reports and, marching into the future to the beat of his adventurous heart, he considers that the move to Longreach “is an opportunity”.

Having turned the celebrated “Fifty” in 2014 he jokes “… my knees are buggered” and the “hands on” station work he prefers is gradually becoming more and more challenging.

The couple have mixed feeling about the move. Bridget will “miss my kids”, (ie the young people in the stock camp, who consistently benefit from her ‘mothering’ ways) and she is aware that “living in town will be an enormous adjustment”.

On a positive note, the move will literally open a new page for Bridget, who is looking forward to commencing some long awaited study (focusing on Nutritional Health and Wellbeing) and the couple believe they’ll have more definite, regular, good quality time to devote to family.

Looking back, this couple share that life on stations has been “…the best thing. Seeing young people go on and achieve things … and not necessarily Uni,” Steve considers. “A lot of station staff have kept in touch and we’ve made some fantastic friends.”

Sitting on the truck steps at Harts Range NT in the half light, Steve attempts a conclusion, “Don’t think we’ll turn up on stations again!” he half-laughs. “We have thoroughly enjoyed all our experiences, and the times when the Kent Saddlery gooseneck and then the Supa Float visited. We loved it when you guys rocked up!”

For the Kents, a visit to wherever Steve and Bridget were based meant guaranteed friendship, hospitality, support and enthusiasm for which we will always be grateful.

It’s seemingly definite, that in the hearts and minds of Steve and Bridget Gaff, the gypsy road is narrowing. The reminiscing, on the other hand, has served as a stimulant and they remain excited, enthusiastic and invigorated. They’ve been undeterred and unafraid to take some risks in their great adventure and have loyally worked together, every day.

And with Steve and Bridget Gaff, … you never know!

Article written by Helen Kent
“Steve and Bridget Gaff, Longreach, Qld, 2014”

Image captions:

1) Steve and Bridget with their two daughters
Georgie and Erin

2) Steve and Bridget Gaff

3) Steve with Erin and Georgie

4) Steve with Georgie

5) Mustering at Roxborough Downs

6) Roxborough Downs

7) Walking to yards at Roxborough Downs

8) Bridget on quadbike

9) Walking out