Don’t tell Jodie Muntelwit it can’t be done — she will inevitably prove you wrong.
When Jodie Muntelwit broke up with her partner and the father of her three children, she knew she had to start again.
There were a lot of uncertainties but there was one thing she knew for sure — wherever she moved to had to be in the country.
“That was the choice I made. I wanted to come out to the bush,” she says.
“I’ve never wanted to live anywhere else. And this is what I know and what I love.”
But she did what many women would never dream of — she bought a 15,000-acre cattle station 30 minutes’ drive south of Barcaldine in Queensland’s central west.
The homestead, sheds and cattle yards stand out in a sea of red dirt, sandalwood and gidgee trees that stretch on for miles.
Just 1 kilometre down the road is a different world again — lush tranquil wetlands, fed by a century-old artesian bore.
Dead ghost gums stand throughout the water, attracting bird life, grey nomads and campers from around the country, and prior to the pandemic — the world.
It was a bold move.
Especially as the area had experienced a decade of drought.
But Jodie says she wasn’t worried.
“I really wanted this lifestyle,” she says.
“I wasn’t apprehensive in the beginning, but once reality set in after we moved here, it’s been really hard, really, really hard on my own.”
Almost one year on, she acknowledges an amazing support network of staff and family but “at the end of the day, the buck stops with me and there is no-one else to share that with”.
Doing it by herself was not necessarily how Jodie wanted it.
“In my mind, there’s no other option. I don’t want to be doing this on my own, at all. But this is how the cards are being dealt, so to speak,” she says.
“And I’m a bit stubborn. I don’t want to give in, I don’t want to compromise the lifestyle and I want my kids to grow up in the bush and have the things that I had.”
Early starts and long days
Her day starts early.
She’s up at 5:00am often doing office work while it’s “nice and quiet”, interrupted only by the squawks of cockatoos and singing honeyeaters waking for the day.
A little later, she ventures outside, feeds her horses, then jumps in her buggy to take her working dogs for a run.
She returns home to get her three children – Lucy 10, Ben, 8 and Meg, 5 — up for breakfast and ready for school.
They have their jobs too – feeding their animals – which they do with all the self-assurance of country kids, before settling down to school-of-the-air classes.
Then Jodie’s day really starts. It could be mustering cattle or working down at the wetlands.
“The juggle just never ends. And I still feel like I don’t get things done,” she says.
On this sunny winter’s day, a large truck carrying 150 head of cattle pulls up to the cattle ramp and starts unloading.
It’s slow going, with the beasts reluctant to take those first steps off the truck to their new home.
Jodie is patient, speaking quietly, gently persuading them to move forward.
Then she jumps on her horse, pushing them out to an adjoining paddock and more water.
This is what she knows and loves.
But she admits the buying and selling of cattle has been another learning curve.
Another gamble is the weather after a really tough decade of drought.
Although there has been some relief this year, the bounce back is nothing like it was.
She says her ex-partner, with whom she’s still friendly, is a fourth generation grazier near Winton and even his father says he hasn’t seen dry like this.
“There’s so many places where it’s still just so dry. It’s becoming the new normal,” Jodie says.
“I think people must just be coping with it because they’ve been doing it for 10 years now.”
It’s built a resilience.
But Jodie, one of five daughters, shrugs off any suggestion what she’s doing is unusual.
“There are so many women like me and even though they might be married or have a partner or whatever, the partners might be away working all the time and they’re keeping the home fires burning, which could be a large cattle property or station,” she says.
“I think you’ll find most women do what I do anyway.”
From one woman to another
Jo Jarden knows exactly what Jodie is talking about.
She’s the previous owner of Lara Station and initially ran it with her husband Michael – a contract musterer.
It was her idea to start the wetlands bush camp and she remembers the day her very first tourist arrived in 2014 from Sweden.
She took him down to the wetlands, settled him in and couldn’t wait to share the news with her husband, who was away mustering at the time.
But she never got the chance.
Michael died in a helicopter crash that afternoon.
She says she knew Jodie was the right person when she came to inspect the property and wanted to put a contract on it straight away.
“You could see she was a strong woman and a country woman and I got a good feel from her,” Jo says.
“To take it on even though they’ve never done it (tourism) before … and being a single woman with three children, you know, I’m thinking this is going to be really good for her and bringing the kids up around something like this as well.”
‘She’s grabbed the bit and had a go’
Jodie and her five sisters grew up on the land, moving across cattle properties as their father, a musterer and stockman, built up his business.
Phil Muntelwit, 71, says living on the land is in Jodie’s blood.
“She’s just grabbed the bit and had a go,” he says.
He says his daughters all had a cattle portfolio by the time they were 10 or 12.
They bought, sold and kept account of everything they spent and had enough money to buy a car by the time they were teenagers.
“They’ve always been like that, these girls, you know. Been taught right from the word go not to be frightened and have a go.
“I am real proud of her, I tell her that too.”
Jodie’s younger sister Cailyn says Lara Station was a natural move for Jodie, who started out working in an accountancy firm in Dalby.
“She was brave to do that (buy Lara Station) but it would have been absolutely terrifying if she was to move to the city and finish her degree, get a job in a bank or something like that,” Cailyn says.
“We were raised to be able to go and fix what needed fixing.
“You don’t whinge about it or whatever, you know, like if it needs to be done, you just hook in and do it and you get it done. And then it’s done.”
Drawn to the wetlands
For Jodie it’s all about the lifestyle.
That determination has seen her venture into tourism with the established bush camp at Lara Wetlands.
On a Saturday night as a gentle pink dusk spreads out over the wetlands and fires start to flicker around campsites, holidaymakers and grey nomads gather at the communal camp kitchen.
Some have been coming back for years and now help put on the Saturday night dinners.
Entertainers Viv and Karen Jenkinson pull out the guitar and play country music, taking requests as camp stew and damper with jam and cream is served up.
There’s a mix of people at the Lara Wetlands campsite. A group of young couples, who had planned a holiday in the Mediterranean, are now passing through on their way to the Cape instead.
There’s a robust group of retirees enjoying a drink and hinting at the carousing they may have done in decades past.
Gail Reimers travelled through the wetlands with her sister in June 2020 and stayed on as a volunteer. Now she’s back working at the bush camp and describes Jodie as “very brave”.
“You’ve just got to be strong (and) you’ve got to be very clever. You know, it’s not just going out looking after cattle … it’s a business,” she says.
“She’s such a gorgeous person and she’s so calm and gentle and she just has so much patience.”
No longer a man’s domain
In generations past, running a cattle property was the domain of men, but Jodie says she’s hasn’t come up against archaic attitudes from other graziers and agents – in fact they’ve been nothing but supportive.
“The worst person I’ve come up against is myself,” she says.
“That negative self-talk. I have not had a problem with agents or not generally. I feel very respected by most men in the rural industry that I’ve come across.
“There are so many women in the rural industry really in those male-dominated roles now. And it’s becoming a thing of the past.”
She can fix a loose shoe on her horse and admits she doesn’t really like welding, but will do whatever needs to be done.
Trying to work out how to do everything has been the biggest challenge. But she’s refined her priorities to “what’s important” and “the non-negotiables”.
“It would have been in April … when one of my kids said to me: ‘Mum, are you ever going to be not busy again?’ And yeah, things like that are levellers, you know.”
One of those non-negotiables is taking her kids to sport in Barcaldine during the week.
“I could ask somebody else to do it. But I don’t want that. I want to be a mum and that is a priority for me.
“So if anything else gets in the way of that, well, it has to be managed somehow.”
It will be one year in October since Jodie took over the property.
Her advice to others contemplating a similar move: “You don’t have to do it how everybody else is doing it. It doesn’t have to look like anybody else’s life except your own.
“I love it, yeah, I love my life and this is what I wanted.”
Photography: Stephen Cavenagh and Leonie Mellor
Reporter: Leonie Mellor
Digital production: Heidi Davoren
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