Katherine Outback Experience owners Tom Curtain and Annabel Mclarty are a great working team.
Katherine Outback Experience owners Tom Curtain and Annabel Mclarty are a great working team. Contributed

Singing the truths of the northern beef industry

A FEW weeks ago Tom Curtain was thrown from a bucking horse while breaking it in.

It's something that occasionally happens to even the most experienced horsemen, but in Tom's case his ungraceful dismount was watched - and thoroughly enjoyed - by about 100 spectators.

As a horseman first, he quickly dusted himself off and got back to work training, but as a performer, he put aside his pride and allowed the crowd to relish in the buckjumping display.

Almost every day of the week Tom, along with his fiancé Annabel Mclarty, give tourists and schoolchildren an insight into station life through the Katherine Outback Experience.

The show started small - with Tom only having a round yard set up in the sun for a handful of tourists to crowd around - but has grown to a business that now attracts hundreds and hosts up to 12 shows per week.

This week, Tom and Annabel chatted to the Rural Weekly to explain how a horse breaker, turned singer-songwriter, and a Perth town planner started one of the Top End's fastest growing attractions.

As a professional horse breaker, the 2011 live-export ban came as blow to Tom's business.

Stations were forced to cut their budgets and Tom's work, breaking in horses for stock camps, soon dried up.

To make ends meet, he started singing at the local caravan park, which wasn't far from his property.

A self-taught musician, Tom started writing his own music when he was working in Mt Sandford Station's stockcamp. His head stockman, Martin Oaks, gave him an old guitar and taught him three chords.

"I began to practise every lunch time and every night time around the campfire,” he said.

Tom's music reflects his time spent working on cattle stations. His songs are about the experiences he has had and the characters he has met. He quickly grew an audience and will release his third album this year.

When performing at the caravan park he would often share stories about his work between songs, and one night a few listeners asked if he could show them how he trained his horses.

Believing there was a bigger market for an agricultural-infused live show, he launched the Katherine Outback Experience in July 2013.

The business grew steadily, capturing the attention of grey nomads, but soon kicked up a gear when Annabel Mclarty joined the team.

The couple recently became engaged, and while Annabel doesn't have marketing experience - she is actually a fully qualified urban planner - she shares Tom's determination for the project.

"Annabel came on in the last three years. She has just been phenomenal with all the marketing,” Tom said.

For Annabel, their shows have a much deeper meaning than just giving tourist a few hours of entertainment.

"An increased understanding of the northern beef industry is important to us,” she said.

"We want to help people understand why horses and dogs are used to work cattle. We want to share that knowledge.”

Annabelle grew up on a cattle property about an hour south of Perth.

"Another aspect for us, is showing how important the pastoral industry is to the top end of Australia, it's part of the way of life up here,” she said.

"I guess for us, it's really special to be able to share a bit of insight into what life is like on rural properties and stations.

"When people think about the Territory they think about the incredible landscapes, the incredible indigenous culture and they also think about the cowboys of the outback stations.”

Tom describes the show as having no "bells and whistles”, just mostly him telling it like it is.

The horses he breaks in are later trucked back to stations for use in stock camps, and the working dogs are sold to graziers throughout the country.

With 12 working dogs, all at different levels, Tom admitted there was an element of "risk” to his show, as there were a few "ratbags” in the ranks.

But he would prefer to have an honest show, where there is the chance of something going wrong, than an overly polished performance.

"The other day I got bucked off a horse in the round yard. I had about 100 people there, and they just loved it,” he said.

Tom joked he still couldn't feel his shoulder.

"If I was using the same horse every time in the show I would get bored of it,” he said.

"We use a horse two or three times in a show and then we will kick it out when they get too quiet.

"I am passionate about getting the very best out of each horse.”

Of course, there is plenty of music throughout the show as well.

The hardy couple work as much as demand requires, occasionally scoring a day off once a week. In the off season, when it's becomes too hot for tourists in the Top End, the show is packed up and taken on the road to southern western Australia.

Visit www.katherineoutbackexperience.com.au for more information.