Women of the Gulf – Kathy Rowling

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the achievements of women. We’re proud to mark the occasion by sharing the stories of inspirational local women who love where they live and rise to the challenges of life in our region.

I can hear Kathy Rowling smile, even on a typically crackly Gulf region mobile phone call. She laughs, heartily and often, as we swap stories about how hard it can be to get a signal in our region and the local nous that sometimes makes it possible. Third tree from the road, lean left. One bar. The Gulf is a challenging place, but people find ways to get stuff done, make things better.

Odds are you’ve heard of Kathy, or met her. She did drought support and women’s events for us when we were Northern Gulf Resource Management Group. She is Kath’s Kreations, turning out popular handmade leather goods and jewellery. And Kathy puts in long days on Hillbillie Heaven, a rehabilitated tobacco farm near Dimbulah, with meat sheep, paddock raised farrow to finisher pigs, Hillbillie Hogs, and a small orchard of 300 Tahitian lime trees. “There were no fences, no trees, the soil was really poor,” Kathy said. “But bit by bit, we made a home and a life for us. We’re not a full-on going concern, we battle along every day as every farmer does. Some of our things are a little bit rough and unconventional, but we make do with what we’ve got and build it from there.”

Kathy Rowling was born in Mareeba, into a family that followed the work – saddlery and contract mustering. Kathy spent her early years between Biboohra, Mount Surprise, Einasleigh. “That sort of wandering life, you get to know a lot of people, you stay in contact,” Kathy said, grateful to her parents for the gift of connection that’s stayed with her ever since.

Being connected means being involved, and Kathy is renowned for her voluntary work for many projects and causes. The Cape York and Tablelands branch of the Australian Stockhorse Society, running campdrafts, youth camps and challenges, school events and fundraisers, Dimbulah Community Centre, making and donating prizes to campdraft committees. It’s a long list over many years, on top of big days on the farm. Kathy says it can be a demanding life. “That’s probably why I’ve scaled back lately, and just stayed home for a bit of me time. You do need a break. Everyone else’s stuff is in your head and your own gets forgotten a little bit. This is my time now. My kids are grown up, my husband Brian is happy with his job and he’s home every night.”

So, how has Kathy survived the ups and downs of a farming life in this challenging region? “My kids have always been really strong and independent, hard workers. That helped me. I have good friends and family. But I don’t know. You just do it. That was the way for us to have the life we wanted. For a long time there I sewed all the kids’ clothes, I cooked everything we ate.

“You might have doubts, wondering if you’re doing it right. But you learn to cope. I don’t think rural women are tough, and resilience for me is having a strong support network of people who’ve got your back. Maybe this is a little bit old-school but I think you just get your stuff together and learn to cope. You can’t just sook. You do sometimes, you cry. But you’re doing it all for your family, your kids. They’re number one.”

And Kathy has a tip for keeping relationships strong in farming families. “Don’t take to heart anything that’s said in the paddock,” she says with a hearty laugh.

Kathy paints a lovely picture when I ask her what she hopes for in the coming years. “It looks much better now that it’s rained,” she said after good early wet season falls. “It’s a bit swampy down the back, but up here on the sandy ridges, it’s good, there’s not a lot of water laying around. I’d like us to still be here. We’ll pay the farm off one day. We’ll hopefully get some grandkids, and our kids will keep coming home like they do. Brian and I can keep going along as we are, doing our thing, a few cows, a few sheep, a few pigs.”

That vision of the future includes breeding the perfect pig (“with a nice round butt for plenty of ham”), and Kathy’s beloved leatherwork. “I’ve got a backlog of orders, and I want to get enough stock made to go to a few events this year. And I figure that’s something I can do until I die. You can always sit and sew leather.” Kathy says there’s a resurgence of interest in the craft. “People say ‘my grand-dad used to do that’ – there’s often some sort of connection. Last year, I ran some workshops with kids around Etheridge Shire. Oh my goodness! It was overwhelming the number of kids that came through and got involved. They made a keyring, or a pair of earrings. It was one of the best things I ever did. I’m heading out to Croydon this year to do some workshops. I’m looking forward to it.

“I get a lot of older boys now saying ‘I wonder if I should get you to teach me to sew?’ I do a lot of hand stitching. No-one knows how to saddle stitch anymore. It’s a lost tradition, so it’s good to see some young ones that are interested in it. If you’re out there working, you can’t always run in to town to get someone to sew your bridle up.”

After an hour on the phone with Kathy Rowling, I’ve learned a lot about many things, and my face hurts – that joyful ache you get when you’ve smiled and laughed a lot in a relatively short time. Her deep insights, her down to earth wisdom, her gift for storytelling, make her wonderful company.

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