WHEN Steve Craig started managing Mistake Creek Station 21 years ago he was taking on a challenge.
Despite coming from a long line of Indigenous cattlemen and having spent much of his working life on stations throughout the Northern Territory, this role was to be his first in management.
He knew in taking over running the Indigenous-owned cattle station 630km southwest of Katherine he had a big job ahead of him.
"There was supposedly 8000 head of cattle there and eight horses. All the plant was pretty run down and everything," Steve says of the property at the time.
But with wife Jo-Anne and his young family he moved onto the 4000sq km station on the NT/ Western Australia border determined to make a go of it.
"We never left the station for the first four years," he said. "I was too frightened to leave...I was frightened it would all fall down if I went away for five minutes."
And the hard work paid off. Since then Mistake Creek has more than quadrupled their herd, they've invested in plant and infrastructure, fenced off all the rivers from stock and created systems of laneways across the property.
In doing so they have become almost a demonstration Indigenous-run cattle station with Steve saying visitors from interstate were initially surprised to learn the place was both Aboriginal owned and managed.
But Steve hasn't done it alone - it's been a family affair, with three generations of Craigs now living and working on family-managed properties. His son Steve Jr (or Weebie) lives on the property with his wife and three kids as the assistant manager while daughter Lindsie has taken on the role of overseer at Ooratippra, a station 300km northeast of Alice the family has recently leased.
However, Steve is reluctant to talk up his family's success at Mistake Creek, saying it was simply a matter of doing what needed to be done.
"A lot of people say we've done a good job - the way I look at it I've just done a job," he said. "It was there to make money at the time…It's not like other Indigenous places that haven't got the cattle (to start with). It was just a matter of a lot of hard work over the years."
He also attributes much of his success with Mistake Creek to the guidance he's received through participating in the Australian Rural Leadership Program run by the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation.
However, it seems what Steve is most proud of is not the hard work he and his family have ploughed into turning around the fortunes of the station, but how they are now able to pass on some of this wisdom to budding station workers from across the Territory.
After years of running annual low-stress stock handling courses and horsemanship skills courses for all their staff and interested neighbours, Mistake Creek decided to take training one step further and start a school program.
"We're an accredited training facility for the NT Education Department. Weebie my son is an accredited trainer and assessor. We do about four to five schools a year for the Education Department in the Rural Operations course," Steve said.
So far students from three NT schools - Centralian Senior College in Alice Springs, Tenant Creek High School and Taminmin College in Darwin rural area - have participated in the onsite 10-day "school of stock" that covers the basics of station work, from horsemanship to cattle handling.
Steve said they started the school's training program four years ago after the live export crisis put a stop to all cattle sales.
"When it all crashed no one had any income. So this training stuff kept the fuel in the fuel tanks to run the generators," he said.
But pretty quickly Steve realised that running the training was worth a lot more than an additional income to the station: It was a way to give something back to kids struggling to see a life for themselves beyond school.
"I feel proud with these kids going so far in school. It's a pity at the end of (school) there is nothing there for them. They have all these goals but there is no one there for them helping them get these goals in place," he said.
With this in mind Steve tries to teach the students a lot more than how to yard cattle or manage a horse during their stay.
"We try to talk to them about managing money...and about having a work ethic," he said.
"We tell them, you've got to work if you want to make good money, whether it's in our industry or in the mining industry or whatever."
So far the results are encouraging with Steve seeing many of the students grabbing the opportunity to enter the pastoral industry with both hands.
"It's just a matter of letting them have a go you know. They do step up to the mark if you give them that opportunity," he said.
"A lot of those kids turn out to be good people in the industry. Me and Jo-anne are really proud of what we've done giving these kids the opportunity to see what life is like in the bush."
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