“Don’t bend that bar,” Girlie Goody teases, as I bounce like a human pinball around the cab of her Toyota LandCruiser with a white-knuckle grip on the safety rail. We’re lurching into a washed-out creek that cuts through the hills of her cattle property near Monto, 150 kilometres south-west of Gladstone in Central Queensland. We’re on the hunt for cattle hiding in the scrub.
Peering over the wheel, Girlie reaches down to “add more horses” and knock the ute into four-wheel drive. She’s covered this track almost daily over every one of her 83 years – first in a saddle, then later on four wheels – and she knows this country as well as she knows herself.
Girlie Goody is a pioneering female farmer who has run this beef cattle property solo for the past 45 years, against all odds. In outback Queensland, she is a bit of a farming legend.
Girlie’s property, Malakoff, is a 3200-hectare tract of land on the western side of the Great Dividing Range. It was virgin forest when her father, Hector, selected it in 1928. He cleared a pad, built a basic house, and with his wife, Dorrie, set about filling it with children. Girlie was the fifth of six. Born Elma Joyce, she was the only girl, which is perhaps how she earned her moniker.
“I think it was my father who gave it to me,” she says, “probably because he couldn’t remember my name.”
How Girlie Goody inherited her farm
When Hector died in 1976, everyone was cut adrift. “Daddy had cancer, but he didn’t want us to know, and we didn’t want him to know we knew, so it was never talked about – and that’s just how it was.”
His will revealed he’d left half of Malakoff to his 36-year-old single daughter.
“Somebody had to be here for Mum,” Girlie says. “She would have been left here on her own, so it was accepted that it was my job to see to her. My brothers looked at me and said, ‘Well, do you want it?’ And I said, ‘There’s nothing in the world I want more.’”
The bank manager, however, was less supportive, as Girlie discovered when she tried to borrow $80,000 to buy a brother out of the other half. It took two years of wrangling, calls to her local MP and eventually a couple of other brothers acting as guarantors to secure the loan.
“If I had to live those years again, I’d jump off a cliff first,” she says.
Tough times for a woman farmer
Girlie Goody’s character deepened and grew to fill the Hector-sized hole in their lives. The beef depression had just ended so cattle were almost worthless, and year after year the drought rolled on.
“Then my back went,” she adds. “I woke up and it was paralysed – it was a culmination of everything. I was in hospital and had to slow down.”
But not for long. Girlie strapped herself into a back brace and got to work, and at the end of 10 challenging years, threw a party to celebrate paying off her bank loan. She hasn’t borrowed a cent since.
As the drought eased and life settled into a more predictable pattern, Girlie flourished. She travelled to South Africa to look at cattle, and devoted time to just about every community group in the district – the CWA, the show society and race club.
Her best known legacy might be helping to establish a competition for graziers. In the heart of cattle country, the Callide Dawson Beef Carcase Competition is hotly contested and Girlie is the one to beat.
We’ve arrived in the back paddock and a mob of pregnant cows is ambling over to greet us, their moos echoing off the rocky hills. Girlie inspects a black cow who looks to be wearing a copper toupée.
“This is Alex, a Brangus-cross I hand-reared on a bottle,” Girlie says, flip-flopping a matching copper ear. “Her mother was a scrubber, the equivalent of a brumby.” She leans down to kiss her on the head. Clearly, Alex is accustomed to the affection.
Cattle are Girlie’s livelihood, but they’re also her companions, and she’ll try any breed once – provided it has a good temperament. “If they blow their nose or look at me sideways though, they’re gone,” she says, and she doesn’t mean on a holiday.
We meet Dev the South Devon bull (“a beautiful boy”) who weighs 800 kilograms and lets Girlie lean on his back as he sloths under a tree. There’s Chaser the Murray Grey (who’s “not very pretty but makes bloody good calves”) and Kiss the Nguni cow, so named because of her Gene Simmons-style markings. “My favourites don’t go to the meatworks,” she says tenderly.
For someone so anchored to the land, Girlie is ambivalent about some aspects of nature. She reserves particular vitriol for creeping lantana, an introduced weed that’s strangled her native pasture. “It’s ruined this country,” she says.
Girlie Goody’s biggest challenge
In many ways, creeping lantana represents the obstacles Girlie has faced. From bank managers to drought, they’ve been unweildy and relentless. “My biggest challenge has been making a success of this thing,” she says, gesturing widely, “with not a lot of water, and not going into debt. It weighs on me because the welfare of the cattle is the most important thing.”
Back at the house, Girlie is off to prepare lunch. “Shut that door behind you,” she calls, as we weave through a honeycomb of rooms. “I have it closed to keep the bats out.”
She’s practical, always: There’s not a square of carpet in her house and boots are allowed inside. But she’s also deeply sentimental. Shelves overflow with photo albums and books, and cabinets are crammed with trophies and colourful show ribbons.
Girlie retrieves slices of white bread from the depths of a chest freezer. She wraps them in a plastic bag and defrosts them in the microwave.
“Do you eat avocado?” she asks while rummaging through the fridge, before retracting the offer when she finds one all brown and squishy. “Stuff dies in my kitchen,” she says, flicking her eyebrows in an act of nonchalance.
Her mother was a magnificent cook, but Girlie has no time for homemaking (“not if I can help it,” she giggles).
She’s never married, but has always been surrounded by loved ones. A decade ago, her nephew moved his family into another house on the property. That’s the reason, she says, she doesn’t have a chance to feel lonely.
Wise words for women farmers young and old
In early 2021, Girlie and her nephew’s wife, Michele, set off on a ride.
“All of a sudden, my pony put her head down and went to town,” she says, “and off I came. I was in a bit of pain, but I didn’t even get a gravel-rashed face. Still, they pulled a fair bit of dirt out of my eye.”
She was airlifted to hospital where she spent four days in intensive care and a month in recovery. “I broke several ribs, my right hip and cracked my back in two places.”
She credits the brace she’s worn every day since 1986 with preventing a worse injury. “I was also very fit at the time, which I think was a big help.” She came home with a walker, but has now resumed her trademark speed-walking with only the faintest of limps.
Girlie Goody is learning how to work less since the accident. She does more jigsaw puzzles and spends time basking in the morning sun on the deck her grand-nephew built at Easter. She no longer rides a horse, but she’ll trek for kilometres through the hills on foot to make sure a bull is returned to the right paddock.
“If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly,” she says. “And if you’re not going to do it properly, don’t start. Sometimes you get halfway through something and wonder why. But then you think, now I’ve started, I’m going to finish.”
Occasionally, she remembers that time she was told by the bank managers to give up, and all those other times when it would have been far easier to. But those thoughts are fleeting – there’s just too much else to do.