Zoe Hayes turned her life around and followed her dream to work in a stock camp.
Zoe Hayes turned her life around and followed her dream to work in a stock camp. Zoe Hayes_Eaton Photography

Outback work helped young woman recover from tragedy

SHE has suffered incredible heartbreak and tragedy, but this outback woman is refusing to let her life become a "sob story".

Zoe Hayes was 17 when her mum died by suicide.

It's now five years on but she can still remember that time. She was consumed with sadness, had thoughts of suicide herself and was overwhelmed with a powerful sense of feeling totally trapped.

All her friends were moving on, but her world had stopped. She felt stuck.

Today, Zoe's life is in stark contrast to those days.

She is 23 and living the life she always dreamed of - being a member of a stock camp on a cattle property.

Zoe said outback Australia healed her.

She found a world filled with camaraderie, kindness and a sense of family - all the things she needed - within her job on the land.

This year she is working near Cloncurry for the Curley family's Gypsy Plains Brahmans, and is fuelled with big aspirations to transform her photography hobby into a business.

This week, the inspirational country girl chatted to the Rural Weekly in the hope her story would empower others to move forward from tragedy.


A mustering photo from Zoe's time working in the beef industry.
A mustering photo from Zoe's time working in the beef industry. Zoe Hayes_Eaton Photography


Zoe can remember the exact moment she decided she wanted to work on the land.

She was in Year 8, studying at ag college and two ringers from Jumbuck Pastoral were talking to the students about the jobs available on stations.

"I just thought to myself 'I want to do that'," she said.

"I decided I wanted to work stock camps and one day be a public speaker who tells everyone just how awesome our agriculture industry is."

At the time, Zoe was just a regular Perth teenager who happened to love riding horses.

She didn't have a family connection with the cattle industry but knew it was where she wanted to be.

But her mum's devastating death severely impacted her life plans.



Zoe felt she was at risk of falling into a terrible downward spiral after her mum died.

However, three words changed her perspective: life goes on.

"When my mum died, my life completely stopped," she said.

"That was it.

"My life had stopped but everyone else around me - their lives continued to go on and thrive. They were getting married, or having kids, yet I felt stuck.

"Someone said to me, 'I know it's hard, but life goes on'.

"That became a huge thing that I have lived by."

Zoe was able to climb out of that dark place, but admitted the road ahead still had challenges for her.

"I think that anyone who says time makes things easier hasn't gone through this experience," she said.

"It's been five years for me and there are still moments when it feels like I am reliving everything all over again."

Being a teenager dealing with grief was hard, but the fact her mum died by suicide made it an even heavier burden to carry.

Zoe experienced thoughts of suicide herself.

"There are days when you are really not okay. Days where you don't want to get out of bed and it's miserable.

"I guess it's okay to feel like that. But, you can't stay there.

"You have to do whatever it takes to get out of that before it does spiral out of control."

Knowing she will still face hard times, Zoe refined a list of steps to keep herself on track.

It's her personal five-point plan to inner happiness, which helps turn her bad days around (see her full list below).

Recently, she shared this advice through a Perth friend's business, Macer Nutrition, which has launched a Women Empowering Women platform.

One of the steps highlighted was encouraging those who were struggling to think of a quality they liked about themselves. She said this gave her something to hold on to.

"In the last few years I have had this vision that I can prevent other families going through what I went through," she said.

"I feel helping just one other family would make the pain we all went through seem a little more worthwhile."


Zoe shifted her focus back to her goal of working on a station after the timely guidance from her school friend, Khearna Mumme.

Not only was her mum's death an emotional blow, it also led to financial hurdles.

"I was struggling to afford to live in the city," she said.

"My good friend said to me 'Why don't you go work on a station? It's what you love doing and it's a live-in job'," she said.

"She said the people there would become like a family unit. I guess she knew that's what I was lacking.

"She has worked on stations herself and has just kicked butt out there. She has become a big mentor to me."

So, Zoe did just that - she found a job in a camp.

Since taking on that initial position, she has worked her way across Northern Australia on different properties.

She has tackled an array of roles, a one-year stint as a governess and was part of a contract-fencing crew.

She described helping children reach their educational milestones when she was a govie in the Northern Territory as a particular thrill.

"I think working with children, I learnt kids can teach you just as much as you teach them," she said.

However, on the back of a horse, working cattle is where Zoe feels most at home. It's where she feels like she thrives.

And, as for the hard slog and monotonous work of a contract fencer?

Well, she learnt good company can make even repetitive tasks enjoyable.


Zoe remembers always having a knack for photography.

Growing up she was constantly taking happy snaps.

"I used to drive everyone crazy. I was very touristy in that sense, I would always want to stop to get photos," she said.

Last year, she started working for the Curley family in Central Queensland and was inspired by the work of Jacqueline Curley, a rural photographer passionate about capturing the beef industry's truthful beauty.

This year Zoe has returned to the family's stock camp.

Nowadays Zoe shoots quick snaps on her iPhone, which she can whip out of the pocket of her work shirt in a flash.

During bore runs she takes her big camera in the Toyota so she can snap shots while she works.

She is driven by rural photography but family portraiture holds a special place in Zoe's heart.

"Part of my photography is because, when I look back, I wish I had more photos with my mum," she said.

"I want more photos to look back on.

"So I love capturing natural, unposed photos of families. It's all about capturing that moment, or that experience, of them being happy."

Through word of mouth, Zoe's business has grown.

She started posting her best shots to her Facebook page, ZHE Photography, and soon enough the calls from other families were rolling in.

"I guess I just took a few photos that caught the attention of the rural community," she said.

This wet season, Zoe took a road trip from her workplace in Cloncurry across to Rockhampton and down to Roma, stopping off every now and then to take family photos, which gave her fuel money for her holiday.

Her main goal is to one day see her pictures on the front page of nationally distributed rural publications like Outback Magazine, or on the cover of much-loved rural read Graziher.


On top of her cattle work and photography, Zoe also makes bandannas and jewellery as a side business.

Her mum lives on through these ventures, as her business names include Eaton, which was her mum's maiden name.

"I feel like these businesses honour her," she said.

As a 14-year-old she dreamt of working on the land and spreading agriculture's good message.

So, is she, in fact, already living the dream?

"I think it doesn't get much better than this," she said.


Personal 'pick me up' guide to finding inner happiness:

1. Find something to be grateful for each day, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

2. Always have a dream or goal to work towards - one of my all-time favourite quotes "if your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough!"

3. Surround yourself with happy, radiant, exciting people - "your vibe attracts your tribe" you want people to inspire you, motivate and support you.

4. Enjoy an 80/20 lifestyle - work, social life, eating habits, hobbies etc... life is all about balance. Enjoy your guilty pleasures now and then, don't beat yourself up with guilt over them.

5. Lastly, find something you love about yourself, something you truly love about you, whether it be something physical, emotional or intellectual. Whatever that quality is, love it, flaunt it.


If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 131114 or beyondblue 1300224636.

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