Roland Breckwoldt had a romantic vision of becoming a ringer.  He was in for a shock 
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When he was growing up in Sydney in the 1940s, Roland Breckwoldt was often ostracised.
His German parents had migrated to Australia in 1938, just before World War II began, and the locals weren't always friendly to the family.
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"There were returned soldiers living near[by] who had nothing to do with us. There were neighbours who never spoke to me at all," Breckwoldt tells ABC RN's Life Matters.
He looked for other outlets. When the family lived in North Rocks in western Sydney, Breckwoldt would often enjoy exploring the surrounding areas with his friends.
"The bush became my retreat," he says. 
He wasn't doing well in school either. The now 78-year-old went on to become a leading advisor on agriculture and the environment and has just published a memoir called The New Ringer, but he remembers being "shovelled out of school" at 15 because of his poor grades.
At the time, his architect father asked a family friend, who was a university professor, to help his son get a job as a lab technician at the University of Sydney's Agriculture Faculty.
Breckwoldt accepted the role, but he still felt lost and directionless. He craved a sense of adventure far away from the city.
He wanted to be a cowboy.
When he was almost 16, a letter arrived for his father. It was from his half brother who had left the family years before.
"He was 28 when he came out [to Australia] from Germany, and I was 10. And I thought the world of him, and then he disappeared," Breckwoldt says.
His half brother had become estranged from his father following a dispute. Breckwoldt had a similarly strained relationship with his father, who was very strict on his sons.
"In that letter, [my brother] happened to say that he was a builder in Monto in central Queensland. And one of his recent jobs was building a homestead on a cattle station.
"And that was it. It's no exaggeration to say my decision was instant." 
Breckwoldt's dream of becoming a cowboy looked like it could be realised.
And so in 1960, he waved goodbye to his parents, jumped on a train and went to live with his half brother in Monto.
It wasn't long before he got his break as a ringer, working as a stock worker on a cattle station, in the Gulf Country of rural Queensland, thousands of miles from Sydney.
It's a physically demanding job that includes mustering cattle on horseback, as well as branding and spaying cattle.
Often, it's a sense of adventure that attracts young people to the life of a ringer. 
But Breckwoldt's first impression of the homestead on Augustus Downs Station in outback Queensland was "a bit of a shock".
"I had in my mind's eye this romantic vision of an oasis, but it was just a conglomeration of congregated iron buildings," Breckwoldt recalls.
The first six months working on the station was "tough", he says.
He had to start at the bottom and work his way up the pecking order. 
"You've never seen anyone in your life work as hard as I did, to get out from that little spot and up higher in the hierarchy."
Each day would start at dawn with the ringers taking turns to get the horses ready, followed by a day full of mustering cows and bulls.
"We worked really, really hard long hours, so at night you just had a meal, rolled up into your swag and rolled over," he says.
Breckwoldt's favourite camp was about 60km from the homestead in the top end.
"Most of Augustus was black soil plains, but Disraeli camp was my favourite because there were wild cattle there and it was remote," he says.
"We didn't go there often. But there was this long sandy creek and lagoons that were fed by the hills.
"And in the morning, we would ride out, just as the sun was coming up. You'd ride along the creek and I'd hear the crocodiles swish into the water and then watch the waterlilies sway as it swam out.
"And then [the crocodile] would rise up and look at you and think it was unseen … It was just wonderful.
Despite the occasional serene moment, he says the life of a ringer was more pragmatic than full of wonderment. And that pragmatism once saved his life.
He explains that the cattle up in the top end of the property were usually "really wild" as the ringers didn't go there often.
Sometimes the cattle drivers would have to chase down animals that weren't following the herd. That meant jumping off a horse, grabbing the bull's tail, putting it on the side, holding the legs up and then putting a bull strap on to prevent the cattle from falling.
"Once I chased a really strong three-year-old bull in the prime of its life [and] it just would not lift its hind legs off the ground for me to get some leverage," he says.
Within seconds, the bull swung around, threw him up in the air, and then started grinding him into the dirt with his horns.
"I literally thought 'It's over'," he remembers.
Fortunately two Aboriginal ringers saved his life that day.
"Donald Davey and Johnson just came up just by chance and of course they ran the bull off me, and that was it. I got back on my horse and no big deal. No big conversation at night," he says.
Breckwoldt was content with his life as a ringer. He continued to work on the station for the next three years.
But by 1962, his mother wanted him to return home to study at Hawkesbury Agricultural college back in New South Wales.
She'd put him on the waiting list for one of the courses, and he'd been accepted.
He reluctantly agreed to return. He thought that if he didn't like it and failed all the subjects, he'd go back to his job as a ringer. But that was not the case.
"I liked it and by the end of the first year, I did well enough in the exams to win [an] Department of Agriculture cadetship. That paid the rest of the way through [college] and gave me a wage, and then I went on to university," he says.
Breckwoldt went on to do more academic work and is highly respected for his subsequent work on agriculture and the environment.
He became a Visiting Fellow and Honorary Lecturer at Australian National University and was made a Fellow of the University of New England.
Today he lives on a property near Bundanoon in New South Wales and still occasionally works on farms "to get out and about".
And, six decades after he became a ringer, he still loves riding and working with horses.
"When I get on a horse, I lose all my worries, or any stress in my life. Anything is forgotten. I just become a different person on a horse. That's the best way of explaining it."
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