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Darren clocks up 250km daily picking up and setting down school children

Manilla horseman Darren de Jong ‘s happy place is in the saddle. But nine years ago, he grabbed the reins of a horse of a different nature – his small white school bus which picks up and sets down 40 school kids from around Attunga area.

And he loves it, despite the fact he’ll cover a daily round trip of 250km by the time he leaves his family property outside Manilla early mornings to when he drives in his front gate of an evening.

“You get pretty attached to the kids, particularly if you’ve had them from infants through to senior secondary. I really miss them when they stop catching the bus,” the accomplished horseman, campdrafter and equine judge said.

“I just like kids, and we have good kids on our bus. Neville Grant does relief driving for me, and he says the same thing – all good kids.”

Darren rallied a smile when he recalled some of the anticshe’d witnessed from the kids in nearly a decade on the bus.

“They’re all rural kids and have discussions – some heated – on rural things, like which is the better tractor, a Case or John Deere. I’ve had farm dogs hop onto the bus with kidsin the morning, just to see them settled, then that same dog will be waiting at the mailbox for them in the afternoon. We have fun on the bus – Christmas presents and Easter eggs. But I think I receive more than I give out,” he joked.

Darren could also be considered a regular Neighbourhood Watcher from the driver’s seat.

“I like to watch for anything out on the road – cattle, a horse, even a horse with his rug crooked or foot caught in the fence. I’ll contact the owner. I watch for dogs out on the road, and have come to know who owns what dog. It happens quite often.”

During the few hours Darren gets at home between bus runs, he washes the bus, then tends to his cattle and beloved Australian Stock Horses with wife Kathy, ascience and agriculture teacher at Calrossy in Tamworth.

“We have 12 brood mares, and a new stallion(Ophir Kingsman). He’s out of one of our good mares (Ophir Anita) who won 48 campdrafts and three national campdraft titles. Kingsman’s only three butshaping up nicely. We took him to Scone Horse Festival last weekend, and he won the stallion hack, novice hack and novice working stock horse.”

The de Jong family – Darren, Kathy and their daughters Katie (24) and 18-year-old Lara, have all been very competitive in stock horse/campdraft circles, but not so much these days due to commitments.

“Kathy is Calrossy’sfarm manager, so went to this year’s Sydney Royal with her students where one of their steers won the Grand Champion Carcass. That’s probably the biggest thing you can win with cattle.”

Taking up a lot of Darren’s time too is his role as director/treasurer of the Australian Stock Horse Society. And daughters Katie and Lara are both at university – Katie in her fourth year of Veterinary Science at University of Queensland (Gatton) and Lara doing Sport Exercise Science at Southern Cross University, Lismore.

By Vinnie Todd