IT’S BEEN a long journey from remote communities in the Kimberley to the North East for Sally Malay.
The Aboriginal youth, 17, moved to Lake Rowan at age 11 to create a better life for himself and escape the struggles of the outback.
The towns he had lived at, like Derby, offered a bleak future; high unemployment, alcohol abuse and fighting.
“When I went back recently most of the people there were just getting on the drink and smoking, getting drugs and that,” he said.
“That’s about it.
“They didn’t do anything apart from that.
“That’s why I left, I figured I didn’t want to do that, so I just left.
“I didn’t like it how people were drinking, fighting, and you’d walk past them in town every night and they’d be stealing stuff.
“I didn’t have any issues with the police, that’s what I didn’t want to get involved in.”
When he was younger, Sally frequently moved between towns with his parents to work at various stations in WA.
“That’s why I didn’t get too much schooling,” he explained.
“We stayed out in the bush and a few years went by where I didn’t do anything, just working on the property.”
His father Lindsay had spent a rodeo season in the North East about 20 years ago and made friends with Andrew McQualter-Whyte, who owned a property at Lake Rowan.
As Mr McQualter-Whyte recalled this week, Lindsay made a phone call out of the blue about seven years ago and asked if Sally could move to his property between Yarrawonga and Wangaratta.
“Lindsay came down here years ago to achieve something, to be a role model for his people,” Mr McQualter-Whyte said.
“He only stayed for the one season but we’d call each other every couple of years. Then seven or so years ago he said his son Sally wanted to come down.
“I’d only spoken to Sally once in my life but he came down and he’s been part of our family ever since.
“My partner Tamlin and I instantly fell in love with him.”
While it was hard for Sally to move thousands of kilometres from his friends and family, he loved living at his new home and the chance to get an education.
“In my first year it was pretty cold compared to the heat up home,” he said.
“It was hard getting used to that.
“Back home it’s just laidback. There’s nothing to do there.
“I wanted to move here to get an education.
“It was really hard at first but I’m catching up.”
The move also gave Sally the chance to try bull riding.
While he had plenty of experience with stock during his time in Western Australia, he started riding properly under the guidance of Mr McQualter-Whyte.
“It can get scary,” Sally said of rodeo riding, “but once you get on that goes away”.
“The more you take your time, the more you think about it and stress out.
“That’s when people start to get hurt.
“I haven’t been injured yet but I see most people getting bucked off and jumped on. I don’t want that but I’ve been pretty lucky with injuries so far.”
Mr McQualter-Whyte said Sally was naturally gifted in a range of rodeo events, which saw him receiving podium finishes within six months of his first ride.
He is currently a national title holder.
“He’s hugely talented with whatever we get him to do,” Mr McQualter-Whyte said.
“He’s been able to pick things up very quickly.
“He has a bit of a battle with school but only because he started a fair way behind.
“He’s probably one of the best bull riders I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Sally’s talents have been recognised with about 20 awards since 2010, and he's continued to improve.
He hopes to one day compete at a professional level on the world’s biggest rodeo stage, in the United States.
Sally will head to a high school competition in the US next week – another step towards fulfilling his dreams – and says he’s not particularly worried about the prize money.
“You’d be in the big money over there, really big,” he said.
“I don’t do it for the money, I just do it because I love it, it’s a fun thing to do.”
Sally was quick to make new friends after moving to the area and is popular at his Yarrawonga high school.
“He’s so likeable,” Mr McQualter-Whyte said.
“He’s so acceptable in the school, he plays a bit of football and everyone loves him.
“He’s a very special kid.”
Sally hopes to set an example to other Indigenous young people about what they can achieve.
“I would like to be a role model for my people and all the kids that share my dream,” he said.
“I am hoping that by looking at me, my story and my achievements they know that with dedication, willingness and support anyone can achieve their dream.”