The Bush Brigade, 4 Outback Stations
If you want to head outback for your next holiday to sample station life here’s a country-wide round up with a few spirited possibilities.
This is the outback cattle station straight out of Hollywood – 200,000 hectares of grassy savannah just on the Northern Territory side of Western Australia with 8,000 Brahman-cross cattle and a few thousand more wallabies, plus wild buffalo, crocodiles galore, rivers full of thrashing barramundi, boab trees, swimming holes and palm-lined gorges.
To stay at Bullo is to be embedded in the daily dramas of cattle station life. Sunup to sundown, it’s a place of constant activity. During the months of the dry period when outlying parts of the property become accessible, there are roads and creek crossings to be maintained, and cattle to be mustered, dehorned and branded. For guests it’s an ever-changing feast with unpredictability high on the menu. A typical day might include a trip to a gallery of Aboriginal rock art, a visit to a stock camp and a spot of fishing and an evening barbecue is always on the cards, Guests are accommodated in a purpose-built 12-room annexe within the ring of green lawns that surrounds the homestead. It’s functional rather than fancy, but it’s a cool and comfortable refuge for the times when you’re not out bouncing around on the wild ranges or reeling in a barramundi.
This 650-square-kilometre sheep station is set among rough, rocky hills near the northern end of the Flinders Ranges As a guest, you’re absorbed into an energetic program that might include four-wheel drive tours of the property, a barbecue with a ranger at Flinders Ranges National Park and a member of the local Adnyamathanha people and sunset cocktails on a local hilltop. Wander down to the outbuildings on the far side of the creek and set among ancient river red gums is the shearing shed and its outbuildings – shearers’ quarters’, the manager’s residence, tack room, windmills and the numberless small sheds that a working property required in the mid-19th century. The shearing shed itself is a beauty, its architecture prescribed by function, its rails rubbed to a silky gloss by years of handling from lanolin-coated shearers’ hands.
This is the dude ranch in the pack, with credentials that makes this a natural choice for anyone who wants to sample a fair range of what the Kimberley is all about without straying too far from a well-chilled chardonnay. The 400,000-hectare cattle station holds virtually the royal flush of Kimberley scenery – dusty plains studded with boab trees, rock pools where pandanus palms and paperbarks stroke the water lilies and rust-coloured mountain ranges – and proximity to Kununurra, the gateway to the East Kimberley.
There are several tiers of accommodation here. At the peak is the Homestead – just six rooms and each one cool, serene, luxurious and expensive. But that does include all meals, prepared by the homestead’s chef and served at one of several sumptuous locations. If you’re still in the game, go for one of the three rooms that sit on the brink of Chamberlain Gorge, from where you can lean over your balcony and watch the crocs that gather in the waters below for their evening feed. A leap down the luxury ladder is Emma Gorge Resort, 60 tented cabins that deliver a mock-camping experience, garnished with a few essential creature comforts, such as a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and landscaped gardens. The Station Township offers either campsites or motel-style bungalows overlooking the river, but since this is also the activities hub, it’s busy with vehicles, and therefore dusty. If you’re camping, go for one of the more secluded private sites.
Although El Questro is still a working cattle station, the tourism side of the operation is totally separate.You can take a boat trip along the Chamberlain Gorge, have a champagne breakfast cruise with the birds, take a bush tucker tour or a chopper flight, splash in the thermal pools at Zebedee Springs surrounded by an ancient palm forest, take a hike through one of several lonesome gorges, hook a barra or throw a leg over one of the station’s ex-stock horses.
Burrawang West has had a curious journey. Once part of a 2,000 square kilometre cattle empire, in the 1990s Burrawang was acquired by a Japanese corporation that wanted to create a plush bush retreat for its top execs. No expense was spared. The architectural design wizards of Denton Corker Marshall were called in for a modern day remake of the classic Aussie homestead, with guest accommodation in four double-bedroom cottages. It’s quality and craftsmanship top to bottom. The cedar panelling is large and lavish, there are hand-made furnishings, a funky art collection and a gourmet kitchen. When the corporation floundered, Burrawang went in a fire sale and the new owner opened the property as an exclusive retreat, offering guests a taste of the cattle station experience well larded with luxury.
Cattle are still an important part of Burrawang’s daily life. Guests can tour the property on a quad bike on the dusty tracks that wind along the river and through the shearing sheds, outstation cottages and barns, some of which date from the 1800s. The homestead is well equipped for play, with a 20-metre heated pool, archery range, golf clubs, two floodlit all-weather tennis courts, sauna and spa and canoes for exploring Yarrabandai Billabong. The CSIRO’s Parkes Observatory – aka The Dish – is not too far away, sited here to take advantage of the clear skies. In imitation, there’s a telescope mounted on a three-storey platform at the front of the house, which surely makes Burrawang a billion-star retreat.