A private visit to the Australian Outback with André Vogel of Colonial Pacific. There was a shout of surprised excitement as my four guests looked down from the twin engined Piper Navajo to the dusty little airstrip below. I had been pointing out the homestead of the Australian Outback cattle station, our overnight stop, when six or seven wild camels - bulls, cows and a couple of calves - had decided to choose this moment to walk up out of the dry river bed and cross the airstrip.
I nudged Mark, a pilot of some 14 years experience in these parts, and he placed his powerful machine in position for a low sweep over the homestead - the signal out here which means "I want to land but can you go and look at your airstrip!" In a few moments the required response had been achieved and a young kid on a motorbike was chasing the camels back into the desert from whence they came. Feral camels have been prospering in this area since being released in the late 1920’s when the railway finally replaced the Afghan camel trains. Australia consequently has the finest herds of wild camels in the world - even the Saudi Royal Family seeks the bloodlines from these desert areas to strengthen their own herds.
One more low pass to make extra sure all was clear and then we prepared for landing. Skimming over the treetops Mark dropped the aircraft at the last moment and then brought it into a comfortable contact with the dusty earth - people are often surprised how soft and smooth a dirt airstrip landing can be. We taxied to where a station truck and a couple of pickups were parked and placed our machine neatly alongside - you know, just visiting friends.
I have been personally hosting and showing overseas visitors around Australia and New Zealand for some 20 years and, for those who can afford the time, an encounter with the people of the Outback is always one of the most memorable experiences.
My guests on this occasion were Don and Sandra from Atlanta (where Don teaches medicine and Sandra is a financial advisor) and Frank and Mollie from small town West Virginia where they own and run a pretty successful catering operation which employs over 300 people. The four have been friends for years and often travel together for leisure.
My other friends here were the owners of this two million acre spread in the Northern Territory, Victor (Lofty to everyone except his Mum) and Sally Wilson. A native Territorian is about as common as a native Alaskan - almost everyone has come from ‘down south’ in the last 10-15 years, but Lofty was born here - right here that is - on the actual property his father and grandfather ran, so that makes him not only unusual, but also very highly respected as far as the local Aboriginal people are concerned. Lofty proposed marriage to Sally when they were about 14 - she didn’t accept for some 10 years but they’ve been together here - raising five boys - ever since.
We are welcomed into their sprawling, low, homestead. Summers here can be hot so the house is built with wide enclosed verandahs. The construction is of cool white limestone and the place is comfortable and roomy - at the same time practical and gracious. The main kitchen has an immense slow combustion stove - converted to oil, for timber is scarce here - and the spacious ‘everyday’ kitchen has one entire wall which is a refrigerator. Then there is still a walk-in cool room and store in an outbuilding. When the nearest supermarket is some 300 miles away one has to adapt.
Though rooms brim with prized trophies and antiques, there is no such thing as formality out here. "We prefer people just take us as they find us" explains Sally. Because visits are private and by pre-arranged invitation only, it works well. In fact my guests have always felt totally at ease with the Wilsons - as have I. It’s not like some English bed and breakfast where the hostess fusses over you and you don’t know where to sit. The station has the homely, relaxed atmosphere of a remote lodge and the ambience of a fine private club - and your hosts are as interested in you, as you are in them.
Meals are casual and hearty, with everyone, from owner to a new hand, all sitting at the one large table. In such remote areas the art of fine conversation is an essential skill for all - like finding the way home after dark.
The evening meal was a fine cut of home grown, free range lean beef, salads and home made bread - all accompanied by an excellent ’84 Cabernet from the Barossa. This was followed by the classic Australian dessert - Pavlova - for those who haven’t had it, a sort of meringue topped with fresh fruits - Kiwi, strawberries - and creams.
Everybody seems to know someone whose grandmother actually invented it but the general consensus is that it was first created in the kitchen of Perth’s old Esplanade Hotel in honour of a visit by the great prima ballerina, Anna Pavlova. But doubtless I’ll be ‘corrected’ on that.
After the meal the talk turned to livelihoods. Things have not been harsher out in these parts for a long time. The last proper rains fell four years ago and the price of beef is now so low producers here are barely averaging enough per head back on the property - after deducting all freight and other costs - to break even. So overdrafts keep on growing and eyes search the skies for cloud ever more hopefully. There is a limitless supply of deep underground water so thirst is not really a problem for cattle - but feed is. Nothing grows without water and nothing - not even the ancient desert shrubs and grasses here - can last much longer than about four years without replenishing rain. Yet when rain comes, the desert will in a matter of just weeks literally bloom in a mass of green lush growth - enough to make men weep! Environmental ‘experts’ will see the country as it is now and accuse the pastoralists all too quickly of overgrazing their lands - 6000 head on 2 million acres, overgrazing? - but they have never seen how lush things are after the soaking rains. In fact most Australians have never seen these places at all and even fewer understand them. That’s what makes my guests’ experiences so very special.
Lofty can answer any criticism, solve any problem, with the same word - rain!
"Just give us rain" he says "and we’ll be right"
He’s not the first custodian of the land to recognise that either.
Aborigines have known it for over 40,000 years and as we might pray for rain - they had (and now have again) the Rainstones. These are ancient sacred stones of unknown origin. Long and smooth, about the dimensions of a man’s hand - these have always been held to bring the rains to the area.
They would have been kept by senior Aboriginal elders over the generations - indeed the millennia. Until the early 1970’s. At that point the Australian Federal government decreed that all Aboriginal people working on cattle stations had to be paid full award wages - no longer could they be rewarded with food, care and keep. The result was that the majority could not be employed and drifted to the cities and towns - their family groups found it difficult to remain together. One old man living on the station called on Lofty’s father:
"I’m gonna die soon boss - and I don’t trust them young fellas with the rainstones - you take ‘em and you look after em."
"Die? You’re healthier than me - don’t be silly."
"No - gonna die soon - you take the rainstones - very important."
And so it went on for a few weeks until old Mr Wilson finally started to take some notice of the Aborigine’s urgency and accepted the stones.
"I’ll just look after them for you - have them back whenever you want."
Two weeks later the old Aborigine was dead and the rainstones were put into safe keeping at the station homestead for 23 years - hardly anyone knew about them and very few people ever saw them. Last year in a moving ceremony, Lofty and his father handed them back to the descendants of the traditional owners - the people living in the small Aboriginal settlement nearby. Why did they do this now? Was the time right, did they feel comfortable with the new crop of ‘young fellas’ - some other reason? The only thing I can be sure of is that the decision was entirely theirs and was made solely because they thought it was right. So now the stones are back - and one can only hope that they remain safe from the city museums, 'experts' and private collectors. I think so - the old Aborigine had the right feelings in his time - and the Wilsons probably have the right feeling in theirs. Ironically, somehow whether the rain comes or not seems to have lesser importance.
My four guests have been in Australia for the last twelve days. This visit to the cattle station has been just one of the many unique experiences they have encountered - in cities, towns and now the Outback. Tomorrow we will travel to Alice Springs and there I’ll see them aboard their flight to the Great Barrier Reef where they’ll relax and be left to their own devices for a few days before returning home.
But for tonight, home is a few tiny generator powered lights flickering somewhere under the awesome Southern Cross.