WORDS & IMAGES: MELANIE GREVIS-JAMES
Soul of the Outback
Outback towns and characters have always fascinated me. Their passion for their country, their stories of hardship and life on the land, their colourful and often slightly eccentric personalities, and their wonderfully big hearts.
Outback New South Wales is a vast area. We spent three weeks exploring the region with a camper-trailer, from Bourke in the north, to Silverton in the west, and to Mungo National Park in the south – and we loved every minute of it. The spectacular and rugged scenery is a photographers dream, but it was the characters we met along the way who really were the heart and soul of our adventure.
Our top 7 “Must Do’s” in Outback NSW:
In no particular order…
1. Eldee Station
You can almost see the South Australian border from the homestead on Eldee Station. Located about 56km north-west of Broken Hill, the working property is in the heart of the outback. The nearest place is the historic town of Silverton, famous as the location of the first Mad Max movie. Heading to Eldee the Barrier Ranges rise up from the desolate landscape on the right side of the road, and the Mundi Mundi plains stretch into the distance on the left side. Owned by Stephen and Naomi Schmidt, the 40,000-acre cattle, goat and sheep property has been in the Schmidt family for four generations. Eldee ventured into tourism 17 years ago, and are one of few advanced eco-certified and climate action certified stations in the country. Activities include bush walking, wildlife viewing, and tag-along 4WD tours. We opted to do our own self-drive 4WD tour of the property – exploring the rugged creeks, foothills, and the family’s original homestead, now deserted. The sunset 4WD tour to the top of the Barrier Ranges with Stephen was the highlight of our stay. The view overlooking the property is incredible, as was the sunset over the Mundi Mundi plains all the way to South Australia – creating the feeling that we were the only people on earth – which as far as we could see, we were. One of my favourite photos was taken of my daughter overlooking Eldee Station – which made the cover image of Our Planet Travel magazine edition 5. Eldee Station have won multiple awards – with the most recent being awarded into the Inland Tourism Awards Hall of Fame in 2014; and bronze in the National Tourism Awards for Hosted Accommodation in 2015. www.eldeestation.com
2. Mutawintji National Park / Tri State Safaris
We arrived at the camping ground in Mutawintji National Park (originally Mootwintee) on the park’s coldest day of the year. The large steel fire-pit (BYO firewood required) protected us from the cold before heading to bed rugged up in as many layers as we could. The camp sits in a pretty setting next to the dry Homestead Creek, lined on either side with magnificent River Red Gums. The park offers a number of short and long walks through the rugged gorges and rockholes. The best way to learn about the Aboriginal significance of the park though is with a guided tour, which must be pre-booked. Owned and operated by Michael and Joanne McCulkin, Tri State Safaris offer tag-along tours into the restricted area of the park to see the Aboriginal rock engraving and hand stencil painting sites – one of the most sacred Aboriginal sites in Australia. The tour starts with a visit to the Cultural Centre, including a movie depicting the Dreamtime story of the creation of Mutawintji (meaning ‘place of green grass and waterholes’) by the local Malyankapa and Pandjikali people. We then head out on foot for the next few hours to see the sites where initiations, rainmaking and other traditional ceremonies took place. The 486-acre declared historic site protects the culturally significant sites of Mushroom Rock (for women) and Snake Cave (for men). We visited two key rock engraving sites, where Michael interpreted the engravings’ stories which have been passed down verbally for 40,000 years, and four ochre painting cave sites. Also incredible was a rock with fossilised Giant Scorpion footprints clearly visible on the surface, estimated to be a few million years old. We were all very glad they are now extinct; scientific research indicates they were 1.5m long! Michael is a wealth of knowledge about the entire Outback NSW region – and although since we met him he has sold the business, he and his wife Joanne have remained on as managers of the business and still undertake the tours. www.tristate.com.au www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au
3. White Cliffs
If you love outback towns with loads of character, this is it. I think you need to be a little bit crazy (in a good way) to live here – and the locals are very interesting characters indeed. I could certainly have stayed a lot longer here as I found the town and people fascinating and creative, and I felt right at home. The homes are mostly dugouts, like mole holes or craters scattered across the surface of the moon. Founded in 1890, White Cliffs was the first commercial opal field in Australia, and still operates today, although the population has dwindled now to about 103 people. Visitors are welcome to fossick on the Historic Mining Reserve, and no licence is required. The main attractions in town are the opal shops and galleries. We went hunting for ‘Graeme’ who runs an opal gallery and café that we’d heard about in Wilcannia – the word was he’d just had a hernia operation and the café had not been open. We found Graeme Dowton at his Red Earth Opal Café and Showroom – and luckily for us he was open. The Dowton family have been mining in White Cliffs since 1974. When I asked how he was feeling after his hernia operation, he looked a little surprised that I knew about it, but responded, “if I want to know what I’m doing tomorrow I just go down to the corner store” – yes, White Cliffs is certainly that sort of place. Our night at the Underground Motel was a real highlight of our stay. The rooms are completely sound-proof and eerily-quiet, and the temperature remains at a steady and pleasant 23 degrees all year round as the rooms are so well insulated. On a hot day, the Underground Hotel is definitely the best place to be in White Cliffs. www.undergroundmotel.com.au www.redearthopal.com www.whitecliffsnsw.com.au
4. Mungo National Park & Lodge
Mungo National Park is famous as the home to “Mungo Man” and “Mungo Woman” – archaeological treasures found at Mungo National Park and carbon dated to over 40,000 years old. Ancient plant matter, animal bones and Aboriginal artefacts can be still seen today. The only way to get up close to see the ancient artefacts and remains is on a guided tour. Local Aboriginal guides offer a real insight into this incredible meeting place of Aboriginal tribal groups for thousands of years. Make sure you take a good camera – the ‘Lunettes’ are spectacular at sunset; and pop into the very impressive Visitor Centre. The self-drive 70km “Mungo Track” loop is free; and interpretative signs tell you the story of the region as you go. Don’t miss clambering up and running down the giant sand dunes, one of our daughter’s favourite experiences on the trip. Basic camping is available within the park. We opted for comfort at nearby Mungo Lodge, located 1km from Main Camp. The lodge has 20 cabins, and a main lodge with dining room, lounge, bar and guest library open seven days a week – a real gastronomic oasis in the outback that we can highly recommend. They have solar power and a wind turbine, do water harvesting, and grey water is recycled for irrigation. The managers Glen and Rebecca Young (who were the current managers when we visited), and their three young children, live at the lodge. “We love the isolation, tranquillity and quietness here. Meeting all the different people from different nationalities is wonderful. Life is different here – every day is a new experience”, says Glen. We loved it too – even though it did get down to zero degrees at night. www.mungolodge.com.au www.visitmungo.com.au
5. Bindara Station
It took us a little while to find Bindara Station. If you don’t check your directions carefully you can end up on the wrong side of the Darling River, like we did the first time. The detour to visit Bindara is definitely worth it though. I’d heard about Barbara and Bindara ‘on the grapevine’ on our travels through outback New South Wales, and was determined to meet her and see the property for myself. Bindara Station is an eco-friendly working cattle and goat property on the west side of the Darling, located between Kinchega and Mungo National Parks on the Old Pooncarie Road. Bill and Barbara Arnold purchased the historic property in 1981 and have been restoring the homestead, outbuildings and extensive gardens ever since. The property has a very long and fascinating history, and is positioned right on the banks of the mighty Darling River – which you can see from the back door of the main homestead. Majestic river red gums (perfect climbing trees for children like our daughter) line the banks, and the wildlife, especially birds are prolific. Barbara manages the property on her own now, since Bill sadly passed away a few years ago. Her dedication to continue running the property as eco-friendly as possible is also very impressive. Drippers with batteries are used for irrigation, river water is filtered for consumption, and 2nd-hand ‘fish and chip’ oil is used as fuel for the generators. There are no chemicals used on the farm. Everything is grown organically, no spraying, and using only bio-organic farming practices. Barbara grows all her own fruit and vegetables, including pumpkins, watermelons, and pears in the orchard. The homestead was built in the late 1890’s and was gas lit until 1912. In 1912 it was converted to 32volt electricity and is still running on that now. The country-style accommodation in the main homestead, former shearers’ cottage, boundary rider’s cottage and the school room are all spotlessly clean and comfortable, and perfectly presented with pretty touches, giving a homely and welcoming feel. There is also a large covered outdoor kitchen and camp fire area for guests, and camping facilities located right on the banks of the picturesque and mighty Darling River. www.bindarastation.com
Don’t listen to people who say ‘don’t stop in Wilcannia’. They obviously did not stop and have a good look. The town has not had a great reputation in the past, but the town has worked hard to make the town more attractive to tourists over recent years. Pick up the local tourist brochure which includes a trail to see 18 historic buildings in town – the oldest are the Wilcannia Club Hotel and the Post Office, both built in 1879. Located on the banks of the Darling River, Wilcannia has a very interesting history, at one stage being the largest inland port in the country. The most unexpected surprise though was the local café we discovered, the Courthouse Café & Gallery. Owned by Adrian and Sarah Fethers, the building was originally an old pub which they have lovingly restored. Adrian is enthusiastic about Wilcannia, and happy that they left big-city jobs behind in Canberra to enjoy a slower-paced life in the outback town. The eclectic café was a real find – with the best freshly-baked scones and coffee we had on our whole trip. We camped at ‘Warrawong on the Darling’ – a very clean, tidy and well-run caravan and camping property located next to an attractive and peaceful billabong, a few kilometres from Wilcannia. www.courthousecafe.net.au www.wilcanniatourism.com.au
7. Trilby Station
We followed the unsealed (and quite rough at times) road running along the western side of the Darling River – through wide expanses of flat flood plains, covered in masses of alternatively little white, yellow, and pink/mauve wildflowers – occasionally all mingled together in a profusion of colour – just beautiful. The floral displays were all a result of the recent rains, so we very lucky to see the flood plains lush and colourful like this. Following the line of the river was Mallee scrub, and closer to the banks of the river were the now familiar magnificent river red gums. Trilby Station is set right on the banks of the Darling River, a large 320,000-acre sheep, cattle and goat property. Powered sites, unpowered riverside camping, and two self-contained cottages and a bunk house are available for guests. All the facilities are very clean and well-maintained and presented. The hosts and owners of the property, Liz and Gary Murray have lived at Trilby since 1981. The Murray family have lived in the local Louth area for six generations. We saw plenty of wildlife, including a wide variety of birdlife – there are 135 identified species to spot (ask Liz for a bird list when you arrive). Activities included bush walks along the river, river activities including fishing and canoeing, or self-drive 4WD tours of the historic property (once part of the legendary million-acre Dunlop property) – which we thoroughly enjoyed, with plenty of great photo opportunities – giving us a real glimpse into ‘life on the land’ in days gone past. We were also very lucky that our visit coincided with the shearing of a flock of rams – which fascinated our daughter. However, she wasn’t too keen on watching the ‘crutching’ part of the process – at that point she decided to go and feed the chickens and play with the dogs instead. www.trilbystation.com.au
Trilby was our last campsite on our outback adventure – so it was with mixed feelings the morning when we packed up our camper trailer for the last time. We were sad our adventure was at an end and we were heading back towards reality, work, traffic lights, and bitumen – we’d loved every minute and had so many special experiences, and memories to last us a lifetime. The only thing our daughter was looking forward to at home was (1) to see our dog, and (2) have a functioning ‘proper’ toilet that was less than a 100-metre dash in the dark with a torch.
Note: it is advisable to check road conditions in the Outback; many of the unsealed roads we travelled are closed when wet.
Images courtesy © Melanie Grevis-James
Melanie is the editor and publisher of Our Planet Travel; she has travelled extensively throughout Australia since a young child – exploring and camping in many remote places. Her love of nature, photography and travelling continues to this day. She feels most at home in the desert and the wild open spaces of Outback Australia.