An intrepid traveler could certainly get further from civilization than the East Whydown Sheep Station but they’d just be showing off. Sure, on the massive continent-island of Australia one could drive ten or twenty hours into utter distance and desolation. But who has that kind of time or patience? We chose to travel only about six hours from Adelaide, in South Australia, and it was plenty distant and desolate enough.
Joan, our hostess at this farmstay bed and breakfast claims that they’re “more of a suburban station.” This is primarily because they are only a few minutes drive off the bituminized Great Barrier Highway and “only” 20km from the nearest town of Yunta. Yunta, mind you, has a population of 50. The nearest city of any real size is Broken Hill, two hours away. Joan does the family shopping in Peterborough, a town of a few hundred, only about forty five minutes to the south.
As guests on their homestead, we stayed in rustic quarters built and still used for the sheep shearers who migrate through two weeks out of the year. This meant trips to an outdoor “dunny” in the bitter cold of a winter night, but it was all part of the experience. 20km from Yunta also means that energy is supplied by a combination of solar, gas and generator power. There’s none to spare for heating guest rooms, which use wood fires if you’re lucky or hot water bottles if you’re not. Water is heated by an ancient wood-burning stove, which still does it quite well.
Joan, whose family has owned portions of the station since 1882, and her husband Chris, are the best hosts one could hope for in the midst of the Outback. And that’s not including Joan’s pavlova. We arrived full of questions about Outback life and sheep station operations and found our hosts prepared with tours and answers. Anticipating our arrival, Chris had left a little of the afternoon’s work undone, facilitating a tour of the woolshed. We first saw a tremendous pile of fleece sitting a top a table, and were stunned to learn that it was all from one sheep. We also got to meet a few sheep he had kept back for us. Cute animals, but their penchant for urinating at the slightest spook reduces the charm a bit. Meals and tea, shared with our hosts, let us hear of everything from the price of fuel (soaring) to the Open Air College (distance learning for Outback kids.)
Our second day was spent entirely touring the property. As we set out, Chris joked “Living out here, I like to call myself the King of Tonga.” I took the bait and asked, “Is that because the property is as big as Tonga?” “No,” he quipped, “Because it’s bigger.” Chris kept up a lively lecture on station history and the sheepherding business throughout most of the day. Nicknamed “Decimals” by his friends and neighbors, Chris’ discussion took quite a numerical turn at times, leaving our heads spinning. Twenty microns thick, double the price of ear tags, nine hundred dollars a bale at sixty percent yield times how many sheep per bale…yikes! I bet Outback kids do well on their maths.
We explored the ruins of older homesteads, built in the Thirties and left vacant for the last half century. The buildings had been pieced apart, their roofs and walls recycled into other structures by Joan’s father. The Outback climate seems to blow rust directly onto any metal surface, leaving the whole scene picturesque in its destruction. At times, our tour took on the guise of an Australian safari, as Chris and Joan radioed the locations of emus and kangaroos. We were treated several sightings of different kangaroo species, and stunned to find them racing along parallel to us at 40km an hour. On another occasion, the trip turned into a working adventure as Chris raced around the bush trying to muster some wayward sheep with his truck. He apologized for the distraction, but we were delighted by the “real life” sheep herding experience. When else would we get to speed 60km an hour, backwards, in hot pursuit of a sheep?
Beyond any singular highlight, I found the most enjoyable aspect of the tour just the opportunity to tour the landscape. There is no comparison or analogy for the Outback. It is unlike any other desert or plain I’ve seen. I knew any attempt to capture the view would be utterly in vain. The barren red expanses, wrapped with hills that always seemed so far away, speckled lightly with scrub brush and trees, created a tremendous sense of majesty. Riding along in a light rain, I found myself feeling simply blessed to take in such a sight.