Arriving at Bullo River Station (a ranch back in the U.S.) is a step outside of the modern world. It is a step into the peace of open space, isolated tranquility and panoramic beauty with an uncovered history of thousands of years, surprising nature and unexpected camaraderie. It is half-a-million acres of Australia’s Outback removed from rushing traffic, bustling shoppers and jostling crowds.
It is not a particularly easy step to take. First one must get to Kununurra, an isolated airport in the far northwest of Australia, then take a 35-minute flight on a small Cessna flown by Alligator Airways to the Bullo River Station’s grass landing strip. (Fear not, there are no alligators; they just used the name to be at the top of the phone book.) By road, the trip from Kununurra along the highway to the ranch’s driveway takes an hour-and-a-half. The drive from the highway to the station center is a further one-and-a-half to three hours more, depending on the state of the road and the season.
No arrives at Bullo River Station (08-9168-7375; www.bulloriver.com) by mistake. The closest neighbors can be more than four hours away. This is not one of those places where one shows up unexpectedly; however, once one has settled in, the unexpected is a normal experience.
An international staff of 10 keeps the station humming for both station hands and visitors. This is a real working cattle ranch with 6,000 head of cattle, mainly Brahmin breed, surrounded by the rugged and unforgiving Australian Outback. The staff call their spot “way Outback.”
From November to April during the wet season the creeks and billabongs overflow with water. Much of the station’s acreage is only accessible by boat and floodplains fill. In the winter, the dry season, rushing rivers recede, the land dries and roads are passable. Cattle feed on grasses. Rugged escarpments hide Aboriginal art. Visitors swim in secluded swimming holes and secret waterfalls.
A simple drive along the dirt road from the highway just before sunset is an adventure in itself, through thick stands of gum trees, paperbark trees, pandanas palms and bulging boabs. Wallabies watch the vehicle curiously or dart in front of the 4-wheel drive. Dingos rustle in the bush and stand to watch the noisy machine pass by. White cockatoos and corellas fly through the gum tree forests. A wild black pig might wander across the road. Cattle shuffle to the side to allow jeeps to pass. Large craggy ant hills looking like small stalagmites dot the country on both sides.
Marlee Ranancher, who runs the station with her Austrian-born husband, says, “The Bullo River and every little creek and billabong seems to have a crocodile.” This place is somewhere that being certain that water holes are “crocodile free” has real importance. Marlee notes that both she and her husband have permission to carry handguns to shoot crocodiles if necessary. Both saltwater and freshwater crocodiles are active here. The salties are deadly and the freshies will probably only take a bite out of you. I assume the salties are responsible for the more than 300 cattle lost to crocodiles annually.
Bullo River station has 12 rooms that sleep 24 visitors. Crowds are never a problem, and with 500,000 acres (a small station by Australian standards) those seeking isolation can always find it. A handful of activities are available for those who want more than contemplation. Visit 5,000-year-old Aboriginal paintings discovered about five years ago. Fish for barramundi. Take a boat trip through a spectacular gorge that dead-ends with a white-sand beach. Go horseback riding. Swim in an isolated water hole. Explore the station on ATVs. Hike in the bush. Watch birds and wildlife.
For an unforgettable treat, take a helicopter ride to the other side of the Bullo River, across the grazing lands, past stony ridges, over gum tree and prehistoric palm forests to the hidden cascades, where waterfalls pour from pool to pool down a narrow canyon.
The approach is surreal when the helicopter swings around a steep cliff and the series of cascades comes into view. A modern artist could have splashed bright red to create the rock, blue for the pools, green for the palms and flora, and white for the beach and frothing falls. The vibrant movie set colors glisten in the sharp sunlight. The scene is perfect–the place that time forgot. One might expect a dinosaur to come around the craggy rocks or a pterodactyl to swoop by the canyon lip sooner than another helicopter.
Lending credence to the age of dinosaurs are the presence of the Pruinosa Palms, a species of palm that has been growing since the days of the Permian era, over 200 million years ago – even before the dinosaurs roamed the earth. These greenish-purple palms can be seen clearly from the air approaching the cascades.
Mustering (round-up) of the cattle takes place from late May to September and offers even more activities. Visitors who horseback ride proficiently will be allowed to join in the muster and others can follow in a 4-wheel drive. I understand that the branding, sorting and castrating of the animals can all be a hands-on experience.
I feel that I had only a glimpse of Darwin. We landed at around noon from Adelaide, checked into the Saville Park Suites (08-8943-4333) on the Esplanade. Our guide, Steven Noble from Darwin Walking Tours (08-8942-1022), met us at 2 p.m. for a tour of the town. The tour focused on Darwin’s history, which was recounted during a stroll through the area near the Esplanade, from the pre-WWII/pre-Cyclone Tracey part of town to the fish frenzy at the Aquascene.
Steve, our walking tour guide, also mentioned his five favorite Darwin experiences.
1. Go to the deck chair cinema.
2. Visit the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territories.
3. Enjoy a Sunday Session at a pub or restaurant.
4. Rent a bike and discover Darwin’s bike path network.
5. Go barramundi fishing.
“One more thing,” he said, “Don’t forget the art galleries filled with Aboriginal art.”
Later we drove to the Botanical Gardens, past Mindil Beach where the Sunset Market sets up twice a week, to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territories, down to the Darwin Sailing Club, along Fannie Bay with its million-dollar homes and to East Point with its parklands.
We then headed to a sunset cruise on Darwin Cruises and Charters (08-8942-3131). The cruise curled around the Darwin breakwater, past high-rise hotels and beaches, as the sun set on the horizon. The meal was surprisingly good.
At night Darwin changes from a sleepy beach town with little traffic and few pedestrians into a pub and disco whirl. Along Mitchell Street about a dozen late-night haunts pump out pulsing music, and throngs of Darwin residents and visitors pack dance floors.
These are not bearded and aging hippies that fill the bars, but the young and beautiful Australians out for a good time. I don’t remember seeing so many miniskirts and short shorts and high heels. When I mentioned this to one of the bartenders at Ducks Nuts, he smiled and said, “We were just voted as having the best legs in Australia by one of our leading magazines. We are the city of legs.”
I won’t disagree.