Ever thought of staying on a remote Australian outback working Station? That’s a ranch in American lingo. I find they are not just a place to holiday. Australian sheep and cattle stations provide me with great sense of resilience, renewal, and hope for the future. They are places where I recharge.
Outback Stations are fabulous places for getting back to the basics – campfire cooking, resplendent sunrises and sunsets, pollution free clear night skies crammed with stars, stunning landscapes, extraordinary birdlife and opportunities for solitude. Settle in because this is a long blog – a bit like the long distances you’ll travel to reach an outback station in Australia!
Many outback Stations throughout Australia have opened up to paying visitors over the last few decades, offering a unique holiday experience. I’ve stayed at three remote Stations in Western Australia and have become a repeat visitor – the massive Wooramel Station in the WA Gascoyne region, the small cattle station of Mellenbye in the WA northern wheatbelt, and Fraser Range Station on the Nullabor Plain in WA’s far south east.
WOORAMEL STATION: Wooramel was my first station stay. It’s a massive 1430 square kilometre Station (cattle, sheep and goat), about an hour south of Carnarvon in Western Australia’s remote Gascoyne region, and 850 km north of the State’s capital, Perth. I’ve returned three times, and with Covid currently restricting my travel to Western Australia, I already have plans to go back in the coming Australian winter months when the days at Wooramel provide warm summer-like temperatures averaging between 20 and 22 degrees celsius.
Wooramel’s owners, Rachael and Justin Steadman, are very typical of outback station people. They have battled droughts, flood, bushfires, cyclones and negative markets. But time and time again they have turned adversity on its head with an abundance of Australian outback spirit and resourcefulness, an innovative recycling effort and nature based approach that has benefited travellers.
Devastating floods in 2010 broke a drought period for Wooramel, with 227 millimetres of rain reported in a 24-hour period in the Gascoyne just a week before Christmas. The couple’s homestead was left isolated – a tiny island in a vast sea stretching across the Gascoyne region. Valuable topsoil was washed away, with severe damage to fencing, water points, stockyards and machinery.
Their fortunes improved with good feed growth after the flood, but in a cruel twist of fate, the feed fuelled bushfires, ignited by lightning strikes that devastated the Gascoyne region in the last days of 2011 and early 2012. The fires swept through more than 10,000 hectares on Wooramel.
The fightback by the Steadman family included developing a low cost, nature-based camping site for campers and caravanners, set among ancient river gum trees along the Wooramel River. Note that the huge river bed rarely has any water running in it – I’ve lucked in once! When it’s empty, it provides such a unique opportunity to walk along a massive river bed.
A rare sight – water in the massive Wooramel River
What is unique about this couple’s effort is the way they have recycled damaged equipment on the Station into distinctive facilities for campers. Justin’s resourcefulness saw a water tank damaged in the floods morph into a toilet and shower block.
In another brilliant stroke of inventiveness, other damaged water tanks have been given new life as a rustic health spa. Justin sunk them into the ground along the Wooramel riverbank, surrounded them with timber decking and filled them with warm underground artesian water sourced from the Station.
The water is about 40 degrees underground and naturally full of magnesium. It cools down to around 36 degrees by the time it’s piped into the spas. Visitors rave about how good the spa is for their aching muscles. My tip is to relax in this most unusual spa under a night sky or at dawn! Magic! Dawn and sunset at Wooramel have been spectacular every time I’ve been there.
Justin’s improvisation skills also excelled when he recycled old wooden cable drums as drinks bars/picnic tables on the banks of the Wooramel River, perfect for sitting around with friends and a glass of vino or chilled beer.
Wooramel campground has around 100 unpowered camping sites scattered for more than a kilometre along the Wooramel River bank. There’s also on-site eco tents. Justin and Rachael have ensured there is plenty of room between sites – it’s a place where you can call over to a neighbour, but unlike a lot of caravan/camping parks, you won’t bump into them when you raise your elbows!
Camping sites have their own campfire pits (bring in your own wood or buy from the station shop). Campsites are not provided with power, so you need to be self-sufficient. There’s also a big general campfire lit up most nights – a great place to meet other people staying there.
On Monday and Wednesday nights from May to mid October, there is a community campfire dinner. BYO plate,cutleryand drinks! It’s very popular, so you have to book. I schedule my stay to ensure I’m at the Station for this!
Wooramel Station is alive with birdlife, including rainbow bee-eaters, parrots, straw-necked Ibis and flocks of native budgerigars that swoop by in a brilliant flash of green and yellow. These are the natural colour of budgies in the wild. They are said to have survived tough inland conditions in Australia for the last five million years.
There’s also a great 70 k self drive Station Tour – 4WD is a must. You follow a track to the coastline with the Indian Ocean, and check out Wooramel’s old 100 year old former shearing shed and shearers’ quarters.
A final suggestion – ensure you take a walk through the Station rubbish dump – more politely known as the historical tip! It’s amazing!
MELLENBYE STATION: Contrasting with the big Wooramel Station is MELLENBYE, a tiny (by Australian standards LOL) cattle station that is only about a 4.5 hour drive north of Perth. There is another great story here. The station is run by Shelley, a widow who took off by herself in a camper van to explore Australia after her much loved husband died. She eventually settled at Mellenbye, developing excellent facilities for visitors including camping areas with a very good camp kitchen. There’s also innovative recreation facilities in the old shearing shed, new ensuite queen donga rooms introduced in this last year, and upmarket self-contained cabins and cottages with campfire pits. I’ve stayed in the cottages and can highly recommend.
In another innovative touch at Mellenbye, a sea container has been transformed during this last year into a bar called the ‘C bar’, great for get togethers.
I especially loved checking out the lovely old buildings on Mellenbye Station, exploring the surrounding countryside and birdwatching. More than 40 bird species have been identified on the property!
A surprise for me was some breakaway country on the Station that was a joy for my camera. A 4WD is recommended to get out to it, and you need to be on the outlook for station cattle that can cross the track. It’s worth making the effort.
Mellenbye is also a great base during Western Australia’s famous wildflower season. Note that there is no mobile phone, internet, wifi or television reception here unless you have your own satellite dish! Such isolation might be a little daunting, but trust me, you’ll enjoy it!
FRASER RANGE STATION: Much more remote is the historic FRASER RANGE sheep Station – first settled in the 1870’s on the Western Nullabor Plain, to the far south east of WA. I stayed after crossing the Nullabor on a road trip, returning from Australia’s Eastern States. The Station is half way between Norseman and Balladonia, and more than 800 kilometres from Perth. I highly recommend a stay for anyone tackling the Nullabor by road.
The countryside at Fraser Range is lovely, and the history of the Station is fascinating. It was the first Station established on the Nullabor Plain in the 1870’s. If it feels remote now, it must have seemed like the end of the earth back then. Getting wool sheared from the station sheep to market was a monumental effort. The wool would be loaded onto a cart pulled by a 16 strong camel team, and taken to the southern coast at Port Malcolm. There it would be loaded onto a ‘cutter’ and sailed to Adelaide to market. The ship would also sail to Perth for building supplies and stores.
Perth was still a convict settlement back then, and ‘ticket of leave’ men were employed to help construct the Station buildings out of stone. Some of these still stand and are used.
Fraser Range offers good camping/caravan facilities, excellent self-contained accommodation, and station tours. They have a small shop with ice-creams – for some reason I yearn for ice-creams when I am somewhere very isolated and remote! If you are there on the right night, you can enjoy tasty station dinners and a licenced bar. I got to meet some interesting other travellers at these dinners. There are some wonderful walks here too – with Station stays, you make your own fun.
Did I mention to take your golf clubs to Fraser Range Station if you are a golfing fan? It has hole 13 on the Nullabor Links – said to be the world’s longest golf course. The 18 hole 72 par course extends between Kalgoorlie in Western Australia through to Ceduna in South Australia. Two of the holes are 200 km apart!