The red, ochre, brown and orange tones flash by below, intersected by arrow-straight roads as we come in to land at Barcaldine Airport in Outback Queensland – just over 1000 kilometres from Brisbane – but we’re not at our final destination yet. As soon as we’re on the ground our first stop is something of an outback tradition in these parts, a cheeky schooner at Barcaldine’s Commercial Hotel and a takeaway from the Shakespeare Hotel – a taste of two of the five pubs that service the local population of 1422 (that’s my kind of pub-per-person ratio).
It’s here we meet Deon Stent-Smith, who runs the family-owned property Shandonvale Station – a ‘tiny’ parcel of land of more than 6000 hectares 80km north of Barcaldine – that will be our home for the next 48 hours. The property is a working sheep station which Deon manages with his wife Lane but, due partly to the continual impact of drought, they have opened the gates to tourism and have been welcoming overnight guests since 2017.
The station is everything city-folk like myself romanticise about the outback – a paddock full of stock to my left, kangaroos bounding away to the right, a flock of galahs sitting on the fence as we drive in and a grand homestead with its wrap-around veranda taking centre-stage.
As soon as we arrive we realise this is going to be no ordinary long weekend as we’re handed the keys to an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) for getting around, and off we go to our rooms at the shearer’s quarters.
The 100-year-old building may have been renovated to add some modern comforts but it has kept its outback charm with an outside bath house complete with claw-foot bath and wash station, and a 19th century wood-fired oven in the kitchen, complemented by a touch of class in 1000 thread count Egyptian cotton linen, outback-chic barn door bedheads and daily breakfast hampers filled with seasonal produce delivered from the homestead. That typically includes fresh organic milk and butter from the house cow Milly, home-smoked bacon, grass-fed dorper lamb, bore goat chops, camel sausages or pork cutlets, eggs from the station’s laying hens, a loaf of home-baked bread and home-made jams and relish.
Dinner is served at the homestead (cooked by Deon) where we tuck into roast goat (delicious!), curry, fresh vegetables from the garden, matched wines and plenty of yarns shared by Deon and Lane. Both are born and bred Queensland country folk and clearly have a passion for the land which they are keen to share with others.
“We want to give others the opportunity to experience our way of life, that in many ways we take for granted, and bridge the gap between city and country,” says Deon who also offers up some staggering statistics, including that just 1.5 per cent of Australia’s population produces food for approximately 60 million people around the world.
“We want to share our part of the paddock-to-plate journey along with a first-hand taste of the challenges and joys of living in rural Australia,” he says.
As day two dawns, the sun cracks the clouds, cockatoos fly overhead and I’m standing on the veranda of the shearer’s quarters – cuppa in hand – trying very hard not to say, “how’s the serenity?” But I can’t marvel at the scenery forever as it’s a working station, after all, and guests are invited to chip in with chores. First on the list is helping Lane feed her pets – Coco the baby camel and Peep the three-day-old lamb – with bottles of milk, then Moo the pet emu who was rescued from the side of the road, and a group of cows and sheep with names ranging from Tinkerbell to Holly.
Next we jump in the ATV to scout around the paddocks, passing scores of kangaroos while learning from Deon how every animal plays its part on the property. From the guardian donkeys that protect sheep from foxes to the camels that rid the land of prickly acacia (a nuisance of a thorny small tree that encourages erosion and interferes with stock movement) it’s quickly evident that life on the land is more than my idle (but blissful) early morning cuppas.
Our final chore for the morning is to check the crab pots in the dam for crayfish. They’re full so that’s lunch taken care of! Wandering outside, post barbecued crays, it’s hard to miss the Robinson R22 helicopter parked on the front lawn and, just minutes later, guided by localmustering pilot Danny (who has a handshake that tests the strength of your shoulder joint) I’m on board the doorless chopper, metres above the camels as we steer them through a paddock. One has the audacity to try to bite the landing skids just to prove how extremely close we are.
Our attention turns to a flock of sheep, and some wild pigs that shouldn’t be where they are, before a final sweep down the river and a lunging turn back towards the homestead. It’s an exhilarating end to our day’s work and the reward is a relaxing soak in the Great Artesian Basin-fed spa overlooking Aramac Creek with a cheese board and a ‘sundowner’.
There’s plenty written about paddock-to-plate dining these days but the journey doesn’t get much closer than at Shandonvale Station. Walking around the garden with Lane before dinner we chat about the herbs and produce that’s growing and what needs to be prepared for the next seasonal change. Fresh cut meat is in the cold room, cows are milked daily, butter is churned on site and bread is made every morning. Nothing from the land is wasted – that’s what I call paddock-to-plate.
Polishing off a sirloin steak with freshly picked vegetables and a good scoop of home-made chutney is a fine way to end the day. Or so I thought. Once again we head out on the ATV to sit around a fire and enjoy the magic of star-gazing with no light-pollution in the sky above us and a final nightcap in hand.
On our last morning, just when I thought all surprises were over, I see the helicopter on the lawn has been upgraded to a four-seater R44 and we’re off again, flying towards Lake Galilee, one of the largest salt lakes in Australia, over the semi-arid and seemingly unending landscape. In this moment, eyes peeled wide looking out the helicopter window, I saw the real Outback Queensland – rough and rugged, desolate, yet a feast for the eyes, the heart of Australia, and seeing it this way in its raw state was enchanting and made me feel more connected to the country I call home.
After our final farewells to Deon, Lane and the much-loved Coco the Camel, heading for Longreach Airport to fly back to Brisbane, I have another realisation – I’m absolutely humming with energy, recalling highlights from the past 48 hours and already cooking up plans for my next adventure off the beaten path.
Barcaldine, the nearest town to Shandonvale Station and famous for the Tree of Knowledge, the founding site of the Australian Labor party during the Great Shearer’s Strike of 1891. The original tree was poisoned and replaced with an 18-metre wooden monument that represents the famous ghost-gum.
Besides the monument, be sure to visit at least one of the town’s five pubs, the Barcaldine and District Historical Museum and the Australian Worker’s Heritage Centre.