Deep in the outback, far up a long and dusty track, is a place so organically Australian that it will make you feel truly connected to the country. Humble yet magnificent, and with a rich history going back many thousands of years, Wooleen Station is a true gem in Australia’s Golden Outback. It is a cattle station with only a handful of cattle, but buckets of character.
Covering a quarter of a million acres, Wooleen Station is setting a new trend in conservation and eco-tourism. Owners David and Frances Pollock are passionate about restoring the land to its full natural glory, even if that means some tough decision and big sacrifices along the way.
Today, only 120 or so cattle roam the land, and no sheep, down from 450 cattle and 30,000 sheep at their peak (though not at the same time). Over a century of grazing had left the ground nearly bare of grass and saplings in places, and vulnerable to erosion. Continuing to farm intensively was not a sustainable long-term option. By diversifying into eco-tourism the rangelands at Wooleen have been allowed time to breathe and recover. In doing so, David and Frances have created a wonderland of native flora and fauna, and a true outback experience.
There are many different styles of holiday on offer, from luxury guesthouses, or rooms within the homestead itself, to rugged bush camping. You can drive around the station visiting many places of interest, enjoy a hike, or cycle along one of the many trails. You can even join a guided sunset tour and watch the sun go down with a glass of wine.
For us though, the best way to experience the bush is by sleeping out under the stars – well in a tent but that’s pretty close.
Camping in solitude
The Rocky Outcrop campsite is a lone site situated at the end of a long red dirt track. As the name suggests, it is encircled on three sides by red rocky outcrop, creating a cosy nook in which to camp. It is a large site, sometimes used for groups, but we had the place to ourselves – except for the wildlife that is.
We pitched our trailer tent among some tall trees, beside the fire pit. This is my idea of true outback camping: being alone in nature, far from crowds and convenience. We did, however, have quite a charming little toilet. It was build from old wood and clad in corrugated steel. Inside was quite comfortable with a mirror and hand sanitiser provided. An old shovel handle provided the toilet roll holder – in keeping with the outback tradition of recycling everything that can be. The best thing about this bush dunny was the view. Facing away from camp there was no need to shut the door. Instead, you can sit there and watch the clouds drift by and the birds frolic as you – uhum – take your morning motions. Moving on…
We enjoy being away from people and isolated in nature. For one thing we knew that we wouldn’t be disturbing anyone else if Maddie had a disturbed night. Jed and I find the remoteness comforting. For whatever reason, this stunning campsite felt like home from the moment we arrived.
A hundred million stars
You’ll never see more stars in the sky than you will in the remote outback. So far from civilisation there is no light pollution. The stars at our campsite were particularly brilliant. Being on our own and 7km from the homestead, we didn’t even have neighbouring campers to spoil our night eyes.
The stars were so bright and so numerous it looked almost fake. Each night before bed, Jed and I would turn off our headlamps and lay on a blanket, just watching the night sky. We saw many shooting stars as the dense cluster of the Milky Way arched above us.
Sitting around the campfire in such a perfect and sheltered clearing we couldn’t help but wonder about the people who may have camped here before. I do not know much about the aboriginal history of this area, but it is easy to imagine this being a popular meeting place in times past. Wooleen has a good relationship with the Wajarri Yamatji people, the original inhabitants of the land. Being out here made me want to learn more about the people and their relationship with the land.
The Murchison River is ephemeral, meaning it does not flow continuously. Throughout the year it has periods when the riverbed is dry, and other times when it flows several metres deep. There can be no rain in the Murchison Region for months, followed by heavy downpours that bring the river-system back to life.
36km of the Murchison River run through Wooleen Station. There is a campsite close to the banks of the river but we did not visit so as not to disturb those people camping there. A turnoff from the campsite road takes you close to the banks where you can park up and walk the rest of the way.
Jed and I did not know what to expect when we visited the river – would it be running or completely dry? We had discussed if it was possible to kayak from here down the river to Kalbarri. This is the same river that flows though and cut the gorges in Kalbarri National Park that we had been exploring only a few days earlier.
We were able to walk easily through the bush for around 100m before the vegetation thins out to reveal the hummocky undulations of a dry riverbed. The sandy clearing sloped gently away from us, over the dry bed to a 5m high cliff on the other side. Ridges and gullies in the landscape mark out individual channels, showing how the water has changed its path many times. The most well defined channel, and one that looked like it had seen recent flow was at the far side. The cliff showed signs of recent and continual erosion. Just to the north was could see water, still like a pond.
We wanted to walk down stream to see Gradagullya Pool, a deep pool that we were told may be suitable for a swim. This turned out to be a great spot for Maddie to run around. She had fun climbing up and down the undulating ground and we took our time traversing the 300m down to the pool. Enormous trees grew, forming small islands between channels. Some trees grew from the sides of the cliff, their root systems clinging on like a giant leafy octopus. It is a wonder that they don’t collapse into the river. Perhaps they will after one of the next heavy rains.
We were quite hot by the time reached Gradagullya Pool so were relieved to dip our feet in the cool water. We decided not to take a swim as it looked like it hadn’t flushed in some time, but sat in the shallows admiring the view. It is funny to think that the water could reach several metres deep and flow very fast right in the spot we were sitting.
It would be great to visit again soon after the rains to see the mighty Murchison River in full flow. I am not sure if it is possible to travel all the way downstream to Kalbarri by kayak or stand up paddleboard. I suspect that the water flows too vigorously when the water level is high. If you started your journey when the river was flowing but calm it would probably be dry again before you reached the Indian Ocean.
Envirolls Halt Erosion
Having witnessed the increasing erosion over the years, Wooleen Station has devised a way to protect their land from excessive erosion. They invented Envirolls, mesh tubes designed to capture debris, interrupt the flow and slow down the river. You can read more about these Envirolls in a dedicated Conservation at Wooleen Station in next weeks blog post.
As with the Murchison River, Wooleen Lake is also ephemeral. The lake land system spans over 5,500 acres but fills only once in every nine years or so. Still, even dry the area is an important wetland habitat. The lakebed today is dense with foot high grasses but this was not always the case. Years of over-grazing left the vegetation sparse and the topsoils vulnerable to erosion. In the interest of preserving the fragile environment, and allowing it to regenerate, Frances and David made the tough decision to cut their cattle numbers dramatically. However, transformation of the wetlands is proof that the sacrifice was worthwhile. The pictures below show the lake in 2004, 2009 and again at the time of our visit.
Nestled underneath a large gum tree on the shore of Wooleen Lake is a large green picnic table. Standing proud from the lake were a number of tall pylons, made from tree branches and a large heart made of barb wire hung from the gum tree. We suspected that this place was special to Wooleen.
We stopped at the picnic table for a bite to eat. Amongst the tall grey grass we spotted tiny orchids and other wildflowers. I am forever amazed at just how abundant the wildflowers are in Western Australia.
Yewlands Pool is the epicentre of bird activity on Wooleen Station, a true oasis in the desert. Surrounded by tall trees, the permanent little pool was bustling with movement. The beauty and wonder is accentuated further by the carpet of wildflowers. It wasn’t really a suitable place for Maddie to get out and play but she was happy enough in the car munching away on sultanas. I hopped out and lost more time photographing the birds and flowers. I am forever losing track of time when in nature.
We returned to Yewlands Pool many times during our stay. It was our drive of choice when Maddie fell asleep in the car. I’m sure we could have spent entire days there and not run out of things to see.
Wildlife and Wildflowers
One thing that I was reminded of again and again is just how much life there is in the outback. Far from being just barren red dirt, it is bustling with creatures perfectly adapted to the environment. Even if you don’t see them, fresh tracks let you know of goannas and other reptiles. We saw just one kangaroo during our visit – a big red that hopped off into the distance as soon as it heard our car. A pack of dingos were thought to have made home not too far from our campsite. Frances told us she had spotted a few during a walk a few days before our arrival. We listened for them and kept an eye out but didn’t see anything ourselves. The wild dogs are smart and very timid of humans. They have good reason to be in these lands. Dingos are considered a Wild Dog, a pest to livestock and are routinely culled. Wooleen Station is rare in not culling the dingos, and allowing the population to recover. Learn why, in the Conservation blog here.
The fauna that really blew me away though were the birds; they were everywhere and in such numbers you would not believe it if you didn’t see it with your own eyes. Their songs provided a constant soundtrack to our stay. We saw just about every species of bird that it is possible to see in the region. We didn’t need to look hard either. Many times we would be driving along and see a small blue ball dart in front of our windscreen. Jed would pull to a stop and I’d wind down my window and search through my camera viewfinder. Without too much trouble I would spot my target and snap away until I thought I had a clear image. We saw splendid fairy wrens, zebra finches, kingfishers, wedge-tailed eagles, and big emus, to name a few. It seemed we saw emus at every turn; sometimes on their own but often as a pair. They were obliging models, moving slowly, unfazed by our presence.
Friendly Zebra Finches
Our campsite was circled by zebra finch nests, with the little birds swooping over and around our tent, chirping away. I spotted a small nest in the eaves of our toilet block and determined to get a good photo close up, I arranged myself a little bird-watching hideout. I pitched our small dome tent a few metres from the toilet, and climbed in with my camera and a cold can of Coke. I zipped up the fly net leaving a hole just big enough to poke through my zoom lens.
It was a warm afternoon and within a few minutes I regretted not waiting until the evening. The first few finches appeared within about 20 minutes, dancing about the branches of nearby bushes. I wanted to wait for them to be closer still. I made the mistake of not pegging down the tent and the corners lifted with each gust of wind leaving me cocooned in nylon and fumbling to straighten it out again. My solution was to stick a foot in each corner, holding them down. For the next half an hour I lay in a face-down starfish position, leaning on my elbows with my camera poised for the perfect shot. It was not comfortable, I can assure you, but I was treated to a wonderful show of nature. The finches danced and hopped, bringing small twigs and long blades of grass to add to their nests.
When I thought I had enough good shots, overheated and excited I returned to Jed and Maddie to show them what I got. Before I left though, I had an idea for an easier and all together more comfortable way to get some close up shots. I perched my phone on the beam of the toilet block and set it to record. That’s when I spotted a little yellow and black tail poking from behind the beam – small lizard of some kind. We saw this little fella many times over the next few days. I left my phone recording and returned to camp. After an hour of filming I collected my phone and was treated to around 20 seconds of zebra finch footage all up. Still, I was quite pleased with my little National Geographic Photographer expedition.
Freedom To Explore
I think the greatest thing about staying at Wooleen Station is that you are free to explore. Often at national parks all visitors are cajoled into the same spaces; we must stay on track and follow designated paths. I understand the need to protect our parks from thousands of exploring feet, but the freedom to explore Wooleen is refreshing. Anyone willing to drive four hours up an unsealed road is probably doing so to get an authentic experience. I can imagine that anyone with a disrespect for nature wouldn’t venture this far and so it is free from large rowdy crowds and broken bottles around the campfires that you so often find in the more popular spots.
Wooleen Station is a place to really get to know the outback and feel welcomed into the rangelands community. The efforts by Frances and David, and everyone at Wooleen, are so encouraging and inspiring that I could not do them justice as a short snippet here. A post about conservation and land rehabilitation at Wooleen Station will be available soon…
Read More: Kalbarri: The Coast
Read More: Kalbarri: The Gorges