The cows stare as we hold out our arms and try to “shoo” them out of the open gate. Then Bruce, a hyperactive Jack Russell, nips at an unsuspecting heifer’s heels and she rears, turns and jumps in the opposite direction from the gate, escaping our wall of arms.
The remaining two-dozen cows are encouraged by this act of defiance and follow her. “Bruce!” yells the cattle station owner, Rowan. “Get out of the way you stupid dog!” Mat and I breathe a sigh of relief as Rowan and his motorbike take control of the situation and muster the cows back into a corner and out of the gate.
It’s 1 July, stock take day, and we’ve somehow found ourselves at Sunnyholt cattle station in Arcadia Valley helping Rowan take stock of his stock. We discovered the station while searching online for an overnighter on the way from Roma to Carnarvon Gorge in Queensland’s central highlands. It’s nestled between the Carnarvon Ranges and Expedition National Park, an area named by explorer Ludwig Leichhardt when he passed through in 1844 on his way to Port Essington.
The station was set up by Rowan’s father, Wally Peart, who drew the property in a ballot back in the 60s. Then a young bachelor, Wally cleared the block of thick Brigalow scrub to create a cattle station any Aussie would be proud of. Wally and his wife Helen are now edging into retirement, handing over the reins to their son. And Rowan, who did an eco-tourism course in Africa, took them up with gusto. Rowan and his wife Maddie not only run the cattle station, but also manage Arcadia Valley Escape – a collection of huts and cottages (some hand-crafted by Rowan and his friends) and a basic campground. And sustainability is at the heart of everything.
Driving into the property from Injune, about 80km south, we quickly find a shady spot in Campground 1 and call Rowan to let him know we’ve arrived. He tells us to stretch our legs and look around the property and he’ll stop by after lunch to give us a “mud map”. We wander a few metres further down the 4WD track and find a bird hide. The hide, a covered deck on stilts furnished with dusty camp chairs, is the perfect spot to take in views of the man-made wetland dam and the distant mountains that border the 17,000-acre property.
Continuing on, we stumble across an open area with upturned cartwheels and camp chairs, solar lamps, a giant fire-pit, and a dunny embellished with solar-powered fairy lights! The chairs face a big white screen, which we later find out becomes a “cinema under the stars” every Wednesday night.
Sauntering along for a kilometre or so, we pass an emu promenading gracefully by the water’s edge. A couple of slender grey ‘roos hop across our path. We also notice the roaring flames of Santos’ liquid natural gas sites, firing up like Bunsen burners in the distance. After a little while we reach the Fox Hole, a bird hide dugout on the lake’s edge. Two canoes tempt us, but time is getting on and we need to set up camp.
Back at the Old Girl, we’re just about to sit down for a cuppa when Mat says, “Hey boy, what are you doing here?” Confused, I turn around just as a knee-high Jack Russell appears from behind the Kombi’s front wheel. My dog phobia kicks in, but I needn’t worry because this little guy only has eyes for Mat. Does he belong to the caravan we noticed in the neighbouring campground? Maybe he’s a stray? We don’t have time to investigate before a Ute pulls up in the dust and a young bloke in a wide-brimmed Akubra and jeans climbs out, grinning broadly.
“Hi guys, I’m Rowan. See you’ve met Bruce here?” Rowan spends the next twenty minutes pointing out things to see on the mud map, sharing stories about the place, and telling us about the other accommodation. “A group of us built the Outpost on my 30th birthday,” he says proudly of the newest cabin. “Go up and visit when you get a chance – the views are incredible.” (We do visit the stone cabin on our final day, and he wasn’t exaggerating).
Rowan is just as proud when he tells us the story of Bruce chasing kangaroos for kilometres…and catching them. He tells us about birdwatchers coming from around the world to see the 200-plus species that have made their home in his 50 hectares of wetlands. “Lots of people say farming can’t be sustainable – we’re proving them wrong!” he laughs.
When he finds out we’re runners, Rowan pulls out another map from his folder. “I don’t normally give this out to people, but I reckon you guys are up to the challenge.” The “challenge” is a walk along Leichhardt’s Footsteps following the explorer’s trail across the rugged pass. The 12km loop features an Aboriginal rock art site and “piano rock” so called because according to Rowan, “one day the rock fell down and it really looks like a grand piano – you’ll see what I mean.” One look from Mat tells me we’re running this tomorrow.
“When you’re done, come by the paddocks and watch the stock take,” Rowan adds, before jumping back into his car and whistling to Bruce. The dog seems to have the same infectious energy as his master and he leaps up into the back of the Ute.
The next morning, we rise early to find Bruce sleeping outside our door. “Bruce is back!” Mat can’t hide is delight. “Maybe he wants to run with us?” I shudder at the thought of having a dog running 40km with us (we’d decided to run the 4WD road to and from the trail head). But Bruce is determined to win me over. He escorts me to and from the toilet, waiting patiently outside. And as we start our run towards the peaks in the distance, he trots a few feet in front of us, showing us the way.
“Maybe he’ll turn around when we reach the road,” Mat says. But he doesn’t. Instead, he happily leads us as we turn towards the rugged hills, occasionally stopping to check we’re still there. This continues for the next ten kilometres. I start enjoying his company – he’s good entertainment for the long straight road, occasionally sprinting off into the distance to chase kangaroos or birds. When we are stopped in our tracks by two bulls in the middle of the dirt road, I’m pleased he’s with us. The bulls obediently move to the side as Bruce guides us through.
When we reach Leichhardt’s Footsteps, I start worrying again that Bruce isn’t up for the long distance. We don’t have anything to feed him and it’s a warm day, the sun burning the ground and making the dust hot beneath out feet. But Bruce takes care of himself. He bathes in the first creek we see, laps at the water desperately, then looks up at us as if to say, “Well, come on then!”
Returning back to the campground after our steep, hot run, Mat and I are exhausted. The last three kilometres of road running sapped our energy. But Bruce, not satisfied with our slackening speed, again races off after some unsuspecting ‘roos. As he bounces in and out of the grass, we just look on in awe and disbelief.
After a cool drink and snack at the kombi, the three of us walk to the Paddock to see if the stock take is still going, and to return Bruce to his owners. We were a little worried he might be missed! We barely arrive at the gate when Bruce sprints off into the paddock and joins his mate, a border collie, in barking at the cattle and rounding them up. You wouldn’t think he’d just run a marathon!
Then, when we are invited to join in the fun, we can’t help but find untapped energy too. There’s just something about this place that makes you want to get stuck in.
Need to know
Campsite is $10 per person, per night.