August 12, 2010

Outback Australia: Bollo River Station

Franz keeps the helicopter on the lawn in front of the lodge. It’s a tiny, sleek black machine, about as small as a helicopter could be. It has room for four passengers counting the pilot, two in back and two in front. In the front seat to the left of the pilot where I sat, the front was a bubble of glass and the left side was open so there was nothing between me and the ground, not a door, not a piece of glass or plexiglass.

The pilot is so familiar with the proper manipulation of the levers and pedals that he can practically think the machine to wherever he wants it. It gives total navigational freedom in three dimensions. It looks like a prehistoric dragonfly and it moves with the precision of a hummingbird that can hover virtually motionless, or zip off in any direction.

Franz Ranacher uses the helicopter to survey Bollo River Station, the cattle ranch he runs with his wife Marlee. At a half a million acres, it is almost unimaginably vast, the home of 8,000 brahman-cross cattle. The helicopter gives him the power to visually survey the entire property. He also offers helicopter rides to the guests. It’s not cheap, $1,000 an hour, more than $300 per passenger. But the meter is only running when the bird is in flight, and a lot of ground can be covered in a very short time. He took my group to a swimming hole and let us hang out there to enjoy the mind-boggling surroundings for a while, then came back and picked us up later.

Flying in the helicopter was a heady, exhilarating experience. I sat in the leather bucket seat, wrapped the seatbelt around my waist and put on the headphones. The pilot moved the levers and the craft gently lifted off the ground and swung into the sky. The earth below receded, the horizon dropped and the vista enlarged in a nearly instantaneous movement. Suddenly the lodge below was a doll house, a matchbox, and then it was gone as we sailed high over the rocky hills, the broad expanses of bushy earth, the brown rivers and swamps. We flew over a riverbed where dozens of crocodiles lounged in the mud. As we lowered down over them they started, then scurried into the water. With the mighty, formidable crocs at our feet, we were like gods surveying our dominion.

The swimming hole was a special spot in a river where waterfalls splash and cascade down a rocky passageway, and the clear, cool water gathers in a nice still area perfect for swimming. You can take a dip and then lie on the little beach formed by a flat area on the side. Giant rocky cliffs surround the area like the barriers of a great walled city. It was a place that was so sublime just being there taking it in was euphoric. The outback sky is bright blue, free of industrial smog, so remote from any such thing.

It was while riding in the helicopter mustering cattle in 2001, that Franz discovered a secluded mountain wall covered with ancient rock art. If it hadn’t been for the helicopter, it’s very unlikely anyone would have discovered it for another generation, maybe forever. It raises the question: how much else is out there undiscovered? And that is the story of the world and the adventure of discovery that is as open today as it ever was.

Franz and Evan Houston took us in a caravan across miles of dirt roads to see the rock art that Franz discovered. Houston is the head stockman at the ranch, a leather-skinned vintage Australian cowboy whose face tells stories of a historic outback world that is passing. When the rock art was discovered Houston became fascinated by it and delved into studying it, both by reading and also by examining the images analytically in detail. Houston was our guide showing us the rock art, telling us what is known and what may be surmised about it.

There were layers upon layers of images superimposed upon one another for literally thousands of years on the sheltered rock wall. Some of the images are iconic aboriginal images, such as mimi spirits, the long rainbow serpent, or the lightning man with bolts radiating out of his head like a halo. He is in charge of the rainy season, and is portrayed with eyes and nose but no mouth because that might invite floods. Some of the art portrayed wildlife that has long since vanished from the area, such as the Tasmanian tiger, the giant wombat or the giant kangaroo, indicating that the image was thousands of years old. An ancient image of a sea turtle was very intriguing. An ancient wasp nest on top of the painted surface was carbon dated to be 6,000 years old.

The ranch was established by the parents of Marlee Ranacher, who now owns the property with her husband from Austria, Franz. Marlee’s father, Charlie Henderson, was an American from Maryland who had a shipping business in Manila, Philippines. When the business went bust, he found himself in Australia and decided to give cattle ranching a try.

His wife Sara Henderson became a well-known author of a series of books she wrote about the ranch and the adventure of being cattle ranchers in the outback and the struggle of trying to keep the ranch going after her husband died in 1985. The books were called From Strength to Strength, The Strength in Us All, The Strength of Our Dreams, Some of My Friends Have Tails and A Year at Bullo.

In 2000 Sara Henderson put the property up for sale without running it by Marlee, her eldest daughter, who had grown up on the ranch, knew no other life and wanted to keep running it. She sued to stop her mother from selling it and eventually they settled out of court with Marlee and Franz getting financing to buy the farm from Henderson. Marlee then followed in her mom’s footsteps and wrote a book of her own, called The Next Generation, which takes up where the mother’s books leave off.

Today the Ranachers offer an outback accommodation with a lodge and 12 modest rooms. It’s a chance to experience a real Top End cattle ranch. It’s not five star in creature comforts, we were warned, but it’s a five star experience, and I would agree with them on that. For information on Bullo River Station, see

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