Can an inner-city mum and her device-obsessed teenager survive three days at Bullo River, a remote Northern Territory cattle station?
"Just flagging, I've never driven a 4WD off-road before," I cheerfully inform my host via speakerphone the day before I’m due to drive about nine hours from Darwin to Bullo River Station, a remote working cattle station and luxury accommodation located in the East Kimberley. The trip will be on a regular sealed highway, until we reach the property’s totally unpaved 75-kilometre driveway and, as we’re just coming out of the wet season, it’s likely to be boggy and treacherous. A 4WD vehicle isn’t just recommended, it’s mandatory. There’s a pause on the other end of the line. “Well,” says guest coordinator Kate Goodchild. "Those are words to strike fear into my heart."
Oh, fabulous. Naturally, her words strike fear into my heart. I’ve travelled from Sydney to Darwin with my 14-yearold son, Jack – who is now looking at me with that distinctly withering gaze endemic to teenagers – so there’s nothing else for it but to feel the fear and do it anyway.
I’m heading for this middle-of-nowhere 202,000-hectare property in the Northern Territory for two reasons: to push myself entirely out of my comfort zone and to spend one-on-one time with Jack – away from his phone and computer. Before we set off I was sceptical about how on earth I’d entertain him for three days without the lure of Minecraft. But even getting there proves to be an epic, entirely Minecraft-free quest in itself.
We split the drive into two, with an overnight stay at the genial Cicada Lodge in Katherine, and early on day two set off for Bullo River. The car is stocked to the roof with extra water and, for some reason, lots of beef jerky (it seemed appropriately rugged).
I’d expected the five-hour drive from Katherine to be monotonous; it’s anything but. The landscape is a kaleidoscope of colour, the roadside strewn with purple and yellow flowers. Great clattering road trains, stark and solitary, roar past on the opposite side of the road. A pair of brolgas, tall as preschoolers, dance in the scrub and we pass a huge, hunched wedge-tailed eagle feasting on roadkill. As we approach the Victoria River and Judbarra National Park, massive red rock escarpments slash the bright blue sky. It’s mesmerising. Jack is on his phone for most of the drive but he’s not scrolling Reddit – he’s snapping photos through the windscreen.
Then we reach the driveway. The adventure so far has been full of lively conversation, every decision a thrilling shared challenge. Should I pass this road train now or wait until after the next bend? Do you reckon we need more fuel at Timber Creek or is it better to press on?
The driveway is our Battle of Waterloo. We pick our way along gingerly at first, tyres squelching into soft earth or balancing precariously on the peaks of deep wheel ruts. Sometimes we’re forced to pause as heavy-lidded Brahman cattle or wild donkeys block the way. Jack follows our progress on a sparsely detailed Google map so we have some idea when we’re likely to run into a creek crossing that requires me to shift my non-existent 4WD skills into gear. “Ooh, this looks quite crocodile-y,” he says nervously as we skid across a flowing waterway that brings to mind the famous scene in Crocodile Dundee where Linda Kozlowski wades into a billabong to refill her water bottle, only to get chomped at by a croc.
Two-and-a-half full-on hours after first entering the property gates, we pull up outside a homestead fringed with lush lawn and flanked by African mahogany trees. We’re handed cool towels and cold drinks. We did it. And, looking around, it was worth every perilous minute.
Tables and sofas are casually arranged beneath a pair of huge squat boab trees; the eucalyptus-green swimming pool is bordered by sun lounges and native grasses; mountain ranges shimmer in the distance. Perhaps loveliest of all is the 12-suite guest quarters, designed by the woman who does country elegance better than anyone else: Sibella Court. Her trademark attention to detail is on show everywhere. The hallway is paved with teal, cream and ochre tiles – the colours of the station when seen from the air. Glass boxes display natural curios such as crocodile skulls and seedpods, an exhibition of fascinating found art. Shower curtains are made to resemble old-fashioned brown paper and even the toilet roll holders are plaited tan leather, à la stockmen’s whips. There’s wi-fi but Jack is too wowed to notice.
Dinner that night is juicy steak and veg. It’s rustic and place-appropriate – Bullo is home to 3500 Wagyu and Brahman cattle raised for beef – and we dine with our fellow guests, a family group, under the stars. “What do you guys feel like doing tomorrow?” Kate asks Jack and me. “Perhaps we could take you to see some Indigenous rock art and a swimming hole?” Jack shoots me a look and I know what he’s thinking: that sounds boring. “Of course, that sounds fascinating,” I reply sweetly, nudging him firmly under the table.
The next morning is a bit of a struggle. We have to be up at 7am and, like most teenagers, mine is not a fan of greeting the day before the clock hits double digits. Eggs Benedict (as per his request the night before) does the trick and we pile into a 4WD with our guide, Mick Clark. He barrels along the driveway as if it were a highway, keeping up a steady patter about the property and the landscape. After parking in the shade beneath a tree, we clamber up a scrubby hillside and Mick leads us into a crevice covered with Indigenous art – fish, dingoes, emus and human figures, some of which are thought to be about 12,000 years old. We’re transfixed.
At Marlee’s Bath, Mick assures us there are no crocs in the waterhole (freshwater, too small, no big fish to eat) and encourages Jack and me to jump into the jade-green cool. We splash around while he prepares a barbecue lunch of Thai fishcakes and prawns. Jack’s chatter about the creatures darting around the pool – funny little fish, dragonflies, St Andrew’s Cross spiders – reminds me of when he was a little boy, full of questions and wonderment about everything around him. At one point a water spider scurries across the surface and I, a card-carrying arachnophobe, let out a squeak. We both dissolve into laughter as a tiny archerfish gobbles up the spider.
SEE ALSO: Cool Off In The NT’s Wild Watering Holes
The rest of our stay continues much along these lines; small but wondrous moments that are almost entirely absent from our busy inner-city lives. We go barramundi fishing along the Bullo River – Jack hauls in a black bream and a toothy longtom while my only riverside talent is falling flat on my bum after slipping in some mud, to his great mirth. Mick takes us out again to learn about bush tucker and Jack is the only one fortunate enough to spot a crocodile’s head bobbing out of the water before silently disappearing again. Unfortunately we’re not there during muster time so watching the stockmen round up cattle isn’t on our list of activities. Instead, we take a sunset chopper flight to an isolated outcrop where we sit in deckchairs to eat cheese and drink wine and grape juice, gazing out over the vast Victoria River knowing there’s unlikely to be a single person as far as our eyes can see.
We’re enjoying another gorgeous feast on our final night (hearty lamb racks, this time) when a bright red comet streaks across the starry sky. Everyone points – “Did you see that?! Did you see that?!” – and it’s followed by a loud boom. “That would have been the moment it hit the atmosphere – I watched a YouTube video about it the other day,” Jack says breathlessly. I can’t help but chuckle. “How much better is it seeing the real thing?” I ask. And he laughs, too.
When to go
Bullo River Station is only open in the dry season, from late March or early April to September. But not all dry season months are created equal.
April-May: Coming out of the wet season, the country is green and lush and waterholes are full. It’s still hot but the humidity has dropped. The first muster of the year generally takes place in April.
June-July: This is the best time to spot crocodiles as they head to the riverbanks to warm up in the winter weather. Expect cool nights and warm days.
August-September: August offers ideal conditions, while in September there’s a slight increase in humidity and temperature. The final big muster takes place before the cattle are returned to the paddocks for the wet season, usually in September.