Quad bikes aren’t just about kicking up dust. Max Anderson unleashes his inner revhead and discovers some extraordinary scenery along the way. Photography by Kyle Ford.
The outback as seen from the seat of a quad bike
“THIS IS not a ‘grandma ride’. We’ll be punching through some wild terrain and there’ll be a few places where you’ll need to negotiate some obstacles. Because, ultimately, we want to show you what Territory is all about.”
Robert “Frosty” Frost uses the word Territory a lot. Naturally, he means his home in the Northern Territory – Undoolya Station near Alice Springs, where he and wife Kath have run Outback Quad Adventures for the past 16 years. But he also uses “Territory” to invoke other things – those subliminal things that help fix this part of Australia in the national psyche.
Territory certainly implies a sense of scale and space. Undoolya Station, along with the jointly owned property, Garden Station, amounts to 350,000 hectares – or 3500 square kilometres. “When I’ve got Europeans on the tour, they struggle to get their heads around it,” says Frosty. “The whole station is home to a dozen people, yet it’s the same size as a small European country.”
In fact, Undoolya is so big that it accommodates a substantial section of the East MacDonnell Ranges, a 100-kilometre-long flank of peaks, ridge lines and ancient upthrusts that spread east of Alice Springs like a giant red wing. Because this section is on station land, it’s a side of the “Eastern Macs” most people never get to see.
Before we start, Kath serves a breakfast of bacon, sausage and eggs on the verandah of the couple’s station bungalow. The early sun throws soft light over trim lawns, date palms and whitewashed walls. “Eat up, boys,” says Frosty. “You’ll need it. This tour takes five hours and covers about 120 kilometres.”
I stop chewing for a second to think about that: 120 kilometres? On a quad bike?
Frosty introduces us to our vehicles and makes no bones about safety: keep your distance, beware bad visibility from dust and absolutely no overtaking.
A Polaris Hawkeye 400 HD is 380 kilograms of bulging tyres and brute strength. It has independent rear suspension and will traverse soft valley bottoms and hard mountain slopes with equal relish. The design is a long way from the flawed, three-wheeled liabilities of the 1980s but it’s still a vehicle that needs care – and Frosty doesn’t want to be picking up the pieces because someone has turned their Polaris upside down.
No question, Territory implies toughness: it’s tough on tenderfoots and merciless on idiots. Once, when a larrikin city slicker insisted on acting the goat, Frosty took the key out of his quad and growled: “Start walkin’.”
We prove ourselves trustworthy after steering our machines smoothly and sensibly through a series of orange cones so Frosty buckles himself into his special lead vehicle and instructs us to follow him out of the station yard.
All I have to do is lower my helmet visor and push the throttle with my thumb...
Within moments, I discover that there’s another aspect to Territory. It’s one that I can feel in my stomach: an exhilarating sense of freedom. If the outback has a flag, it’s a tricolour, banded with orange dirt, olive scrub and blue, blue sky. As I’m “punching through” on rugged cattle tracks with warm air on my face and a roaring soundtrack in my ears, it feels like anything is possible. And plenty before me have felt the same.
Territory is about resourcefulness and hard yakka, extracting wealth from a punishing environment. So a significant part of the tour is helping people to understand exactly what’s behind those beaut prime cuts of beef neatly presented on small Styrofoam trays.
Parked beside a stockyard of steel rails, we learn we’re on the oldest working cattle station in the Northern Territory. It was established in 1872, the same year the monumental Overland Telegraph Line between Adelaide and Darwin was completed. “Today, it’s run by the Hayes family, who’ve owned the station since 1907,” says Frosty. “The sixth generation of Hayes are now working on the property.”
At a series of far-flung waterholes and wells, we come to see that big-country grazing is about giving cattle enough space to eke out a feed from a low-nutrition ecosystem. Undoolya can support three to four head of cattle per square kilometre. We occasionally see a few of them in the distance but they’re spooked and running.
“Some of these cattle have never seen humans,” says Frosty. “That’s why we keep our distance, especially when we see some of the big ‘micky’ bulls – the scrub bulls that have been born in the wild. When you’ve got a 1200-kilogram animal staring you down, you show it some respect.”
With so much country under their feet, the herds cover huge distances and present a yearly challenge when it comes to gathering them all up. The muster takes five months using R22 helicopters and quad bikes equipped with special steel guards.
Before long, we’re close to the ranges. They loom before us like great living things, warming themselves in the sun. They shift their shape and their colour, marching to horizons that steadily bleach as the sun rises. They’re ancient seabeds and buckled plates, lifted and eroded over 400 million years. And yet, surely, they’re something more besides.
“Undoolya means ‘shadow’ or ‘shade’ in the Arrernte language,” says Frosty, pronouncing the word Aranda. “And, yes, there are some sacred sites in the ranges. The Hayes family respect that; they work with the Indigenous people here and keep the cattle out.”
The Territory is, of course, culture – in truth, two cultures that perceive the world in entirely different ways.
As it happens, we have a shy Indigenous bloke called Jordan Robinson in our group. He’s turned 20 today and his mum is treating him to the quadbike tour. He’s loving the machine, loving being out in country and he’s also red-hot at spotting wildlife in the scrub: even when we’re going full tilt, he sees everything from red kangaroos hiding in the mulga to bearded dragons sunning themselves on rocks.
A billy is boiled in the shade of huge gum trees, the air potent with wood smoke. “Hey, Jordan,” says Frosty, pointing to a purple-flowered bush tomato. “Do you know the Arrernte name for this?”
“No, it’s not really my country,” explains Jordan. “I’m not Arrernte; I’m originally a Pitjantjatjara boy from Docker River.” They start talking about the language groups in the desert regions around Alice and Jordan names some of them: Arrernte, Warlpiri, Yankunytjatjara, Pitjantjatjara, Luritja, Pintupi-Luritja. The names sound remarkable as he strings them together. It’s like poetry.
And no question, the landscape is an epic. The biggest surprise on this tour is just how radically and quickly the country changes. After leaving the ranges, we crest a steep track and find ourselves looking over a massive vista dotted with perfectly conical peaks – they’re weird and exotic, like a lost world.
We roar along soft, dry riverbeds, emerging into a secret valley formed by bulging granites and harbouring dark pools fringed with 300-year-old river red gums. At noon, the pools are alive with butterflies and dragonflies but at twilight, Frosty says, the emus, kangaroos, camels, goats and dingoes come to drink.
We follow bizarre quartz eruptions; housesized mounds of pure-white crystal that gleam like snow in the desert. In the 1880s, these “blows” caused some excitement among gold prospectors; they weren’t on the money here but they weren’t far off – the nearby gold country of Arltunga proved to be rich with the stuff.
When we sight the homestead again, the lawns and whitewashed walls have taken on a different complexion – they are signatures of civilisation and comfort. I’m coated with grime and feeling very ready for a cold beer but the tour has left me buzzing and I say as much to Frosty.
“Yeah, it gets to you,” he concedes. “I first started coming up here in 1983. Then I found I couldn’t leave. Even after leading these tours for 16 years, when I’m out in the desert, I’m never without a smile on my face.”
(From top) Manoeuvring a tight corner in a vast space; Undoolya is a working cattle station; three abreast on the straight
A dry riverbed is the perfect place to stop and boil the billy