Ad­ven­ture

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.

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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

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