Starry, starry nights

Astro-tourism is all the rage in West­ern Aus­tralia’s Murchi­son River re­gion

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KERRY FAULKNER

EVEN when the tem­per­a­ture drops be­low 40C and the walls of his­toric Wooleen Homestead be­gin to cool, own­ers Frances Jones and part­ner David Pol­lock pre­fer to sleep out­side, un­der a per­fectly quiet night sky made milky by mil­lions upon mil­lions of stars.

Wooleen Homestead is the only tourist ac­com­mo­da­tion in the rugged 50,000sq km of West­ern Aus­tralia’s Murchi­son River re­gion, where the prin­ci­pal claim to fame un­til May­last year was as the only shire in the na­tion with no town. But as the re­cently named home of half the world’s most pow­er­ful ra­dio tele­scope, the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray, astro-tourism looks set to be the Murchi­son’s big­gest at­trac­tion.

De­scribed by sci­en­tists as a ‘‘dis­cov­ery ma­chine’’, the so­phis­ti­cated ra­dio-tele­scope will al­low them to look deeper into space and an­swer lin­ger­ing ques­tions about the cre­ation of the uni­verse and life on other plan­ets.

Jones says that since last May’s an­nounce­ment that for­merly fierce ri­vals Aus­tralia and South Africa would share the $2 bil­lion project, she has re­ceived ex­cited calls from peo­ple across the world keen to take a closer look. ‘‘Our crys­tal-clear skies have al­ways been ideal for view­ing by op­ti­cal tele­scopes, but now with the SKA they have been recog­nised by the rest of the world as a valu­able as­set,’’ she says.

In South Africa’s North­ern Cape Province, en­tre­pre­neur­ial op­er­a­tors have been pro­mot­ing astro-tourism for years and the re­gional hub, Suther­land, has about 25 ac­com­mo­da­tion choices. One, the Kam­brokind Guest- House, features so­phis­ti­cated tele­scopes and caters for par­ties of up to 200 ‘‘star-gaz­ers’’ at a time.

In com­par­i­son, the Murchi­son’s astro-tourism in­dus­try is in its in­fancy. But Wooleen has added a tile of 16 unique ar­ray tele­scope an­ten­nae to its sta­tion at­trac­tions and now has an op­ti­cal tele­scope sup­plied by Curtin Univer­sity in Perth for guests to use. Jones’s aim is for Wooleen to cater to keen astro-tourists with ob­ser­va­tory tours and spe­cial ra­dio-quiet eco-vil­las, while the shire lob­bies for fund­ing to build an as­tron­omy in­ter­pre­tive

KERRY FAULKNER cen­tre at nearby Murchi­son Set­tle­ment. Listed by the Na­tional Trust, Wooleen Homestead has hosted au­then­tic Aus­tralian sta­tion-stays since 1993 when David Pol­lock’s par­ents, Brett and He­len, di­ver­si­fied into tourism. Pad­docks ablaze with spring wild­flow­ers, the un­usual wildlife and cat­tle herds were its big­gest at­trac­tions at first. The flora and fauna re­main strong draw­cards, but when David took over in 2007, he im­me­di­ately de­stocked the prop­erty in a brave bid to re­store pas­tures dec­i­mated by decades of over­graz­ing.

The prop­erty mor­phed into an eco-stay. Vis­i­tors were en­thralled by the young cou­ple’s brave land­care ex­per­i­ment, which ABCTV’s Aus­tralian Story re­vealed last year in its in­spir­ing two-part pro­gram Half a Mil­lion Acres.

Con­struc­tion on Aus­tralia’s low-fre­quency com­po­nent of the SKA starts in 2016, and it will be the big­gest of three ar­ray tele­scopes built across 12,000ha ex­cised from Boolardy Sta­tion for the Murchi­son Ra­dioas­tron­omy Ob­ser­va­tory. A quantum leap for re­searchers, the SKA will add thou­sands more dishes and an­ten­nae to those al­ready burst­ing un­ex­pect­edly out of the vast red plains of the Murchi­son.

Wooleen Homestead own­ers Frances Jones and David Pol­lock

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.