Starry, starry nights
Astro-tourism is all the rage in Western Australia’s Murchison River region
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