I'm face to face

Qantas - - TRAVEL INSIDER. -

with a 12-month-old Brah­man heifer. Sure, there’s a win­dow­pane be­tween us but she’s no more than a me­tre from the pas­sen­ger seat of our 4WD, her eyes fixed on me with that va­cant, bovine gaze. She’s not the only one; about 100 of her kind are star­ing, too.

Here in the out­back sa­vanna, in cat­tle coun­try 250 kilo­me­tres south-west of Cairns, our LandCruiser is sur­rounded by cows. Trac­ing a path through their pad­dock, our con­voy – three 4WDs car­ry­ing 14 peo­ple – has been ne­go­ti­at­ing stones, hum­mocks, eu­ca­lypts and am­bling beasts for 10 min­utes. Cal­lum O’Brien, our guide and driver, edges the ve­hi­cle for­ward a lit­tle, kick­ing up a swirl of beige dust. The heifers blink am­biva­lently then grad­u­ally part and we’re on the move again.

Five min­utes later, we pull up at a patch of bleached grass on the op­po­site side of the field. As we pile out of the 4WDs, laugh­ter rip­ples through the group; it’s a mix of awe and dis­be­lief. Be­hind us are hectares of grass dot­ted with live­stock and gum trees in a palette of parch­ment, cin­na­mon and sage-green, while in front is a minia­ture rain­for­est with an emer­ald canopy of um­brella palms and fig trees. At its cen­tre, a clear spring gushes from an un­seen source into a shal­low three-tiered wa­ter­fall be­tween banks stacked with lush ferns. Cat­tle. Out­back. Rain­for­est. Wa­ter­falls.

The com­bi­na­tion seems in­con­gru­ous and re­mark­able.

Am­bling down to the water’s edge, we start strip­ping down to our swim­mers. “Walk like a bear!” says Cal­lum.

He’s grin­ning but this is hon­est ad­vice. He demon­strates a hunched-over pose that ap­par­ently works well when you’re nav­i­gat­ing mossy rocks and an­kle-deep rush­ing water. Some of us gig­gle as we clam­ber into the spring with un­gainly im­bal­ance; the more nim­ble skip down the tiers to a deep pool. On the banks, a ca­sual lunch is laid out; pic­nic chairs ap­pear; a red-and-white blan­ket is spread across the grass; some­one hands me a beer.

The pic­nic at the spring is just one of the ex­cur­sions on Kin­rara Ex­pe­di­tions’ (kin­rara­ex­pe­di­tions.com.au) new five-day up­scale bush-camp­ing ex­pe­ri­ence that in­cludes ad­ven­tures such as hik­ing, kayak­ing, four-wheel driv­ing and watch­ing cat­tle-mus­ter­ing. Op­er­at­ing from April to Sep­tem­ber, the trip takes in a na­ture re­serve, a na­tional park and a 23,000-hectare cat­tle sta­tion – all named Kin­rara. It puts you in the heart of the out­back among quintessen­tially Aus­tralian scenery, along with serene and ver­dant oases such as the spring. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of these land­scapes is unique, un­ex­pected and very beau­ti­ful – I’m strug­gling to think of an­other ex­pe­ri­ence or place like it. And while the

faded bushscapes, peace­ful wa­ter­ing holes and fer­tile pock­ets of rain­for­est have ex­isted for mil­len­nia, they’ve never be­fore been ac­ces­si­ble in this way. The ex­pe­di­tion – cre­ated by Cal­lum with his brother and sis­ter-in-law, Shane and Robyn O’Brien, who own the cat­tle sta­tion – gives you an en­trée to it all.

The camp site is set amid sparse gums by an ex­pan­sive lake (an­other re­mark­able fea­ture, as per­ma­nent water in this part of the world is al­most un­heard of). The cen­tral open-air pav­il­ion fea­tures a long din­ing ta­ble, a bookshelf stacked with read­ing ma­te­rial and swing­ing ham­mocks. Our spa­cious tents have pri­vate decks, which are per­fect for stargaz­ing. This is not glamp­ing – it’s more authen­tic than that (and the bath­rooms are shared) – but with de­tails such as crisp white linen, it’s not re­ally camp­ing ei­ther. Es­pe­cially so given that six of the 14 peo­ple are here to look af­ter us, from serv­ing sun­down­ers to pre­par­ing sat­is­fy­ing meals like roast beef or baked bar­ra­mundi with plat­ters of veg­eta­bles and salad.

That said, the camp plays sec­ond fid­dle to the evoca­tive scenery and range of ex­cur­sions. One morn­ing, I kayak on the lake’s glit­ter­ing sur­face, drift­ing among reeds and lily pads, sur­rounded by hun­dreds of wa­ter­fowl. An­other morn­ing, I watch Shane and his three sons muster a herd through the sepia-hued bush. And one af­ter­noon, we tag team in he­li­copters over the vol­cano – ex­hil­a­rat­ing!

Oh, yes, did I men­tion there’s a vol­cano in Kin­rara Na­tional Park? From the air, the dra­matic 400-me­tre-di­am­e­ter crater ap­pears thick with rain­for­est. Now so­lid­i­fied, the lava that em­anated is black,

ragged and strewn with veg­e­ta­tion but you can clearly make out the cor­ru­gated waves on the earth’s sur­face – an­other gob­s­mack­ing item on the list of things to ex­plore. “Caviar coun­try,” fel­low guest Len calls it, in­di­cat­ing the fe­cun­dity and sheer rar­ity of this place – the con­trast of rain­for­est, lava out­crops and “tra­di­tional” bush.

Over­all, there’s very lit­tle struc­ture to our sched­ule. “Be­cause we’re in the bush, noth­ing is set in stone. We wake and see what the weather brings,” says Cal­lum. “And I want guests to feel unique and spe­cial, not ho­mo­ge­neous. So I call ev­ery­one be­fore they come, to find out what in­ter­ests them.” Trips are there­fore lim­ited to 12 peo­ple. Our group hap­pens to have a sci­en­tific lean­ing – botanists, ecol­o­gists, bird ex­perts, a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist – and our ages range from the 30s to 60s but the ap­peal here is broad. Gre­gar­i­ous Cal­lum has hosted groups with a fo­cus on art, CEOs on ex­ec­u­tive re­treats and three gen­er­a­tions of a fam­ily with a va­ri­ety of in­ter­ests.

Cal­lum’s over­ar­ch­ing goal is for guests of Kin­rara Ex­pe­di­tions to un­plug from their hec­tic day-to-day lives and re­con­nect with the land. He means this both fig­u­ra­tively and lit­er­ally. On our first night, I’m swing­ing in a ham­mock, catch­ing the last stretches of a burn­ing sun­set over the lake, when he wan­ders over, bare­foot and grin­ning, and hands me a glass of chilled white wine. Look­ing around, I no­tice that sev­eral oth­ers – guests and staff – are bare­foot, too. It’s a sim­ple, sen­sory way to “get your feet con­nected to the earth, get a sense of be­ing grounded”, he says. I kick off my shoes, ex­pos­ing my pale, mol­ly­cod­dled soles, but I’m only game to go bare­foot on the din­ing pav­il­ion’s con­crete floor. Wor­ried about creepy-crawlies, I se­cretly slip into my shoes be­fore head­ing back to my tent.

Af­ter a few days, though, I’m in the shoe­less groove. To­day, on our fi­nal morn­ing, I for­get my shoes en­tirely. I don’t even no­tice un­til I’m at the break­fast ta­ble. And I’ve lost track of the days. Is it Mon­day, Fri­day or Thurs­day? Does it even mat­ter? It’s a bliss­ful feel­ing and a sure sign that I’ve left the ev­ery­day be­hind.

The only de­ci­sion I need to make be­fore our trans­fer back to Cairns is whether to pad­dle on the lake, sip cof­fee while spot­ting wildlife or jump into a 4WD for more sight­see­ing in this ex­tra­or­di­nary and di­verse land­scape. I opt for the lat­ter, won­der­ing what Cal­lum has in mind. Maybe we’ll visit an­other wa­ter­fall, ex­plore more cat­tle coun­try or do some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent? He set­tles into the driver’s seat then turns around and looks at us, a big grin etched on his face, “Ready for an­other ad­ven­ture?”

(Clock­wise from op­po­site) Kin­rara Ex­pe­di­tions’ en­camp­ment; guests can take he­li­copter joy flights over Kin­rara Vol­cano; a rus­tic bed­side ta­ble in a guest tent; stok­ing the fire for hot-water tanks at camp

Guest ac­com­mo­da­tion at Kin­rara Ex­pe­di­tions’ camp is more authen­tic than glamp­ing but doesn’t skimp on crea­ture com­forts

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