Monday, February 28, 2011

Chowilla and Port Elliot

After a great last day in the quaint mining town of Broken Hill, our group boarded the bus once again to make our way to the Chowilla sheep station near the town of Renmark. Chowilla station has been in the Robertson family since 1864, before there were any other European settlements in the area. Our hosts at the station, Jock and Lis Robertson, now manage Chowilla both as a working sheep station and as a tourist destination. The station is massive, covering 94,000 hectares (232,200 acres), and is bordered on one side by the Murray River which, much like the Darling, is in flood stage for the first time in over ten years.

After our trusty (and sometimes a bit grumpy) bus driver, Tex, navigated the coach down the unpaved and still partially flooded roads of the station, we were met by Jock, who guided us over the last stretch of road to our accommodations: the sheep shearers’ quarters that now serve as a guest house in between shearing seasons. The accommodations were sparse, consisting of bunk beds, communal showers with wood-heated water, and two toilets for the group to share. We stepped off of the bus to find Jock at the grill and Lis busy in the kitchen preparing that night's dinner. Lis had prepared a feast of homemade salads and potatoes accompanied by Jock's grilled lamb, beef and chicken, followed by a lemon pudding/cake with homemade preserves for dessert. I think we all agree that the food was one of the highlights of our stay at Chowilla.

The next day Jock took us out for a bus tour of the property with stops at various points of interest. It was hard to grasp the vastness of the station until we drove around all day and never left the property. One thing we all noticed was that even though we were on a station that was home to thousands of sheep, we only saw 2 or 3, and they were off in the distance. (We also saw a flock of emus running alongside the road, a sight we never get tired of!) The reason for the lack of sheep sightings is that because the land and vegetation are so fragile, each sheep needs a large area to survive without destroying the resources, which is why grazing has been such a controversial part of Australia's history. Today the station is part of the Bookmark Regional Reserve, whose aim is to combine production with conservation through responsible and sustainable grazing.

After another great meal and a good night's sleep we were off to Port Elliot on the coast of South Australia near Adelaide. After a week in the outback sleeping in shearers' quarters, using outdoor communal toilets, and living with ants, spiders and mozzies, Port Elliot was like paradise. Nat had booked us at a YHA Hostel, but it was like no hostel we'd seen. The structure was a recently renovated, historic hotel perched above the ocean with amazing views and clean, modern facilities. As soon as we arrived most of us quickly changed into our togs (swim trunks) and headed down to the beach for a swim and a game of frisbee in the surf. It was exactly what we all needed and everyone's mood was immediately lifted.

The educational reason for our stop in Port Elliot was a boat tour of the Coorong, where the Murray river flows into the Southern Ocean. Along the way we saw scores of pelicans and other native bird species, and even a lone seal that was hanging around a fishing net looking for an easy meal. We had a terrific tour guide for the day: Matt, who gave us some history of the area and with the help of some visual aids, showed us how the area changes during times of drought and flood (a common theme during our time in Australia), and just how much work goes into managing the waterways. After a lunch that started with freshly caught cockels cooked on the beach (I ate two . . . a first for me!), Matt took us on a walk across the sand dunes to a very special Aboriginal site that few people have access to because of its sacredness to the local indigenous people. It was a beautiful site with several middens, occupation sites where Aboriginal people left the remains of their meals. At some sites substantial deposits grew over generations of use of the same area, and some middens are a few metres deep. One of the middens here was especially sacred because it contained human remains, which were visible to us, but are often covered with sand depending on the conditions of the dunes. The area is closely monitored by the local Aboriginal people who work closely with the company that set up our tour. I think we all felt honored to be able to visit this site after all we've learned about Aboriginal culture in the last few weeks.

The following morning it was off to Adelaide for a flight to Brisbane, where we are now. The students have all settled in with the homestay families that they'll be living with for the next three weeks, and Andy and I have moved into our private apartment in the New Farm suburb of Brisbane. This is the first time since arriving in Australia that we are not living with the students 24/7. I think we both agree it's nice to have some privacy, but I did feel a little emotional seeing them all depart with their families, as we've grown pretty attached to them.

That's all for now; more on Brisbane and our trip this weekend to North Stradbroke Island in a future post!


Our sheep shearers' quarters at Chowilla 

The bus got stuck several times . . . that's what students are for!

An Aboriginal site at Chowilla

Finding some shade for lunch

Some of the students at the beach
in Port Elliot

Relaxing after a week in the desert

Port Elliot

Our kids on the Coorong boat tour

Cockel feast!

I can't believe I ate two of these . . . and they
were delicious!


Melanie, Delaney, Dick, Marnie, 
and Philip crossing the dunes

A little fuzzy, but a great shot none the less!

Andy on the dunes

Going down the dunes is so much more fun than
going up!

Our hotel in Port Elliot

Finding a quiet moment

Another beautiful Australian sunset

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