What Happens on an Australian Cattle Station

Before visiting Mellenbye, I had no real practical clue about what a Cattle Station is, and how it might be different from a farm. So, to have the privilege of visiting and filming a real live station was both educating and rewarding.

Mellenbye is a relatively small 250,000 acre station.

Is that small?!

Well yes, it’s small by Australian standards, since some of the larger stations here are bigger than entire countries!! For example, Anna Creek station is 5.851 million acres (23,677 sq. km) - larger than the countries of Slovenia, Montenegro, Israel, Wales, and Hong Kong (to name a few) and larger than some American states!

In Australia, Stations are usually found in the North and Central parts of the country. They need to be of sizeable landmass to sustain animals, because it’s very arid and dry here for much of the year. And for that same reason, a station is not cropped. On a station, the animals wander freely and eat the naturally growing grasses – they are not fed grain or hay, and rarely require any chemical treatment. They also have less human contact than on farms. Note that during extreme times of drought, station owners may purchase hay, but long term it is not economically viable to continue this.

Mellenbye itself is an active cattle station with around 400 head of cattle (including a good amount of calves). The station Host, Shelly, generally knows broadly where the animals area, and daily work includes ensuring the windmills and troughs are in working order - a moo-cow drinks around 55 litres of water per day.

Shelly spoke to us about ‘ghost bulls’….wild bulls that wander the countryside and ‘hook-up’ with the station females … a bit like the Seafarers of old as they sailed from country to country and docked in the welcoming Ports for a time. And this explains the large amount of calves currently at Mellenbye.

Mind you, ghost bulls are said by the locals to be very wild and problematic at times, and fatalities can occur during mating.

We visited during the wildflower season of Western Australia, and were greeted by blankets of white Everlastings right there at the front entrance, and continuing along the lengthy 6km driveway to the homestead.

On our first day, Shelly suggested we visit a large salt lake – Burra Lake - located on the property. This one was rather brown and muddy looking.

A land-based photo barely does it justice, however Wags flew his 6-rotor hexacopter, and revealed a completely unique perspective of the surrounds.

A short walk up the hill afforded spectacular views over the landscape, with further blankets of white and yellow flowers bespeckling the brown-red rocky earth, rather like yellow and white sprinkles on a chocolate donut.

I decided to try walking on this salt lake and was able to get quite far out and probably could've crossed to the other side. This is not the case on many such lakes, where one risks sinking through the deceptively thin salt layer into the murky brown stuff beneath. The salty cover on any salt lake casts a light glare – something to be aware of, so that you remember to wear sunglasses and appropriate sunscreen!.

Shelly escorted us on the Tag-Along tour route in her tough little Toyota ute named ‘Bully’. Bully used to be a mustering vehicle, however is no longer used for this purpose. We drove approximately 30km along tracks and fence lines, passing by salt lakes, breakaway country, saltbush, wild apricot trees, sandalwood trees, wildflowers, the 1920 Lonely Grave of Richard Sheen, and various operating wells, bores and windmills. This tour is available to any guests visiting the station.

We were fortunate to see Wreath Flowers (Lechenaultia macrantha) on and around the property too. This is a rare wildflower which often grows casually along the sides of roads and tracks, in un-disturbed soil or dirt. It’s also a mysterious flower, since man-made attempts to grow it have been unsuccessful. Truly ‘wild’ !

We stopped to view an active Mallee Fowl nest. Wild dogs are an issue here, and cameras are setup at strategic points to monitor their presence. Shelly also stopped at a trough and gave it a quick clean.

We ended up at ‘The Rock’, a huge granite dome, and we decided to dawdle here until dark. We lit a tiny fire, poured a glass of wine each, and waited for the night to set in.

The moon, being very much in it’s waning third quarter, afforded us a jet-black hemisphere as a backdrop to the thousands of brilliant stars littered all over .… with the milky white trail of our parent galaxy clearly visible. It was superbly still, and the star’s reflections twinkled on the mirrored surface of the gnamma pool.

Due to some restrictions, we were unable to camp at the rock, so we returned early the next morning to catch the morning light on the granite and the gnamma pools. By then we were hungry, so we cranked up our little fire and cooked up a feed of eggs and bacon. The open fire is fast becoming our go-to cooking method!

Exploring "The Rock"

The Dome was interesting to explore. It was covered in tiny rock gardens, small pebble-like boulders in all shapes and sizes, sometimes grouped in clusters like peas on a fork, seemingly ready to roll down the hill at any time.

Lizards, about the same length as my forearm, scurried across the rock at incredible speed, their scaly skin camouflaged against the red, brown and white colours in the rock. If we stood still for long enough, they grew slightly more comfortable, and stopped moving for long enough to allow us to film and photograph them.

Wags of course preferred moving (not still) lizards for his filming and I managed to get within 2 metres of some before they would scurry off again to the next safe stop.

The smell of the yellow wattle flowers was welcomingly pungent at times around the rock base.

Venturing out from the rock, we were greeted with blankets of white, pink and lemon everlastings.

These lovely little ‘pom poms’ (as the locals call them) take their sweet time to completely open each day, a little shy of the cooler mornings perhaps. Their tiny wafer-thin petals feel like delicate rice paper to touch.

As we wandered through the flowers, it seemed like there was a better blanket on the left, or richer colours further on. When one has time, it’s the small details that get noticed and that bring pleasure.

After a day of filming and photographing the various sites that Shelly had shown us, we returned back to the station homestead grounds and to our campsite.

Station Stays

Mellenbye offers ‘Station Stays’, which means you can stay overnight, with varied options for accommodation – camping/RV, restored shearer quarter bedrooms, Donga accommodation, private rooms in the homestead itself, and self contained cottages.

We opted for camping of course, and enjoyed the glamping luxury of flushing toilets and the option of either a hot bath or shower.

A Donkey Heater powered the hot water – a simple device consisting of a drum of water mounted above a fire. Named after the steam boilers used on ships, the phrase is thought to derive from the traditional practice of using draft animals to perform the same type of work, before steam engines were invented.

Shelly and her Station Hands have done a beautiful restoration job of some historical buildings, such as the shearing shed and shearer’s quarters. The shearing shed was one of the larger and more elaborate of it’s time.

The shearing shed can be used to play games or musical instruments (supplied), watch movies and even has a disco ball and karaoke. Fun for a crowd (and great for events!), and also useful if it’s raining outside.

Once busy driving the Shearing Stand for days on end, the original Old Lister single cylinder engine sat quietly in the engine room, laden with all of it’s bygone memories. Alongside were the Grinder and Blade sharpener, and Skirting Tables were all there for viewing. An old cane basket sat on the floor, loaded with remnants of wool, still partially greasy with lanolin ... the smell of which lingered subtly in the air.

An adjacent camp kitchen was fully equipped with fridge, cooking gear and tables/chairs. Easily able to support a large number of people.

I particularly loved the cutesie photos painted on the wall, adding a fun and original touch.

There are plenty of other historical relics strewn about, including an old Reo automobile, which needs to be cranked by hand to start it up. Certainly one for the old car enthusiasts!

Mellenbye was originally established by the Broad Family. During our stay, we were privileged to speak with two of the original station residents who were visiting from the south. Nan Broad, author of two history books, and Nan’s son Ian, who grew up on the station as a child. They were able to relay much information about the original station, and their personal memories of station life. Nan first came to the station as a young bride. She spoke of her bold defiance of the typically-expected female kitchen duties during that time, in favour of riding horses. She also told us about the fun she had using pushbikes to herd the sheep that once roamed; it’s no coincidence that some of the scrap piles today are littered with old pushies! Ian spoke about the necessity of home schooling due to the geographic remoteness, and shared fond memories of playing in the shearing shed.

He also recounted a story about the drunken rampages of one of the original shearers, who ended up being locked in the woolpress cage for the night, as punishment upon his return from the local jail! What a day for triggering and sharing memories.

For the remainder of the day, the tones of the Australian Bush Ballad ‘Click Go The Shears’ rang in my ears, a melody I simply adored as a child. An educational song in itself.

That night, the station hosted a ‘movie night’. Guests transcended upon the shearing shed, now transformed, with large soft dusty-blue couches facing a screen erected above the old timber sheep pens. We were delighted to find a brown paper bag on our seats filled with warm, salty, crunchy popcorn, the smell of which wafted lazily through the shed as the movie kicked off. The Australian movie ‘3 Acts of Murder’ was on show...a true story, featuring local towns and references. A brilliant watch and great actors.

We LOVE a good sunrise!

Woken by the dulcet tones of distant, mooing cows, Wags was up early again the next morning, and true to his consistent form, brewed up a fantastic instant coffee! (I’m sure coffee connoisseurs will baulk at the apparent oxymoron there.) He managed this whilst concurrently filming the big orange sun as it crawled slowly into view above the bushy horizon.

Next day we were sad to part ways, but not before Shelly treated us to some playtime with resident animals. Firstly, Banjo, Dusty and Morris…. three inseparable donkeys who were playful, sociable and loved to roam free. And then Danny and Sandy, the curious, jumping goats, named aptly after the actors in Grease!

What a great and relaxing stay we had. Whilst there’s plenty to look at, and certainly lots to learn, the main reason for coming to a Cattle station is to get away from it all and do ‘very little’ for 24-48 hours. The wide open spaces are calming, and the sunrises and sunsets are magnificent.

As one of the chatty Station Hands said to me during dusk one night... “Ya never get tired of lookin’ at that view” .

And oh...enjoy our video!

Check out Mellenbye’s website and tell Shelly that you read Wags and Deb’s blog! You can also find them on Instagram and Facebook.