Les Misérables Revisited

Les Miserables, Les Mis, Melbourne, Australia, revisited, reviewI was 21 and spending a semester studying in London. I had fallen in love with the city; adoring its velvet-seated pubs, green parks under grey skies, cobblestoned mews and late night fish and chips tucked snugly into paper cones. The city was a playground for a student with more time than responsibilities, and even our professors encouraged us to explore with abandon- other than writing an occasional paper, I don’t remember much time studying.

One afternoon my flat mate and I wandered over to the West End and found ourselves queuing up with dusty backpackers at the half-price ticket booth. For the small price of £22, second row seats for Les Misérables were ours for the matinée show.

I had never seen Les Mis before- didn’t know the story. But that afternoon I was swept away to the slums of 19th century Paris. When the cast took their final bows, I was standing and cheering wildly as tears ran down my face.

That began my love affair with Les Misérables. I bought the double CD set and played the soundtrack on repeat until the unfortunate combination of after-party munchies, a toaster oven and a misplaced disk ended its reign. I dragged visiting friends to the West End, and then in later years, dragged friends I was visiting to Broadway.

And then, Les Mis drifted away, settling quietly into the memories of years past.

Until this week.

Les Misérables is playing on my doorstep– a revival by producer extraordinaire Cameron Mackintosh at Her Majesty’s Theater here in Melbourne. My eight-year, so often pirouetting and singing before an invisible audience, expressed an interest and tickets were purchased.

In the days prior to the performance, I would burst into song. Making dinner and ignoring my children’s concern over my menu choice: “Look down, look down, don’t look them in the eye…”

When they voiced discontent over a chosen family activity: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men…”

I felt 21 again, ready for a chance afternoon purchase to awaken my emotions. I still remember hearing that stirring music for the first time, the lyrics that invited me to join a crusade, one that would tragically end with the loss of young life. I remember feeling so moved by the impassioned cause for the downtrodden, and the tremulous joy of young love surviving loss.

Twenty years after I was first smitten with Les Misérables, I was ready to fall in love all over again.

And I did. The Melbourne production is fantastic. Simon Gleeson is my new favorite Jean Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert is a magnificent force upon the stage. Certain production aspects were tweaked- my favorite being the use of screens to convey movement so that we, in the audience, struggle though the sewers of Paris alongside Jean Valjean.

During the performance I snuck glances at my daughter’s face, her wide-open eyes, her fixed concentration on the stage before us. She sat so still, as if breathing would cause her to miss something. She was transfixed and I, as her mother, was thrilled by her enthrallment.

But as I watched Les Misérables so many years after that first matinée, I realized I was watching it differently. Not because of Cameron Mackintosh’s production changes, but because I had changed.

Les Misérables still entrances me, its music still inspires me, but what touches me has altered. Where I had first been thrilled by the students’ passionate idealism and devastated by the tragic loss of young life, I am now drawn to the more complex emotions at play. Jean Valjean’s quest for redemption as he turns his back on the embittered criminal he has become. Javert’s desperate realization that the moral code by which he has lived his life is flawed.

Even more so, my heart aches for the parents. For Fantine, who struggles to provide for her daughter, ultimately dying as visions of her child play before her. For Valjean’s love for Cosette- agreeing to raise the little girl as his own. For Valjean again as he prays for Marius to survive the barricade, as if it was his own son approaching death.

My life has changed in two decades. I am no longer the twenty-something student, ignorant of my own immortality and believing death to be a romantic tragedy of fate. I am no longer free to watch the loss of a parent-child relationship without imagining the unimaginable. My heart is wiser and more experienced, and yet still open to be moved, but by a different narrative.

Some people claim Les Mis is melodramatic, an overwrought rollercoaster of emotion plagued with incessant singing, and they’re allowed their opinion. For every person who loves a good musical, you will find another who abhors the idea.

As for me, the love affair has been reignited, but it is a more mature relationship this time around. I am still moved by the impassioned tale of Les Misérables, but where my 21-year old self hadn’t plumbed the depths of human emotion, my forty-something self has a greater appreciation as to what love and loss truly mean.

I suppose that is one aspect of the arts- to provide a backdrop against which we measure our own lives, identifying where in this journey we call life we currently stand.

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Heads Up: Wilpena Pound and the Flinders Ranges from the Air

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, scenic flights, airplane, Australia, Outback

Our chariot awaits…

I’ve said before that Australia is a massive country; that it is only when you drive inland that you get a sense of the inordinate amount of open space this country has. But if you truly want an accurate sense of the vastness, you need to head in one direction: up.

While in South Australia, we booked a scenic flight over the Flinders Ranges and Wilpena Pound. A bit of a splurge, but ever since my oldest started high school, I’ve been struck with this sense that time is quickly spinning away. Our chance to create memories is swiftly eroding and I’m feeling this intensity to live in the moment.

We arrived early at the dirt airstrip, giving us plenty of time to read warnings about getting too close to propellers and the rather disagreeable result if we were to ignore them.

The sky was a shocking blue and we saw the six-seater Cessna approach before we heard it. After rolling to a stop in front of us, the earlier passengers unfolded themselves from the plane. “Amazing… “ one woman said to no one in particular. “It certainly gives you a sense of perspective.”

Our pilot was professional, but hardly enthusiastic when he saw our family of five grinning at him. Obviously experienced, he loaded us into the plane and instructed us on the basic safety procedures, as well as how our headsets worked.

When our kids realized they could talk to each other with impunity over the roar of the engines, the flight took on a whole new dimension.

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, scenic flights, airplane, Australia, Outback, headset

Can we keep these?!?

Me: “Excuse me, how high up are we?”

Child 1: “Can you hear me?”

Pilot: “We fly between 10,000 and 14,000 feet.”

Child 2: “I can hear you! Can you hear me?”

Pilot: “See that mountain range to your left over there…?”

Child 1: “Echo, echo…”

Pilot: “…It’s called the ABC Range.”

Child 3: “What about me? Can you hear me?”

Pilot: “The ABC Range was discovered by early explorers.”

Me (covering my microphone and mouthing to the kids): “We can ALL hear you.”

Pilot: “They called it the ABC Range…”

Child 3: “What? Mom! What did you say?”

Child 1: “This is totally cool!”

Pilot: “…because early surveyors first counted 26 peaks.”

Child 2 (elbowing his brother and shouting): “Hey! Look down there!”

Pilot: “There’s actually more than 26 peaks in total…”

Child 1: “Roger, Roger!”

Pilot: “…but the name stuck.”

Me: “Ummm… thanks. It’s beautiful.”

Child 2: “Over and out!”

I then resorted to violently slashing my hand in front of my throat in that desperate, universal signal to JUST BE QUIET. If I had known that the headsets would be such a hit, I would have left my kids behind on the ground with a small collection of them.

Aside from the headsets, the flight itself was spectacular. The woman on the flight before was correct- you certainly got a sense of perspective. Wilpena Pound? We knew it was shaped like a bowl and had gotten a glimpse of that concept during some of our hikes, but not until we could see it from the air did we understand what a geological marvel it actually was.

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, scenic flights, airplane, Australia, Outback

Wilpena Pound from the air

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, scenic flights, airplane, Australia, Outback

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, scenic flights, airplane, Australia, Outback

Professional photographs of the from the air are taken with the doors open. We put up with the glare.

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, scenic flights, airplane, Australia, Outback

Wilpena Pound, Flinders Ranges, scenic flights, airplane, Australia, Outback, ABC Range

A shot of the ABC Range… I think. Hard to tell over the chatter…

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Australia has a lot of this.

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So glad we headed up.

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Not Exactly Outback: The Flinders Ranges and Wilpena Pound

South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound, emuAs a general rule, the further inland one drives in Australia, the drier and flatter it becomes. Away from the coast and beyond the bush lies the Outback: where scorched red earth meets blistering sun.

The Flinders Ranges didn’t get the memo. Located 450 km/280 mi inland from Adelaide, these rugged peaks erupt from the South Australian outback, a surprising landscape of geological and floral richness.

We approached the ranges from the south, driving the two hours from Almerta Station one overcast afternoon, low-hanging rain clouds threatening to burst. We stopped briefly in Hawker, the last settlement before entering the Flinders Ranges National Park. Hoping to purchase a few pieces of fruit or vegetables to add to our dwindling supplies, a couple of sad onions and a lonesome head of moldy lettuce on an otherwise bare shelf reminded us that living in this part of the world means “doing it hard.”

We continued on to our home for the next three nights. Accommodation options in the Flinders Ranges National Park are limited to camping or overpriced lodging in the park resort. Lacking proper equipment, we handed over our credit card in exchange for a small, two-bedroom, one bath with kitchenette: veritable luxury in this corner of the world.

The crown jewel of the Flinders Ranges is Wilpena Pound, a massive natural amphitheater formed from a series of mountains, including the ranges’ highest, St Mary’s Peak (1,170 meters). Named by early British settlers (a pound is an enclosure), the Pound looks like a large bowl, but only when you have hiked high enough to look down into it. Formed from a geological syncline, or folded layers in the earth’s crust, the walls of the Pound are like a terrarium, encasing fields of River Red Gums, native pine trees and spring wildflowers within its boundaries.

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Looking into Wilpena Pound

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The floor of Wilpena Pound

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South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena PounBushwalking is the sport of choice in the Flinders Ranges, with numerous hikes of varying conditions available. Our first hike was the Mt Ohlssen Bagge peak, one of the points that form Wilpena Pound. Labeled “hard” on the park’s map, the hike was a 6.4 km return. It began easily enough, but quickly required us to scramble up rocks, sometimes using our hands and knees. Our youngest needed encouragement and I took to calling her our “little billy goat” in an effort to keep her from collapsing in frustration. (Meanwhile, real goats wandered nearby, probably insulted that we equated their nimble-footed abilities with our two-footed drudgery).

South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound, Mt Ohlssen Bagge

At the peak of Mt Ohlssen Bagge

South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena PoundOn another walk, we hiked into the Pound, heading to Wangara Lookout. On our way, we stopped briefly at the Hills Homestead, a sad testament to the Hill Family’s late 19th century attempt to farm the land. Seduced by a few years of good rain, the Hills carved out a pass into the Pound, which was eventually washed away in a rare deluge. Disenchanted, they abandoned the Pound until 20th century tourists discovered its charms.

Although summer temperatures can climb into the 40s C (above 104 F), the more temperate spring weather and recent rains produced a rioting of wildflowers and numerous emu sightings. Mother emus accompanied by chicks wandered freely; only once did one hiss at me when I approached too closely to take a photo. We also spotted kangaroos, along with painted dragons sunning themselves on rocks.

South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound, emu, emu chicks

Mother emu with chicks

South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound, painted dragon

Painted Dragon

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Joey

South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound, kangaroos

Kangaroo family

South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound, wildflowers South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound, emu

Australia continues to surprise me- this is certainly not a land limited to beach and outback. The variations of beauty in between are stunning and well-worth exploring. The only question is quickly becoming: where to next?South Australia, Flinders Ranges National Park, Wilpena Pound

 

 

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Everything You Wanted to Know About Sheep Shearing (But Never Knew to Ask)

Sheep shearing, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia

Marino Sheep, waiting to be shorn.

After spending time on a sheep station, one would assume we had quite a bit of up-close and personal time with some sheep (There are some jokes in there, but please keep moving along. We’re a respectable bunch here).

However, 8,000 sheep spread about 40,000 acres means you really need to go searching for some of those furry creatures. And sheep, being the docile and shy animals they are, don’t exactly stick around out of curiosity when people try to stroll up to them.

Sheep shearing is an annual exercise and our time at Almerta Station in South Australia missed it by three days (we wouldn’t have been able to stay there during the shearing anyway as the Shearers Quarters were occupied by workers).

Fortunately, Almerta’s owner, Paddy Rowe, invited us to stop by a neighboring station where he and his crew were shearing.

We arrived at the station mid-morning. While we had only recently finished our breakfast, the shearing crew had been working since 7AM. Sheep shearing is not for the weak (nor for those who like to sleep in).

We entered the Shearing Shed to find Paddy standing in a series of wooden pens, surrounded by sheep. In one hand was a large rattle with metal disks that made a tinny, clanging noise. As two dogs raced about, springing on and off the animals’ backs, Paddy vigorously shook the rattle (A “Tin Dog” he told us). Unsure, though submissive, the sheep crowded into the nearest open pen.

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Paddy Rowe, separating sheep into various pens.

Sheep Shearing, Merino Sheep, South Australia, Australia

Sheep dogs, sheep shearing, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia

Sheep dogs are amazingly intelligent and respond quickly to commands. They nimbly jump on and off sheep when working.

Sheep shearing, Merino sheep, shearing shed, South Australia, Australia

Sheep waiting in catching pens.

Along one side of the Shed was the shearing area, called the Board. Five muscular though wiry men of varying age were bent over the sheep, each clenching a set of electric shears hanging by a long cord from the ceiling. Clad in sleeveless shirts and long pants, the men worked furiously on the sheep at their feet, barely looking up at our entrance. Music blared from a set of speakers, adding to the din of barking dogs, bleating sheep and the whirring of the machine-driven shears.

The men were sweaty, each concentrating on the job at hand. Paid by the sheep, the best shearers work quickly, racing to shear as many sheep as possible in a run, or two-hour period. A typical shearing day consists of four runs, or eight hours of intense manual labor. A top shearer, called a Gun or Ringer, can shear more than 200 sheep per day.

A shearer grabs a sheep from the holding pen next to his station, embracing the animal from behind before grabbing the sheep’s front legs in what looks like a well-practiced wrestling move. He drags the sheep backwards to his station and begins to shear with long, sweeping cuts or blows.

Like the peel of a potato, the dirty wool is stripped away from the sheep, producing the clean furry softness within that will someday line a pair of UGG boots. The naked sheep, looking like a poorly-peeled orange, its pithy, white skin lined with a thin membrane of leftover wool, scrambles to its feet and exits through a chute to the yard. Outside, additional workers apply an anti-lice solution to the animals’ shorn backs.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool

Sheep shearing, Shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, wool, Australia

One down, 799 to go…

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, sheep dip, anti-lice treatment

Workers applying an anti-lice treatment to the shorn sheep

The shearer works quickly, turning and twisting the sheep at his feet while his shears fold back the animal’s coat. Watching the shearers bent over and twisted in their labor, it’s easy to envision each worker’s future- one of gnarled and contorted agony.

“It’s like running a marathon every day,” Paddy tells us. It’s plain to see that his supervising position is the elite role in a profession of pain.

We later hear a comparison between shearers and professional athletes. “They need a back-up career,” we’re told. “Once their bodies fail them, they need a Plan B. Few shearers can last a lifetime in this business.”

There are other, less physical roles, in a shearing crew. A couple of people, including the lone woman in the group, scurried about the Board picking up shorn wool and sweeping smaller amounts out of the way. Called a Roustabout, this shed hand keeps busy with whatever odd jobs need to be done to keep the process moving.

Once the fleece is shorn, the Roustabouts carry it to the Skirting Table where two men, called Classers, sort the wool by touch. Quickly feeling and rubbing the fleece between their fingers, they then toss the wool into the appropriate cages.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, Classers, wool sorting

“Classers” sorting wool.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, sorted wool

Sorted wool, waiting to be packed.

Paddy handed us some shorn wool to touch. “The softer and lighter it feels, the less wiry it is- the better the wool.” We obediently rubbed the wool, the lanolin from the sheep’s skin leaving a slippery sheen on our fingers.

“Your fingers must be so soft if you touch this all the time,” I said, thinking a pair of unwashed wool mittens were in order.

Paddy displayed his own cracked, dry hands in response. “Nah… sheep shearing actually dries your hands.”

After sorting, another shed hand stuffs the wool into a machine to press it into bales. Once pressed to capacity, the worker pins it shut and lugs the approximately 172 kg (379 lb) bale to a loading area, where he stencils information regarding the station and the wool class onto the canvas. Eventually, the bales of wool will be sent to a wool mill for washing and processing.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool, wool press

Shed hand packing shorn wool into a wool press

Sheep shearing, Shearing shed, Merino sheep, bale of wool, South Australia, Australia

One bale of wool, ready to be sent to the wool mill for processing.

Paddy’s wife, Shane, later tells us how the sheep industry is currently under attack for what are considered inhumane practices. The Rowe’s business includes both shearing and crutching, which involves the periodic shaving of wool from around a sheep’s tail and rear legs.

“There are 60 million sheep in Australia,” Paddy adds. “Fifty million of which are Merinos- bred for their wool.”

The Merino Sheep has a heavy, dense, wool coat that requires human intervention to maintain. Failure to remove the wool, especially around the sheep’s rear, can lead to flystrike, a revolting and painful condition where flies lay eggs in the damp wool and the resulting maggots bury under the sheep’s skin to feed. Crutching is different from the more controversial Mulesing, which removes skin from around the sheep’s tail area.

Shane shook her head, “The people protesting have never seen a bad case of flystrike. It’s extremely painful for the sheep and can eventually kill them.”

It’s an age-old question of competing interests, but I didn’t witness any instances of overt cruelty to the animals. Learning about the scourge of flystrike, and knowing the heat of an Australian summer is quickly approaching, it seems that the failure to remove the wool would be the barbaric option.

But given a choice, I probably wouldn’t choose to come back to this world as a sheep.

Sheep Shearing, shearing shed, Merino sheep, South Australia, Australia, wool

Break time between shearing runs

 

 

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Mindfully Hanging Out

sunrise, South Australia, Sheep Station, Almerta StationI was telling a friend about our recent stay on a 40,000 acre sheep station in the South Australian Outback when she smiled at me.

“No offense, but what did you DO there?”

I had to think about it.

“Um, we hiked… we helped on the farm… played with the dogs… kids went for swim…”

I thought some more. “Really, I guess we just hung out.”

We did “hang out” quite a bit and looking back, I’m realizing how much I enjoyed that.

We are not a society that values time “hanging out”. Meet anyone on the street corner, at the café, the shop, in the schoolyard, and someone will say how “busy” they are.

What’s more, we say it with pride: How are you? Good! Busy! It’s a badge of honor. The more places you have to be, the more tasks you have to do, the fuller and more complete your life must be.

I’ve recently read some articles about the growth of “mindfulness”- the intentional focus of present-moment emotions, sensations and thoughts. It’s a movement that has shifted from meditation centers into the boardroom. Some of the world’s largest corporations, behemoths like Google, American Express and General Mills, have instituted mindfulness programs for its employees.

Irrespective of its value, it seems a bit trendy when mindfulness is instituted into the corporate world. It becomes a buzzword, a current phase that will be replaced next year by positive transference, global realization or whatever new movement is adopted by the enlightened masses. Imbedded in the workplace, it becomes measured, something on an agenda. How mindful are you? Have you done your daily twenty minutes of deep breathing? Have you centered yourself? Great- then get that report done before your next meeting.

This type of structured mindfulness isn’t the same as hanging out. I think what’s needed is an acceptance that it’s ok to take time out to do nothing. There doesn’t need to be a set schedule for it. Stare into space if you wish, for as long as you want. If you want to do something, go for a walk. Wander around in the dirt collecting rocks. Just be. Just breathe. Just hang out…

Why do we always feel like we have to be doing something? Why do we value organized activity so much that we feel we need to justify our free time?

Back at the station, I rose early one morning and hiked up a ridge to catch the sunrise, with just enough dawn to light my way. Armed with my good camera, I began taking photos of the early light blushing upon the far-off hills, colors changing from a pale pink to a soft rose before bursting forth in a brilliant orange. I took shot after shot of the distant hills as the sun rose higher in the sky.

As the light spread around me, my focus shifted. Where before I aimed my camera on the far-off distance, I began looking closer at the parade of gum trees bordering the station or the sheep grazing in a paddock below me.

Slowly, my view shrank even more. I looked down at the Shearer’s Quarters, where my family lay sleeping. I saw our dust-covered car parked near the eaves. I listened to the sounds of the farm waking above the wind that whistled around me. The alarm of a rooster crowing, an occasional turkey gobble, the cows lowing and the distant sound of sheep bleating. A lone bird squawking in the wind. The sounds of life waking to a new day.

Then I started to find the bushes, scraggly and twisted, some soft with pale green, spongy branches. And then flowers- so many flowers I hadn’t seen before. Flowers of light purple and tiny yellows, fighting to grow from a fissure in a rock, the tiny stems twisting frantically in the wind. I saw pieces of quartz at my feet, nestled in the ground as if an ice storm had just passed through.

Eventually I stopped taking photos and just sat on top of that ridge. I was grateful to be alone; no one would have had the patience to stay with me. My eyes grew keener and my vision narrowed to what was directly in front of me, but it took 1 ½ hours up on that ridge to find that focus.

What did I do during those 90 minutes? I had no agenda, no time frame. … I took some photos… I listened… I looked… I breathed… I hung out. Really, I did whatever moved me at the time. And I hiked back down from the ridge feeling calmer and more alive than any forced exercise of mindfulness could have done.

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Almerta Station

Almerta Station, sheep station, outback Australia, South Australia I squinted at the text on my phone as the setting sun left smoky purple shadows on the distant hills.

“It says to cross three gum creeks before taking the turn-off,” I read to P as he gripped the steering wheel and raced north. He looked sideways at me in confusion.

“What’s a gum creek?”

I shrugged, “Perhaps it means, ‘Three Gum Creek’ instead? Like, it’s the creek’s name?”

Conscious of the disappearing daylight and the last remaining bar of service on my phone, we sped onward. As we hadn’t seen any open water for at least four hours, we chose to interpret a gum creek as a dry creek bed and, with fingers crossed and a quiet regret that our car wasn’t four-wheel drive, turned onto a dirt road as the last of the sun disappeared behind a lonely bluff.

We bumped along in the dark for nearly six kilometers before seeing a sign for Almerta Station. The owners, Paddy and Shane Rowe, had plans about 60 km away in the town of Orroroo that evening and, due to our late start from Melbourne nearly 13 hours earlier, we were arriving much later than expected. We had assured them we would be fine as they explained they would leave a light on at the Shearer’s Quarters.

“It’ll be an adventure!” we laughed. Now, we cursed our late start as we strained for a glimpse of electricity amidst our inky surroundings, finally spotting the lone beacon that marked our home for the next three nights.

Almerta Station, Sheep station, outback australia, south australiaAlmerta Station, a 40,000 acre property three and a half hours north of Adelaide, advertises itself as a place “where kids can be kids and adults can reconnect.” Shane later told me about a mother who had wanted Shane to plan her children’s activities during their stay. “This isn’t that type of place,” she explained. “If you’re here, it’s to spend time with your family. We give you the location- it’s up to you to do what you want with it.”

We had booked accommodations in the Shearer’s Quarters, which are open to guests outside of shearing season, but it wasn’t until the light of the next morning that we could truly see our surroundings.

Almerta Station, Sheep station, outback Australia, South AustraliaThe Shearer’s Quarters consist of a cluster of buildings. The largest building has a lounge area (with a pool table- time to school the kids…) and six bedrooms, each one opening directly to the outdoors. Another building houses three full bathrooms while an “Ecohut” held two more bedrooms. Finally, an original building had a last bedroom, a kitchen and a large dining area. Outdoor seating areas and a fire pit completed our temporary home.

All of this was just for our family. While the Quarters can house large groups, the Rowes will only rent out to one group at a time. So the five of us had this massive amount of space, which, considering the massive amount of space surrounding us, seemed fitting.

DSC_0020 Almerta Station, sheep station, Shearers Quarters, South AustraliaActually, I had no concept of the space we were dealing with when we first set out on a hike the next morning. A map of the property mentioned natural springs, so we packed a picnic lunch and water, and headed out, a small puppy from the property following at our heels. A few hours into the hike, it occurred to us that we might not have had an accurate understanding of just how vast this property was. Our eleven year old had begun carrying the puppy, whose ambitions didn’t match its ten-week old legs. Our eight year old looked like she was close to following the puppy, so we returned to the Quarters to drive to the springs instead.

Balcoonda Gum Creek, gum creek, Almerta station, sheep station, South Australia

Hiking Balcoonda Gum Creek

Natural springs, Almerta Station, South Australia, Sheep Station

The Natural Springs, or waterhole, on Almerta Station.

Almerta Station, Natural Springs, Sheep station, South Australia Almerta Station, South AustraliaIn addition to hiking and exploring the property, we were free to experience farm life up close. We gathered eggs for our breakfast from the chickens and turkeys (Personal discovery: Turkey eggs are AWESOME, though seriously difficult to crack), we fed the pigs our meal scraps and we wandered over to watch the cows at feeding time (though we could watch them anytime- the cows had the run of the farm- at one point I looked up from my book to see a cow chewing quietly, staring at me from ten feet away). For dinner, we could even special order kangaroo meat, a service provided by the Rowes. For one meal, P cooked marinated Roo Steaks and Roo Tail over the fire. The verdict? The steaks were delicious but the tail was a fatty novelty that didn’t need to be tried twice.

gathering chicken eggs, Almerta Station, South Australia

turkey and chicken eggs, Almerta Station, South Australia

A turkey and a chicken egg. I’ll take the big one, please…

Dog stalking cow, Almerta Station

Red Dog, one of the Rowe’s pets, was one of our favorite animals on the station. A bit cheeky, he loved to stalk the cows at feeding time.

Dog Stalking Cow, Almerta Station

The cows were not amused…

One of my favorite parts of our stay was the lack of internet, television and phone. If you needed to check in with the outside world, you had to hike up a nearby rise (“Internet Hill”) to catch a signal. Otherwise, we were blissfully ignorant and free to focus on what was in front of us.

On one of our days, the Rowe’s ten-year old daughter (who had quickly befriended our daughter) joined us to hike to the top of the Bluff- the highest point of the property. At one time, Australia was covered by shallow inland seas and the bluff had been an island. Now, it was an unparalleled vantage point from which we could gaze upon the Rowe’s 40,000 acres. As our oldest put it, “That’s some backyard.”

The Bluff, Almerta Station, South Australia, sheep station, Outback

The Bluff at daybreak

From the Bluff, we had a clear view of a line of gum trees that looked like a blue-green vein running across the property. Gum creeks, as we suspected, are dry creek beds. Sometimes called “Upside Down Creeks”, the water runs several feet underground, nourishing the large trees that grow along the banks.

The Bluff, Almerta Station, South Australia

The Bluff, Almerta Station, South AustraliaDSC_0355As a rule, we don’t often return to the same travel destination. There are too many new places we want to explore. But I can see us returning to Almerta Station. Perhaps it was the kindness of the Rowe Family that so warmly opened their home to us. Maybe it was the chance to slow down without the distractions of the outside world beckoning us through our phones and laptops. It might have been the open sky that stretched beyond a horizon untouched by building or road.

Let’s go with all of the above.

Almerta Station, South AustraliaNeed more info? www.almertastation.com.au

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On the Road Again

South Australia, Outback, road,

Eating a muffin in the middle of the road, because he can.

“G’day. Have any fruit in your car?” The mirrored-sunglasses peered in through the driver’s side window.

“Yes, here’s a bunch of apples.” I handed over the bag from which we had been snacking during the car trip.

He nodded as he took the fruit. “Can I look in the boot as well?”

“Absolutely.” A model of compliance in the face of authority, I jumped out to accompany him to the rear of our car. He shifted from foot to foot as he gazed at the packed insides.

“That an esky?” He pointed to a soft-sided cooler jammed into our car. “Does it have fruit?”

“It is, but it just has some dairy and frozen items. Oh, and some lettuce.”

I had visions of him unpacking our entire car and started to question what was at the bottom of a certain plastic bin nestled behind the middle seat.

Seemingly satisfied, he grunted and I returned to the car, driving off as he waited for the next vehicle to approach.

“Was that everything?” P asked as the checkpoint disappeared behind us.

“Maybe?” I hedged, thinking back to 5:00 am that morning when I was haphazardly throwing items into our food container. “Or maybe we might have missed a bag of mandarins…?”

We’d left Melbourne eight hours before, but it was only during the last two that roadside signs announcing our entrance into a “Fruit Fly Exclusion Zone” had sprung up. We passed rest area dump bins and signs warning of penalty fines for failure to comply.

“How serious is this?” I asked P but he shrugged, “This is new to me.”

Apparently very serious as, not long after crossing the South Australia border, we were directed into the sleek, multi-lane inspection complex where our car had been examined.

Feeling slightly panicky at the contraband citrus we may or may not have overlooked, I drove on, rationalizing that we were only driving THROUGH the quarantined zone, with no plans to ingest any potentially missed fruit prior to our destination.

Our destination was twelve hours northwest of Melbourne in the South Australian outback. Upon leaving the agricultural region around the Murray River, gum trees and bright yellow canola fields gave way to dry scrub and endless sky. Our car had sailed over slow-moving skinks and skirted past kangaroo carcasses, swarms of large birds rising up from the more recent kills as we flew by.

Lulled by the vast emptiness of the land and no other cars in sight, I hit speeds I hadn’t entertained since arriving in Australia. As I sailed over yet another flattened road kill, a small wedge-tailed eagle belatedly flew up from its dinner, colliding with our windshield with a jarring THUMP. Fortunately, our screen didn’t even crack, but I slowed slightly after that. Just because there weren’t other cars around didn’t mean there was nothing to hit.

Welcome to South Australia

Obligatory photo- like you don’t have any of these.

At one point, we had pulled over to take a family photo in front of the sun-bleached “Welcome to South Australia” sign. As I stepped from the car with my camera in hand, a swarm of flies flew up around me. Nearly gagging on the stench, I realized we had parked directly next to, if not on top of, the rotting remains of a kangaroo.

“Back in the car! Everyone back in!” I shouted as the kids squealed in disgust. Holding our breath, we reparked 100 meters up the road and took the obligatory photo, whiffs of rot floating our way.

Despite the periodic dead animal on the roadside, the scenery was stunning in its expansiveness. At one point we stopped to stretch our legs and wander up and down the empty ribbon of pavement as it flowed out to the horizon. So used to city roads and traffic, our middle child sat on the centerline and snacked on a muffin, reveling in the silence around him.

DSC_0014Even our thirteen-year old shrugged off any adolescent apathy to take in the emptiness surrounding us. “This is so cool,” he said quietly, before wandering up the road on his own.

We eventually returned to the car to continue on our journey, each of us a bit quieter as we stared out the windows.

 

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