Australia's Rustic-chic Lodges
Published: April 2009
By David Herndon
From a retrofitted whistle-stop
to a cabin at a cattle ranch, a new circuit
of intimate lodges brings travelers
to the heart of Australia
Someday, Drew Kluska may be famous as a great Australian explorer—of luxury digs. He has spent the past few years
searching for hotels, lodges, and even livestock stations that exemplify Australia's colorful history and character. And from the hundreds of inns and outposts he's scouted, he has cobbled together a list of properties that he says represent "the real Australia, places that most Australians don't get to see."
Kluska's constellation of family-owned dwellings encompasses the entire continent. Some are already recognized as premier destinations; others are discoveries that meet his demanding standards. So guests who travel on Kluska's Australian Safaris circuit, the first of its kind in this part of the world, can always expect a high level of accommodation.
The 29-year-old's company is modeled on Bush Homes of East Africa, a group of independently run lodges that offer guests a sense of African lifestyle as well as the wildlife experience. "People loved seeing the animals," recalls Kluska, who worked for one of the Bush Homes in Kenya in the early nineties, "but what they loved more was meeting people on their own property and learning their stories."
Many of Kluska's clients opt for the known quantities. Some dive the Barrier Reef and stay at the exclusive Haggerstone Island retreat. Others explore the Kimberley Plateau in remote Western Australia and bask in comfort at the renowned El Questro Homestead. Epicureans stay at Thorn Park Country House in the wooded Clare Valley, just 90 minutes north of Adelaide.
Instead, I'm curious to see the surprises Kluska has tucked away between the genteel south-coast city of Adelaide (his hometown) and the center of the continent near Alice Springs. The trip I choose involves a ramble through South Australia's wine country, a four-wheel-drive approach to the outback, and a series of Cessna flights to the rugged interior where the Macdonnell Ranges cross the Simpson Desert. Roughly a straight shot north for 800 miles, my itinerary provides a variety of landscapes and settings. Strangely, most of my way stations are exactly that: police, fire, train, cattle, and sheep stations. Each has its own theatrical quality, with owners who embody the strong sense of individualism and hardy Australian style that Kluska set out to capture.
NORTH ADELAIDE HERITAGE GROUP, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Rodney and Regina Twiss have largely cornered Adelaide's boutique lodging market. The two have 18 properties in their Heritage Group collection, which they rent out on a self-serve bed-and-breakfast basis—the keys are in the mailbox.
"I was an antiques dealer for twenty-five years," says Rodney, explaining how collecting furnishings eventually grew into collecting residences, taverns, and even boathouses. (You have to put those antiques somewhere.)
"Mostly South Australian antiques," Regina interjects. "Not English. Australian."
The couple is ushering me through Buxton Manor, an Arts and Crafts—style mansion built in 1908 and surrounded by a half-acre of lawns and gardens. Its four suites and one cottage have marble and timber fireplaces, claw-foot tubs, and Scottish lace and chintz drapes. The rooms are, of course, furnished with colonial antiques, including an armoire from the nearby Barossa Valley ("A bit like Shaker, only fancier," offers Regina), and an 1840's Silesian bookcase stocked with vintage titles and crinkled magazines.
Adelaide's heyday lasted roughly a decade, from 1875 to 1884, during which time many of its stone manses were built. With its lush parks and handsome city center, Adelaide compares favorably with Savannah, Georgia, according to Regina. Both are well-preserved cities that strike a comfortable balance between quaint and cosmopolitan.
We climb into the Twisses' vintage Rolls-Royce, Rodney at the wheel, to visit some of the city's 520 historic buildings. The couple seem intent on snatching up as many of them as possible.
First on the agenda is their Fire Station Inn, where a bright red 1942 American International fire engine is parked in the first-floor suite, between the bedroom and living room. A brass pole, fire extinguishers, and restored bells help make the century-old firehouse a popular place for parties and visiting families.
But the fire station isn't the most eccentric accommodation on the Twisses' roster. That distinction belongs to our next stop, the Friendly Meeting Chapel. The bluestone building, completed in 1879, has a Victorian cedar dining table that seats 12, a circa-1900 organ, and Chinese screens, studded with jade and mother-of-pearl, separating the sitting and sleeping areas. Such anachronistic opulence may strike some as unusual, but the Twisses don't mind. "We like to shock people a little bit down at the bottom of the world," Regina says.
BRUCE RAILWAY STATION, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Tony and Maggie Gwynn-Jones took over the dilapidated Bruce Railway Station in 1987, effectively doubling the population of Bruce, which had been drifting toward ghost-town status ever since steam trains were retired in the 1970's. But it has been revitalized by the couple and by weekenders from Adelaide, who come to stand at the threshold of the outback. Awakening in Bruce as the morning fog blankets the plain arouses a splendid sense of romantic isolation, almost like being at sea. The Great Australian Emptiness begins here.
The Gwynn-Joneses began visiting the area two decades ago, staying just down the road at a cozy two-bedroom cottage they purchased in 1984. They now make that house available to guests who desire a bit of privacy apart from the three-bedroom guest wing of their railway station, originally the stationmaster's residence.
The Gwynn-Joneses' whistle-stop is a handsome affair of red brick and bluestone slate, flanked by verandas and sheltered by a corrugated iron roof. Its interior, with a stone fireplace, has a warm, country cottage feel.
Maggie Gwynn-Jones prepares ambitious meals—curried pumpkin-and-apple soup comes as a surprise at lunch—while Tony takes guests on four-wheel-drive excursions through the saltbush scrubland of the Willochra Plain. If the group gets thirsty, he might drive them 15 miles across the red soil of the Horseshoe Range to visit a pub in the farming community of Quorn. Or he might invent a distraction, such as loading passengers onto a yellow flatcar and hauling them down four miles of track, with panicked kangaroos springing alongside.
"We've always run on a casual, 'Come stay with us' basis," says Tony, a Welsh émigré formerly in the clothing business. Perhaps the best thing to do while staying with the Gwynn-Joneses is nothing. Read a book, take a nap; when you need some excitement, go for the briefest, maddest train ride of your life.
PRAIRIE HOTEL AND
ANGORICHNA STATION, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
After flying hundreds of miles over the salt lakes and sand ridges of the Flinders Ranges, the sight of Parachilna, population 7, is hardly encouraging. Situated where the mountains give way to flatlands, it resembles a gold rush town gone bust. But when I cross the threshold of the Prairie Hotel, I realize the opposite is true: Parachilna is in the midst of a renaissance.
A young hostess greets me with a flute of cuvée brut. Then she leads me to the dining room to sample an antipasto of emu pâté, lemon-myrtle smoked salmon, wattle-seed chicken, and smoked camel and kangaroo. The dishes are prepared by Danni Murray, an Aboriginal woman whose refined cuisine serves as a metaphor for the changes that are afoot in this region.
Just a few years ago, the eight-room Prairie Hotel was little more than a cowboy bar. Then Jane and Ross Fargher took over in 1990 and turned it into a magnet for culture, supporting an outback opera program and staging big-name country-and-western gigs.
The Fargher boys—Ross and his brother, Ian—are locals, cattle and sheep ranchers whose great-great-grandfather helped settle this unforgiving country in the 1860's. Ian is my pilot and guide to the 500-million-year-old swath of jagged ridges, peaks, and gorges that make up the Flinders Ranges. He whisks me to his homestead, Angorichna, a 250-square-mile sheep station in the middle of an isolated mountain range, which he and his wife, Di, who also happens to be Jane's sister, converted into a guesthouse after their daughters left for school.
The Fargher boys once viewed tourists as terrorists. "You'd be pushing a couple thousand sheep down a creek, and suddenly there'd be a group of strangers standing in the way taking pictures," says Ian. A downturn in the wool market prompted a change in attitude. Ian reduced his herd to 3,000 from 10,000 and started catering to visitors who were curious about ranch life.
Ian takes me for a hike to look for yellow-footed rock wallabies, shy members of the kangaroo family. He escorts me to a rock outcropping to study a stick figure, a painting of indeterminate origin. At midday, he finds a shaded spot and grills mutton ribs, lamb chops, camel sausage, and kangaroo steak. Wild watercress gathered from the creek serves as a garnish.
Later, we drive up a rocky track to watch the sunset from a peak. Fargher holds the lease to the land as far as we can see in any direction, just as his family has for four generations. Only its purpose is changing. Instead of sheep, Fargher is tending travelers.
OORAMINNA BUSH CAMP,
DEEP WELL STATION, NORTHERN TERRITORY
In the 1970's, Lord Snowden, the noted photographer and former husband of Britain's Princess Margaret, once visited Deep Well Station, an outpost almost at the dead center of Australia. He stayed at a lodge owned by Jan and Bill Hayes, hoping to see cattle ranching firsthand.
Jan had laid out some special clothes for Bill to wear, but Bill put on his worn jeans and a work shirt instead, saying, "He'll take me as I am." Lord Snowden, reportedly, was delighted to experience ranch life on its own terms.
And that's precisely why people fly to this cattle station on the outskirts of Alice Springs, in this beautiful but hard country. The Hayeses run 5,000 head of Hereford on 700 square miles of arid scrubland. It's a lot of land, even by Aussie standards, yet a fraction of what the family's holdings were nearly a century ago. Bill's great-grandfather arrived in 1884 with a contract to deliver steel telegraph poles for the Overland Telegraph line between Darwin and Adelaide. By the 1900's, the Hayes family had more than 3,000 miles under pastoral lease. Bill, at 57, ranches with his son, who expects his own son to eventually herd cattle with him. "Six generations," Jan says. "In Australia, you don't get that too often. They're very proud cattlemen."
Guests now stay at a nearby homestead, Ooraminna, which is an upscale version of the lodge Snowden visited. Ooraminna is a collection of cabins with slate or timber floors, masculine furnishings, and fireplaces that burn all night to battle the chill. The ranch also has a stable of horses from which guests may choose—a wise option. As I learned on my trip, there's no better way to see this country than from a saddle.
Drew Kluska's circuit of guesthouses can be booked through his company or a select group of U.S. travel agents. Plan to travel in the fall (March to May) or spring (August to October), when the weather in South Australia is most pleasant.
Drew Kluska Australian Safaris 35—37 Stirling St., Thebarton, South Australia; 61-8/8354-4405, fax 61-8/8354-4406; www.outbackencounter.com.
Nature Encounters 2116 Arlington Ave., Chateaux II, Suite 310, Los Angeles, Calif.; 323/733-6622, fax 323/733-6623; www.nature-encounters.com.
African Adventures 10 Claimjumper Court, Park City, Utah; phone and fax 435/649-4655; www.safariexpert.com.
Uncharted Outposts International 750 Piedmont Ave. N.E., Atlanta, Ga.; 404/888-0909, fax 404/888-0081; www.unchartedoutposts.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Kluska's itineraries can encompass the entire continent or specific parts. Here are highlights of the Adelaide—to—Alice Springs excursion described here. All meals were included in the room price, except in the Adelaide and Parachilna stopovers, where only breakfast was covered.
North Adelaide Heritage Group 109 Glen Osmond Rd., Eastwood, South Australia; phone and fax 61-8/8272-1355; www.adelaide-heritage.com.au; doubles from $130.
Bruce Railway Station Railway Terrace, Bruce, South Australia; 61-8/8648-6344, fax 61-8/8648-6994; www.gwynn-jones.com.au/bruce; doubles from $133.
Prairie Hotel Parachilna, South Australia; 61-8/8648-4844, fax 61-8/8648-4606; www.prairiehotel.com.au; doubles from $64.
Angorichna Station Blinman, South Australia; phone and fax 61-8/8648-4863; firstname.lastname@example.org; doubles from $524.
Ooraminna Bush Camp, Deep Well Station, Northern Territory; 61-8/8953-0170, fax 61-8/8963-0171; www.cbl.com.au/ooraminna; doubles from $524.