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Local Characters

Women of the outback

Adventures

Four remarkable women spill blood, sweat and tears to carve a living from tourism in remote Australia.

Few places capture the imagination as vividly as the Australian outback. Isolated and arid, it’s a tough place to make a life, but there’s something mesmerising about its harsh, unforgiving beauty.

One of the images indelibly etched into my mind is that of Old Andado, an outback station nestled between two red sand ridges on the western edge of the Simpson Desert, 330km south-east of Alice Springs.

Old Andado is where the late Molly Clark forged recognition for the contribution of women in the outback.

Sadly, Molly died in September 2012. In commemoration of her passing, I compiled a short list of inspirational women we’ve met in our travels who generate a living from outback tourism. But first, let’s take a brief look at the hardships and challenges faced by Molly.

MOLLY CLARK – OLD ANDADO STATION, NT

Molly Clark

Molly Clark moved to Andado Station in 1955 with husband Mac to build a pastoral business. After a number of years, they rebuilt the original homestead as a tourism venture to show travellers the hardships of living in such a remote location. 

The original building had no windows, plumbing or power. Water had to be carried to the kitchen, bathroom and laundry, and kerosene was used for lamps and powering the fridge.

Summer temperatures were often over 50°C and access was slow and arduous, via a goat trail of two tyre tracks meandering through the scrub. It wasn’t until the 1970s when a road was cut from Alice Springs to Andado via Santa Teresa.

Old Andado Station

Mac died in a light plane accident in 1978, leaving Molly to press on alone. In addition to the climatic challenges, the property was subject to brucellosis and tuberculosis testing by the government in the early 1980s, resulting in the loss of all stock and ultimately the property.

But rather than accept defeat, Molly endured the hard times and was able to secure a Crown lease of a small area around the original homestead. She called this Old Andado.

David Cox, from the neighbouring Mt Dare Hotel, described Molly as a spirited individual, firmly standing up for what she believed in.

In 1993, she established the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame museum in Alice Springs because she believed women were not properly recognised for their achievements.

RACHAEL ARNOLD – KAKADU NATIONAL PARK, NT

Rachael Arnold

Rachael and husband Sean run the Animal Tracks Safari in the World Heritage-listed Kakadu National Park.

The park is three hours from Darwin, giving it ‘remote’ status. Rachael was formerly a park ranger, so it was a natural transition for her to begin talking to people about the bush. She also started to learn a lot from Patsy, their Aboriginal guide, who is one of the remaining few hunter-gatherer Aborigines in the region.

Working in Kakadu has many challenges, one of which is the limited accommodation options.

“We live in a small caravan in an old shed and we have three children. Accommodation has always been an issue for us, but having less room means you accumulate less stuff and it also gives the kids plenty of opportunity to use their imagination instead of staring at a screen for entertainment,” said Rachael.

Rachael Arnold

Rachael has no affinity with the city, and does not feel she needs it at all. She enjoys interacting with wildlife and living in the outdoors.

“You quickly learn to adapt to the remote environment, stocking up on supplies en masse every two months. When you prefer to live outdoors, it’s relatively easy to adapt to living in a caravan.”

The family spends eight months of each year in Cairns living an otherwise normal life. 

MARG SPRIGG – NORTHERN FLINDERS RANGES, SA

Marg Sprigg

Marg and her brother, Doug, own and run the Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in the northern Flinders Ranges.

Parents Reg and Griselda purchased the Arkaroola sheep station in 1967 with the vision to develop it for conservation purposes. By request, it was later gazetted as a private wildlife sanctuary under the Fauna Conservation Act of 1964-65 with the removal of all sheep and feral animals.

With an eco-tourism flavour in mind, development began with the construction of roads, accommodation and other visitor facilities.

The development of the property was not without challenges, however. Given the mineral-rich status of the northern Flinders, prospecting for uranium has been an ongoing threat. In 1972 the South Australian Government withdrew the official sanctuary and reserve status without explanation.

While uranium exploration continued over the years, in 2011 Marathon Resources was found guilty of illegally dumping radioactive waste within the wilderness sanctuary. After only a short suspension period, it was allowed to continue as long as it cleaned up its act.

Continued lobbying of the government and a well-directed ‘Save Arkaroola’ campaign over five years eventually succeeded in having Arkaroola spared from all mining for life through the Arkaroola Protection Act.

Marg and her brother Doug

While Marg is a softly spoken lady, she’s lost none of her father’s passion for the environment and geology. And rightly so – the sanctuary has invested heavily to reintroduce native fauna and plants so visitors can fully appreciate the natural qualities of the area.

Then there are the astronomy observatories fitted with telescopes for unparalleled views of the stars.

Arkaroola really is a special place and should be on the bucket list for every self-respecting caravan and camper trailer enthusiast.

RUTH SANDOW – PIMPARA LAKE STATION, NSW

Ruth Sandow

It is barely daylight in outback NSW and Ruth is busy packing the ute to ready the shearers’ quarters for some incoming visitors. In the distance you can hear a light plane taxiing along a runaway and before long it’s buzzing overhead at low altitude. That’s John, Ruth’s husband, en-route to a construction job many miles away.

Like many others across Australia, Ruth and John have opened their doors to tourism to supplement their income as farmers.

But far beyond offering camping or accommodation on their outback property, Ruth has managed to create a unique touring route across outback NSW, which approximates the path of Charles Sturt, picking up a number of farm stays along the way.

There is much to be gained from the experience, learning about one of our earliest explorers and the hardships he faced carrying a boat across the outback in a futile search of a non-existent inland sea.

Pimpara Lake Station

Better still, it takes you off the main blacktop routes and into the back country to appreciate the landscape and meet the people who call this area home.

Ruth’s other labour of love is the Milparinka Heritage and Tourism Association, and she works as chairperson of the committee to restore the historical buildings while promoting tourism in the area.

The Milparinka Barracks and Courthouse are set up as a Visitor Information Centre with displays of historical and pastoral information. There is plenty to see and read and the volunteers are always very chatty.

Some of the stations making up the route from Milparinka include Theldarpa, Pincally, Pimpara Lake, Pine View and Mount Gipps. The route starts at Cameron Corner, passes Fort Grey in the Sturt National Park, Tibooburra, Depot Glen and further south across the Barrier Ranges.