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Monday, January 16, 2012

Cattle Station Hopping, on Cape York Peninsula, Queensland

Last September I was privileged to visit Cape York peninsula, one of the world's last great wilderness areas at the very northern tip of Australia. I traveled there with my Dad, a keen birder who was on the hunt for some of the Cape's rare and endangered species, such as the golden-shouldered parrot and the red goshawk. I just went there because I thought it was a good place to explore, and because my Dad was footing the bill. We both got what we wanted: my dad saw his parrots and his goshawk, and I experienced life in a remnant of (Ab)Original Australia, the truest Outback of them all. One of the first things which struck me driving up the deteriorating road from Cairns, into the wild savannahs, was the peculiar pattern of land use here. In other parts of the world there are farms, forests, villages and cities; in Cape York there are cattle stations, Aboriginal reservations, national parks, and mines. In that order of frequency, with the odd tiny town or two thrown in, hundreds of kilometers apart. The cattle stations are as big as feudal principalities, and take hours to drive across. As in the American Deep South, land equals power, although the station owners don't really own the land, they merely lease it from the Government. For all intents and purposes, however, they act as owners, and you feel you are trespassers on their domains. At the center of every station sits the Big House, where dispossessed Aborigines (called the Bama up here) work as station hands or riding horses, which they are apparently very good at. Many stations have their own airstrip, making this one of the most propeller-happy parts of the planet (along with New Guinea, of course!)

Brahmin cow near the runway at Musgrave Roadhouse, Cape York peninsula, Queensland, Australia
Brahmin cow near the runway at Musgrave Roadhouse, on the Cape York Development Road (Australia, 2011)
Once a week (on Thursday) the mail plane takes off from the airport in Cairns, to visit 15 farflung Cape colonies. One of the properties it lands at is Violet Vale Station, near Lotusbird Lodge. Another property on the mail plane run is Strathburn Cattle Station, 550km from Cairns. There are also airstrips at Musgrave Roadhouse, Moreton Station, the Chuulangun Aboriginal community, Laura and Lakeland, and proper airports at Coen and Cooktown. SkyTrans flies from Cairns to Bamaga, Coen, Lockhart River, Edward River, Aurukun, Kowanyama, and other destinations in Australia and the south-west Pacific. I have heard that Bama can fly for free if they are attending land council meetings or family events or to get to a job up in the Cape, but I am not sure if that is true. I do know that locals can receive discounted tickets for AUS$99, which is significantly cheaper than the standard fare. If you are not a local, then it ain't that budget.
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