Farming one of the most ancient landscapes in the world has never been easy. Over the years, many of the sheep and cattle stations in the West Australian outback have been abandoned due to land degradation and drought. These stations are a major part of the States’ heritage, and rather than see them disappear back into the desert, innovative landholders are reinventing land management, and opening up country to visitors.
Melangata is a sheep station in the upper Murchison, nestled between the old goldrush towns of Yalgoo and Cue. The station is in desert country; red plains scattered with mulga scrub, granite breakaways, dry creeks lined with tall trees and laden with brilliantly coloured rocks. The house was designed by the famous catholic architect John Hawes, and was heritage listed in 1998. The Station is now open to visitors and I spent a night camping in the grounds underneath the mulga trees.
I drove in from Yalgoo, a classic outback town with fine buildings and wide deserted streets. Unsure of the empty roads, I pulled over by a house and asked some local Wajarri kids for directions before driving the 63 kilometres north into the rangelands. The smooth gravel road was periodically crossed by flood furrows from the recent rains. Driving slow gave plenty of time to admire the landscape, with its contorted outcrops of granite. More than two and a half billion years old, the granite has been eroding for eons, shedding plains of red earth peppered with a sprinkling of quartz. With all that remote beauty, it was a great relief to pull in and have Jo, the station-manager, shoot straight over to welcome us.
In 2016 the Melangata lease was purchased by Ken Darnell and Jo Clews, both from Margaret River in the far south-west. Ken was away when we visited, but I was entertained in fine style by Jo. She is celebrated in the north for her skills as a bush chef, and before taking on Melangata managed the Karijini Eco Retreat. She grew up in Cowaramup, surrounded by grass clad dairy farms and tall trees, but says she doesn’t miss the lush south. She’s really a big vista girl: tall trees and enclosed space make her feel tired. And it’s easy to see why she loves the Murchison, with it’s contrasting colours of mulga and red earth, and the expanse of sky free of light pollution and splattered with stars. I was lucky to visit a few days after a long drought was broken by a 50mm deluge. The ground was washed smooth by the flood: popping with fungi and all the mulga water-fat, and gleaming smoky green.
Jo was drawn to Melangata not only by the landscape, but by a love for heritage. Reading human history in the landscape is a powerful means of connecting into country. She has located many Wajarri camp and art sites on the lease, and hopes that the traditional custodians will come and re-engage with the station. Wajarri heritage in the region spans thousands of years, and is visible in the form of artefact scatters; tempting for fossickers but illegal to pocket. Most of the larger stones used for grinding acacia seeds and stored for eternities at waterholes were collected long ago; by explorers, gold diggers, or station hands.
European heritage is much more obvious; rusting metal, crumbling stone walls, mining shafts and tailing dumps. But the Murchison is also resplendent with fine buildings from the gold and glory days of the nineteenth century. The region has it’s own famous architect in the person of John Cyril Hawes, catholic priest and designer of a number of eclectic buildings, including the celebrated Geraldton Cathedral. The house at Melangata was designed around the time Hawes began work on the cathedral in 1916. It is built from the ancient friable granite that stands in breakaways and outcrops across the Station. The native red dirt was used as mortar between the stones, and where the surface has become exposed lizards feel right at home and like to burrow in between the cracks. Great for wildlife, but not so good for the integrity of the structure.
The house features exposed jarrah beams brought in from the south-west by train: local timber is neither straight nor long enough for building. Here, even the fenceposts are small and crooked, a quirky variation from the pine posts and weathered jarrah of the south-west.
Hawes was primarily a spiritual architect, and this shows clearly in his design of the house. The building is open plan, with large arched entries facing the compass points. The absence of doors allows the sun to shine through, and the internal space is lit by an ever-changing array of light effects, connecting the living space with the brilliance of the outback sky. Melangata was equipped with a private chapel, in an alcove alongside the dining room. The altar window faces east and is beautifully flooded with light in the mornings. The original painted glass windows were removed by a heritage worker for conservation and misplaced, but luckily one has been relocated by a previous owner. Once maintenance work has been completed on the chapel, the panel can be re-instated in one of the internal windows, safe from the harsh desert light.
The restoration of the house is a slow process, and Jo hopes to engage the interest of volunteers for some of the larger projects. Refacing the stone and replastering the fragile ceiling cladding in the chapel are specialist jobs. Well suited for a workshop-style restoration, like the one recently held at Ellensbrook in Margaret River. The chapel ceiling was originally clad with horse hair render, and Jo fears it may soon collapse onto the altar, or onto the plaster statuettes mounted on the walls.
Volunteers are already engaged in landscape rehabilitation work, rebuilding fences and helping to keep the place functioning as a station. Farming the Murchison rangelands has become more and more of a marginal operation, on lands degraded by livestock and feral animals, and impacted by drought. Some of the Stations around Melangata have been repurchased by the Government in a well meaning attempt at rehabilitation, but essentially abandoned. Dalgaranga Station, to the east, features another fine homestead and the remains of a dam built onto a granite outcrop. The house now stands empty, and the stock watering points have been cut.
Current generations are faced with the challenge of finding innovative ways to restore, rather than abandon the land. Abandoned country doesn’t prosper: it needs loving care and restoration. Like Melangata, some of the remaining stations have adapted by taking up tourism and welcoming visitors.
For me, travelling in the Murchison was deeply inspiring. I was awed not just by the landscape, but the amazing resilience of the inland communities, faced with a beautiful but challenging environment. These days thousands of travellers ply the coast road, startled by the turquoise ocean and the brilliance of marine life teeming beneath the waves. Many visit the dramatic gorges carved by the Murchison River down near its outflow at Kalbarri. Now more and more braver souls are turning to face the desert, venturing inland to the upper Murchison. Staying with the locals makes for a rich experience for those willing to make the trek.
Images copyright Jinni Wilson