In 2003, we worked the tourist season at Adels Grove, in far NW Qld. During the course of this, we met O, who managed a new, small, tourism venture at a remote property in the NT Gulf country. He invited us to visit there, with a view to seeing if we would like to work there in 2004.
We did drive up there and camped in our tent for a week, finding out about the safari camp operation and the property in general. I came away with plenty of doubts about the conditions in which I would be expected to cater for guests. John came away very keen.
During 2003 at Adels, I also encountered A, the Melbourne based owner of a small aviation company, that conducted tours to interesting and remote places. I had mentioned Pungalina to him, as a possible new stop over on his tours of the Top End.
The 2004 employment did not come to pass. When O contacted us he simply said that things had changed and what would happen in 2004 was uncertain. And so we went touring in WA.
O contacted us again, late in 2004, to say that the way forward was more clear and to ask if we might still be interested. When we said possibly, he replied that the new owner of Pungalina – A, the aviation company owner, would contact us to interview us about working there.
In 1999, the Pungalina pastoral lease had been bought by a Melbourne man, in a kind of partnership with O, who scouted the property for him. R provided the finance; O would live there as a caretaker, and do necessary development work, like building an airstrip.
As we’d found out, in 2003, R and O had started the small tourism venture there – a safari camp for small groups. When we’d been to look at it, that year, it seemed quite ad hoc and reliant on young backpacker type staff.
Unfortunately, in 2004, R had to sell the place, as part of a divorce settlement. It was bought by A and his wife S – as dovetailing neatly with their air tour business. They had visions of it becoming a significant destination on their tours. They maintained a similar arrangement with O – he would live at Pungalina and do the required development work, in a form of partnership.
2005 would be the first full operational season under this new ownership.
A and S came to see us at home, and I made a light lunch for them. We discussed their expectations for the way the safari camp should be run. I sensed an undercurrent that they were looking for a more professional, less casual approach. S seemed particularly unimpressed that when they called in there, last year, with a tour group, they were fed pumpkin soup by the backpacker staff person – and not much else. It had not made a great initial impact! But maybe they also were not fully aware of the issues of managing somewhere so remote?
It was agreed that we would take on the roles of managing the safari camp and looking after guests – although obviously O would still be in overall charge and have the key role in guiding visitor activities.
We would receive the same pay as at Adels – $350 clear a week, and keep. Industry super would be paid. We would have 1.5 days off a week, but would take those flexibly, when it suited the camp needs.
One very good piece of news was that A had bought, last year, a second hand commercial gas stove and oven, and had it transported in, with considerable difficulty, late in the year. So the cooking facilities would not be the hole in the top of a fire drum that I’d feared. However, A still seemed to expect some “bush cooking” – for the atmosphere. He mentioned barramundi wrapped in ti-tree leaves and cooked in a fire pit! Really? Unless O could do that, it wasn’t going to happen! I had visions of unwrapping fish charcoal in front of hungry guests.
A clearly wanted us to provide greater feedback about what was going on up there, than he had received to date. This, we could see, had the potential for a rather difficult situation for us, in terms of loyalties, but was something we’d have to figure out as we went along.
They also mentioned that O was arranging for a mechanic friend of his from northern Victoria, to go and spend two or three months there, later in the year, working on the camp vehicles – particularly on building what A called the “billy cart” – a large, open air vehicle that could transport 12-14 people at a time around some of the property’s tracks.
It certainly seemed that S and A were serious about turning the Pungalina camp into a quality experience for guests.
So our plans firmed up. We would drive up to Adels Grove and work there over the busy Easter period and after, until such time as the Gulf Track was opened. O would make contact to arrange for us then to drive into Pungalina.
We would manage the safari camp there, then, for the season – maybe as late as October or November – then come home.
M at Adels was very happy that we were available to work in the lead up to Easter and beyond. She accepted the uncertainty about how long this would be for.
A arranged with us that we would take some things that they had bought, up for the camp, and they would in return pay our fuel and accommodation costs en route. There were new towels, some hot water bottles (I guess mid-year nights could be chilly), water drinking bottles, some pairs of boot protectors, small mirrors, water shoes, snorkelling masks.
It was agreed that John would make some of his folding wooden tables to take up for use at the accommodation tents. He would be paid for these. We would buy some solar powered lights for around the camp. I would get some staple food supplies in Cloncurry on the way through – non perishables, of course. All such costs would be reimbursed.
S and A seemed very open to the idea that there may be quite a lot needed to bring the camp up to the standard they wanted.
A folder containing a draft of their Procedures Manual was dropped in for us. Clearly, a good deal of thought had gone into this and I found it very useful, if a little daunting! I thought that, in parts, it was perhaps geared to backpacker workers – who had not worked in hospitality before, or in remote parts. There was quite a lot of emphasis on cleanliness! And on behaving like staff, rather than guests….
The property was 500,000 acres. It was a pastoral lease, but seemed to have never really been operating as a successful venture – too small for those parts! It originally was part of neighbouring Seven Emu Station, to its west, but was of such little value to the operation that it was separated off and sold as a separate lease in about 1971. During the 70’s some improvements were made to the place, as was supposed to happen for pastoral leases: some yards were built, some parts fenced, a large shed/house built, some cattle were run. In the early 80’s, a government built track provided access to the “homestead” area. By the mid 80’s, however, any occupancy or work on Pungalina had been abandoned. The destocking for Brucellosis and TB in the early 80’s appeared to have been the final thing making the property unviable.
Apparently there had. at some stage way back, been a home of sorts, further north than the 70’s home site, on Pungalina Creek, a tributary of the Calvert. This was over the western side of the Calvert, on Seven Emu, and presumably accessed from that side. Some mango trees still remained there.
Pungalina contained a range of landform types and habitats. Sandstone escarpments, low limestone ranges with caves under some sections. Some wetland areas were filled by rain events, some were spring fed and permanent. There was the riverine environment along the Calvert. Clearly, it was rich in animal and bird life. The decades of neglect, coupled with the fact that it was never really consistently grazed, had allowed the place to return to virtually its original state, which made it really quite unique.
In the late 1990’s, O was working with a hunting safari business in the Gulf country and it was there that he met the client who expressed a wish to own a cattle station. O found that Pungalina could be available and they went and inspected it – as best they could, given the years of neglect of its few tracks. R was convinced that the property had potential to fulfill his dreams of having a cattle station and perhaps a hunting safari venture.
So R purchased the lease and O moved onto the property in late 1999. He occupied the old tin shed “house”, set on a bluff above the Calvert River.
The initial idea of running a cattle operation did not happen. There were some feral cattle on the place – left over from earlier times and probably some strays from neighbouring Seven Emu and Wollogorang. Early on, they did a muster of the place, with the help of staff from Seven Emu, and sold off the feral beasts that were rounded up, excepting a small herd destined to provide meat for O and any tourism venture.
O had a massive array of tasks before him, after he moved in. He made the old tin hut and the elderly caravan that was there, habitable. A verandah went onto part of the hut. One end of it was to be the living quarters. He lined inside the tin roof with great sheets of paperbark – effective insulation, but I always hated the thoughts of what was actually living up in there! Most of the tin walls of this part of the original hut were replaced by a low wall of mud bricks with shade cloth above it completing the wall. One full, solid wall of mud brick provided the framework for the wood burning stove and a sink.
The other end retained its tin walls and was the store area and garage for his vehicle. An old caravan – the Silver Bullet – once used to house mobile road work crews – provided a bathroom and toilet (once there was water connected), a spare bedroom and another bedroom or – for a while – schoolroom; in our time there it served as an office. Another old caravan behind the house was vaguely habitable.
O had installed running water to the house and Silver Bullet – from a pump in the river that fed into a tank he’d put up on a nearby low hill. A diesel generator eventually provided electricity.
It should be noted that there was little to work with when he’d moved in to the place. Everything he needed had to be gotten, somehow, to either Wollogorang Roadhouse or the Redbank Mine, and then he would drive the 64km long, rough, sandy track to the Gulf Road to go collect whatever. This was only possible, of course, in the Dry season.
Initially, O had no means of contact with the outside world, but eventually, through Telstra, a sat phone service was installed.
An early imperative was to construct an airstrip – for Flying Doctor access as well as access to the outside world in the Wet season. O’s big old bulldozer was brought from storage at Charleville. R helped source some second hand machinery. Then, a new machinery shed needed to be built.
The airstrip build was a massive achievement by O. The space for it was made 500 metres wide and the strip was 1.5kms long. The area had to be flattened, huge rocks moved out of the way. It was made even with gravel – plenty of that around the river – then it was rolled, watered, rolled some more.
Unfortunately, just after the airstrip was finished, there was the huge Wet season of 2000/01 and over 100 inches of rain fell on Pungalina. The airstrip was washed away by the flooding Calvert River. It was rebuilt by O and serviceable by mid 2001. Apart from air access in a medical emergency, that also meant service by the weekly mail plane from Tennant Creek, and an alternative way for guests to come in. Once O bought a small light plane, he was able to use that to scout the property, find various features worth checking out and plot where access tracks might go.
A vegetable garden was set up – sort of; it was fenced to keep the feral cattle out. Banana and pawpaw trees were encouraged to grow around the house.
O fenced a sizeable area that would become a paddock for some cattle, where it would be easier to find and kill a beast, as needed.
Then the tasks were exploration, track making, setting up a camp to accommodate the tourists that O and R had decided the venture would focus on. By the time we were there in 2005, O had gained the agreement of the owner of Seven Emu, and made a rough track from the northern border of Pungalina, through Seven Emu, to the tidal section of the lower Calvert River, close to the coast.
So, after a mammoth and difficult endeavour, that would have defeated many mortals, the safari camp tourism venture started in 2003.