Lake Nash Station | Flying To The Ends Of The Earth | Arthur Williams

“My knee sticking out from the side of the helicopter looking over endless blue skies and featureless flat terrain. Hearing the motor humming, floating above the ground I felt entirely content.” Arthur Williams, Lake Nash Station.

Lake Nash Station Australia Arthur Williams

Australia, as we all know, is vast! Its land mass is roughly 7.7million sq km and has almost 37,000 km of Coast.

Whilst traveling into the heart of this country the word vast is one I’d be saying to myself and the camera many times.

Lake Nash cattle station was the most isolated place we visited by far. It’s a 4 hour drive from the nearest significant town, Mount Isa, and just under 400 miles from Alice Springs. Popping to the shops for a pint of milk would be an all day expedition! That’s if you don’t fly there of course, which at the station is an option. An option that we would be using quite a lot during our stay.

Let’s start from the beginning though – our arrival by air to Mount Isa; it’s a pretty big town that’s built entirely around the metal ore mines. Alone in the middle of the desert, it always seems so strange to me that a really busy little hub can be so alive while surrounded by nothing for hundreds of miles. Everyone who lives there either works for the mines directly or in the services that cater for it and the miners. I’d say it had a population of around 15,000- 20,000 so you get an idea of the scale. It was here that we met up with our two Australian fixers/drone camera operators and spent the night to have a pint, decent meal and watch the rugby!

After a good rest we headed to the Lake Nash station. This final leg of the journey was by car, giving me a chance to see the real Australia from the ground. It was about a four hour journey into the northern territories. The first hour was on hard asphalt roads but then we hit the real Australian bush road which was just dirt and sand. The noise, dust cloud and stones that were being hurled up by our crew car in front made the journey quite rough.

A car in the outback that didn’t have a cracked windscreen was either very rare or less than a week old! Along the route in places it was like travelling back in time. Occasionally we’d drive past rusty, abandoned old Chevy trucks, endless blown out tyres, battered old wooden shacks and every now and then a sign post that had been potted with bullet holes. When stationary there was no noise other than a very slight wind. For some reason, this silence that you only ever experience when many miles from habitation always puts a smile on my face. Perhaps because it’s such a rare experience or maybe I’m just a sad recluse?!
photo 1
On the flip side though I also imagined what would happen if we became stranded with no transport. For a while at least I’d like to think of it as being an awesome challenge and an adventure to survive in the bush for real. But when you consider the temperature, distance and lack of vegetation you start to think how long you’d last. Would my Marine survival training all come back so we’d find it just a large inconvenience, or would we perish? When, on this barren deserted road, would the next vehicle come past? Probably not today. It’s at that point you realise how quickly a small problem could spiral into a life threatening situation. I’m never one to over dramatise things but in the bush it’s a very real possibility. . .

Fortunately for us, the cars started just fine and we continued our journey to the station.

As soon as we arrived we were met by Sarah. Having spent so much time communicating to organise our trip, it was good to finally put a face to the name. From first impressions Sarah and Fred were not what I expected. Living in the heartland of the Australian bush I pictured them to be much more weathered and older in appearance than their age, but they were as energetic and youthful as their years and the whole team felt very welcomed into their home….and what a beautiful home it was! It is very much like a desert mirage, a totally green and luscious home and farm compound surrounded by a sea of red and yellow sand desert.

It was obvious that they have very deep wells down to the water plate as well as water storage facilities to capture as much of the rain they get over only a few days a year. More than anything else, water is the fuel that keeps this station from drying up and becoming uninhabitable. They need not only enough for the farm workers but the cattle spread across the station and they’ve got life out there down to such a tee that there’s even enough left over to keep the beautiful lawns and flowers flourishing.

Keeping the cattle watered is one of the major challenges and responsibilities for Fred and his workers. But this being ‘Flying to the Ends of the Earth‘ the solution to that involves, you’ve guessed it, aeroplanes and I got the opportunity to help Fred with this vital weekly task.
Over Fred and Sarah’s 3million square acres of farm they rear around 32,000 head of cattle which is predominately shipped to the china market. It’s a mammoth job. Fred, who’s a pilot himself, flies from point to point, checking ‘bore holes’ – wells dug down to the water plate which use a simple windmill to pump the water up to a pond for the cattle.

The aeroplane was an old Cessna 210 which had great performance, variable pitch propeller and retractable undercarriage. All of this combined with a meaty 310hp engine meant it flew like the clappers. To visually inspect the bore holes, we flew at low level and so felt every bit of its speed. It’s times like this in the cockpit that you realise why you became a pilot, though there’s an essential job to be done it is a huge amount of fun! And I don’t believe that Fred will ever get bored of spending hours this way.

It wasn’t yet dawn, but we were mustering in the canteen on the farm to enjoy a cattle station breakfast of steak and beans. We met some of the farm workers who we would be shadowing that day and they were a friendly bunch but all very young. I don’t think any of them were over thirty.

It was one of the most important days on their farming calendar – we’d spend it mustering the cattle into a single pen from one of the station’s six paddocks. It sounds like a tough job but then you think about the numbers involved and the distances to be covered and it seems more than tough – it starts to get a little daunting. When Fred mentions this all has to be done in one day you start to understand the early morning call!

So we all split into our different syndicates with different but equally crucial jobs to achieve. The jack and jillaroo’s (basically Australian for cowboys and cow girls) go off either on horse back or in a ‘ute’ (a pick up truck with cattle bars)

I’d again be pairing up with Fred for the day riding shotgun in a tiny robin R22 helicopter. I helped wheel the little rotorcraft from the hanger and remember thinking it was just a quad bike for the air. As I sat in my wheelchair next to it I came almost level with the roof! It really was basic. But bloody brilliant! No side doors, simple controls and nothing that wasn’t essential to flight. We were airborne by the time the sun was rising and in formation with another muster pilot. We skimmed over the fences and trees and gently rose to about 150 feet max. For a little helicopter with two grown men up front it had perky performance, didn’t struggle at all to climb and was remarkably nimble. You could throw it all over the place and we did!

A vivid memory that I will undoubtedly take to the grave was sitting in the left hand seat with my harness on, my knee sticking out from the side of the helicopter looking over endless blue skies and featureless flat terrain. Hearing the motor humming, floating above the ground I felt entirely content.

Arthur Williams | Pilot | Adventurer | Helicopter | Lake Nash Station | Australia

In the distance, I could see a plume of dust rising. At first I thought it was the start of cattle being herded towards the pen but as it drew closer I could tell it was moving quite quickly and in a very straight direction. It was a road train. It was an awesome sight watching this humongous truck with three trailers hurtling towards its next destination (probably Fred’s farm to deliver the weekly essential supplies of food and beer!) Fred threw the helo towards it and we hovered alongside for a short while before peeling off. How many times in life are you going to get the chance to do that!

Gradually as the day went on I got a sense of what was happening for hundreds of miles around me. Jack and jillaroo’s were rounding up the cattle that are free to roam around the paddock seeking what little food there is in this arid countryside. As they pulled in closer to the final pen location you could feel the tempo rise. Around midday we stopped for lunch and landed next to a bore hole with the other R22 pilot. Shortly thereafter we were joined by Sarah and the rest of filming gang. It was clear that the afternoon would be more demanding than the morning as everything came to a head. Before long we jumped back into our choppers and headed towards the herds to help the men and women on horse back guide the cattle into the direction they needed to go. I think as the cows started to group together they could sense what was happening to them – that the humans wanted to stick them in a metal box again – and were getting more agitated and jumpy.

This is where the helicopters came into their own. Instantly responsive and very intimidating to the animals they had the ability to persuade them to move in the right direction. I must say at this point  our helicopter was not used to muster. For one, Fred was inexperienced in helicopters and it’s illegal to muster with more than one person aboard. So we merely hovered on a flank to oversee the action. Watching the other pilot flying around the cattle and instantly responding to break away stragglers to get them back into the pack was awesome!

Flying the majority of the time below hedgerow level and occasionally using the skids to literally push the cows in the right direction was mind blowing. It flew against everything I’d ever learnt whilst training to fly an aeroplane which was if there’s any doubt or sense of risk, avoid it like the plague! There’s no doubt that they knew exactly what they were doing, were highly trained and had thousands of hours mustering experience under their belts. But that aside it took huge balls, and a lot of natural skill to do it correctly and predict what the animals would do.

Cattle Herding | Lake Nash Station | Australia | Flying to the Ends of the Earth | Arthur Williams

Finally as the day drew to a close the last of the beasties were secure in the pen ready to be processed and looked after in any way they needed to be, from checking for calves inside them, to medicine being administered or injuries patched up. It was an incredibly long day but one that had to be done properly.

I take my hat off to Fred, Sarah and all the team on Lake Nash Station for pulling off such a massive task as well as having the inconvenience of a filming crew to look after. They were throughout the most professional and accommodating people you could hope to meet. But perhaps above all their love for animals and their life in the bush was clear.

Before we arrived I think we all wondered how anyone could live in such a secluded place but after we left we were all perhaps jealous in some way of the lives they lead.

It was once again time to hit the hard road and head to our next destination. . .the wild undiscovered jungles of Papua!