We arrived in Hillston at the very beginning of the cherry picking season. That meant we were given a few days off here and there while waiting for the cherries to ripen. On one such day Mike and I decided to drive to Willandra National Park.
The park isn’t the easiest place to get to. First you need to be out as far as Hillston (about 500km west of Sydney)… and then you need the patience to drive on a gravel track for several kilometers. I think it was at least an hour on that bumpy road (with plenty of emu spottings). Considering all that, it was no surprise that we were the only visitors that day.
Willandra National Park is unique in that (I think) it’s the only national park that used to be a prosperous sheep ranch. In the early 1900s Willandra was famous for the high quality of its Merino flock. It won various awards and reached its peak in the 1920s-30s when it sheared over 90,000 sheep. Over the years for various reasons the business declined. Finally, in the early 1970s the owner at the time failed to renew the lease. At this point, the land was turned over to the national park system. Later in the 1990s, several buildings were restored. Now some of the buildings are even available as affordable accommodation.
We enjoyed exploring the “abandoned” buildings on a very hot day. It was just us and the kangaroos, though we did spot a dreaded brown snake (from the car, thankfully). First we visited what I assume was the “shearing” facilities. I wish someone knowledgeable had been around to explain all the interesting looking contraptions. I got the general idea of how it was done… but would have loved a clearer picture.
Next we ventured over to the Shearers Quarters. These quarters were built in 1936 to union standards at the time. I like how “union standards” included having a verandah. Of course, over time those standards changed and quarters like this would no longer be suitable. (I feel like that’s obvious if you peek inside the window, but the signage made the point so I’m passing that information on to you!)
The next buildings I explored were the mess hall and kitchen. At this point Mike was off checking out something else. It felt a bit creepy to just open the door and walk right into the kitchen. Kind of like a horror movie set in the outback was about to begin. Luckily, nothing like that happened! Just an old refrigerator and lots of artifacts (broken glass) sitting about on the shelves and counters.
The mess hall was the entertainment capital of the ranch. The men would gather here to eat, drink, tell stories, and beat the you-know-what out of each other (or as the signage puts it, have “wild disturbances”). Apparently, sheep shearers were a rowdy bunch and rivalries were a very real thing. I suppose being in the middle of no where can do that to a person.
At this point it was quite warm out and we felt like we’d seen enough although there are a few more buildings scattered around the property.
Visiting Willandra National Park felt like a very Australian day. I’m pretty sure we even sang along with this Aussie icon as we drove along those dusty tracks.