We left the Warrego Highway at Mitchell in a cloud of light drizzle. The rain had come down hard over the last few days and had seemed to follow us from before we hit Roma – which was surprising. Over the last 4 months we’ve only experienced two wet days – and a look at the parched landscape told us that rain had been a stranger around these parts for a while too.
It was not a relaxing drive for us. The weather has taught us a few things about driving a bus and towing a trailer. One – stay away from fields or grass camping spots as you will very quickly get bogged and rely heavily on the kindness of eye-rolling locals to pull you out. Two – this also applies to the red dirt at the side of sealed roads which turns into what can only be described as a sponge after even the slightest sprinkle. We took a wrong turn off the highway in Muckadilla looking for the native gardens and new play equipment and found ourselves once again spinning our wheels in the mud and waiting for another friendly, chain-toting local.
Google maps had just informed us that our destination lay 49kms down Bollon Road , approximately 35 minutes drive which felt like at least 3 hours. The road itself is sealed and easy to drive but only just wide enough for 2 passing cars to fit comfortably. We had visions of meeting a road train at any moment and having to move onto the roadside to let them pass – turning our planned farmstay into a ‘camping by the road in red dirt until it dried out’ stay. Not quite as appealing a travel destination.
But something strange happened the further we travelled down the road. At first it was subtle – the landscape was changing before our eyes and we started to spot kangaroos and wallabies following our course in the bush at the side of the road. Our pace slowed. Joining the kangaroos we now saw herds of goats crossing in front of us, and a family of emus passed by just beyond the scrub.
If someone had created a postcard for outback Australia I felt that we had been drawn into it. It felt like adventure, like we were breaking new ground and exploring the back of beyond – just like the original land settlers over 150 years ago.
The closer we got to Bonus Downs the more I felt that we were entering somewhere special – somewhere intrinsically and uniquely Australian. The landscape is stunningly beautiful yet unforgivingly harsh. The signs of drought and hardship are palatable – and you can’t help but notice the vast numbers of wildlife who have succumbed to the concrete and metal predator that is the highway –not stalking its victims for sustenance but taking them for folly and laying waste to them with disregard.
We had checked in advance that the road to the farm was sealed (at this stage we were not prepared to be towed out of the dirt 3 times in as many days) and had been assured we would have no problem reaching the house.
However, as we approached the gate to the farm our pioneering spirit deserted us The road looked wet, muddy and like an invitation to sink into its swamp-like embrace for a few hours. The main farm house was about 400metres up the track – and with no phone signal we couldn’t ring for assistance or reassurance. After a while deliberating, discussing what could be in Bollon (should we just keep driving?) and reaffirming that turning around was an impossibility – the decision was made that I would hike on foot to the farm to announce our arrival.
The pioneering spirit returned – and as I walked up the drive to the house I found myself trying to picture how the first farm settlers would have felt making this same journey. For sure it felt as if the scenery hadn’t changed an iota (we have since learned that this is most definitely not the case) but to my overactive imagination it was just as the first settlers would have found the land. At first I was rushing – keen to get us settled as quickly as possible and still concerned about the impending and inevitable road train arrival – but after a few minutes the landscape once again demanded my full attention and I couldn’t help but slow down and absorb the sounds and the scenery. Unseen birdlife was singing a welcome, the wind in the trees offered a gentle hushing to the previous anxiety, and the feeling of being totally isolated and alone for just a moment was heady and overwhelmingly satisfying. In our busy lives it is very rare to gaze as far as the eye can see without hitting a manmade object, or to hear only the sounds of nature and your own thoughts, so that 5 minute walk was a serious soul soother – and just a taste of things to come over the next 2 days.
I was welcomed by our hosts for the night – Lyle and Madonna Connolly – and their beautiful old cattle dog, Devil. We piled into their farm ute for the trip back down the drive, spotting young Marley the boxer cross asleep in the back tray among a comfy looking pile of cotton plants. With no rain before yesterday’s brief shower for months and months, the Connolly’s have had to resort to finding new ways to feed their stock. Theirs is a working farm covering 30,000 hectares and they have 500 hungry cows. Luckily they have access to bore water so they don’t go thirsty – but finding sustenance for them is a different story. ‘We buy cotton by the truckload’ Madonna told me around the campfire on our first night. “It’s nutritional and satisfies their hunger – but it doesn’t come cheap.”
We could see a mountain of cotton stored outside the farmhouse under a tarp which set the Connolly’s back a hefty $13,000.
“I was going to get a new kitchen”….reflected Madonna wistfully.
Bonus Downs has a long and rich history – which you can discover through the displays, books, letters, archives and photos in the beautiful farm kitchen in the Jackeroo cottage. We learned that Sam McCaughey, who built the homestead and buildings on the property in the early 20th century, owned the world’s largest flock of sheep in 1900 due to his earth turning invention the ‘Tommy Tumbler’, enabling him to put dams down on his property and fight the drought that was bringing his industry to its knees.
The main dam at Bonus Downs is currently a fraction of its natural size. The effect of the drought can be seen all around the landscape – but despite the hardships you can tell that it will take a lot more than expensive feed and dry weather to slow Lyle and Madonna down. The history of the farm has shown that to adapt is to survive – and the Connolly’s are doing just that.
As well as working the farm – they also work their hospitality and welcome guests to stay on their property – either in the original Jackeroo cottages, in the old shearers shed (which can accommodate groups of up to 50) or camping on their powered or unpowered sites.
Pets are most welcome, and there are lots of things to keep the kids occupied – we spent time climbing trees, exploring, walking, playing, feeding the animals and toasting marshmallows by the fire. We were treated to comfortable beds, an excellent night’s sleep, welcome drinks and nibbles in the old Smoke House (full of fascinating memorabilia) and a sumptuous breakfast when we awoke in the morning (included in any Jackeroo cottage room booking).
To stay here is not just somewhere to lay your head for the night. You are immediately immersed into the life, views, sounds and stories of the Australian countryside, and despite Maddonna’s reassurance otherwise, I am quite convinced the spirits of the farm’s predecessors can still be felt late at night as the campfire smokes and the night sky lays a blanket of stars above.
The spirit of the past, the rich heritage and the warm hospitality make a stay at Bonus Downs a great escape from the everyday, a chance to slow down for a day or two and bring out your inner pioneer.
Bonus Downs is situated 45 minutes south of Mitchell, along the Warrego highway, about 7 hours west of Brisbane. For more info or to book (do it now!) head to their Queensland farmstay website.
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