The Broken Hill Bush Mail Run is a no-frills “tour” that’s as real as they come. Nothing’s staged, nothing’s contrived. It’s just you, the ever-changing scenery, some highly eccentric mailboxes and hundreds of kilometres of honest to goodness outback. Words by David Whitely
Sheep logic works entirely differently to ours. The three woolly merinos can hear us approaching along the dirt track. They can sense the dust storm being kicked up behind the Landcruiser. They know this means danger, but as we thunder ever closer they panic and break into a run. And it seems that straight in front of the rapidly approaching vehicle is the optimum route to safety. “That,” says Steve, “is why sheep and intelligence don’t belong in the same sentence.”
Steve Green knows these stretches of red earth better than any man alive. He’s the Australia Post contractor responsible for servicing some of NSW’s most remote properties. Every Wednesday and Saturday he embarks upon his epic 550km-plus mail run across two time zones. In a day’s work, he’ll drop off letters, parcels, vital medicines and spare machinery parts to 20 outback stations. It works out at slightly over two mailboxes an hour – and many of them are designed with the sort of eccentricity that comes from being isolated in total whoop-whoop for a very long time. Steve delivers to rusting oil drums, converted fridges and – in one instance – a model of Ned Kelly, guns pointing out at the Silver City Highway.
Today I am Steve’s gate man, opening and closing the barriers designed to keep the sheep in. They may seem a little pointless in areas so vast, but it’s easier to search one giant paddock than to go over the entire property, inch-by-inch, in order to find a stray.
The average property size in these parts, sandwiched between the SA border and the Darling River to the south of Broken Hill, is around 80,000 acres. Sounds enormous, but the land is so stark, dry and barren that it’s hard to make a living off it. No crops are grown, and in some areas there’s only one sheep for every 50 acres.
To drive through it is awe-inspiring. It’s the true sunburnt country; scorched earth, slithering box trees on the horizon and proper Big Sky. But it’s not exactly paradise for the station owners. Times are tough, very little land has even a smattering of green and creeks can’t muster a trickle. As we pass a large dusty bowl, Steve says: “If Harry Harry Creek and Turkey Plain Creek go absolutely crazy at the same time, that’s Lake Woolcunda.” From his tone of voice, this hasn’t happened for some time.
After three hours, we pull into a yard full of rusting metal and old machinery. We’re at Buckalow, our morning tea stop, and it seems quite a gathering has arrived, possibly in anticipation of some new meat to talk to, more likely in anticipation of free cake. As cuppas are supped and cookies demolished, the conversation meanders all over the place. The absence of the local friendly carpet python seems to be of some concern. “We’ve not seen it in the house for some time,” says Val Gillett, the redoubtable owner of Buckalow. “It wouldn’t bite. It’d just sort-of punch you. Especially if it had a chicken in its mouth.”
As we drive on, the landscapes are extraordinary. Stark red desert backdrops turn into grey/white wintery-looking stretches as the soil changes. Kangaroos hop alongside the road or sleep behind rocks. Wedge-tailed eagles make their graceful, effortless swoops across the skyline. Emus stand and watch as the truck ploughs past. On some tracks, the only tyre marks have been made four days ago on the previous mail run. Not another soul has driven down here since.
Steve has a fairly light load today, so he’s happy to make the occasional detour up a sandbank to watch a lizard, or show off patches of spinifex that kangaroos have turned into a bed. He also tries to point out the different flora of the outback. Acacia bushes are “like ice cream for goats”, apparently.
As the stomachs start to growl, we pull over at Bindara station, a relative oasis. At one point its homestead was the hub of a million-acre property that transported huge amounts of wool down the Darling River; today it a bit of cash from agriculture, but mainly from its B&B and workstay program. The grounds around the main house are just beautiful. Roses compete with jacarandas to provide the most colour. Onions and asparagus grow in neat rows flanked by orange and lemon trees. An old chimney stands by the tree-lined riverbank and the water . . . well, it may have the colour and consistency of glugging cement, but at least it’s flowing.
As we move on towards Willotia, the furthest outpost on the run, I ask Steve why he doesn’t get a bigger truck and carry more than four tourists on each run. The demand is certainly there; in peak season he’s turning down 20 to 25 people every time.
“Because this is the truck I do the mail run in,” he says. “These are the clothes I do the mail run in. And this is how I drive. The reason people love it is because it’s not a tour. If people are out shearing, it’s because the sheep need shearing. We didn’t stop at the Ned Kelly mailbox because they didn’t have mail. Everything people see isn’t happening for their benefit. It’s happening because it’s real.”
Damn right it is. Right down to the last kamikaze merino.
Where // Departs Broken Hill every Wed & Sat around 7am, maximum four passengers, $120 per person, bookings essential,
Contacts // (08) 8087 2164, www.visitbrokenhill.com.au