Range of possibilities

Five generations of Henerys have called the tangerine mountains and pebbled gorges of the Flinders Ranges home on Alpana station.


The gleaming white reflected radiance that is the salty parchment of Lake Torrens is a shimmering mirage in the rear-view mirror as the short drive from Parachilna probes east into the tangerine serrations of the Flinders Rangers, glowing like lava in the afternoon sun. Entry into this steep-walled compound of hills is via the winding and wending,

gum-lined and pebble-bedded Parachilna Gorge, which twists and tumbles through the centre of Alpana station as the gravel road traverses and crisscrosses its way to the township of Blinman, SA.

“I came in off the bus from Parachilna on the western edge of the ranges when I was 17 and I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’” reflects Sally Henery at the kitchen table of Alpana. “The family I was to governess for picked me up at Parachilna and drove me in to their property, Gum Creek, through the Parachilna Gorge and even though I was seeing it all for the first time, I honestly thought to myself, ‘This is home’. It’s felt like that ever since.”

That was 40 years ago, which – in outback terms – should nearly qualify Sally as a local. Her husband, John David (known as David) meets local criteria, being the fifth generation of Henerys at Alpana, which the family has owned, managed, expanded and adapted since Paddy Henery took on the block in 1878.

“Paddy was a refugee from the potato famine in Ireland and came to Australia at the age of 12,” Sally says. “Years later he and [his wife] Ann had 10 children, which included 2 sons. After losing a son in the Boer War, the succession of Alpana went to the remaining son, John. Every generation of the Henerys, except for David’s great-grandfather, has produced a single son [David’s grandfather had a younger brother] so there are 4 generations of Henerys in the Blinman cemetery, and, counting current generations, 7 in the lineage of Alpana station.”

The carriage of Alpana station and the uniformity of progeny aren’t the only similarities to span the generations. Both the headstones in the cemetery and the current living, breathing males on Alpana have a remarkable commonality. 

“They’re all called John, all of them, John Something Henery,” Sally says. “It can be hard to explain, but every second generation uses their second name and every other generation uses their first name, so David’s dad was ‘John’, and David is actually John David, but called David, while our son is John Warwick and known as John, again. He has 2 children; Elsie who is 4, and a 2-year-old son, John Patrick, who is known as Patrick. But they’re all John really. It makes it interesting on the Medicare card.”

David and John share the stock management on Alpana, which runs Merinos and a more opportunistic goat-harvesting operation, partly for the income, but mostly to remove the additional watering and grazing pressure from the semi-arid landscape.

“We’ve been running Merinos since 1882,” David says. “We’re running a couple of thousand here on Alpana and another thousand at Castle Springs [a second property just south of Hawker]. That produces about 70 or 80 wool bales and then we’ll turn off a few hundred head each year, so the operation is essentially a self-replacing flock, which is about the right size for the place. The goats we clean out as often as we can, but they keep coming back.”

With an average rainfall of 275mm, Alpana has a carrying capacity of 5.26ha per sheep, with the fragile soil producing hardy perennial grasses and generally low shrubs, mallee and native pine. In the endless protuberances of the Flinders Ranges there are networks of ephemeral creek systems that provide infrequent and unreliable water, which the white-skinned river red gums flourishing along all the twisting valleys have adapted to over thousands of years. Interspersed with a handful of shallow but permanent mountain springs, it is not a landscape where you would immediately think of cropping, but that’s exactly what Alpana was conceived for.

“When the land around Blinman was surveyed by the government, the Henerys were the first ones to buy these newly surveyed, so-called ‘farms’ in 1878, which they called Alpana Farm,” Sally says. “The idea was to grow fodder crops for the bullock teams, which were taking copper from the Blinman mine through to Port Augusta. The average farm size was 150 acres [60.7ha]. The site they picked was 133 acres [53.8ha], but it had a spring in the creek, which is why they picked it. They farmed wheat and lucerne for a few years, but when they put the train line through [the old Ghan line] that was the end of Paddy Henery’s farming idea because fewer bullock teams were required. That’s when he took up what’s now called the woolshed paddock – it was an amalgamation of a number of those little farming leases that the SA government combined and released as a perpetual lease; it was around 5,000 acres [202.3ha] – and went back into sheep, which was his expertise. We’re up to 60,000 acres [24,281ha] now with the last purchase being made in 1973, and we purchased about 6,000 acres [2428ha] in 1990 between Hawker and Quorn called Castle Springs, where we breed wether lambs for stocking Alpana.”

The Flinders Ranges is an ancient geological wonder spanning around 430km from Port Pirie in the south, to the dry, salt crusted, and Pleistocene fossil-filled Lake Callabonna in the north-east of the ranges. The area welcomes well over 500,000 visitors annually (638,000 in 2021) for various reasons, including bushwalking, bird-watching, 4WDing, camping and biking. Along with the Ikara–Flinders Ranges National Park, privatised tourism has long been a feature of the area where some of the farm- or station-stays are clocking up half a century of operation. Alpana’s contribution is slightly less than that, but an important component of the station and a complementary addition to the pastoral enterprise.

“We started the tourism operation about 30 years ago,” Sally says. “David’s dad [John] started our tourism venture with upgraded shearers quarters and campsites and 4WD tours in a troop carrier that he purchased specially. The shearers were happy about the upgraded facilities, and we shear in November now, which is outside the normal tourist season, so the 2 operations don’t clash.”

The tourism operation now includes shearers’ quarters accommodation, 4 ensuite powered sites where visitors can camp or park a van and have their own private facilities. There are also powered sites for self-contained vans, and 2 large camping areas with up to 6 camp sites in each. Also, tucked away in the hills is the Nungawurtina Hut bush retreat, which David’s dad and David built in 2002, and David and Sally have recently upgraded and renovated. This small shepherd-style hut is at the near-end of a 7km winding track, which, because of the 20 or so dry creek crossings, takes about 35 minutes to traverse.

“It’s a magic little place,” Sally says. “It’s like a little log cabin in the woods with a fireplace and bunk beds. There’s a toilet, water tank and instant hot water shower. It takes a bit of a trek to get into, not extreme 4WDing, but you need a bit of clearance. Part of the attraction is that it’s remote, so once you go in there you just stay there and enjoy the solitude.”

Sally has taken over the legacy of the troop carrier station tour, now conducted in a much more salubrious 200 series Landcruiser, with occasional tag-alongs. The tour weaves through the property, showing off the pastoral operation, different landscapes and varying vegetation along the way. Sally’s friendly and informative chat is counterpointed by the spectacular beauty of the ranges, which hide expectantly behind each small hill and leap into frame along each gum-lined valley. From the high vantage point of Mt Nielsen where a solar-panelled GRN (Government Radio Network) tower and UHF radio repeater station take full advantage of the 700m elevation, the ranges cascade away to the west, a bruise-coloured zig-zag against the pale blue sky and sliding along the colour spectrum in each subsequent line of hills from greens back to russet reds. Here, too, standing adjacent to the tall aerials and solar panels, are curious assemblages of stone thought to predate European settlement.

“There’s quite a bit of Adnyamathanha Aboriginal cultural heritage on Alpana,” Sally says. “There are etching sites, or petroglyphs, and there are these tall square, hollow rock structures; no one is really sure exactly what they are. We’ve heard they could represent a rain-making connection marker for the Adnyamathanha people, but they could point toward water. There’s a permanent spring in that area and you can see those stone arrangements from a long way off.”

The structures are recorded in 2 separate papers from the 1920s and 1930s by ethnologist C.P.Mountford. The slate towers are rare, but not isolated examples of stone structures found right throughout the Flinders Ranges and represent a timeless connection to the land for the Adnyamathanha people, which is also celebrated in a partnership between Alpana station and the Traditional Owners in the region.

“Kristian [Coulthard, who operates the Blinman-based Aboriginal Cultural business, WADNA, issue 145] and David do a shared walk into one of the cultural sites on Alpana,” Sally says. “It’s about a 1km walk into the site, which has petroglyphs, and Kristian interprets the site and explains the etchings, while David can talk to the pastoral history of the property. They’re good friends and they riff off each other, which the visitors enjoy.”

The homestead complex at Alpana features 3 houses and a series of sheds and outbuildings before morphing into the nearby shearers’ quarters and subsequent ensuite powered sites and camping areas. The oldest of these is the original ‘pine and pug’ homestead, soon to be converted into an on-station museum, where the intriguing story of the Henerys can be stored and displayed. This building is constructed from locally available materials, with vertical native pine forming most of the external and internal walls, sealed up with a clay/lime mix known colloquially as ‘pug’. In this 4-roomed building Paddy and Ann Henery, perhaps 6 children and all the extended family lived for the first 60 years of station life until a newer, grander stone homestead was constructed in 1939, followed by an additional house in the early 1960s.

“It would have been a tight squeeze at times, and I suppose people slept inside and outside on the verandah,” says Sally, navigating between buildings. “David’s great-grandfather and grandfather moved into the new stone house when that was built and the old original house was no longer fit for purpose but became the men’s and shearers’ quarters. Later, the newest house was built for David’s parents when they married and subsequently extended in the mid-1990s. We lived in that when we were first married, and that’s where John and his family live now.”

The arrangement is what the original proponents of the nuclear family concept would have described if all their dreams came true. A diverse family business sustaining all involved with succession transitioning gradually and respectfully across generations. Parents who become grandparents living close but not together, and a new generation growing strong in the clean, crisp air of the SA outback. It’s something that 32-year-old John can reflect on and count his blessings. 

“I suppose Alpana is all I’ve ever really known,” he says. “I did primary school on School of the Air at home, and high school boarding at Port Augusta, but I couldn’t get home quick enough. It’s always home, you don’t really know anything different, but here I know where I can go and what I can do, so it’s familiar, with a hell of a lot of freedom.” John and his wife Keziah and their 2 children, Elsie and (John) Patrick, continue in the same tradition. Keziah guides Elsie through her Kindy of the Air assignments and is supported by Sally and David as John takes on more responsibilities on the property, including being the local repair shop for both locals and tourists. 

“I’m actually a mechanic by trade,” John says. “I started my school-based apprenticeship as a diesel mechanic and was a second-year apprentice by the time I finished school. I’ve got a shed set up with a hoist and all the tools I need. It’s handy for locals and tourists – you get a few breakdowns of people testing out their 4WDs; it keeps me occupied.”

They’re all occupied on Alpana, active in a diverse life for their family, the community, the region, and the property. It’s one of the great anomalies of the outback that people who don’t live there never quite grasp. Things are always busy in the bush. There are sporting teams that travel hundreds of kilometres to play (John is the president of the Blinman Sports Club and a keen cricketer), a diverse multitude of jobs to do, streams of visitors to welcome and look after, stock and land to care for, and a family to nurture and grow. The days are long and full, and the sleeps are sound, and whether you are wedded to the soil for generations or recognise it as a place to call home on your first visit if you’re lucky enough to notice it, there’s happiness to enjoy. Genuine, tired, dusty, happiness.