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Story + photos: Ken Eastwood
As she was turning 40, Far North Queensland cattle woman Shelly Hawkins was challenged by a friend to hike the 4250km Pacific Crest Trail in the USA. She just laughed. “Why would I do that? I’m a horserider, not a hiker,” she said.
Instead, in what seemed like a far more achievable adventure, Shelly and her friend decided to hike the 60km from the stock camp on her 1620sq km cattle station Herbertvale, north of Camooweal, to the homestead. She threw a few things into an unfamiliar backpack, and asked her husband Clint to drop them at the stock camp. “I’m a cattle girl. I’d never actually hiked anywhere before,” she says.
Hiking the distance over two days, Shelly was blown away by the beauty of the country in a way she didn’t expect. “We’d ridden and driven along that road for 20 years, and yet I noticed so much more when I was hiking,” she says. Little birds and animals she’d previously ignored, plants, and the shape and colours of the landscape affected her, as did a sense of peace away from all responsibilities. “It was having that mental space in a busy world,” she says.
As Shelly and her friend camped out that night with the meagre provisions they’d carried, they talked of how it could be better. “Imagine, if at the end of the day of hiking, there was a cold beer, a glass of wine and a cooked dinner,” she’d said. “I’d spent many years in rough stock camps, so I knew a few little things that would make things more comfortable – like a face washer and a hot shower.”
Clockwise from top: Guests cool off in a gorge in Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park only accessible through Herbert Vale; Hikers trek over bloodwood-topped red ridges; Map drawn by Yvette Salt; Lucy Heath from Mornington Peninsula, Vic, and other hikers power up a Herbertvale hill for panoramic views over north-western Qld.
An idea began forming in her head, about a way to contribute to the farm income with her own side project, separate from the family business HC Pastoral. Shelly’s children were heading off to boarding school, and she wanted to try something new. “I’d lived here 17 years and I thought I needed to develop myself,” she says. “And I thought, ‘We’ve got this beautiful country that I want to show people’.”
So, she began doing some research and quietly working on a business plan, to take small, intimate groups of hikers onto Herbertvale. When she was ready, she presented the plan to Clint. “I didn’t tell him my idea about hiking until I worked out the nuts and bolts of it,” Shelly says. “He sat there with his arms crossed, looking at me from across the table. And eventually he said, ‘Do whatever you want’. He’s been on board though since then, and he’s been a huge help.”
Shelly began with one trial walk in 2017. “They were a great group of ladies and they said, ‘This is going to work Shelly. You’ve got to do it’.” Since then, each year has become more successful, and almost every hike – held every second week from May to August – is fully booked by 6–8 people, providing enough income to pay the private school fees. “It’s been fun,” she says.
Shelly says that as she is not a hiker herself, and has done no other commercial walks, she has designed the walks to appeal to other less-experienced people, rather than being biased by what other people are offering to harder-core walkers. “I’ve gone in with no preconceptions – I’m simply doing it my way. This is how I want to show our part of the world,” she says. “Sometimes I kind of feel like a fraud. I’m just here showing people our landscape. But I’m not a walking expert – I’m not going to be able to compare brands of walking poles with you.”
The walks themselves range from a tougher 80km, five-day Big Loop, to the popular Stock Camp Hike, which involves a series of shorter day trips out from the Stock Camp, which is fully kitted out with large bell glamping tents, a flushing toilet and a hot shower. The Big Loop finishes at the Stock Camp, with smaller tents set up for guests each night on the track.
Clockwise from top: Gums in the gorge, Boodjamulla National Park. the luxury dome tents are spread out around stock camp; inside a tent;
The terrain is glorious North Queensland cattle country on the edge of Lawn Hill National Park, just 200km from Australia’s northern coastline, with orangey-red jump-ups and white snappy gums standing starkly over horizons of buffel grass and spinifex plains. Hillstop wattle glows greeny gold, and the landscape is flecked with little splashes of colour – a purple mulla-mulla here, a red Dryandra grevillea or a pink-barked bloodwood there. Proud Australian bustards strut on station tracks beside turpentine, peaceful doves waddle and rainbow bee-eaters flash their iridescent garments. There are pockets of bauhinia forest, soaks with sweet-smelling gutta-percha, and paperbark-fringed waterways where freshwater crocs lurk beside azure kingfishers, darters and egrets. Crimson and double-barred finches flit by and blue-winged kookaburras sit in the dappled shade. One of the biggest highlights is when Shelly slips guests into a secret gorge at the back of Boodjamulla National Park – a spot only accessible through their property – to a deep, refreshing waterhole beneath towering cliffs. Guests swim or laze about on the sun-baked rocks. “I like the idea that no-one else can get in here. It’s beautiful,” says awe-struck guest Louise Anasson from Canberra.
All the way from the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Rob Heath enjoys swimming in the mineral-rich gorge, which leaves a silky feeling on the skin. “It’s like Oil of Ulan,” he says. “The thing about this trip is you get access to things that otherwise you’d never see. And there are such amazing colours.” His wife, Lucy, agrees. “It’d be a painter’s dream out here,” she says.
Back at camp, Tahlia ‘Till’ Merritt is quick to serve guests with a cold sparkling mineral water and a beer, wine or something else from a huge range of gourmet teas, while the mouth-watering, hearty dinners – beef bourguignon, chicken curry or steaks from Herbertvale beef – are prepared. “She’s my offsider, or maybe I’m hers,” Shelly says. When the two are not working on a trek, they are up to their necks in mustering and other station cattle work. “It’s our busiest time on the station, so it’s a bit crazy,” Shelly says. “Ideally, I’d be doing this in the off-season, but I can’t because of the weather.”
Clockwise from top: Shelly dishes out treats at sunset drinks, with Lindsay Allan of Longford, Qld; relaxing at the stock camp; Sunsets at the stock camp.
Guests come from all over Australia, and Shelly says most are women after a remote bush experience, who just want everything organised for them, from a briefing and pick-up in Mount Isa, to individual dietary requirements. The special attention in small groups more than justifies the $3000 price tag for the big treks. “They’re so looked after – they don’t have to think about the logistics,” Shelly says. “Perhaps men aren’t as interested because they might think, ‘Oh, we’ll just drive up there and do it ourselves’.”
“It’s different country to what I’m used to,” says Brisbane guest Mary Anne McIntyre. “You don’t have to worry about food or where you’re going. You just follow and enjoy the environment.”
Clients are generally aged 40–60, but have included younger and older people. “The last group was all in their 40s and we had a group of ladies from Longreach and surrounds, and they were in their late 60s and 70s. They were an amazingly fit old crew.”
Shelly says she has really enjoyed many aspects of the trekking business, which is called Trek West. “It’s nice to be independent and showing people how special our country is. That’s such a special part of it,” she says. “And it’s really important to show people how much we love and look after our cattle.”
Once the trekking season finishes, the bell tents are put away, and the stock camp fires up again for its main business – hosting a busy, hardworking team living and mustering in a remote area. “It’s pretty much the same, but without the white tablecloths,” Shelly says. And you can tell from the look in her eyes that she’s looking forward to that, too.
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Above: enjoying the view from a hill near camp
This story is from Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2020 Issue #129