From Hells Gate we drive 4hrs west across the Northern Territory border via the Savannah Way, part of Australia's National Highway One, although here mostly a red dirt and dust road of sand holes, bulldust and corrugations. The turnoff is a 25km track to 'SEVEN EMU', a sprawling Gulf station of 1665 square miles right on the Robinson River... and a unique partnership with the AUSTRALIAN WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY.
OUR CAMP is perched on 30m red cliffs high above the Robinson, a favoured haunt of saltwater crocodiles, two 4m beauties making an appearance in the first hour. Later we gaze down on metre long queenfish that cruise towards the river mouth bounded by distant dunes on a wild Gulf coast.
For most of the day the wind moans through white cyprus pines and the afternoon sun throws a shimmering silver sheen over tussled river ripples. At night we listen to the ratchet drone of crickets, the splash of feeding fish, the cries of night birds and the crackle of the campfire - not a skerrick of wind now, and a never-ending magic carpet of stars. The air is cool after another 35degC winter day, the fire's smokey smell loaded with the perfume of dust and dry wood.
The old stockmen facilities are rustic... a flat iron roof on round wooden posts, a long drop toilet with sunset river views, and a 44gal rusted drum 'donkey' fire-fed heater for luxurious hot showers.
The owner of Seven Emu is Frank, a Gulf country Garawa man in his early 60s, with a knowing black face, the wispy line of a mustache and white hair under a tussled black hat with wide Gulf brim. The blue shirt is of a Wrangler Western check, the worn jeans of faded denim, the slip-on shoes tarnished and dusty.
And Frank's a man who doesn't seem to miss anything, has a mischievous streak, his sharp eyes brown, narrowing now and then as if sizing up his audience. I ask about his dad, who bought this place, and Frank screws up his eyes, thoughtful as he remembers his father. "You know, the best advice he gave me was to always talk to the boss when doin' business... keep low and stay out of trouble."
I'm also interested in Ludwig Leichhardt, the famed German botanist/explorer who came this way in the 1840s, naming 'Seven Emu' after a successful hunt, before disappearing without a trace on the return journey. Frank nods. "Yeah... lot's come here interested in that bloke. Good man I reckon. Never shot a blackfella, and asked them about the animals, plants, and the lay of the land."
We take a rough, winding track in Frank's battle-worn Landcruiser ute, out to the old place... across sandy ruts, bumps and dried-out crossings - the homestead paddock deserted now due to a lack of reliable water.
Frank parks his truck and we make our escape from the searing midday sun... to a grand stand of mangoes reminiscent of a giant cathedral, tall thick columns of trunks, their canopies melding as one. Their shady shroud hangs cool and restful over what's left here - some tumbled-down shed walls, some crooked asbestos sheeting and the overgrown remains of his mum's vegetable garden.
Frank talks fondly of his mother, caring for the family and that vegie garden, but dying at only 61yo... and he points to one particular tree. "See that tree? I was born under that one." He tells a story of his dad leaving home, riding over 500km east to the Queensland frontier Gulf town of Normanton, with a young Frank in tow and his mum left home with a brand new baby. "Yeah, long way that trip, me just a baby." He smiled. "To give me mum a rest dad said. And with me just startin' to walk, reckon he should have got father of the year!"
Our host points to a depleted pond surrounded by scrub just below the paddock and we amble down to the water's edge. It's been a good wet season he says. Frank stoops down to pick up a handful of wet sand, holding it up and gazing intently at the palm of his hand. "In the old days, there were bugs and bait in this sand." Frank frowns. "But nothin' happenin' now." He falls quiet for a moment as a gust of wind rustles the mango leaves. He tugs at the brim of his hat with one hand, tossing the sand over the water with the other. "And, when the sand hit the surface the fish would always be comin' to the top back then... to see what was happenin'. These days, nothin' much goin' on there either."
I look at the pond, Sue and I both thinking the same thing - there are tadpoles in the water after all, so is that not a good thing? But Frank has been down this road with tourists before. "Cane toads," he says with a hint of contempt, then moves on to another story - when his brother and him encountered a giant crocodile. "He was a big one that saltie, maybe 6m or so... an old one for sure." His eyes follow along the sand bank where we stand. "We was camped on a bank, my brother and me, and this big fella rushed up with his mouth open. Lots of teeth." There's a smile from Frank, then a nervous cough. "Scared the hell out of us. Right between us he went, then just keeled over, dead. We found 20-toads in his belly."
We look at each other, then at Frank, more than a little depressed.
Frank is sad at what has happened to this country, the introduction of pests that degrade the land - from assorted weeds to South American cane toads, feral cats and camels - after 65,000 years the sudden neglect to properly care for the land.
But Frank is grateful for his good luck too, the Seven Emu pastoral lease purchased in 1953 by his visionary father, an Aboriginal, self-made, self-educated man with no entitlement to vote back then, and Indigenous Australians not granted full citizenship rights until 1968.
By all accounts FRANK'S FATHER was an exceptionally hard worker, a horse trader and cattle drover with a plan... striking it lucky by winning some money "on the horses", raising 11-kids and insisting they be formally educated... Seven Emu being the only pastoral land lease ever purchased by an Australian Aboriginal.
Frank smiles from the corner of his mouth, and his brown eyes sparkle. "You know what?" He leaves me no time to answer. "My old dad lived till his 90s, and always said that I needed to take care of country... that city fellas like you would arrive one day and pay me money to tell stories and show them around."