Larissa was staring at a beautiful a tree frog; its tiny, bright green body with huge black eyes and cute little pods on its feet that were perfectly designed by nature to stick to any surface. There was only one problem . . . those cute little pod-feet were perched on the toilet seat she was about to use, and they weren’t letting go. This was not a camping trip or a Porta-Potty in a national park. This was our home life in Australia’s bush country.
After a month in cosmopolitan Sydney, we were itching to see “the real Australia”—the land famous for wide-open spaces and wild kangaroos. We drove about 300 miles west of Sydney to The Belars, a circa-1898 homestead on a 3500-acre cattle ranch. To give an idea about how big that is, the dirt driveway was a mile long. Our host, Rob Wright, is a 4th-generation farmer who looks a bit like Crocodile Dundee—dusty hat and all. He and his wife Deb have created a secluded retreat in the home his great-grandfather built.
The bathrooms were accessed via the veranda, so it was convenient for the frogs to visit as well. In the arid climate, toilets provide a cozy pond so they had a habit of hanging around in there. Add to this the warbling of a few free-range chickens (or “chooks” as they are known) and a motherless calf named Bella and we had quite a menagerie on our hands. Bella and the chooks seemed to like hanging out with us, so we offered to feed them for Rob. Bella took a bottle twice a day and the chooks ate everything in sight. With the odd kangaroo bouncing by at dusk we had a kind of “Green Acres Down Under” experience going on.
Life in the bush country is a surprising blend of rural life coupled with world-class scientific research. The wide-open spaces and pristine skies make it an ideal place for stargazing. About 45 miles south is the Parkes Radio Observatory and Telescope. Operated by CSIRO, the Australian equivalent of NASA, it relayed the first television signals to Earth of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The story of this achievement was later made into the offbeat film The Dish.
Perched in a grassy field, the 210-foot diameter telescope towers over the surrounding landscape. Its neighbors are mostly sheep, who graze contentedly just outside the fence, indifferent to their proximity to such a celestial celebrity. Displays in the visitor’s center explain the telescope’s ongoing role in space exploration. The outdoor café provides the best spot on the planet to sip a cappuccino while gazing up at a giant dish that, among other things, is seeking life in the great beyond. In an unusual afternoon moonrise, the moon peeked over the dish, providing a view of both our closest neighbor and the device that relayed the first images taken on it.
The clear atmosphere provides unimpeded night skies for telescopes of the visual kind as well. Coonabarabran, known as the “Astronomy Capital of Australia,” is about eighty miles north of Belars. It is home to the Siding Spring Observatory, regarded as one of the best sites in the world to see the stars. The observatory is open to visitors, but only during the day, which doesn’t do a would-be stargazer much good.
However, a town with a world-class observatory also means a town full of rocket scientists, many of whom search the heavens in their spare time. Thus Coonabarabran sports a unique landscape of mysterious white cylindrical structures dotting its hills. These supersized R2-D2s are silos housing professional-caliber personal telescopes. Some of these folks offer views of the night sky for a small fee.
We visited the Warrumbungle Observatory, where the wonderfully named Peter “That’s really my name” Starr leads two-hour astronomy sessions looking at galactic objects through a 20-inch telescope. Five silos are planted on his front yard, a few of which belong to amateur astronomers from around the world who, via remote access over the Internet, are renting his piece of the sky. He jokingly calls it his “telescope farm.”
The blazing sun packed it in for the day, allowing the creeping blackness of night to envelop us. The star-studded dark sky looked like a planetarium show from a class trip; but this was all real. Using a laser pointer, Peter traced the outlines of several constellations including Scorpio and Capricorn. Due to the flawless sky we could visualize the figures that the ancient Greeks saw. We had such a clear view of the Sea of Tranquility on the moon that we could almost imagine the footprints left behind by the Apollo 11 crew; a perfect bookend to our earlier lunar-themed visit to Parkes.
After a night in the heavens it was time to get back down to earth at The Belars. At dusk the next day we hopped into Rob’s pickup truck for a bumpy excursion out to the back paddocks. We watched exuberant troops of kangaroos bouncing through the fields before they bounded over the fence to visit the neighboring farmer. In the low-lying bush, we also spotted a few wallabies, the kangaroo’s smaller, timid cousin.
By now we had settled into the rhythm of country life, and had our menagerie well in hand. When we needed to we shooed the frog off the toilet seat and he happily hopped outside, no doubt looking for another toilet “pond” somewhere. The chooks waddled over to be fed, and then obediently went into their pen. Bella took her evening bottle like a good little calf and sat down under a tree while we made our dinner in the big country kitchen.
Later that night we stood under a canopy of stars using our newfound astronomical knowledge to spot constellations and planets. We felt a nudge at our legs—it was Bella, coming to join us with a gentle moo. We spied the shimmer of a passing satellite and then a shooting star. It was a special bush country moment, for the three of us.
The Belars Homestead: 20 miles northwest of Dubbo, Australia. Contact Deb or Rob Wright at http://belarhomestead.com.au/Rates vary based on length of stay and number of people.
Parkes Radio Observatory: 12 miles north of Parkes, Australia on the Newell Highway. Open 8:30am to 4:15pm daily. Free admission.
NOTE: This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on January 15th, 2012
Here’s Larissa feeding the chooks: