Tuesday 18th August the Kings Canyon and return to Alice Springs

7.30 saw us en route to the start of the Kings Canyon Rim walk. Sarah had decided the walk was not for her and that she would stay back and do some shorter walks when it got light. Sensible girl! Keith, Wendy and I set off. We were more or less the first in the car park, although there was a group being briefed we noticed in the gloom as we passed by the information board. We were certainly the first to start the ascent.

A steep start we had been told……… It proved to be only one step down from rock climbing requiring string!! The ‘path’ was a clamber up the only slightly off the vertical rock face! It was starting to get light fortunately so we could vaguely see where we were climbing. At points the next step was about waist high – a bit daunting to someone somewhat challenged in the leg length department!!! Nevertheless it was onward and upward and in an amazingly short space of time we were looking down over the plain at the bottom of the valley. Our route took us up and up until we eventually arrived at a rock strewn plateau at the top.

Somewhat breathless (!) we peered back down and along the rocky outcrop we had seen the sun set upon the previous evening, just in time to see a sliver of sunlight pierce its upper edge. Perfect timing!

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The well flagged path initially took us along a fairly flat but rock strewn pavement, occasionally intercepted by vast fissures in the rock bed where palm trees and rock plants were flourishing. There were in fact an amazing number of trees up there, rooted in nothing more than sandy rubble, but hanging on tenaciously to life. There was even one of the amazing ghost gum trees that apparently take hundreds of years to grow. It was looking quite smart with a sort of. jumper arrangement on – we were not sure whether this was for warmth or to protect it from people scratching their name on its ancient bark, as one couple had done.

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Our route twisted and turned, sometimes taking us to the rock face for another glimpse of the valley stretching out to the horizon below us, sometimes taking us through curtains of rock. At one point we crossed a ravine by a wooden bridge, below us was the lush vegetation of the tropical rain forest. Later we came across slabs of rock underfoot with ripples on their surface, apparently evidence of the water that had flowed over them in times long past – there was even a poem inspired by the ripples and recorded on an information board nearby.

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It was a lovely walk with beautiful views but providing some hairier moments. Once or twice we were reduced to bottom shuffling to get over difficult terrain! I describe all this to enable you to share our awe and respect when a chap came jogging by – very reminiscent of the fell runners of the Lake District. Is it just old age that brings with it the worry about the potential for sprained ankles and broken legs and the lack of telephone reception?!

We passed through a gate of apparently no return, presumably there to prevent people walking the wrong way round the rim. Once passed this we looked over a significant ravine with a sheer cliff face on the opposite side that looked as though someone had taken a cheese wire to it, it was so smooth. Silhouetted on the opposite cliff top were the party we had seen at the information board when we had started out, looking like Lowry”s matchstick men in the distance!

After this the route started to descend. Eventually the car park came into view, now bristling with vehicles but at this distance even the large tourist buses looked like specks on the landscape. However, before long we had reached ground level. It had taken 2 hours 45 minutes to cover just 6 kilometres ( the recommended time is 3.5 hours). We had done well.

We found Sarah who had had a good wander on the lower levels of the Canyon and after a short pit stop we started out on the four hour journey back to Alice Springs. I drove the first leg.  It is amazingly easy driving but the occasional upturned husk of a vehicle by the side of the road is a testament to how easy it would be to just fall asleep or be mesmerised by the shimmering pathway ahead of you.

We arrived back in Alice Springs and headed straight off to the local Woolworths (apparently no relation to our defunct store) to get supplies for supper and replenish our wine and. beer stocks. We then headed back to Helen’s place. Beers were definitely in order when we got back.
Sarah and Keith set to to make a wonderful vegetarian mezze which we all fell upon with relish!
Yummee!!

After more or less constant early morning rises since we arrived in Australia we all agreed on a lie in on the morrow – great stuff!

Monday 17th August

We were up at 5.45 and left the accommodarion at 6.30. It was just light as Wendy drove Keith and I to the Mala car park to start our walk around the base of Uluru. The yellow glow on the horizon gave us the wonderful silhouettes of the trees and bushes as we passed that we have become used to during our early morning risings. Wendy dropped us off  – the girls were to join us later for a guided waterfall from the same spot. The car park was empty, no-one had arrived to climb the mountain.   All was silent and still.  We had the place to ourselves. It was magical. The rising sun made long shadows as we set off. The mountain stood in dark shadow and loomed high above us

I found no difficulty at all in walking the route for a second time – I saw different things, and it was lovely to do the route with Keith. It is an extraordinary place.  We loitered over trees and rock formations and Keith had a happy interlude communicating with a bird who responded happily to his mimicry.  The extent of the bushes around the mountain’s base ebbed and flowed, obviously dependent on the amount of water that could be reached

There seemed fewer people even when the time had moved on and the day had heated up,  so we had a really lovely meander   We chatted and were silent , just happy in each other’s company in the presence of the mountain

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At 10.00 am we were back at the car park with the large group who had gathered to do the guided tour.  I was concerned that we would not be able to hear all that was said, but my concerns proved unfounded.

The guide had aboriginal ancestry and talked fondly of his grandparents who had lived in the old ways and instilled in him a need to learn more about his ancestry.  He told us of the creation stories of the aboriginal culture and how Uluru plays an important part.  The aboriginal culture is thought to be the oldest in the world with evidence going back 35,000 years. It seems to have been a society of clearly defined roles – the men hunting and teaching the young men and the women foraging for ‘bush tucker’ with their digging sticks, raising the children and teaching the girls.  At first glance there seems little evidence of food in the area but there are seeds that can be ground to make flour, bush plums that grow whenever it rains rather than on an annual seasonal basis and desert figs, as well as the game brought down by the men. The boys were separated from the women’s area at 12 and then went to live with the men when, by means of stories, drawings and dance,  they were taught morale codes and responsibilities.  We saw evidence of their drawings – age unknown

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We were  shown a ‘Piti’, a shallow dish made of tree bark which the women used to carry their foraged food.  This they would carry on their head on a bun shaped pad made out of human hair. The aborigines have foraged and cooked food in the same way since the beginning of time. These tales of a principled and proud people seem a long way from the troubled relationship between them and the white population of Australia that we have heard about from everyone we have met here. Equally frequently,  we have heard people say that there seems no solution to the aboriginal ‘problem’  despite the initiatives that have been made to resolve the situation.

Our guide also told us about the geological history of the Uluru mountain itself.  It stands in what was once an inland sea and was the result of a tremendous earthquake.  Further earthquakes after the initial upheaval turned the rock 90 degrees to its current position   It now stands 398 metres high and iits base is buried several kilometres deep into the earth. The ‘red’ colour of the rock is caused by the oxidisation of water running over it

We ended the walk at the base of what is a very large waterfall.  When it rains the water cascades down into a hollowed out pool at the mountain’s base

Our brief insight into the mountain complete, we adjourned to the cultural centre for an early lunch prior to wetting off to Kings Canyon

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We arrived late afternoon and in time to watch the sun go down on the Canyon from the ubiquitous platform strategically placed for this purpose..

It was an awesome sight – particularly as we had been warned the  climb to get up to the ‘rim’ was somewhat challenging.  Ann from the cattle station had said we must not ‘shirk it’ as there were great rewards for sticking with it. it was against  this background that we took advice from a member of the resort staff in terms of timing and our onward journey to Glen Helen planned for the next day. . As usual the advice was to walk early (another dawn walk in prospect!) leaving no later than 6.30  am. We also asked about the route to Glan Helen, the next place on our itinerary   We knew that this was reached by a dirt road.  However  on enquiry we were advised that the dirt road was deeply rutted and was likely to be dangerous, so after a brief board meeting we decided that we would return to Alice Springs directly by via the highway and miss Glen Helen on this trip.  Although disappointing, it would provide an opportunity that we would not otherwise have of visiting the town of Alice Springs

This decided and an unexpectedly good meal consumed it was another early night in readiness for another early morning!

Sunday, 16th August Uluru and around

We had decided to get up to watch the sunrise (6.26 am) and then, as it is best to walk early before the sun gets too hot, to go straight off to walk around the base of Uluru, a walk of 10.5 kilometres.

Sadly when the alarm went off it tranired Keith had not slept all night and did not feel he could do the walk.  My immediate reaction was that I would not go either, but in the end I was persuaded to go with the girls and leave him to catch up on his sleep. We emerged into the almost darkness, but against the yellow glow beginning to appear on the horizon,  the trees of our accommodation compound were starkly silhouetted.  It was a sight to behold in itself. 

We set off, not realising that the sunrise area was some way away and in the end were hurtling along the road to get there in time. We arrived with about a minute to spare to join the assembled throng already gathered to watch the picture unfold. Families huddled together for warmth and the ardent photographic enthusuasists stood against the railings of the terraces, their tripods standing stiffly to attention, their expensive lenses trained on the large dark silhouette of the rock looming up in front of us. It must be remembered that we had the sun coming up behind us and as it rose the dark blue/black cherry colouring of Uluru turned to maroon and eventually a rich brown as the sky brightened around it and the suns rays penetrated its surface. 

And then it was over.  The lenses were retracted and the tripod legs were snapped shut.  People started to chat and move away and the sunset viewing terraces were left to their lonely solitude for another 24 hours. 

We, meanwhile, headed off for the Mala car park and the start of our circumnavigation of the rock.  The Mala car park also marks the spot where the would be climbers of the mountain ascend.  They do this despite the large number of notices requesting that people do not climb what is a very special place to the aboriginal people.  However at 7.30 in the morning, no-one had arrived to ignore the sensitivity of the area and we almost had the place to ourselves as we crunched along the sandy path. It was still quite cold and the rising sun cast long shadows from the bushes and shrubs around the base of the rock.  

Close to, the rock itself is not totally smooth but has fissures and undulations, holes and crevices, overhangs and outcrops. It’s surface outside of these areas is quite smooth although it also has a slatey quality and looks a bit freckly for want a of a bette description.   The route initially skirts the rock itself quite closely but it then turns away to the road which runs parallel to the path. Soon it turns back to the rock and apart from car parking areas, where coaches lurk while they wait for their passengers to return, you see no more traffic as you wander along.  Every now and then there is a sign indicating a particularly sensitive area where no photography is allowed. Sadly, like the request that you do not climb the mountain, this is ignored by the many of our fellow tourists. 

I was very impressed with the safety precautions in place.  Every few miles there was a shelter and emergency  telephone and a map showing how far you had travelled around the circuit. Half way round there was a fresh water tank and tap.  All geared.to ensure that you survive the experience – particularly if you walked it in the searing heat of summer I guess. 

As we continued around the sun rose further and the day became warmer.  At the same time the rock itself changed from brown to golden in the bright light. The amount of trees and bushes ebbed and flowed to reflect the a mount of rain that ran off the top of the mountain when it rained. Dark channels marked where these waterfalls occurred   It was fascinating.  Birds chirped and called and although the number of people we came across increased gradually either on foot or bicycle nothing detracted from the spell of the place.  

We competed the walk in 2.5 hours and returned to our accommodation where we found Keith had caught up with some of his sleep and was ready for breakfast.   This finished and after purchasing supplies for supper, we decided to head off to a place Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) which is about 35 kilometres from Uluru and is in fact higher. It is formed of a number of domes and can be seen on the horizon from Uluru.  We walked part of the Valley of the Winds walk and looked back over the plain to see Uluru on the horizon.  Kata Tjuta is also a special aboriginal site  but seems less popular than the Uluru mountain, but to us I think it was equally impressive. 

When we returned to our base, Keith performed his usual magic with the food we had purchased earlier in the communal kitchen provided for backpackers.  There were a number of nationalities represented in the kitchen – so the food being prepared was very cosmopolitan. Keith cooked Lebanese. 

Dinner washed down with a glass or two of an excellent Australian wine amazingly supplied by Sarah and Wendy who had brought it in their hand luggage from Sydney, concluded our day.  Keith and I were to be up early as we had decided to walk the Uluru base walk so Keith did not miss out…  

And so to bed!

Saturday, 15th August – leaving De Rose Hill and arriving at Uluru (Ayers Rock)

It was sad for us to say ‘good bye’ to our new found friends, but you could not help but feel that they were somewhat relieved to get rid of these ‘greenhorns’! However to us it had been a great and unforgettable experience. 

Packed up and ready to go, our departure was somewhat delayed by Rosie the house dog having run off with my shoe. This was eventually retrieved from her igloo bed…….
Eventually, goodbyes having been said and addresses exchanged, we were off with me at the wheel, to drive to Uluru. We filled up again on the way, but were soon heading along the long straight, sun drenched highway. It was the weekend and there seemed to be more traffic on the road, but it was still the exception to see another vehicle. We must have left De Rose Hill at around 7.30 and we reached Uluru National Park circa lunchtime. 
The Uluru rock came into view, bright red in the mid day sun many kilometres before we arrived at the National Park. I am not sure how I imagined it would be – my knowledge rather embarrassingly being of the dingo/baby tragedy of many years ago. However, in reality it is an awesome sight, seeming as it does from a distance, to rise as a hot red glowing rock standing four square in the middle of a flat outback plain. Up close it is very much more complex, with holes and gouges and runnels and bulges. Its surface is almost slate like. Indeed it is like no other rock I have ever seen. But more of this later. 
We paid for our three day pass at the National Park boundary. It was noticeable that although the area was handed back to the local aboriginal people some years ago, and is sublet by them back to the state, there are no aboriginal people working anywhere in the park that we could see. 
Everywhere is very organised and after lunch under one of the purpose built shelters, we visited the culture centre to get a feel for the place and learn something of its history. This was really useful but we decided to get the most out of the afternoon by taking a short walk along one of the tracks that run along close to the base of the rock. It was warm but not overpowering and we walked along with the awesome presence of the mountain very evident to our right. It was only a couple of kilometres each way, but it was very pleasant and got us into the place nicely and served as something of a taster for our time there. There are a number of walks around the mountain, the longest being the walk around the base which we decided was a ‘must do’ for the next day. 
The sad thing that we really picked up from the film we saw at the cultural cantre and the signs along the path was the lack of respect shown to  the culture of the aboriginal people, for whom this is a very important site. Signs requested that certain areas were not photographed and that you did not climb the rock face.  The fact that both requests went unheeded  by many of the sightseers was very evident. We were somewhat dispirited by this but this apart enjoyed our first encounter with the mountain and its surroundings. 

The walked finished, we went back to find our accommodation. This was in a sizeable back packers centre close by. We all four shared a room, somewhat reminiscent of a prison cell, and a long way from our yurt experiences on the Silk Road when the four of us first shared sleeping accommodation! It was probably more Santiago pilgrim hostel! However it was very clean and was ideal for our needs. 

Around 6.00 pm everyone (including us) evacuated the area to watch the sun set over Uluru. We were not sure what this entailed but had passed a ‘sunset viewing point’ earlier in the day so headed there. We were first amazed by the numbers who had gathered and were then equally surprised to have the sun behind us! Watching the sun go down on Uluru means watching the colours change on it rather than the sun go down behind it. Of course. I have to say it was very impressive as it shaded from red to deep purple.  It is a very special place. 

Once we had seen the demise of the sun for the day our thoughts turned to food. The accommodation might have been sparse but the facilities were very comprehensive and Keith and I opted for the self cooked burger approach to supper. It was excellent! I shared the lashings of salad with Sarah and, washed down with wine the girls had thoughtfully brought with them, we had an excellent repast. 
As it is better to walk early – it was an early night for us and 9.30 saw us all tucked up in bed. 

Friday 14th August 

We mustered just after 7.00 am. It was a free range breakfast with John making coffee in a very fancy barrista style coffee making device, while tea was brewed, milk shakes, porridge and toast was made. Over the meal John allocated duties for the day. Keith, the girls and I were allocated to support (for this read hinder) John and Ann in herding some cattle to a holding area prior to them being assessed for the next week’s cattle auction.

Before we get to our days activities, just a few words on the De Rose Hill Estate. John is a third generation cattle rancher. Ann and John own the De Rose Hill station which they bought 6 years ago. They previously lived at their other property, Lyndavale, which is twice the size of De Rose Hill and where their eldest son and his girlfriend live. There is a third station, Ebenezer, which John and Ann have recently purchased. The De Rose Hill station is 7,400 square kilometres in size and they have 10,000 head of cattle. They have organic status and are justly proud of their reputation for prize beef, non aggressively farmed. They are 3 hours from the nearest town and have to be more or less self sufficient in terms of repairs etc. They have their own large petrol tank from which they supply their many vehicles with fuel. They work the station with very few people. Ben and Lily are there temporarily while they save to go travelling. Both Ben and Lily are qualified Civil Engineers. Ann has a Masters in Sustainable Land Management. Overall a very successful, charming, bright and capable family farming an unimaginably large tract of land. We were to learn that the Ghan railway line crosses their proprty and we will travel over it on the second half of our Ghan journey!

To get back to our adventure. As we left to go to the yard, the working dogs were released from their pen and joined the troup heading towards the various ‘Utes’ (utility vehicles?!) the two retired dogs travelled in the back of Ann’s truck ‘for the ride’. Ben and Lily departed for their allocated task, Keith went with John, I went with Ann and the girls were given a ‘Ute’ to themselves, Wendy driving. When everyone had topped up wuth petrol at the pump, we were off over the sandy tracks of the station, the landscape covered wuth tufty grass – either the native spiky type or buffel grass a variety introduced for cattle grazing but now seen as a menace as it is highly inflamable and a great contributor to bush fires.

Before long we were crossing the Ghan track (as predicted!) and bumping along into the middle distance. As we went along Ann got out at intervals to check water troughs or fences. My job was to hop out every time we reached a gate, open it and then secure it behind us. We probably continued like this for about 3/4 of an hour before we arrived at a location where John and Keith had also stopped. We all got out. John was cutting back a barbed wire fence and when he had finished, drew in the sand what was required of the vehicles.

Apparently we were going to come to a large group of cattle (how did he know in this vastness I thought?!). When we reached them – just where he said! – John would use his vehicle to lead them to the new location where he wanted them to be. Ann would guide them from the side and Wendy would gently urge them along from behind.

It more ot less happened as John said it would except ‘herding’ them comprised of the vehicles Keith and I were in literally careering through the brush to keep the progress of the herd in check. It was amazingly skilled driving as we bumped and swerved over the terrain to head off a splinter group trying to break off and head in another direction. The ground is basically sand and quite stoney but as we saw from the train it is covered in brushwood, clumps of grass, small trees, the not infrequent boulder and more often than not sizeable trees! There are also sneaky gullies for the unwary! Although we accelerated, turned, swerved and breaked, apparently this approach is much less stressful to the cattle than helicopters! This is as it may be, but it is certainly adrenalin producing for the would be passenger! We probably spent the best part of the morning on this task, working away until the herd were where they needed to be to ensure they were included in the following week’s round up for market.

When the task was finished Keith and John went off to complete other chores## (Keith will tell you of his adventuress later!)

The girls and I were taken off by Ann to see some aboriginal paintings on the estate and to look for wallabies. Doesn’t everyone on Fridays? We found the paintings but there were no sign of the wallabies or any kangeroos, much to Ann’s disapointment. i have come to the coclusion there aren’t any as I have by now been in Australua for more than a week and have not seen one…… By this time I was driving the support Ute with Wendy as my passenger. This was much easier said than done, not least because I have got out of the habit of changing gear since young Duke arrived, but also because Ann careers along at an amazing speed. As Wendy said the dust cloud of her vehicle proved amazingly useful to keep tabs on where she went as keeping up was a real challenge.

However, worse was to come as I failed to hit a gully at an appropriate speed to enable me to get across it and I sank the car in sand! I was mortified, particularly as it was by now after 12noon and Ann was wanting to get back to some buyers who were due at the station house at 12.30. Eeek! What a pain. Ann of course was miles ahead but as Wendy started digging us out, much to my chagrin, she backed along the track to our rescue. With great efficiency a large tow rope was produced, the towing points were identified and we were pulled out and were on our way again. How pathetic I am!

Another half an hour, a brief stop at an aboriginal water hole and we arrived back at the Station House. We ate wraps for lunch and after food and water we were all back out again. Ann had disappeared with the visitors but after a brief delay while Ben and John mended the breaks of their road train vehicle (!!) (they have their own three trailered road train lorry!) we set off to sort the stock to be sold.

Once again we had to ask how they knew the cattle would be where they thought they would be, but there they were in an enclosure with a water hole. The fencing has a very clever gating device which allows the animals in but does not allow them to get out again. So there they were, perhaps 200 head of cattle all coralled together. Mums, babies, boys and girls – all were there making a bit of a din.

Soon the road train arrived and parked up beside a ramp that led from one of the fenced off paddocks. We then watched while John assessed by eye the weight of each animal and it was either identified as being marketable or to be held back for another day. All mums and babies were held back. It was fascinating. We stood for the whole afternoon watching the process as those chosen for slaughter were guided up the ramp on to the truck to be transported back to a pen near the house in readiness for the next stage of their journey to the abbattoir.

It was all very efficient, calm, very ordered and stress free for the animals. We coud see where the station got its reputation for the way they treated their stock. It was well deserved.

At the end of the afternoon we clamboured aboard the back of one of the Utes and careered home. Four very privileged visitors who had been allowed a rare insight into the workings of a large cattle station and been treated with great tolerance and friendliness, despite our ability to add nothing but aggravation to the proceedings!

We were absolutely covered in red sand. It took three baby wipes to remove it from my face and the shower ran red for a bit….. Eventually, changed and tidied, we gathered around the large dining table for a delicious salad and, for the meat eaters among us, the produce of the stations labours, amazing steaks. These were washed down with wonderful Australian red wine. The talk flowed equally freely around the table and a good time was had by all. A game of Australian football carried the chaps off fairly early, but us ladies gracefully and greatfully adjourned to bed. What a day!

Wednesday 12 th August

We woke early and watched the sunrise from our bed. The train had stopped a couple of times during the night.  We were to learn later that freight takes precedence over people here. It is a single line track line and every so often the Ghan moves to a siding to let the freight train through ……

We were leaving the train at Alice so needed to get off  at 9.00 am.  We had been up really early to watch the sunrise (Martin, CA, had brought Keith a coffee at 6.00!) however, we were a bit slow to get to breakfast and, regrettably, were even slower to get served. In the event the train was pulling into Alice Springs as I finished my Eggs Benedict.  It did not matter as there were various procedures that had to take place before the doors were opened.  

When they did – there was our good chum Helen Kilgariff!  It was just great to see her. She has done so much to arrange the Alice Springs section of the trip and sadly is to miss it all as her daughter is having her first baby at 41 and, understandably, wants her Mum around for the birth, so H was off to leave for Melbourne later in the morning.

However, for the moment she was with us and off we trekked to her ‘place’.  We thought she lived in Alice but in fact it is 20k outside. We are beginning to get a handle on this distance issue!  Her home is a large single story establishment set in 24 acres of ground.  It is vast!  However the size and beauty was somewhat overshadowed by being reunited with Wendy and Sarah, two more of our Silk Road party, who had travelled across from Sydney to accompany us for the week in Helen’s absence.  We were to find that their offer to join us was not totally altruistic as they had not been to the centre of Australia before either, so we made a very excited party!

All too soon Helen was leaving for the airport and after a quick lunch and downsize of bags into two smaller ones that Helen had thoughtfully provided, we bundled into Helen’s car for the 3.5 hour ride to the cattle station owned by Helen’s sister and her husband. 

The journey to De Rose gave us our first taste of the long miles of Tarmac that constitute the Australian road system. We flew along eating up the kilometres  and stopping at every petrol station  (you can see why you never pass one without topping up as you never know when the next one will be!) and then at another road house where we had been instructed by Helen to inspect the emu…….!

We had been told that Ann and John were unlikely to be there when we arrived at they had been selling some stock that day. This proved to be the case but we drove into a vast yard of buildings and farming apparatus. On leaving the car we were met by two old Kelpie’s, who we were to discover were retired working dogs. Guard dogs they weren’t as they came towards us wagging their tails and wanting to be stroked.  Nearer the house we met Rosie a very young and shiny Staffordshire terrier who was chained up but equally pleased to see us.  

We settled down to await our hosts to the increasingly wonderful smell of bread from the bread maker sitting on a shelf behind us and a casserole in a large slow cooker.   We sat in a sort of large Dutch barn affair where a big table and chairs were set out.  We broke open the beers and chatted happily until the clanking of a large three trailered road train appeared on the horizon and our hosts were home.  

About 10 minutes later Ann, John their son Ben and his girlfriend Lily appeared. They were amazingly friendly to four people they had never met who we could not but feel Helen had foisted upon them!  Within no time it seemed, rooms had been allocated and we were sitting down at the big kitchen table tucking into the vat of food and bread and quaffing vast quantities of wine.  Our two nights on the cattle station had begun!