INTO THE OUTBACK : Psychic R&R; at a Working Sheep Ranch in Queensland

This is dry country, a dusty landscape where you feel you are driving across the visible curve of the Earth. You have it more or less to yourself. Kangaroos rest in the shade of the occasional eucalyptus. Emus strut beside the tracks. The Mitchell grass that feeds the thousands of sheep is a pale gray-green tufted carpet extending far beyond vision. Sun burns down from harsh blue sky. It's about 100 degrees--just the beginning of spring--and this dirt track is the private road that leads from the Lansborough Highway to the little cluster of buildings on the sheep ranch known as Lorraine Station.

Story has it that the original owner named the station after his wife in hopes of luring her away from Melbourne. It didn't work.

I'd had my own doubts about coming here. Having fallen in love with the Australian outback two years before, I wanted a better idea of how a large station worked, but I didn't want anything phony--no dude ranch, no gussied-up showplace, no polite bed and breakfast in the bush. I wanted it real. Friends in Brisbane assured me this would be real. It was north of the Tropic of Capricorn, two days' driving west and north of Brisbane. "You won't find a Hilton there, I reckon," said someone. But, someone else added, of the owners of the station: "The Robinsons are wonderful folks; they'll make you feel at home."

Presumably this was only an expression. I didn't want to feel at home. I wanted to feel--well, I wanted to feel I was somewhere I could never be in a million years if I stayed close to home. Somewhere as foreign as the moon.

I drove on, air conditioner humming in my little rental car, radio giving me the prices paid for bulls at the Rockhampton auctions. Then I found it--a cluster of white buildings, complete with the expected corrugated water tank up on legs, and a deserted shearing shed. Bottlebrushes bloomed, and bougainvillea. Signs instructed me to park and book myself in at the squat structure that housed the dining room and bar.

Lunch was just breaking up, but there was plenty left, if I wanted. David and Jane Robinson introduced some of the other guests--a solitary Dane who spoke no English; a husband and wife from Toowoomba, near Brisbane; a granddaughter Katy from Longreach; Tracy and Pete from Redcliffe down on the coast, and a family of four who were waiting for an engine part to be delivered for the converted bus in which they wandered all over Australia.

Some guests had been out that morning. Most were planning to rest in their rooms until the midday heat had passed, and would not come out until afternoon. Tracy would sit on the step to feed the black lamb from a bottle, her brown Akubrahat keeping the sun from her face. Katy would look for George, the goanna (a large lizard known as "the last of the dinosaurs") that sometimes visited. Ole, the muscular Dane who'd spent the morning carrying steel telephone poles, would be going back for more. Tony, the Robinsons' son, had work to do--no tourist leisure for him.

Some guest rooms were in the shearers' quarters, some in newly built huts. Mine was the center room of the original homestead, a squat wooden building up on posts, like the others, with a screened veranda across the front. Tracy and Pete stood in the doorway of the next room. "Oh God," said Tracy. "I thought I'd be bored when I got here, but it's been wonderful. We have to leave tomorrow but I don't want to go."

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Lorraine Station is a working farm of about 75,000 acres, with 23,000 sheep grazing in the Mitchell grass paddocks that stretch in every direction beyond the horizon. Visitors are free to lounge, to swim in the reservoir, to explore on their own, to take part in horseback-riding excursions, or to help on the farm. "Help" could be anything from milking a cow to riding out with Tony on his afternoon rounds to check on the water holes.

Across the plains you bounce in the Toyota Land Cruiser.(You will open and close any number of gates.) From the warm blue reservoir at the artesian bore, which is constantly gushing hot subterranean water, nearly 70 miles of pipe goes to the various storage "dams" that have been scooped out of the ground at locations around the property, and to the above-ground "turkey nests" that release their contents into nearby troughs for the animals to drink from.

History unrolls beneath your feet here. Red stones mark the locations of fires, where ancient bands of Aborigines passed through on hunting forays. A small hut contains the bottles and tools found in the dirt where the original homestead once stood. Nearby, the various pieces of a Model A sit leaning against one another, including an engine with "MADE IN CANADA" stamped on it.

Kangaroos (both grays and big reds) stand up to watch you pass, ears twitching. In coolabah trees along the dry creek channels, wedge-tailed eagles build nests as big and sturdy as beaver dams. A willy wagtail darts from branch to branch. White cockatoos go squawking overhead.

Sheep have broken through the fence surrounding one dam. A dozen or more have got themselves bogged in the mud at the edge of the water. Their bleating relatives mill about beneath the trees at the top of the slope, while the victims stand helplessly up to their necks, waiting for something to happen. Tony-the-rescuer reaches for his rope, lassos the nearest one and drags it out by the neck. Then he helps it to stand. When it falls, he helps it again--gives it a push to get it walking while he moves on to the next.

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Visitors, staff and family alike serve themselves from the hot dishes along the counter, and sit at the trestle tables that stretch the length of the room. Despite a huge breakfast of eggs, bacon, tomato, and plenty of toast and coffee (or "smoko"), there is more coffee later for those who aren't too busy for it. Lunch is salads and cold meats. At 3 it is smoko again, to fuel the energy it will take to get through to a three-course "tea," or dinner--which will probably not happen until after you've enjoyed a spectacular sunset from out on the plain. Sometimes sunsets are accompanied by sing-alongs at the campfire.

People tend not to move away from the dinner table, unless it is to visit the bar and return. There is something about the time of day, or the filled stomachs, or the company, that makes people begin to swap stories--yarns, that is. David Robinson has a lifetime of yarns, and loves to spin them. About his grandfather, for instance, who took his entire herd of 1,000 cattle from Townsville right across the width of Australia to the Kimberleys, but didn't like what he found and brought them all back.

For those who want to explore the surrounding countryside, the Robinsons will arrange excursions. An hour and a half away, Lark Quarry is the site of a dinosaur stampede--where, 100 million years ago, herbivorous dinosaurs apparently fled a flesh-eating predator in panic through the mud of a long-vanished lake.

The town of Winton (birthplace of Qantas airlines) is an hour up the road from Lorraine Station, with a fine museum and an educational "opal walk" at the back of the Gem Centre for those too busy to drive down and fossick for themselves in the tiny ghost village of Opaltown. Beyond Winton, there is the Combo Waterhole--the billabong or natural pool that inspired Banjo Patterson to compose what is now the unofficial national anthem, "Waltzing Matilda."

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The night before I'm scheduled to leave, when everyone else has retired, I sit with David Robinson in the lighted yard outside the canteen. Occasionally, a sheep bleats in the distance. The water pump comes on, goes off. Otherwise, there is silence.

The original idea in taking in guests, David explains, was to "tell people in the cities what we've got here." He believes that city ignorance is at the heart of many problems suffered by the farmer: trouble getting young people to work, lack of support from the banks, unfair prices.

It was also, of course, a way of making some extra money.

Neighbors thought the Robinsons were crazy when they started, 15 years ago. Disaster was predicted. "But we'd done our sums. They don't laugh at us any more." In fact, he says, "there's a lot of people very envious at what we're doing."

Guests sometimes report that after a few days spent on Lorraine Station they've made important decisions about their lives. One family wrote that they'd discovered all the things that put so much pressure on their lives at home just didn't matter very much. They intended to change the way they lived. The world would go on. You didn't have to react to all the pressures. David chuckles, recalling this. "I could have told them that a long time ago."

GUIDEBOOK: Sweet Lorraine Station

Getting there: Flight West Airlines offers daily connecting flights from Brisbane to Longreach, and flies to Winton via Longreach twice a week. Round-trip fares begin at about $220 to Longreach and $250 to Winton. Lorraine Station will provide guest pickup from either airport. It is also possible to reach Lorraine Station by car or bus, but the distance from Brisbane is about 900 miles. Obtain directions from Lorraine Station upon booking.

Where to stay: Lorraine Station Outback Resort, Winton, Queensland, tel. 011-61-76-571-693, fax 011-61-76- 571-796. Full board stays, including tours of the property , about $80-$150 per person per day and $430-$820 per person per week. Horseback riding and tours to nearby attractions are extra. Stays at Lorraine Station may be booked directly or, in the U.S., through Expanding Horizons, (800) 421-6416, or Austravel, (800) 633-3404.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday October 17, 1993 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Column 2 Travel Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction Altered Australia--On a map of Australia that appeared in the Sept. 26 Travel Section, the states of New South Wales and Queensland were reversed. Brisbane is the capital of Queensland.
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