If there’s one ingrained, albeit positive, experience from the first lockdown of 2020, it would be gaining a new appreciation of the art of bread making. Like many others during the great panic buying of flour and yeast (let’s not go there with toilet paper), I also dabbled in making my own sourdough, more often than not with mixed results. So it’s no surprise that I find myself thinking of bread once more while sitting in the cabin of a combine harvester, in a wheat field in the geographic centre of New South Wales.
Here, at Callubri Station, a working sheep and wheat farm in Buddabadah, Mike Armstrong talks me through the harvest process. As vast swathes of bread wheat are fed into and threshed by the harvester, the grain is separated from the stalk. It’s a rare treat having arrived towards the end of harvest to be able to see first-hand the now mechanised but ancient practice of harvesting wheat.
Even with the help of machines like the harvester that I’ve joined for the ride, it’s hot, hard work. Mike, Callubri’s fourth-generation custodian, reveals the realities of operating a working family farm. Having first been hit by devastating drought—the red, iconic earth of outback NSW is everywhere—Covid added new challenges, as did one of the worst pest plagues on record, and a season of damaging storms. Through all of this, the Armstrong family have persevered with what Mike’s wife Angie, herself a successful caterer for more than 12 years, called their dream project. “It all started when we took the time to notice what our friends and family love about our corner of the world, and [we wanted to] put our own unique spin on these elements,” she said. It’s one of the reasons that sets Callburi apart from other farm stays. Here, you have the opportunity to join in the action of operating a working farm rather than just witnessing it.
And while Callubri might be a working farm, you’re still more likely to see sheep than people if seclusion is what you’re after. The 11,500-hectare property is home to more than 12,000 Merino sheep, and no more than ten guests share the property at any one given time – that’s one person to every 1,200 sheep.
Like I said, beautiful, peaceful, seclusion.
Turning off a red-earth gravel road, it’s not the rustic metal sign that signals our arrival at Callubri, but rather the charming greeting offered by the family wolfhound, Lulu, who clocks us on our way through the main driveway to the Shearers’ Quarters. Awaiting is Angie, who deftly organises for our luggage to be taken to our rooms (more on that later) before ushering us into the cool haven of the restored shed with chilled towels and home-baked goods. Once an officers’ mess from World War II, the quarters now house the main dining hall, the library (complete with Chesterfield lounges, a restored Her Majesty’s Voice gramophone and all the necessities to escape the summer heat), outdoor deck and bar. Like most of the buildings on the station, they’re imbued with history – next year will mark 145 years of the Armstrong family running the property. Further afield, an original woolshed, with raw-cut timbers (logged on the property, no less) and a classic pressed metal shell, conjures scenes of working men and women and the conditions faced in rural, outback Australia.
Thankful for modern luxuries, like Mike’s air-conditioned Toyota Troop Carrier (aka the ‘troopy’), we head off for a tour of the station. Swathed with grassy, sunlit plains and dotted by the occasional eucalypt, red dirt and the blue sky contrast in a bush landscape that is undeniably romantic, akin to a Banjo Patterson poem. Along the way, Mike, a storyteller in his own right, describes his family’s history, pausing now and again to point out a red kangaroo or one of the station’s many Merino residents.
Specialising in private group travel, Callubri is a new kind of luxury experience, an authentic farm and bush stay allowing guests to arrange as few or as many activities and involvement that suits their interests. As natural-born hosts, Mike and Angie offer a number of experiences, from opportunities to get your hands dirty and your boots dusty by helping the team inspect crops, corral livestock or enjoy a laid-back ‘pioneers’ picnic’ featuring Angie’s housemade finger sandwiches and pasties with selected drops of Printhie Wines from Orange.
As we wrap up the roving farm tour, the luxuries continue with sundowners from the peak of Mount Surprise, the property’s highest peak (reaching 204 metres). Looking out of the endless expanse of the Western Plains, watching the sun fade into the horizon with a piece of fresh buttered bread in one hand and a G&T in the other, it feels like the old chapter of lockdowns and limited travel is coming to an end, and a new one, filled with wide-open spaces, is about to begin.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Stepping into one of Callubri’s four Sky Suites is like entering my own private haven. Situated on the western side of the main complex, the three-storey converted shipping container-style rooms, all with ensuites and shared decks, are a lesson in the art of packing luxury comforts in small spaces. There’s no Wi-Fi (or phone reception on most of the property – a limited Telstra signal is available from the Shearers’ Quarters) nor televisions in the rooms, which hardly goes noticed during your stay – the result of enjoying the company of fellow travellers and, of course, our hosts. A fully stocked mini-bar also means bedside nightcaps looking out of the double-glazed corner windows is happily the late-night evening programme of choice.
Waking up the glow of the sun rising from the distant horizon, I decided to hit the pavement (or red dirt in this case) following the main road from the homestead and property. At this hour, there’s nothing but the calm hum of bees and the echoes of birds making the most of morning before the summer heat kicks in. On my return leg, a mob of kangaroos watch from afar, some with joeys peeking out of their pouches. Awaiting my return is the 12-metre mineral lap pool, also ingeniously made from a shipping container, before enjoying breakfast on the deck.
When not helping to run the property, Angie is busy doubling as the station’s resident cook. Following our harvest adventure, we retreat to the Shearers’ Quarters for a ploughman’s lunch. On this visit, local spelt grain is turned into a rustic sourdough, served with lashings of butter, alongside a spread of cured meats, cheese and dips. Dinner is a more formal, three-course affair with dishes designed by Angie to showcase local ingredients – a plate of seared roo fillet with ribbons of sliced poached beetroot, served on a bed of beetroot kasundi and adorned with goat’s cheese, mountain pepper and local lemon myrtle flower is a standout alongside the generous pours of Printhie Wines. Meanwhile, dessert in the form of a vegan dark-chocolate tart made with a nut and cacao base and a creamy tahini-caramel centre concludes the evening’s formalities.
Breakfast is provided in-room, perfect for early risers or a late morning sleep in. Opt for the locally-sourced Mumblepeg orange juice and Angie’s selection of homemade sourdough and pastries. For sustenance between meals, ‘smokos’ (read: snacks) are available from the Shearers’ Quarters – on this visit they come in the form of freshly-baked muffins and chocolate brownies, as well as handcrafted insignia cookies.
The must-do activity:
While there’s plenty to see and do (or not do if lounging by the pool is on the cards) during the day, there’s one activity best saved for the evening. Under the starlit canopy of the night sky, Callubri offers moon bathing – a romantic, private experience for two featuring clawfoot bathtubs on top of a vintage farm ute. With no romantic partner on hand and primed with a bottle of Swift Vintage Cuvee, a friend and I decide we’ve earned this luxury and dive right in (for the sake of our friendship bathers were worn, but should you find yourself with your one true love, we say ditch them). With no light pollution, the sky is filled with the twinkle of distant stars and the glow of a full moon. Again… blissful, glorious seclusion (though it comes at a sky-high price of $250 per couple).
When to visit:
Being in outback New South Wales, summer can bring hot, dry conditions, though on our visit in late December, it’s perfectly bearable even during the midday sun (the perfect excuse to don that Akubra you’ve been keeping). And while spring brings new life and greenery to the property and adjoining fields, it’s autumn (key lambing and joining season) that Angie says is the most beautiful, when temperatures average between 20-30 degrees.
What to look out for:
“We’ve got a few projects going on; this is just the beginning,” says Angie. The pair have plans to expand the station’s offerings, turning an old cook’s hut into a massage room and a rustic outdoor spa area, with vintage clawfoot bathtubs overlooking the Bogan River. Here, guests will be offered treatments such as mud scrubs, and outdoor bath soaks while taking in the tranquillity of outback surroundings.
How to get there:
Travelling by road, Callubri Station is approximately a 6.5-hour drive from Sydney and a 9-hour drive from Melbourne. And while farm stays in general are often accompanied by the need for such road trips, Callubri is seeking to change that. Partnering with Crooked Compass by Air, private jets can be chartered for experiences such as the ‘Long Lunch in the Bush’, meaning escaping from the city, even for the day, is a seriously slick affair – flights from Sydney clock in at around an hour one way.
Prices begin at $795 per person per night, with a minimum two-night stay required. Added activities and experiences are at an additional cost. The station can also be booked for exclusive use for up to ten guests with inclusive packages including private airport transfer, lunch and dinner with rates depending on the season. The one-day ‘Long Lunch in the Bush’ experience is on offer for $1815 per person.
This writer was a guest of Callubri Station, Crooked Compass and Destination NSW. This article originally appeared on Escape and do not necessarily represent the views of australiaexploring.com