~How and Why Taffy and Mt Hart Became One~
Outback Tourism along the Gibb River Road in the 70’s and 80’s
Written and posted on-line 6th March 2011
During the 70’s and 80’s outback roads, like The Gibb River Road, were wildly rougher. The country in every direction I wandered with the guests on my tours, was so very much more isolated. We ventured through tracts of wilderness country, and camped out in places where when you looked at the night sky, the stars came to you in incredibly bright twinkling light and made you believe there was no one, nowhere else, just the enveloping soul & heart of the land.
When I was conducting tours during the 70’s and 80’s I would be at the steering wheel all day and most often not see another vehicle. In those early years you weren’t just a tour driver, you had to be an outback guide, an Australian version of the Kalahari bushman, a mechanic, gourmet cook, and above all else, be a great host. In those days, intrepid explorer tourists numbered up to 20. They were folks from all walks of life… From near and far away places. They boarded your 4x4 coach for a 30 days straight adventure, driving over remote and rugged outback roads.
I had to be able to understand these diverse individuals, their nuances, concerns and desires. Back then tour driving was about building relationships of trust, respect and productive interactions to ensure everybody on my tour lasted the distance -Not just as an individual, but as a cohesive pleasant, satisfied team.
Over the many years I worked for companies such as AMEZ, Australia Pacific, and AAT Kings. In the 70’s and 80’s, because of the road conditions, outback tours required big high clearance 4x4 vehicles. In the early days the vehicles used were old Bedfords. Then in later years as technology in off-road vehicles progressed, the Bedfords were replaced with Unimogs. Back then, I would take folks into places like Bell Gorge along the Gibb River Road. Even during the middle of the tourist season, my tour would be the only one in there...
In those days, driving “The Gibb River Road” was a totally different experience. It required slow and careful manoeuvring, as the drive was exponentially rougher than today’s self drive tourist experiences are.
In 1970's/80’s tourism operators such as Bill King who ran "Bill King Northern Safaris", were the pioneers of the 4wd tour industry throughout central australia, the North West and the top end. I was fortunate enough to drive for Bill King. Also another man from Western Australia - Hans Amez pioneered the 4WD outback tourism industry. AMEZ was a lot smaller tourism company, and Hans only had a few vehicles, but he ran some extraordinary tours. I drove for Hans in later years and he used to let me write up my own itineraries which he advertised in the brochures and sold. Back then, the tour company directors and the drivers were really working hand in hand to pioneer and develop outback tourism across Northern Australia.
In those days, I became renown as an outback tour guide. I became infamous for what became known as "Taffy's Detours". The set itineraries, were normally designed by office bound decision makers living in the cities. As a result the tours were uncompromisingly boring. My deeper understanding of the country, interactions with the locals, and direct experiences with the tourists told me; I know better places to take these folks to. I know what is out there, really out there. In the 1970’s & 80s; by going off road and exploring, tour drivers like myself were the Burke & Wills of outback commercial adventure of the far northern regions of Australia.
The word spread around from tour drivers to tour drivers, in bars over G+T’s, or in roadhouses over coffees. Eventually little known gorges, pristine waterholes, and indiscernible track routes that the more adventurous bush-tour drivers, like myself, frequented became known to more and more tour drivers. Before too long, these special places were claimed and written into tour company’s itineraries.
Long before Diamond Gorge at Mornington Station (now a wilderness sanctuary) along the Gibb River Road, was ever opened up for tourism, there were only two tour operators venturing down there. My mate and Mentor Sam Lovell, and myself. Of course, back then there was always the occasional local - because it was after all, their back yard. It would take us a tough 3 days to clamber in over rocks, through ruts and down into and out of bogs and sand holes, fording creeks and changing and repairing tyres just to get into Diamond Gorge.
Many a time we would get bogged going into such places. The trip was an adventure in itself for my charges like none they ever dreamed of having.
During the 70’s and 80’s the worst stretch of the Gibb River Road was from the Gibb River Kulumburu Junction through to Jack's hole (which is now part of Home Valley station). This section of road had some of the worst corrugation you have ever seen - we spent most of the day shaking and juggling getting there, and then I would spend half the night repairing the Unimog where bits had fallen off, or broken. Yes they were different days back then, and The Gibb River Road was definitely a way lot more adventurous and exciting to travel than what it is today.
It used to take hours to get anywhere. Going into Lennard Gorge was a horrendous trip - you'd have to do about 1 ½ km an hour along that track, due to the track being so rocky and tough on both the tyres and the vehicle itself, as well as uncomfortable for the guests. During the late 1980’s when I was working for Hans Amez who used to let me write my own intineraries, I started exploring further afield along the the Gibb River Road, and began conducting “Taffy’s detours” into Mt Hart.
Peggy Lawrence was living out at Mt Hart at the time on her own with her dog “Missy”, care-taking Mt Hart for the then cattle station owner, Peter Murray. I would drive my tours into visit Peggy, and introduce the tourists in my care to a real Kimberley local, and let them interact with her to get a taste of real life in The Kimberley. Over time, Peggy and I became great mates. She was a real battler, in her early 70’s. She was always happy to see me, and welcomed the company of both myself and the people I brought along.
Of course in those times, there was only the original homestead at Mt Hart and a couple of ram shackled derelict buildings, and there were absolutely no facilities to cater for tourists. The station, or what was left of it, was in its end days. Back then, Mt Hart was an off track dying icon of the Kimberley which held no interest for the corporate tour companies, or their itineraries. But I knew better… I loved the drive into Mt Hart and just looking in my rear vision mirror at the smiles and chatter of my tourist guests told me this was not only my nirvana of a place, but it was of great enjoyment to them as well. To me, driving Mt Hart’s 50km dirt access track was (and still is) worth every off-route kilometre. After 40 plus years experience in Outback Tourism, I still believe Mt hart’s access track winds its way through the most spectacular section of country in the whole entire Kimberley. When I was, driving those tours along the Gibb River Road, acting as Australia’s version of the Kalahari bushmen…
…I felt compelled to make those ‘detours’ into Mt Hart, and I felt proud to be able to share the incredible scenery along this track with the adventurous charges of my tours. It was this appreciation for the natural beauty of the great Mt Hart country, the connection I felt, and still so dearly feel with the land out here, as well as the understanding of the wild yet soul seeping history and heritage of Mt Hart, which I obtained from people like Peggy Lawrence and Sam Lovell - this almost spectral calling, which caused me to roll up my tour swag for good, and commit 20 years of my life to restoring and developing Mt Hart Homesteads and Gardens into what they are today.
I brought not only my blood sweat and tears to the immense task of rebuilding a white ant infested dilapidated old cattle station. I gave a large part of my life. I poured into Mt Hart and the people who by thousands have visited over the decades, my knowledge and skills. My goal was to ensure, that when these visitors left Mt Hart, they had experienced the true Kimberley. That they had surfed the winds of a culture that can only be gained from being where the likes of myself and true Kimberley others, have propped. This gift over the decades to the tourists, is without doubt a gift that has been carried across this nation and over the seven seas into homes where all those who came from, will never forget. This is the legacy I leave the people of Western Australia with when DEC take back their now world renown Kimberley spot on the map, “Mt Hart Station”. This is why I seek a fair and Just Terms end to my time at Mt Hart – in recognition of all I have achieved out here at Mt Hart Station.