This year’s stay with Simon & Nicole,  brief as it was, had everything – inter alia, being licked and nuzzled by their cattle dog Pepper; a convivial gathering for Simon’s birthday dinner at the Wellshot hotel in Ilfracombe (a standout being the brilliant birthday cake featuring Shaun the sheep, a present from a professional baker friend of theirs); seeing the Qantas Founders Museum’s Super Constellation being restored, thanks to Nicole (the four impressive engines, lined up on pallets, looked brand new in their shiny grey cowlings, but are not airworthy); attending Pepper’s dog training class, which was a hoot and going on walks with her and swarming flies; binging on minced beef (a keema curry and spaghetti bolognese cooked by Simon) and watching the new 65” telly which was just brilliant. The weather was cloudy, with warm day and night temperatures. I couldn’t have envisaged a more enjoyable time.

The highlight was a grand day out organised by Nicole, touring Noonbah, a working cattle station 160 km south west of Longreach, the final 60 km on well-graded dirt roads. Even before we arrived, I was thrilled to see two wedge-tailed eagles at a road kill. The station is immense, has been the home of Angus Emmott’s family for over a century and reflects his priorities of preserving the land and recording its flora and fauna, so that cattle are now less of a priority, with tourism an increasing revenue stream. Angus’s fascination with the natural world started in his childhood. He is an accomplished self-taught biologist and has discovered new species and had species named after him. His wife Karen, has a nursing background and is a registered carer of injured and abandoned wildlife. A large enclosure in front of the house contained kangaroo joeys of different ages awaiting their return to the wild. Wherever Karen and Angus travel in the world, they seek out the plants and animals.

After a smoko of tea, fruit and homemade cake, we set off on our tour to a large lake which had been augmented by recent rain. I found a kindred soul in Angus. We compared notes to see which of the species we encountered on the tour or existed on the property, were local to both of us (such as the crested doves and the willy wagtails) and which were not.  En route we drove past a 2 km long emergency airstrip. Noonbah’s bird list contains more than 200 species, whereas the mountain’s has 150 or so; the difference partly accounted for by the absence of a large lake with a variety of water fowl. Angus would point out a succession of birds which were too small or too swift for me to see unless they appeared a second or third time. The lake covered 800 acres. From its bank we saw yellow-billed spoonbills, plumed whistling-ducks, black-tailed native hens (totally new to me), wood ducks and pacific herons (both of which we get on the mountain),  grey teal, pink-eared ducks and distant brolgas. The flies were in full force here due to the rain, (which may also have accounted for the number of caper white butterflies feeding on a plentiful supply of their host plant in the Emmott’s front garden). I was delighted to see red river and ghost gums.

The tour should have ended when we returned to the homestead, but we were invited to join the family for a generous lunch followed by a drive to the site where Angus’s grandmother pitched her tent to first settle Noonbah. It was near a spring on a plateau roughly 50 m above the surrounding terrain. Karen insisted we have afternoon tea after which Angus invited us to inspect his study, a chamber on a scale in keeping with Noonbah’s  vast dimensions. One wall was lined with library shelves from floor to ceiling, housing Angus’s huge collection of natural history books. We were shown drawers of pinned insect specimens, many collected on the property, and other drawers containing maps. We inspected several fossils from his collection. His study reminded me of a cabinet of curiosities assembled by a gentleman of the enlightenment. Angus is an eccentric in the best sense of the word, retrieving sufficiently intact road kill birds and reptiles, which he preserves and sends to the Queensland Museum. Back in Longreach I looked up all the birds whose names I had made a note of on the tour, in Simon & Nicole’s bird book. Angus and Karen appear to be exemplary custodians of Noonbah’s thousands of hectares in Queensland’s channel country.