As the car rolls across the flat, seemingly featureless desert surrounding the Lasseter Highway, I suddenly see a huge ocher-colored rock in the distance. “We’re here,” I call from the back seat. “There’s Uluru!”
As it turns out, we’re 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Uluru, Australia’s legendary monolith, formerly known as Ayers Rock. The massive table rock I saw is actually Mount Conner, also known as “Fool-uru” because so many people confuse it with Uluru.
Mount Conner, known as Artilla in the local Pitjantjatjara language, sits on a private property called Curtin Springs, which we are now turning into. Curtin Springs is a 1 million acre cattle station (ranch) surrounded by scrub, red sand, spinifex bushes and salt flats. Curtin Springs is the ultimate stopover experience in the outback. The site has a 27-room inn and campground, as well as a roadhouse, which in Australia means a gas station/garage with attached restaurant, more like a diner.
When owner Peter Severin, his wife Dawn and their young son Ashley first moved here with their 1,500 cows in 1956, the ‘station next door’ was, as Ashley’s wife Lyndee Severin puts it, ’85 kilometers away’. There were also no permanent Aboriginal settlements in the area at the time as there was no regular water source.
Locals love to tell the story of how Severin took his wife Dawn to the estate, which didn’t even have adequate housing at the time, and proudly showed her her new home. Apparently, Dawn turned to him and said, “I have news for you, and it’s all bad.”
It’s hard to imagine why the Severins stayed given the isolation and unforgiving desert environment. They got rain the first year and then came a nine-year drought. Only a few visitors came. Uluru was not yet a tourist destination, and few had the inclination – or the vehicle – to tackle the dirt road to the Severin estate. In their first year, the Severins received only six visitors: two family members, two state cattle dealers, and two adventurous travelers.
Despite the hardships, the Severins persevered. They found other ways to make money. Dawn offered afternoon tea with clotted cream and scones to the rare travelers who passed by. They sold gasoline to passing travelers. They started out by serving meals and eventually opened the Wayside Inn.
Today, Curtin Springs is a busy cattle ranch, tourist inn, and fuel and rest area at the intersection of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Kings Canyon Watarrka National Park. Staying at one of the hotels at Ayers Rock Resort isn’t cheap, and camping in the park isn’t allowed, so tourists often stay in Curtin Springs as it’s relatively close to Uluru. The campsite does not have electricity, but it is free.
Curtin Springs is no ordinary roadside rest stop. To the right of the entrance is the shower block – one side for “Sheilas,” misspelled “Shielas,” the other for “Bokes” — dotted with cartoon illustrations of area attractions. Skulls and bones of animals are displayed between some stones in the garden. An orphaned pet emu named Mongrel lives in a spacious enclosure. The giant bird used to roam freely, but apparently it tugged the clothespins off the clothesline too often. The garden is also full of aviaries with cockatoos, parrots, budgerigars and other tropical birds. The birds belonged to Dawn, who wanted to hear the call of a bird other than the ubiquitous crow or galah (rosy-breasted cockatoo) during the first nine-year drought.
The Severins are deeply attached to their country. Patriarch Peter Severin died in February 2021 aged 93, followed by his son Ashley who lives here with his wife Lyndee and their children and grandchildren. “My family grew up here, our grandchildren grew up here,” says Lyndee. “Ash and I are still creating. We are responsible for the most amazing landscape and we take great pride in how we nurture it while making it productive… We work very hard to run two 24/7 businesses but we have decided to be here.”
My companions and I do a little exploring before lunch. I find the desert is not as faceless or lifeless as many believe. The land here is dotted with spinifex plants that shoot straight out of the red sand, wildflowers, salt shrubs and tall native grasses. The massive property is also home to at least 110 species of wild birds, including black hawks, Pacific herons, barn owls, and red-backed kingfishers; Dozens of different reptiles, from frogs to geckos to bearded dragons; as well as rock wallabies, kangaroos and dingoes.
We traipse up and down a rust-orange sand dune, so bright as Crayola it’s almost an eyeache, and then explore one of the cattle station’s ancient salt lakes. Aside from an inappropriate bird bath and tire tracks on the crystalline surface, there is no other sign of human civilization. Midday is not the best time to see the lakes because the light is harsh, but interested visitors can take part in private evening and moonrise walks led by members of the Severin family.
The tours were Lyndee’s idea. “They’re an opportunity for visitors to get a little closer to the countryside — and sell more meals and lodging for us!” she says. Tourists can also book a champagne sunset tour through SEIT Ouback Tours and venture deep into the estate, all the way to the base of Mount Conner, 25 kilometers away.
Like Uluru, Mount Conner is sacred to the Pitjantjatjara, who believe it is home to icemen who bring cold weather. Uluru and Mount Conner are inselbergs, isolated rocky mounds or outcrops that stand above well-developed plains and are part of the same vast rocky substrate thought to lie deep beneath Uluru and the Kata Tjuta rock formations. Although many, like me, confuse it with Uluru, the 500-million-year-old rock formation has a different shape, it’s flattened and shaped like a horseshoe. At 859 meters above sea level and 300 meters above the ground, Mount Conner is four meters shorter than Uluru but about a kilometer longer.
“We don’t plant anything, we don’t plow, we don’t fertilize, we don’t poison weeds. The landscape is managed and protected as Mother Nature dictates.”
— Lyndee Severin
As you explore the sprawling property, it’s easy to forget that Curtin Springs is also a working cattle station. The environmental costs of beef production, which rightfully gets a bad rap today, are undeniable, but that the Severins raise cattle for beef is not immediately obvious. The Severins say they take stewardship of the land seriously and are working to minimize the impact of ranching on the land. Your 4,000 cows are also not locked in the barn and can roam around.
The family considers their land a “wildlife corridor”. “We don’t plant, we don’t plow, we don’t fertilize, we don’t poison weeds,” says Lyndee. “So the landscape is managed and protected as Mother Nature dictates. The cattle eat the native grasses. We keep conservative numbers of cattle and do not sell them when they reach a certain age… We do not clear land so all native plants, reptiles, birds, mammals and everything else have their full habitat and food chains in place. We live alongside these systems. Protecting the diversity of all plants, animals, birds, etc. is absolutely vital.”
Peter Severin and his wife Dawn are credited with putting tourism in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta region on the map, a legacy their descendants dedicated themselves to. And Curtin Springs as a tourist experience is unique. It’s certainly one of the most quirky destinations I’ve visited Down Under. And in Australia’s desert outback, that says a lot!