“As a stockman I cooked my corned beef in here,” says Jimmy “JR” Richards, pointing towards a line of steam wafting from the ground. “I put it in a hessian bag, went out mustering for the afternoon and it was cooked when I came back … It’s our own natural slow cooker.”
But the hot springs at Talaroo are much more than that. “You put paperbark leaves in the hot springs to extract the oil, then rub it on yourself like Vicks to open your airways,” explains Richards, an Ewamian (pronounced “ooraman”) elder and former bull rider with a short grey beard and a pair of sunnies welded to his face. “Black tea-tree oils stop aching muscles … it’s very significant to us because it’s a healing place.”
In the dusty savannah country of North Queensland, the hot springs are a literal oasis supporting dense groves of spiky pandanus palms, flaky paperbarks and scaly grey boxwood. The first tourism venture at this site was a health retreat that opened in 1886. Now it’s back in the hands of traditional owners, and a range of new experiences means visitors can learn about the cultural significance of the site for the first time.
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Steam rises slowly from the springs into the cool morning air as Richards leads the first of three daily tours. The water bubbling up through six active vents has a rich mineral content that leaves deep orange, yellow and white streaks on large mounds and fragile travertine dams created by the accretion of mineral content over millions of years. One vent has even formed around the jawbone of a long extinct carnivorous kangaroo.
A recently opened boardwalk allows visitors to see all of this without damaging the springs, which are only accessible on tours led by Ewamian traditional owners during daylight hours. “Nobody goes there at night,” explains Richards. “We’re there all day and that night time is for the ancestors.”
Ranging in temperature from 43 to 68 degrees, the springs themselves are far too hot to bathe in, so the run-off water is channelled into four custom-built soaking pools with volcanic rocks as seats. Each one holds three guests (“four if you know each other really well”) and the spring water is mixed with cold water until it reaches a more comfortable temperature (31 degrees is about right for most people). Charmingly, the shady grove of tea-trees surrounding the pools is also popular with curious, pretty-faced wallabies that hop about daintily.
In addition to explaining the cultural significance of the site, Richards is a font of information on the geology. The only mound springs in Australia that are not fed by the Great Artesian Basin, Talaroo’s flow with water that’s been forced upwards from as deep as five kilometres below the earth’s surface. “You’re soaking in ancient water when you come to Talaroo,” he says, “because it takes 20,000 years for that water to fall down, get heated up and return to the surface.”
Some of the axe-sharpening grooves on the banks of the nearby Einasleigh River date back even further, but there’s also disturbing evidence of more recent history on the property. Skull Camp is a killing field – the story of which was used as a warning by bosses to Richards’s uncles when they were stockmen. It’s a reminder of the devastation wrought on the Ewamian people by European invaders, but for Richards that’s just one brutal chapter in an ongoing story.
Since the 31,500 hectare property was purchased on behalf of the Ewamian people in 2012, the newly created Ewamian ranger program has worked to remove invasive species and destock what had been a cattle station since the 1870s. So initially it’s surprising that Richards’s long-term plan includes bringing cattle back onto the property.
“Our ultimate goal is to have our people come back home, especially our kids,” he explains. “It’s very, very important for our kids to connect back to country, so we want to show them their heritage, and part of that is Aboriginal stockmen.” When cattle return to the property, Richards will be able to show the younger generation how vital he and his uncles were to the local pastoral industry, and it will also create extra jobs. The last part is critical, because “if we can get employment out here, we can get our children back”.
That’s why the ranger positions have been augmented by employment opportunities at an on-site tourism venture that opened last May with 30 campsites. This season saw the debut of two glamping tents with shaded decks facing the vegetation around the pools, with more to come soon along with sunrise and astronomy tours.
But Richards knows that Talaroo will always be a seasonal business. “We close down in October because our produce is hot water and it’s very hot in summer,” he says with a wry grin. And that’s fine by him; it means the land will always have time to recover.
The emphasis on sustainability and moving with a light touch is a far cry from how the property operated when Richards worked here in the ’80s. Back then “there was no culture and not much science” for visitors to enjoy. Now, it’s a place where Ewamian traditional owners and tourists can come together to connect to the land and to each other. “When you come on a tour with me, I want you to see the country through my eyes,” explains Richards. “Because then you connect with the country, you connect with Ewamian people.”