Tasmania’s historic Woolnorth Station traditionally rode on the sheep’s back but today dairy farming and beef dominate this sandy, windswept land, with tourism and a wind farm thrown into a fascinating mix.
The northwest tip of Tasmania, the tea-tree scrub is all but ironed flat by the prevailing westerly winds. The raw and rugged coast looks as though somebody hacked it out with a blunt knife, and the Roaring Forties’ winds howl like ghosts. Swim west and it’s 16,000 kilometres across the world’s largest uninterrupted expanse of ocean to the next landfall in South America.
It’s the kind of place that would defeat most people and yet it’s here, at Woolnorth Station, that one of Australia’s oldest companies continues to work the land, turning the grey sands into milk and beef.
Woolnorth’s parent company, the Van Diemen’s Land Company (VDL), was established by royal charter on November 10, 1825, encouraged by Tasmania’s ability to raise fine-wool sheep in the 20 years since its settlement. In the charter, King George IV granted 143,500 hectares of land to VDL, covering much of the area between Burnie and the northwest corner of the island. Today, 16,800-hectare Woolnorth – Tasmania’s largest property – is all that remains of the original land grant, but even that parcel places VDL in a unique global position.
“As I understand it, we are the only royal-chartered company still operating on the initial land grant,” VDL chief executive officer Nicola Morris says. “Reading the history books, it looks like a number of times they nearly gave up on the place, but they kept going.”
In his book Winds of Change: A History of Woolnorth, author Kerry Pink writes of “a long and diverse history probably unequalled in Australia”. And it’s a history that’s inexorably entwined with that of Tasmania’s northwest in its entirety. For a long time, quite simply, VDL and Woolnorth were the northwest.
VDL’s first operation was at the base of a curious rock formation known as the Nut on Circular Head to Woolnorth’s east. A company settlement was established at the foot of the volcanic plug, growing in time to become the popular tourist town of Stanley. In 1827 the first sheep were grazed on Woolnorth, with a flock of 900 animals being herded to the northwest tip from Stanley, a journey of 55 kilometres through thick scrub and wide estuaries that took 11 days. In contrast today, it’s less than an hour’s drive from Stanley to the station gates. The gates remain closed, as they have both literally and figuratively through history, though today the road skirts around them in a sign indicative of changed times at Woolnorth.