Old and new owners on Ulupna Island Station in northern Victoria are working together to turn their dreams into reality.

Story Mark Muller  Photo Nathan Dyer

Smoke drifts up through a stand of red gum as early morning sunlight throws dappled patterns on the slow-moving brown water of Ulupna Creek. John and Tony Hay watch the small campfire, thinking about how some things change, some things may seem to stay the same, and about where they stand in this ongoing arc.

For 25 years the Hays owned and ran Ulupna Island Station, on the Murray River just north of Strathmerton in Victoria. “The big thing about this country here is that Murray River,” John says.  “The Murray River is the backbone of this area.” It was the river, and the chance to move out of dairying, that attracted the Hays to Ulupna Island Station back in 1993. It is now in the hands of new owners, but, fortuitously, the Hays are still intimately involved.

The property was originally part of the Ulupna Run, taken up over country traditionally owned by the Yorta Yorta people by a man named Mundy in 1840, and then bought by pastoralist Benjamin Boyd in 1842, who named it Strathmerton. For many years it was a sheep run, with cattle, irrigation and cropping introduced later in its life. The Anderson family ran it as a Hereford stud in the early 1980s, and did pioneering embryonic work there, building a small conference centre, laboratory and stud facilities. They then sold it to Doug Reid, chairman of Southern Cross Airlines, who had the distinction of being sentenced in 1997 to 10 years in prison for false accounting and theft relating to the collapse of the airline. The Hays bought Ulupna from Reid. “He’d put a lot of money into the place, but it was pretty run down,” John says. “We were interested, and had sold three other dairying places that we’d built up. At first we didn’t think it’d be in our price range, but we managed to get it.”

The island itself covers an area of some 2430ha, carved off from the Murray River by Ulupna Creek. Ulupna Island Station proper is an aggregation of nine titles plus a bush lease covering approximately 600ha. There are 40ha set aside via an agreement with Trust For Nature, preserved for native flora and fauna. In all, it’s a beautiful, productive place; with about 100ha of sand hill country served by fixed irrigation sprinklers and piped main lines. Laneways and levee banks give access to the lower country, where large open paddocks for grazing and irrigated cropping are situated. There’s considerable infrastructure in the form of sheds, watering points, houses and fencing, with plenty of shelter provided by trees and windbreaks. 

After buying it, Tony, his wife Jenny and their three boys moved onto the station, as did John and his wife Irene. They set about making a life for themselves there. John eventually moved to nearby Koonoomoo, and Tony and Jenny’s sons grew up and moved away. “All the boys were working off-farm,” Jenny says. “None of them really wanted to come back and take up farming, and Tony’s sister also had a title here, so we were in the position where we had to figure out what to do in terms of succession and what was going to happen with the place.” The Hays made the hard decision to sell. 

“It was always in the back of the mind,” Tony says.  “What’s going to happen? My sister and I never had a problem, and Dad and I got on ok, through there were differences of opinion over the years. I think the best thing we could have done was sell up and sort it out while we were still talking!”

And so Ulupna went onto the market in 2018. Enter Danny Thomas, or ‘Cyclone Danny’ as John affectionately calls him. Danny is the regional director of CBRE Agriculture. He heads up a team of more than 50 people working in valuation and sales throughout Australia and New Zealand. Together they have facilitated billions of dollars worth of agricultural transactions. Danny lives in Melbourne with his wife and young daughter, but grew up in northern Victoria, where his father managed a variety of properties. 

“Ulupna was a bit of an accident,” Danny says. “I was driving along the Goulburn Valley Highway on the way to another client and I saw a ‘For sale’ board on the side of the road. I remembered coming here many years ago. My old man was interviewed to run the place, though he didn’t take the job. I was 14 or 15 at the time and came here for that interview. Twenty-six or 27 years later I was driving past and saw the sign and just drove in here and bought the thing!” Danny looks a bit sheepish about the way it went down. “I basically did something I tell my clients not to do,” he smiles. “I bought on a gut feeling.”

R.M.Williams Publishing editor-in-chief Mark Muller travelled to northern Victoria to research a story on Ulupna Island Station for OUTBACK magazine. He was joined by Filmmaker Matt Woods to document the process.

This story excerpt is from Issue #127

Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2019