Shelter in the wild

Penny Watson tracks down some of the best places to stay in NSW national parks and nature reserves.

The slightly bolshie hotel receptionist looks at me with scepticism written all over her sunburnt face when I tell her my plans. “Why the bloody hell are you going there?" she asks. "There's nothing out there 'cept roadkill and a shitload of red dirt.”

When someone from Broken Hill tells you there's nothing to see in Tibooburra, they probably know what they are talking about. Broken Hill might feel like the most remote place in NSW, with its rear backing into the South Australian desert, but at least it's accessible on bitumen. Tibooburra, the hottest town in the state, is about 300 kilometres north of Broken Hill on a dirt road. And when approached from the east it's literally 430 kilometres “out the back o' Bourke”.

But my host seems to have it wrong. Earlier in the day I'd chanced upon a flyer for “Outback Beds” and spotted Mount Wood Homestead, located a few kilometres north-east of Tibooburra on the edge of Sturt National Park. “Enjoy the many and varied drives, interpretive walks, pastoral history and activities,” it reads. “Accommodation is provided in the restored historic homestead or the shearers quarters.” Surely that's something, rather than the "nothing" that had been suggested.

Mount Wood Homestead is owned and operated by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). When I pull up to the back gate, Ingrid Witte, the park ranger and resident manager, pulls up in a ute beside us, followed by a spray of fine red dust.

As she lets the dogs off the tray she explains that the property dates back to 1886 when 500,000 acres of land was leased as a sheep station. After the lease expired in 1972, the property, along with the homestead, was acquired by NPWS as part of Sturt National Park.

On a quick stretch of the legs, it's apparent what an incredible acquisition this is. Surrounding us is a semi-desert wonderland, a scorched earth populated by hardy eucalypts whose roots bury into dry creek beds and whose branches are filled with a thousand excitable cockatoos.

Along a rock-edged path around the homestead, farm machinery and other historic remnants stand silent witness to a pastoral past. Beyond that the Sturt National Park fans out 340,000 hectares north-west, a beguiling landscape of rocky gorges, flat-topped hills, desiccated flood plains where gnarled gums fight for life and red soil that eventually gives way to the sand of the Strzelecki Desert.

“The place is all yours,” Witte says as she lets us through the front door into the cool interior of an old homestead that has evolved with the whims of generations of tenants. The big rambling home has an oversized kitchen, dining room and, separated by a courtyard, another wing with high-ceilinged bedrooms, a lounge and vestibule. On each side of the homestead wide verandas overlook a well-tended native garden through flywire windows.

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I had discovered other NPWS accommodation earlier in this trip around NSW. While looking for a campsite along the South Coast at Pretty, Pebbly and Depot beaches – a hat-trick of beautiful sandy plots in Murramarang National Park – I came across a small collection of recently renovated cabins, laidback little retreats where only the kangaroos come between the beach and the front porch. Further north, near the beachside town of South West Rocks, I walk up to the headlands of beautiful Hat Head National Park to Smoky Cape Lighthouse, where I chance upon a B&B sign nailed to the fence outside the lighthouse keeper's cottage. There is a booty of gems such as these – 75 venues in total, all located in the 780 national parks, state conservation areas, wilderness parks and nature reserves across the state.

The diversity of the accommodation is a reflection of the varied nature of the parks themselves. You can hole up in lighthouse keeper's cottages, stay in old homesteads in the highlands, bunk down in shearers' quarters in the outback and rural interior, get back to nature in beachfront cottages and remote mountain cabins – even stay on Sydney Harbour.

Over a cup of tea in the Mount Wood kitchen, I chat to Witte about the potential of the homestead and the nearby shearers' quarters as a destination for a truly authentic Australian outback experience. She has hosted many overseas visitors in the seven years she has lived and worked at Mount Wood – but attracting domestic tourists, she says, is not so easy. It might be hard work telling roo-shooters to take their guns out of Sturt National Park, she says, but it's more difficult letting visitors know places such as Mount Wood exist.

I can see her point. Without a dedicated website or booking service, travellers need to find the national park first and then the accommodation, rather than the other way around.

In 2006 the NSW Government set a target of a 20 per cent increase in visitation to NSW national parks by 2016, a plan that includes “expanding and promoting tourism-ready accommodations”. The best indication that this commitment is being met is the renovation and refurbishment of some of the old homesteads and cottages. Yarrangobilly Caves House in Kosciuszko National Park is a notable example. Closed since the 1960s, the homestead has had its heritage decor restored and is open to visitors.

In Cape Byron State Conservation Area overlooking the marine park, Partridge Cottage is a fibro hideaway. Dubbed "one of the last remaining" North Coast beach shacks, it has been restored to its 1950s glory – right down to the Laminex kitchen table, vinyl chairs and tiled kitchen splashbacks.

Perhaps the most impressive renovation is just five minutes' drive from Manly in Sydney Harbour National Park. What was once Australia's maritime quarantine station from the 1830s to 1984 has been renovated and renamed Q Station, a retreat with 72 stylish heritage rooms and cottages with harbour views.

For me, and many other travellers, the national park experience is more about remote locations, such as Mount Wood, that offer nature-based experiences. That evening we pull a couple of chairs outside and watch as the pink sunlit afternoon turns deep blue and finally black so that we're surrounded by a galaxy of stars. The air is as fresh as the night is clear.

In the morning, we follow Witte through the manager's quarters at the side of the property where she reveals her kangaroo sanctuary, a temporary home for joeys whose mothers have been victims of roadkill or illegal shooting. I lift one little joey by the base of its tail, as shown by Witte, and cradle the bundle of soft fur in my arms. Its tiny paws play with my hair. There might be roadkill out here – and a shitload of red dirt – but it always pays to dig a little deeper.

TOP DIGS IN NSW

Mount Wood Station Homestead, Sturt National Park The homestead sleeps 15; $60 each for a two- or three-bed bedroom; two-night minimum booking. Shearers' quarters sleep 36; $15 a person a night. Phone (08) 8091 3308.

Cape Byron Lighthouse Cottages, Cape Byron State Conservation Area Each of the two cottages sleeps six; $2100-$5700 a week; minimum one-week bookings. Phone 6685 6552; see byronbaypro.com.au.

Partridge Cottage beach, Clarks Beach, Cape Byron State Conservation Area Sleeps seven; $900-$3500 a week, minimum one-week bookings. Phone 6685 6552; see byronbaypro.com.au.

Smoky Cape Lighthouse Cottages, Hat Head National Park Each of the two assistant lighthouse keepers' cottages sleeps seven; $390-$550 for two nights or $890-$1050 a week from May-December. Bed-and-breakfast accommodation in the head lighthouse keeper's cottage costs from $175 a night for a double room. Phone 6566 6301; see smokycapelighthouse.com.

Steele Point, Green Point and Constables cottages, Sydney Harbour National Park Green Point sleeps six; $1050-$3000 a week, $600 a weekend (low season only). Constables sleeps eight; $1400-$1700 a week, $700 a weekend (low season only). Steele Point sleeps two; $330-$770 a night, two-night minimum. Phone 9337 2333; see environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks.

Lane Cove River Tourist Park, Lane Cove National Park Cabins sleep five; $121-$145 a night for two people, $726-$870 a week for two people. Phone 9888 9133; see lcrtp.com.au.

Yarrangobilly Caves House, Kosciuszko National Park The house has two wings, sleeping 16 in total; $180-$250 a wing a night. Phone 6947 7025; see environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks.

Depot and Pretty Beach Cabins, Murramarang National Park Depot cabins sleep six people; Pretty Beach cabins sleep four people; $85-$185 a night, $425-$500 a week. Phone 4478 6582; see environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks.

Q Station, Sydney Harbour National Park, Manly B&B from $140 a couple a night. Phone 9977 5145; see qstation.com.au.

Sugarloaf Point Lighthouse Cottages, Myall Lakes National Park Each of the three cottages sleeps six; $250-$400 a night; two-night minimum booking; $1750-$2450 weekly, low season. Phone 4997 6590; see sealrockslighthouseaccommodation.com.au.

East Kunderang Homestead, Oxley Wild Rivers National Park Sleeps 14; $165-$220 a night, two-night minimum booking. Phone 6738 9100; see environment.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks.

For information on other accommodation phone 1300 361 967 or see nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/NationalParks. The 09 Guide to NSW National Parks features accommodation and national park activities; free at NPWS offices.

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