Grant McSporran, Cattle Station Manager

William Creek claims to be the smallest settlement in South Australia. It has a population of just 12, but boasts a store, a solar powered phone booth and a hotel with a single parking meter cleverly placed under the one shady tree. Yet it lies near the centre of the largest cattle station in the world.

Anna Creek Station covers an area of 34,000 sq. kms (6 million acres), bigger than Belgium. It is six times the size of any ranch in the United States and twice the area of its nearest rival in Australia, though the latter does have more cattle.

And it's isolated. The nearest community is 200 kilometres away, the nearest city 1000 kilometres. It takes more than six hours to drive on dirt tracks, in temperatures that reach 55 degrees (130 Fahrenheit), from one boundary to the other. The western reaches are marked by the dingo fence, the world's longest fence, which stretches 5300 kilometres across the Australian continent to keep dingoes out of southern sheep country.

Grant McSporran and his wife Tracey manage the station, its 17,000 cattle, and 150 horses. But the wild west days of mustering cattle on horseback are over, at least on Anna Creek. The standard equipment now is spotter plane and motorbike and the only way to lose a cow is through the heat.

"Back in the old days it was all horse work. You went out for months on end," said Mr McSporran, 40, who has been running Anna Creek since 1994. "You basically only had one or two trucking yards. You had to find the cows and walk them hundreds of kilometres to railheads."

But ringers who once went mustering for months on end are now rarely out more than two weeks. These days an aircraft is used or, in more undulating terrain, a helicopter. "The pilot says there's a mob here, a mob there, and the blokes go out and bring them in," he said. "It's still tough, but a lot easier than it was."

While modern technology has changed the way cattle stations go about their business and the workforce has been cut from 50 to 17, it is hard to escape the feeling that life has changed little since European pastoralists first arrived in the 1860s. But Mr McSporran said it has changed hugely in the past 20 years and is no longer an isolated existence.

"It's not like it used to be when the roads were bad. There weren't telephones, no TVs," he said. "Now you sit down and watch the news and know exactly what's happening in the world. You can be to Adelaide in 10 hours. It used to take three days."

Even so, living on Anna Creek is not for the weak-hearted. It gets so hot that tyres can simply explode. The station borders the Simpson Desert, one of the last areas to be mapped by colonials. The terrain ranges from spinifex and mulga trees to red sand dunes and stony gibber plains. The dust, heat and flies are a constant irritant. And then there's the snakes, spiders and scorpions.

Rainfall is measured here in drops, not millimetres, but storms that filled nearby Lake Eyre in April 2000 for only the fourth time in 100 years left the desert green and the cattle well fed.

Anna Creek sends up to 6000 cattle a year to the slaughterhouse, with key markets including the United States, South Korea and Japan.

Reproduced with kind permission of Wrightsair.

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