Looking for accommodation with a difference? The Aranyani Bison ranch offers a unique visitor experience.
Words by John Denman
It’s almost impossible to look at a North American bison and not think of the sight they must have presented on the US prairies when the very earth moved with their progress. Then consider a time when men with long guns slaughtered the bison to near extinction – a chilling thought when you gaze at an animal that does not look far removed from what you might see in an ancient cave painting.
For the bison is a unique animal. A bovine creature, of course, but so far removed from what most people consider ‘normal’ in that sub-family classification. The huge shoulders and massive head that taper back to comparatively modest hindquarters gives the initial impression of something more like a pig than a bovine. Their hooves are much smaller, too – almost dainty on an animal of this size.Then there is their repertoire of movement.
“They can jump about 6ft in the air,” Aranyani Bison ranch hand Zac Westre said. “They don’t need any run up, they just seem to go straight up.” A fascinating animal, indeed.
We were at the Aranyani Bison ranch, a working ranch and tourist park set on 1180 acres, located 30km south of Casino in northern New South Wales, around 45 minutes from the coast and about two hours from the Gold Coast.
We went for a run over to the bison paddock in a ‘Gator’ – an ATV with two front seats and a cargo tray in the back. As soon as we entered the paddock, we were thronged by bison of all sizes, their curiosity palpable. However, I’m pretty sure it had more to do with food than anything else. Bison learn quickly and they know the little ATV is a sure signal that food is not far away. Getting some close-up photos of bison was certainly not going to be a problem here. I came equipped with a 400mm lens, but I could have shot all the pics I wanted with a wide angle lens.
In keeping with the North American theme, Aranyani is called a bison ranch, not a farm, and the staff members are called ranch hands. Owner Damen Wells was influenced by an old friend who encouraged him in working with the bison.
“There’s a lot of advantages to raising bison,” Damen said. “They breed quicker and longer than cattle and have less calving problems.” Other advantages for bison farming in an Australian context is that they can survive off less food and don’t overgraze. They can also eat a wider variety of grasses and some say the meat is better for you than beef.
The meat of a bison has no gamey taste, in fact, it is slightly sweet and there is an almost untapped market for it in the high-end restaurant business. It’s high in protein and low in carbohydrates, and the bison feed on an all-organic diet, with not a hint of pesticides or other chemicals.
Damen was also the instigator of the American Bison Association of Australia, which is growing slowly. “We have about 50 bison owners in Australia, but just a dozen breeders,” he said.
While the caring and feeding of the bison is the core business at Aranyani Bison, the tourism aspect is also important and is on the increase. “We do have our busy periods, with campers, school groups and bus groups at all different times of the year.” There was also a wedding at Aranyani in the planning stages when we visited – something a bit different for the ranch hands.
So what can a visitor to Aranyani expect? The infrastructure of the tourist park is geared towards making life for the visitor as relaxing as possible. Accommodation is in four tepee-style fixed tents that have beds and electricity. The tepees are arranged at four points around a central fire pit, which is a great gathering place in the evenings. But they are also nicely spaced so that guests can enjoy maximum privacy.
For RV owners wanting to stay in their own rigs, there’s a large flat area to set up in, with plenty of space to spread out and no real need to be camped too close to one another. There is a new amenities block, with plans in motion for a second one, and a well set up camp kitchen with everything visitors might need. There is also a swimming pool with a slide and a nine-hole putt putt course.
Campers and day visitors can see the bison from behind a 2.1m fence. The bison like to have a bit of space and, while they may approach you, they don’t like people coming too close to them. Although they will usually just walk away, when it comes to animals that weigh about 450kg, a fence is generally a good idea! The park is in the process of getting an exhibitors’ license, which will allow it to offer demonstration feeding and interactive, educational talks about the favourite subject at Aranyani – bison! This would be a first for Australia.
In Damen’s mind, the park is constantly developing. Having purchased his first bison in 2009, he now has a herd of 39 animals and numerous acres of land for his fertile imagination to work with. Long-term, he visualises a cafe and possibly bison meat being sold or cooked onsite. That may be in the future, but when you consider the park only opened in 2013, it’s clear that Damen’s vision has already come a long way.