If Dick Smith could choose between the concrete jungle and the rural life, he’d choose the latter every time.
Whenever he can – which is about six times per year – the 77-year-old flies with his wife Pip from their Terrey Hills home in Northern Sydney to their 4000-acre property in Gundaroo in the Yass Valley, which he purchased for an estimated $4.2 million in 1995.
To Dick, this is living out bush, although he concedes it’s only a 30-minute drive – or a six-minute helicopter ride – to Canberra.
There’s an incorrect rumour that Dick sold Bowylie (pronounced Bow-y-lee) Station, perhaps because the sign at the gate recently changed to Talagandra, like the Tallagandra Lane in Gundaroo, but with one ‘L’.
“One of the reasons I’ve changed the name is because people could never spell or pronounce it properly,” says Dick.
Talagandra Station was the name of the homestead, sprawling gardens and surrounding paddocks in 1864. Neither Dick nor the Osborne family, who owned it before him, know the history of Bowylie.
The property is managed full-time by Ben Haseler and carries about 8000 sheep and occasionally cattle, but not at present.
It’s hard to imagine Dick Smith as the farming type, but buying the station carried a lot of sentimental value.
“I had relatives on the land in the Mudgee area in the 1950s and would spend my school holidays there,” says Dick.
“I always liked farming land and when I got the job with the government in Canberra, I initially bought a unit in the city but decided I would combine a place to live with a farm not too far from Canberra.
“I’m proud to be a primary producer.”
The story of how Dick came to own Talagandra is one of chance and, naturally, involves his favourite mode of transport – helicopter.
In search of a place to stay while spending half his time in Canberra working for the Civil Aviation Authority, Dick took to the skies with a local real estate agent.
His sights were set on Lake George, a place he’d often passed on a steam train as a child while visiting his uncle, a builder, and cousins in Canberra.
“We got low on fuel, so we decided to go to Canberra Airport to refuel. When I took off after, for some reason, I flew north, which put me in the Yass Valley. I’d never been there in my life, but as I was flying along, I looked down and saw this magnificent property right on the bank of the Yass River,” Dick said.
No one thought the Osborne family would ever sell, but the next day when the agent arrived to negotiate, he found a surveyor preparing the land for subdivision.
So Dick said, “I’ll buy the lot.”
It was originally 3000 acres, but Dick has added another 1000 acres. He’s also built an airstrip – just for invited guests and Dick’s flying club who have a fly-in once a year – and a train line from the airstrip to the homestead, which carries a 3.5-tonne locomotive from the Golden Ridge Mine in Kalgoorlie.
“It’s the only airstrip in Australia that states on the airport guide that aeroplanes must give way to the steam engine – the taxiway,” says Dick, laughing as he thinks of it.
“When I used to catch the train from Sydney to Canberra, I told my Mum I wanted to be a steam engine driver, and now I am.”
Region Media thought there wouldn’t be many dreams Dick hasn’t achieved, which is true, and he admits he’s been “very lucky”, but there’s one dream he still can’t quite believe he fulfilled.
“When I was younger, I never thought I could fly. It was beyond comprehension. It was only when I started to make some money in business that I did. It was $23 per hour to learn at Bankstown Airport,” Dick said.
You’d be hard-pressed to learn to fly for $23 nowadays, Dick concedes.
Since the borders shut due to COVID-19, Dick’s been hauling his caravan around Australia with his Hilux and writing an autobiography with Australian publishers Allen and Unwin. It comes out this November.
“One chapter is called, ‘Whatever will happen to Dick?’, because that’s what my parents used to say to each other because I wasn’t very smart at school. In fifth class at Roseville Public School, I came 45th out of 47.
“The story is how someone who was pretty hopeless could do okay in the end.”
Better than okay, we think.
It also re-tells many of Dick’s memorable adventures, like the time he towed an iceberg into Sydney Harbour for April Fools’ Day, jumped a double-decker bus over 16 motorbikes and carried out that memorable hot air balloon flight across Australia.
Perhaps shifting gears to primary production wasn’t so crazy after all.