Named after the star of the 1970s children’s TV show, the Shari Lewis Puppet Show, the tall, attractive, amiable mother of two didn’t have a pet called Lambchop. Instead she patted zebras, fed giraffes and learned to give hippos a wide, respectful berth.
The half a million acre Tipperary Station where she spent 24 years was winched into legendary status when it was bought by wealthy property developer Warren Anderson. He set up a menagerie of exotic animals, including critically endangered species such as the scimitar horned oryx and addax.
Shari was chilling out in The Lodge bar at Dundee Beach when we chummed up with a dismal attempt to sing along with Slim. After the blinding lights shot Slim over the edge a final time, I was awed to learn Shari, now 42, had seen the unfolding of the strange chapter in the Tipperary story. It is the stuff of movies.
So is Shari, who was the first woman skipper to take tourists to be thrilled by jumping crocodiles in the Adelaide River. After earning her coxswain ticket in her 20s she spent four years as skipper of the Adelaide Queen.
She now lives near Humpty Doo with her partner Brett and children Brett, 8, and Bailey, 6. They were holidaying at Dundee for a few days with their pets – Spike the bearded dragon and Bubbles the blue-tongued lizard.
Shari’s father had been cattle manager on Tipperary, about 200km south of Darwin, in the 1980s when entrepreneur Anderson bought it to set up an African wildlife park.
“It was amazing. Semi-trailers would come in with loads of deer,” said Shari. “Big crates would arrive and we would peer inside them. ‘What’s that one?’ It might have been a rhinoceros or a pygmy hippopotamus.”
Shari speaks fondly of Warren, who also built a resort, a bitumen runway big enough for Boeing 727s and an indoor equestrian centre. The story became more bizarre in 2003 when the NT government arrested Warren at gunpoint and accused him of not properly feeding two of his rhinoceros. Oops. That led to a public apology and an undisclosed bundle of compensation.
Warren had hoped to stock Tipperary with 200,000 head of cattle but bailed out with financial problems in 2003. Extraordinary legal battles over the African animals followed. A Mareeba wildlife park was to take them but bureaucrats wanted them sterilised – and that caused some consternation seeing some were critically endangered.
Then early in March 2004 the Mareeba sanctuary was raided by – wait for it – the Federal Police, the RSPCA and the Queensland Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy. The owner, David Gill, fled to England, leaving the African animals at Tipperary in limbo.
About 300 bought by Mr Gill – including the scimitar horned oryx which is extinct in the wild in Africa but seems to thrive in Australia – were saved by Kevin Gleeson of the Mary River African Safaris. Yup, they shoot trophy animals out there but a couple of years ago at least they had not shot one of the rare oryx.
The herd has doubled in size and if they haven’t already at some stage someone will pay a lot of money to shoot an oryx head with scimitar horns. Before anyone shrieks in horror, let’s consider the whole picture: the hunter’s money will be fed back into management of the oryx herd, with surplus animals sold and the species eventually re-introduced in the African bush.
No-one is quite sure what happened to the rest of the Tipperary menagerie but another episode made international news when 27-year-old Nico Courtney went pig shooting with his mate Rusty in November 2009.
Spotlighting in the Douglas Daly region they bowled over a bloody big pig. In a Northern Teritory News interview, Nico’s version of what they said after they shot the animal is, I reckon, heavily sanitised: “We got out to look at it and thought that’s not a pig. It’s a hippo. Then we thought ‘You don’t get hippos in Australia.’”
Hmm. C’mon Nico. I can picture some pretty colourful exchanges between you and Rusty that night.
PICTURE ABOVE: Shari with Bubbles the blue tonged lizard.