Making a living off the country
Charles Darwin Reserve has many signs and relicts of past attempts at utilising the resources of the area.
Aboriginal people harvested the natural produce around Charles Darwin Reserve for more than 40,000 years. They moved across the land as hunters and gathers living according to the seasons and its natural produce. They appear to have disturbed the land very little and therefore have left little evidence of their presence. Their descendants, the Badimia people, are now contributors to the modern commercial and industrial economy.
Grindstone near the homestead at Charles Darwin Reserve. It and other stone cutting flakes found near the creekline suggest habitation at the site.
Photo courtesy C. Nicholson
Early British colonial exploration of the area was driven by the commercial desire to expand flocks and farmlands, and to find minerals to produce goods for local and overseas markets. The natural limitations and carrying capacity of the country were little understood nor considered. The early settlers also ignored the needs and knowledge of the original occupants and usurped waterholes for their flocks, and took over the country, drawing lines of ownership on paper land title maps.
While exploitation of the natural resources of the Mongers Lake and Lake Moore area has been profitable in some places, it has resulted in severe changes to the landscape. On parts of Ninghan Station there is significant loss of vegetation from overgrazing; at the Mt Gibson Goldmine there is a large open-cut mine and tailings-filled claypan; and at Jibberding the native vegetation has been almost completey cleared for wheat cropping. Freshwater soaks and claypans have gone salty.
Fortunately the natural ecosystems of Charles Darwin Reserve have survived relatively intact in spite of the attempts to 'tame' the country. The land has stood its ground and nature conservation has emerged as the most appropriate 'use' for the country. Conservation management is now seen as a vauluable activity in its own right, and the aim of the current management regime is to return the land to the condition in which the first explorers found it. It is expected that scientific, cultural, social and environmental knowledge will emerge as a result.
There are Aboriginal occupation sites; fences, wells, tracks and infrastructure from the days of pastoralism; cleared land and decaying machines from hay cropping; weathered timber survey pegs, reminders of the grand plans of the 1920s and 1970s to clear the country for wheat and sheep farms; mounds of bark at old sandalwood camps; timber-lined shafts, mullock heaps and crumbling building foundations of old gold mines; a row of red power and water stands from a small tourist caravan park; and now the new and shiny equipment of a conservation reserve including goat trailers and weed spray pumps.
Nature conservation has, since the beginning of the 21st Century, become the main land use and economic generator in the area. Two sheep stations have become community-owned conservation reserves. The 133,00 hectare Mt Gibson Station became the Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Mt Gibson Sanctuary in 2001 and the 68,000 hectare Whitewells Station became the Bush Heritage’s Charles Darwin Reserve in 2003. The Mt Singleton range on Ninghan Station became part of a 48,000 hectare Indigenous Protected Area in 2006,and is now managed for conservation. The 36,000 hectares of unallocated Crown land adjoining to the south of Charles Darwin Reserve has been proposed as a nature reserve since the mid 1980s. The State Department of Environment and Conservation has had management powers over it for several years. These changes illustrate the evolution of public and government culture to accept the conservation of natural habitat as an essential part of the modern practice of ‘sustainability’.
The physical evidence of the history of the economic exploitation of the regions are scattered through the material relicts of machines and equipment, stories from those who were there, written records in archives, published works, and the occasional photograph. These records are scarce and scattered, but reveal much about a rich but previously inconspicuous corner of Western Australia.
The original economy
Aboriginal people have harvested the bounty of this country for tens of thousands of years, although in their mythology the origins of the land and its people go back to the 'dreaming'. Their hunter-gatherer economy was based on an intimate knowledge of the plants and animals, seasons, water supplies, the behaviour of fire, and the rules for using and managing the country to sustain its production.
The first brief descriptions of the land under Aboriginal management in the region are found in the journals of the N.W Cooke and J.H. Monger in 1868 and John Forrest in 1869. They mention how their Aboriginal guides went off hunting for small animals, and refer to kanagaroo nets made from bark cords, and record 'native wells' and tracks.
19th August …the land traversed being red and sandy, and occasionally I passed trees called by the natives couge, from the bark of which they manufacture nets. N.W. Cooke The Inquirer and Commercial News, Wednesday October 14, 1868 in Exploration Diaries 1865-71 Vol 6 PR 5441, J.S.Battye Library
September 17th Travelled ten or twelve miles over a fine country; menna and saltbush growing thickly and excellent grass underneath; the seeds of the former are to be seen in immense quantities. At intervals of a few miles are small patches of a kind of York gum. Camped at a large flat rock, Ninghan bearing W. by N. in a flat rock country (granite) with fine feed round: saw during the day many native yards for trapping scrub kangaroos with nets.
J H Monger Perth Gazette and W.A. Times, October 9, 1868 in Exploration Diaries Vol 6 1865-71 PR 5441 J.S.Battye Library
July 26th …steered a little to the north of west toward Damperwar. … we camped at a spot with very little feed and water in south latitude 29 deg. 21 min. 48 sec. … Here we met 2 natives, whom we had seen on our outward track at the Warne corroboree, who were of course very friendly and slept at our camp. They had a great many dulgites and a opossum which they carried in a net bag, made out of the inner bark of the ordnance tree which makes a splendid strong cord.
John Forrest Explorations in Australia Sampson Low, Marston, Low, & Searle, London 1875
Major meeting grounds, where representatives from tribal groups from all sides of the local Badimia people’s territory met, lay on Ninghan and Coodingnow to the north-east of Charles Darwin Reserve. There they held ceremonies and presumably traded not only material goods but also songs, stories and dances.
With European settlement, the original inhabitants were gradually displaced from their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle, many becoming absorbed into the pastoral economy. The men became shepherds, shearers and stockmen, and the women became domestic servants. By the 1990s, the circle had turned with a Badimia family enterprise owning Ninghan Station. Present day Badimia, especially with their rural skills, are important contributors to the modern economy.
Small scatters of stone cutting flakes and cores and the occasional piece of a seed grinding stone remain near rockholes across the Charles Darwin Reserve, indicating the occasional use of the country by travellers, and hunting and gathering parties in pre-contact times.
The commercial economy: farmers and industrialists
British settlement of the Swan River Colony occurred in 1829. It was an idealistic attempt at a new type of settlement that failed to live up to expectations. Originally the settlement idea created such fervour it was called 'Swan River Mania'. But by 1831 disillusionment had set in, and the colony became the basis for new theories of colonisation, for example by E.G. Wakefield.
The newcomers sought to exploit the natural resources in ways similar to those of their agricultural, commercial and industrial origins. They did not understand that the ancient West Australian soils had different fertility characteristics, that native plants had adapted to a nutrient-deficient environment and that small native mammals were defenceless against carnivorous predators. The original landscape was replaced with a heavily grazed, or cleared and cultivated one which was more susceptible to erosion and often became saline. Removing the original habitat exposed the native fauna to the introduced predators, such as cats, foxes, rats and mice, and also to competition from the introduced grazers such as sheep, cattle, goats and rabbits.
The region around Charles Darwin Reserve, on the edge between the farmlands and the grazing lands, was one of the few areas to survive this 'development'.
The search for more and better agricultural lands, called 'looking for country', was a preoccupation for the government and private farmers. It was not until 1868 that the farmers N.W. Cooke followed by the Monger brothers, John Henry and George, and in 1869 the Government Surveyor John Forrest, all penetrated the area and reported springs and limited pastures. Their reports encouraged the sheep graziers of the Victoria Plains district to the south and Irwin River district to the east to take up small pastoral leases around springs and send flocks into the area with shepherds.
Charles Darwin Reserve, then Whitewells Station, has had a number of small pastoral leases over various sections of it since the 1870s. It was such poor country for sheep, mostly thick shrublands with a poor water supply, that the main lease was not taken up until 1919. Most of the lease was surrendered in 1940. After separating from Ninghan Station in 1953, it was so small and had so little carrying capacity that it was never viable as a sole means of living. .
The 1890s saw the gold rushes in Western Australia.Gold was found and mined in the region at Fields Find, Paynes Find, Mt Gibson and, in the 1920s, the small Retaliation field in the hills in the north-east of Charles Darwin Reserve. There, the gold was in small quantities in ores difficult to treat, thus saving Retaliation from major disturbance despite persistent drilling exploration in recent times. Hand-dug mining shafts and a scatter of building foundations are all that remain of the short but busy Atlas Mining operation of the 1930s .
The Wheatbelt, Western Australia’s 12 million hectare, broadacre, semi-arid, grain growing region, expanded into the Jibberding area to the south of Charles Darwin Reserve in 1908. Whitewells Station, as it became known, had the typical northern Wheatbelt soil and vegetation of eucalyptus woodlands and sandplains. This encouraged the government to do soil surveys and mapping in the 1920s, and surveys and subdivisions as the prelude to releasing the land for wheat farming. Many of the weathered native pine survey pegs remain, as do the subdivision lines on the regional plans. The more erratic and marginal rainfall was not considered a constraint. The success of oaten hay crops grown on the cleared paddock at Whitewells for Ninghan Station stock horses from the mid 1920s would have encouraged this view. The 1930s depression intervened. The scheme was deferred and the natural landscape survived.
A second plan to release the land for croppng on Whitewells and Mt Gibson in the 1970s also failed because of poor markets and the imposition of wheat quotas on farmers.
With pastoralism being unrewarding and cropping ruled out, by the 1980s tourism was considered to have potential. Whitewells and Ninghan Station catered for those seeking the extensive carpets of spring wildflowers and the experience of outback station life. Despite the grand plans (Ninghan proclaimed its intention to build a world standard resort), even the modest caravan park and assorted guest accommodation on Whitewells and the loyalty of regular vistors, failed to produce a dependable income because of the periodic absence of winter rainfall on which the wildflowers depend.
Sandalwood has been exported from the area since tracks were wide enough for wagons to transport it. Despite a century of more of pulling, the long-lived mature sandalwood trees are still common on Charles Darwin Reserve. However, seedlings are few and far between. Sheep, goats and rabbits graze on and kill the seedlings, and the native animals which bury the sandalwood seeds, and thus help their germination, fell prey to foxes and cats in the first half of the19th Century.
Beekeeping has been a minor industry in the area since beekeepers discovered the prolific but seasonally erratic York gum honey in the late 1960s. Opinion is divided on what effect the bees have had on the native flora and its insect life.
The Pastoralists moved into the area following the reports of the explorers. A progression of pastoral leases gradually covered the country, usually centred on natural but small and unreliable springs and soaks. The first sheep flocks were shepherded into the area, but as wells were sunk and wire fencing and windmills became available, permanent settlement followed. Pastoralists rarely understood the cycles of floods and droughts and the long-term effects of grazing on the soil and vegetation. They also had to cope with rises and falls in wool prices. The pastoral regions were generally overstocked, resulting in major changes in the native vegetation and soil erosion.
A collection of smaller leases commencing with a 10,000 acre lease around ‘Banawar Spring’ in the 1880s, were consolidated in 1964 into the current Whitewells Pastoral Lease 3114/529. The main area was taken up in 1919 by the returned soldiers McCarthy and Finlason. It then passed through a series of owners as a changing set of small separate leases which were at various times incorporated into the adjoining Ninghan and Mt Gibson Stations. In 1964 most of the leases was consolidated as the current Whitewells pastoral lease under the Masons.
In terms of ecological impact, the Whitewells leases fared better than most in the region. The lack of a natural water supply and the dense shrublands meant the lease was never economically viable as an independent pastoral station. At various times, its owners attempted other economic pursuits such as converting areas to wheat farming, piggeries and angora goat farming but were denied approval. A small tourism venture was allowed to proceed and provided some supplementary income from the 1980s to 2002.
From the mid 1920s until the late 1940s a cleared paddock of about 1,000 acres, known as 'Ninghan Farm', featured strongly in the economy of Ninghan Station. Oat crops were grown there for hay and oats to feed the stock horses and draught animals of the large Ninghan pastoral enterprise owned by Tom Elder Barr Smith. After 1953, the now independent Whitewells Station continued to crop 'The Paddock' as supplementary sheep feed until the Pastoral Board intervened in the 1980s, when it was converted to a grazing paddock.
Sheep were removed in 2003 when Bush Heritage purchased Whitewells, and now with only kangaroos grazing it, The Paddock has started to change from an annnual everlasting daisy field with scattered jam wattle shrubs, to a perennial native grassland.
All the land not yet within pastoral leases was opened up for selection in 1903 in an area south and west of a line through Mt Gibson hill and up through Rothsay. The land was sold as ' conditional purchase' farm blocks. Farmers moved into the Jibberding area just south of Charles Darwin Reserve in 1907. Settlement in the Mongers Lake /Perenjori area to the west of Charles Darwin Reserve was almost complete by the 1930s. The Goodlands farming area extended up to the southern boundary of Mt Gibson station in the 1960s.
Whitewells was almost cleared for wheat farming twice, in the 1920s and 1970s. The soils and vegetation were mappedat these times. The 1920s mapping was used to survey a set of large blocks for subdivision into farms. The blocks remain on the State land title maps, and many of the original timber survey pegs can still be found. In the 1930s and 19 40s, the Depression and World War II intervened. In the 1970s political enthusiasm for more land releases was outweighed by concern for the marginal rainfall and the threat that new farmers would not get wheat quotas under the economic conditions of the time.
Soil survey was the precursor to subdivision.