Fencing in and out

Sunday 21 December, 2003

Bush Heritage ecologist Murray Haseler and photographer Wayne Lawler spent ten days at Ethabuka in late September assessing future management issues and taking photographs.

While rain in the desert is always reason for celebration, the next rain that falls on Ethabuka should, by any reckoning, cause a riot.

Many years of cattle grazing, a long, dry spell and fires ignited by electrical storms have left their marks on the landscape, but before long Ethabuka will have its first wet season without cattle in over a century. The landscape and its wildlife will respond with exuberance.

For ten days in late September, photographer Wayne Lawler and I traversed hundreds of kilometres of Ethabuka, recording on film and on paper the property as it is now. We moved camp each day to allow Wayne to capture the dawn and dusk light and the patterns of sun and cloud across a variety of landscapes.

Wayne's tasks were to record Ethabuka's plants, animals and landscapes, and to provide a visual record of the property as its era of pastoralism comes to an end.

Despite his astonishing energy and devotion to the task, ten days and one season were insufficient to capture adequately such a large and diverse place. Wayne chased that perfect combination of light and subject across the landscape, interrupted only by chance opportunities to catch images of animals from the minute to the majestic.

My task was more pragmatic. I photographed and documented infrastructure and erosion, and took 'before' photos in as many locations and vegetation types as I could. I documented the wildlife wherever we went as a start to the management and monitoring tasks ahead. I also caught animals for Wayne to photograph, both cursing and praising the protective, prickly spinifex.

Despite its long pastoral history, it is with good reason that Ethabuka retains its claim to fame as a property that supports a great diversity of furtive reptiles and small mammals. While the spinifex hides these species from cats, foxes and photographers, their abundance is evident from the myriad tracks in the red sand.

Ethabuka’s waterholes are also alive with waterbirds and waders. We saw flocks of threatened freckled duck and even a rednecked phalarope, which is rarely seen in Queensland and should have been off breeding in the Arctic at that time of year.

It was reassuring to see evidence, at many locations throughout the reserve, of the Sydney University small-mammal research team. With ten years' research having been carried out at multiple sites on the property, Ethabuka may yet become our best-understood reserve as far as the fauna is concerned. Sharing information with the research team, as it continues its work, will be exciting and rewarding.

I look forward to showing the ‘before’ photos to supporters when they are able to visit Ethabuka and see for themselves the abundance and splendour of the ‘after’ environment.

– Murray Haseler, September 2003

ETHABUKA, because of its size (2140 sq km) and complexity, has many characters. Extending for 80 km across its diagonal (a distance equivalent to that from Melbourne to Torquay, Hornsby to Wollongong, or Hobart to Lake Pedder) it's a monumental conservation area that defies a simple description.

It can have you revelling in the splendour of a panoramic dune-top vista in the morning and cowering in the shelter of a gidyea tree by mid-afternoon as superheated dust swirls around you.

Ethabuka is part of the desert world, yet encompasses Channel Country wetlands of national significance. Flocks of duck rise from Pulchera Waterhole and wheel over an intricate land-scape of swamps, channels, wooded floodplains and expansive ephemeral lakes, all part of the Mulligan River system. These flooded areas are interspersed with sand dunes of glaring white and blazing red.

A rocky range of classic desert mesas forms a spectacular boundary between these wetlands and the vast dune fields of spinifex ridges and woodland swales that march in parallel columns away to the west and the Northern Territory border.

Even here is the miracle of a shady riverbed lined with coolibahs, which runs its course among the dunes. This is the Simpson Desert, yet Ethabuka is most ‘un-desert-like’ in the diversity and abundance of its wildlife.

By day, reptiles darted across the track in front of us and birds sang and wheeled above. We encountered a flock of 50 rainbow bee-eaters. At night, in one short spotlighting foray, we counted six knob-tailed geckos, a small marsupial called a ‘ningaui’,and several skinks and other geckos.

The camp lantern attracted more weird and wonderful insects in one evening than an entomologist could study in a lifetime.

Ethabuka is brim full of wildlife, including rare and threatened species. This hub of biodiversity is a meeting place of arid-zone ecosystems. Each habitat, and its specific flora and fauna, interacts with each of the others through flood and drought, plant germination, flowering and decay, and animal migration, breeding and dispersal.

Such ecological complexity in an arid climate functions best when grazing pressure is minimised, and fire managed. My lasting impressions of Ethabuka, having visited prior to its protection, are of the floral gardens of a drying lake-bed pugged by cattle, and a dustbowl of drifting sand. These are poignant images of an injured beauty in need of rescue. We can help nature to restore Ethabuka’s grandeur.

– Wayne Lawler, September 2003

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