As the dust settles at Ethabuka

Monday 20 June, 2005

Reserve managers Alastair Dermer and Karen Harrland report on their first summer at Ethabuka Reserve, Queensland.

Dawn over the dunes. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Dawn over the dunes. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

It’s been a little over seven months since our arrival at Ethabuka and we're proud to be still standing as the long summer draws to a close.

As the first permanent Bush Heritage management team we've been busy establishing the property as a reserve and learning about life in this harsh yet rich environment.

Looking back over the past summer we realise how we've evolved from cold-tolerant Tasmanians to heat-tolerant desert dwellers. Now we get goose bumps in the 21 degree mornings and think of 37 degrees as a cool day!

Ethabuka 'homestead'. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Ethabuka 'homestead'. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

During this transition we've gathered fond memories and a new perspective on many things. We think with delight of the evenings spent sitting on top of the dunes as the last of the sunset colours and flies disappeared, of the stars gradually filling the sky and of the realisation that, for many kilometres in any direction, we were the only people.

A similar feeling of unreality came from doing the fencing on the southern boundary of Ethabuka, the reserve’s boundary with Kamaran Downs. We were welding star pickets on to the top of star pickets in an attempt to maintain a fence above the relentless waves of sand that were trying to reclaim the land.

Feral camel. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Feral camel. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Camels, once just curious beasts of the desert or circus, are now our companions and a source of both amusement and annoyance. For a while through the heat of summer they would gather around the homestead after sunset, seeking a drink from our tank overflow.

Their lack of social graces disrupted our evenings as they broke wind, belched, bit each other and stamped their feet. Our attempts to get them to keep the noise down were met with indifference.

Thankfully they'll soon be mustered and removed.

While on the topic of drinking and water, the installation of a reverse osmosis water filter has dramatically improved the quality of the drinking water. The bore water, which was once undrinkable, is now delicious.

Spiny-cheeked honeyeater. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Spiny-cheeked honeyeater. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

We have wondered, however, if perhaps the high mineral load in the water has magical properties. Ten women in our local community of only 120 people are pregnant and we are among them; in just a couple of months there will be three of us.

Much of our time has been consumed by renovating the house, constructing volunteer quarters for the impending influx of volunteer rangers, and developing a  workshop.

Throughout the heat of summer the working day started between 4am and 5am in an attempt to beat the heat and the flies. By 10.30 to 11.00 am, with the temperature over 40 degrees and a strong, dust-laden wind often blowing, we would turn our attention to tasks protected by the house and its struggling air coolers.

View over the spinifex Triodia dunefields. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

View over the spinifex Triodia dunefields. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Some of the early land management tasks have included removing cattle that had wandered in from neighbouring properties, repairing kilometres of fencing, establishing a management strategy for camels, identifying and mapping introduced plants, and researching the complexities of the arid-zone landscape.

Developing networks with our neighbours, the local community, regional land management authorities and traditional owners has been an important activity.

From left, traditional owners Jean Jacks and Barbara Dunn with Shaaron Stevenson and Karen Harrland. Photo Al Dermer.

From left, traditional owners Jean Jacks and Barbara Dunn with Shaaron Stevenson and Karen Harrland. Photo Al Dermer.

During March we were fortunate to be visited by traditional owners Barbara Dunn and Jean Jacks, elders of the Pitta Pitta people. They came with Shaaron Stevenson, the Desert Channels Catchment Coordinator from Longreach. Their visit enabled us to explain the aims of Bush Heritage and initiate a working relationship with the traditional owners.

We visited some of the many significant cultural sites and artefacts on Ethabuka and discussed the fencing work needed to rehabilitate Ethabuka Spring.

Now, as the weather cools and the dust settles, we're enjoying the arrival of visitors from the local community and volunteers, all of whom are proving to be an invaluable source of knowledge and expertise. And we are exceedingly grateful for the extra pairs of hands!

Others have arrived to undertake research. Alice-Springs-based scientist Joe Benshemesh and his team have been digging trenches in dunes on the western edge of the property in their search for marsupial moles.

Rocky ranges rise above the expansive shrublands. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

Rocky ranges rise above the expansive shrublands. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.

In such ‘perfect mole habitat’ they were surprised at the absence of mole tunnels. Their next step is to determine whether a geographical barrier has prevented the moles from moving east from their known locations in the western Simpson Desert.

From 19 to 21 April we held our first management planning workshop. Researchers from the University of Sydney, David Akers from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, representatives from amongst our neighbours, and Bush Heritage staff helped us to confirm and structure the management priorities for the reserve.

We would like to thank all these people for their support. Your generous donations and support from the Australian Government’s Natural Heritage Trust’s National Reserve System program have protected this property. We now have the privilege of guiding its future as a conservation reserve of international significance.

This is an exciting prospect. Perhaps you will be able to visit us before too long and see for yourself how you're helping to save one of the most remarkable areas of Australia.

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