A day on a desert reserve

Friday 20 March, 2009

Nella and Mark Lithgow are reserve managers at Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves, two major arid-zone properties bordering the Simpson Desert in Queensland. While they live mostly at Cravens Peak, their work takes them across all 446 300 hectares of both reserves, which are two hours’ drive apart. Mark and Nella have been at Cravens Peak since July 2008.

Mark and Nella Lithgow at Cravens Peak Reserve, Qld.

Mark and Nella Lithgow at Cravens Peak Reserve, Qld.

Before joining Bush Heritage, Mark was a viticulturalist, managing large vineyards and the Lithgows’ own a small vineyard in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. He's also a four-wheel drive instructor and worked as a bulldozer operator and summer-season firefighter for Melbourne Water.

Meantime, Nella was a high-school teacher, working in various Victorian country schools. As Mark and Nella love the outdoors and travelling through Australia’s many remote areas, working at Cravens Peak was a natural progression for them … although living in the desert requires fewer jumpers than living in the Yarra Valley hills! 

We asked Mark and Nella what a typical day on the reserve held for them.

7am Fuel, water, food, GPS, tools, SAT phone, EPIRB, maps, winch, spare tyres, riggers’ gloves, hat, sunnies, sense of humour?

Check, check, yep, got it, let’s go.

Bronze foxtails after rain at Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Bronze foxtails after rain at Ethabuka Reserve, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Heading out for a day’s work in the desert requires more than a train ticket, newspaper and laptop but, on the plus side, we work on one of the most magnificent landscapes in Australia.

Our travel into work today carries us over spinifex-covered red sand dunes, sprinkled with fauna tracks and occasional wildflowers. The trip out in the morning is always a joy but the trip home can be a challenge as the heat dries the sand to a soft and powdery texture, reducing traction – if we don’t get our speed just right as we head up the dune, then winching the ute off the sand is the only way out.

8.30am We’ve arrived at today’s job site. We’re going to be wrestling with a few hundred metres of barbed wire macramé, rearranged by a passing camel or two on the way to scoffing reserve greenery. This is known as fence fixing! Next we hammer in steel star pickets which are at fryingpan temperature, and watch them disappear to China in a bottomless pile of red sand.

Red sand and spinifex Triodia hummock grass at Cravens Peak, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Red sand and spinifex Triodia hummock grass at Cravens Peak, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

12pm The temperature is heading towards 47 °C and the bore-water washed shirt starts to feel a bit like tent canvas. After a few hours’ hard work, the fence is in good working order and will hold back passing stock. Well, until the next camel fancies our bushes rather than the neighbour's. We head towards the shade of an old gidgee tree for lunch, a rest and a tussle with the flies over our sandwiches.

1pm On the way back to the homestead, we stop off to check one of the bores and start up the pump. If this isn’t done regularly the high level of calcium and salt in the bore water will cause it to seize. Depending on the position and depth of a bore, the water that comes from the Artesian Basin can vary considerably in quality.

The starting procedure is best left to the strong and fast – you hand-crank the handle and let it go quickly, otherwise you’ll end up spinning around on the end of the handle like a cartoon character! This bore once fed water to cattle, but it's now used for emergency water, herbicide spraying and firefighting in these remote areas.

1.30pm As we travel along we pick up bits and pieces left over from the cattle station days such as rusty 44-gallon drums and masses of plastic poly pipe left over from transferring water from bores to dams and troughs around the property.

Bush Heritage uses motion scanning cameras at Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves to monitor nocturnal movement of animals.

Bush Heritage uses motion scanning cameras at Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves to monitor nocturnal movement of animals.

3.30pm We continue homewards, stopping off to set up the motion-scanning camera at the last remaining functional water trough. The camera provides photographic information on the type and number of feral animals (camels, cattle, cats, horses and foxes) that visit the trough at night. By using the camera, we get a glimpse of their nocturnal routines, which helps us control their access to the reserve.

The University of Sydney also uses motion cameras in many locations around Cravens Peak and Ethabuka, recording the visits of both native inhabitants (dunnarts, spinifex hopping mice, mulgaras, dragons, skinks, scorpions, spiders) and animals feral to the desert regions.

4pm Heading back, we wave to the corellas in the tree. We admire a lone bustard (a very large bird favoured as bush turkey by the traditional owners and early settlers) standing still in the dry grasses.

The military dragons (small lizards) speed past us on the track as if they want to get to the shower before we do. It’s the kind of afternoon when we burn our arms on the window sill of the car door because we forget the heat. We turn the airconditioning on, which then gives up because it's above 40 degrees. 'Open the window and the flies come in; close the window and you're sweatin' again.'

5pm Aaaah, home. The welcome sight of the fridge cooling the beer, the ‘aircon’ to cool your head, the washing machine to wash the sweaty socks and starch your shirts in bore water again … and the emails to check from Bush Heritage people in Melbourne.

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