Paul Graham volunteered at Pilungah Reserve, helping with our feral predator control program.
Little did I realize when I began the 16-hour drive to Pilungah Reserve, just how much this harsh yet amazingly picturesque reserve had etched itself into my being from a previous visit. It wasn't until I arrived on reserve and took my first drive back out into the dunes that it hit me. The stunning beauty of spinifex on red sand simply fits, and triggers something in me that I can't explain in words.
To appreciate Pilungah, you have to spend some time there. No photographs, videos or stories can prepare you for its overwhelming sense of ‘place’ when you visit, or for the experiences you'll encounter while you are there. I’d like to share one of those experiences with you. I hope I never forget these moments, nor the humble feelings that it created for me at the time.
My story starts with a bird survey at Coolabah Waterhole with reserve ecologist Anke.
During this survey, we were surprised to see two young dingoes sniffing and exploring the far side of the waterhole. While Anke and I stood relatively still and moved slowly, we were surprised at how relaxed the dingoes were, even after they'd noticed us. One was content to watch us from a comfortable distance of around 50 metres. They appeared to be happy and busy, much like you'd expect to see dogs behave after they had chased the neighbour's cat out of your yard… energetic, active, and pleased with themselves.
We completed the survey and went for a walk onto an adjacent dune to look at some of the native trees and grasses that grow around the waterhole. We noticed a lot of dog prints and some cat prints but didn't think too much of it until we looked up into one of the Whitewood trees and noticed the panicked face of a feral cat staring intently at us. We put two and two together (recall my comment about footprints) and realized the most likely reason the cat was up in the tree, was that the dingoes had bailed it up and lost interest not long before Anke and I had arrived. Yep, that explains the smiles on their faces too.
I immediately felt gratitude toward the young dingoes which also deepened an admiration I've had of dingoes for many years. It felt like a team effort to capture this feral cat, and if I could have high-fived them, I certainly would have.
Later that day, I set some cat cage traps around the waterhole in places that I’d seen cat footprints or would expect to see cat activity. I’d been for a walk to the other side of the waterhole to investigate suitable locations for trapping and when I returned, decided to re-bait one of the closer traps.
When I returned, I saw one of the dingo pups watching me from his safe distance. He was curious but quite relaxed and sat down to watch me. I walked over to my car to get more bait for the trap and just before walking back to the trap, I noticed that my little mate had gone to investigate the trap himself, some 20m from me. I spoke to him quietly and calmly so as not to startle him, and he seemed fine with that.
He sniffed the trap, my water bottle that I’d placed on the ground, and then strolled off to his safe distance to watch once again. I went about my business and rebaited the trap but also set up a trail camera to capture what would happen after I left. I talked a bit more to him and he seemed to entertain my Dr Doo-Little mumblings.
I decided to do a stake-out at the waterhole that evening, in the hope that a feral cat or fox would come to drink. When I arrived in the afternoon, I noticed my little Buddy had already seen me and was watching intently. I set myself up amongst some low branches and began the waiting game.
The light was getting low, so I blew my Silva fox whistle a few times. I expected some reaction from the dingo pup, but he didn’t even flinch. I blew again, but louder. Still no reaction. Eventually both pups made their way around to the opposite side of the waterhole and trotted up and over the nearby dune. Shortly after, I heard howling coming from their direction, so I figured I’d have a little chat with them and since there was nobody else around to embarrass myself with awkward howling/squawking noises, I gave a faint howl of my own.
Much to my surprise, almost immediately one of the pups came running over the dune and pulled up half way down my side. He stopped and sat, then gave another howl and scanned the surroundings. He tried a few more times and seemed to be a bit frustrated so trotted along the side of the dune and behind some low shrubs.
I took the opportunity of this few seconds of cover and gave another howl. He came running out again and stopped about 60m from me, again staring in my direction.
By this time, he’d pegged me and knew where I was, but I’m not convinced that he knew WHAT I was. I gave a little howl again and he replied with a few short, quiet howls.
He sat down, then lay down and gave a couple more short, quiet howls and looked in my direction. By now he’d come to within 30 metres of me and seemed to be quite calm. I managed to snap a few photos while he was having this one-sided conversation with me. It was quite surreal to be in the middle of nowhere, sitting so close to the top order predator of this habitat, and feeling as though we were on equal standing. There was no tension, no anxiety and a definite intrigue shared by us both, I’m sure.
After a while he trotted off to his mate at the top of the dune and they sat for a while before they disappeared down the other side of the dune again. I didn’t bother them again. I was satisfied that we’d acknowledged each other, and neither felt any threat.
I spent a further two weeks with only the occasional visit to the waterhole after pulling out the traps. I didn’t get the chance to farewell by little mate before I left but I did manage to remove another feral cat from his waterhole.
Moments like this only happen when you immerse yourself in the country around you. Get out of your car, turn off electronic devices and just sit! You’ll be amazed at what happens and you’re guaranteed to experience moments that stay with you forever.
Buddy, thanks for sharing a moment with me. I hope I’ve been just as much a positive influence in your world as you have been in mine.