Spending a week at Naree Station in north-western NSW, is a great way to get to know heart of Australia. It's big country, with big blue skies, dusty dirt roads and long distances between towns. For anyone living within 50km of the coast (like 84% of Australians) it can be quite challenging at first - the remoteness, isolation and endless scrub rushing past the car seem alien. Step out of the air-conditioned comfort of your hire car and the heat presses down like a physical weight and you're quickly driven half mad by the flies. It doesn’t take long to realise that water is the most important element of this landscape.
Average rainfall at Naree is 300mm per annum but hardly any year is ‘average’ – the term being almost meaningless in this country where boom and bust cycles of wet and dry determine the vegetation, breeding events and ecology of the land.
The Budjiti people had an intimate knowledge of this landscape. Aboriginal hunting, gathering, and ceremonial activities were generally concentrated along watercourses and pathways linking permanent water, while wider travel was facilitated by intermittent rainfall, shallow native wells, and a sparse network of artesian springs fed by water from the Great Artesian Basin.
Apart from these springs, there was little permanent surface water before Europeans and their livestock came. The nearest being in the Darling river south-west of Brewarrina and a few permanent waterholes in the Warrego and Paroo rivers
It's the intermittent rainfall that switches survival strategies for the dry season into reproductive strategies in the wet. Local rain events can bring on a greening of the vegetation but it's big rains further north in Queensland that can fill the Warrego and Paroo rivers and as this water heads south down the dry creek beds it kickstarts a huge breeding phenomenon.
Hints of this are apparent as you approach Naree, with the red sandplain soils supporting Mulga shrublands (an acacia) changing to Coolibah/Poplar Box woodlands interspersed with sandy grey clay pans, canegrass grasslands and lignum swamp. If there hasn’t been recent rain, the only water you may see is in a billabong when you cross one of the several channels of Cuttaburra Creek.
It's always worth a stop to see what's using the waterholes – we were rewarded with a White-necked Heron and a flock of Bee-eaters flying aerial sorties to catch winged insects.
Arriving at the turn-off for Naree station you're greeted with a spanking new sign in brilliant white. No doubt the ravages of weather and road dust will dull the welcome sign over time but it's a reassuring confirmation that you haven’t overshot the turn-off.
Many government and privately owned bores exist in this part of Australia, bringing artesian water to the surface. Drilling of the Great Artesian Basin began in the late 19th century to counteract a long drought and to provide water for cattle and sheep (and humans). The bores provide a permanent water supply to both the unwanted hooved herbivores (goats, pigs, brumbies, cattle and sheep) as well as the mobs of kangaroos, which exist in much higher numbers than they otherwise would. They also provide an excellent place to watch the local wildlife coming in for a drink.
An early morning stake-out at any of these watering points provides a wondrous array of birds coming in for a drink alongside thirsty roos. An ever changing sequence of honeyeaters, crimson chats, bronzewings and parrots drop by briefly before heading out for their day. In the swamp Red-kneed and Black-fronted Dotterels search for tasty morsels alongside the ever vigilant Black-winged Stilts whose alarm cries fill the air continuously as they protest your presence at their waterhole.
The purpose of this visit was for Jody Gunn and David Akers from Bush Heritage to meet Tim and Sally Hughes from the South Endeavour Trust, which has recently purchased the adjacent property, Yantabulla.
South Endeavour Trust was set up in 2007 by Simon Marais, a successful South African businessman, to contribute to nature conservation in Australia through private land acquisition. The trust has properties covering a wide range of ecosystems, with the majority centred on the biological hotspots of Cooktown in far north Queensland, the Atherton tablelands near Cairns and in northern NSW. Many of their properties also have significant value as wildlife corridors, either protecting existing habitat or chosen because a critical link can be restored through replanting and habitat restoration.
At Yantabulla the opportunity was to further protect the ephemeral wetlands of Cuttaburra Creek and the enormous Yantabulla swamp. This region is one of the top 20 wetland breeding sites in Australia and in a big wet can support tens of thousands of breeding waterbirds including egrets, ibises, ducks and waders. A key spot is Back Creek swamp, which borders Naree station.
The acquisition by South Endeavour Trust now protects the whole of this key breeding site as well as a significant amount of the adjacent Yantabulla swamp. The partnership deal being struck will see David and Sue managing both properties as one landscape making it easier to control ferals, reduce the amount of internal fencing and protect the wetlands.
During two days of travelling around Yantabulla with Jody, David, Tim and Sally we visited a number of old derelict homesteads, many with dilapidated but fascinating outbuildings, shearing sheds and ancient vehicles rusting away gently into oblivion. The strangest and saddest bit of the day was when entering these homesteads. It felt like trespassing. In some places it looked as if the owners just walked out one day and left everything as it was. It must have been very painful to walk away from a home, from a deep-rooted sense of place, breaking connections with the land forged over generations.
After two days exploring Yantabulla with Tim and Sally we headed back to Naree to nail down some management priorities. Fencing is one. Maintaining and repairing boundary fences is a continuous process and without stock to control there's also the opportunity to remove a lot of the internal paddock fences still in place.
In addition David has plans to extend the triangle paddock on Naree that has TGP (Total Grazing Pressure) fencing designed to exclude goats pigs and sheep as well as cattle. Monitoring inside and outside the fencing will demonstrate how the landscape can recover without the grazing pressure of introduced herbivores.
As Jody wound up the day finalising the contractual agreements with Tim and Sally, I slipped away for a last sunset walk around the waterhole and to my delight discovered a group of crimson chats flitting around trying to decide which bush to roost in for the night. They glowed magnificently in the last rays of the day.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, my thoughts turned to the early start the next day to get back to Sydney, and with a little sadness I realised I wasn’t quite ready to leave just yet. Naree had got under my skin. Promising myself to return in the next big wet I headed back to the dongas to prepare supper. Over spaghetti Bolognese we all celebrated the powerful new partnership that has been forged between Bush Heritage and the South Endeavour Trust.