Cravens Peak Reserve on the edge of the Simpson Desert in Queensland was bought in 2005. It was at the end of a dry period and the family running it as a cattle farm at the time were divided between leaving and waiting for that all-saving rain.
The compromise they agreed to was a sale with continued agistment for a year, gambling on the anticipated rain. The rain didn’t come for 12 months (ironically, arriving to bog the trucks trying to finally carry the cattle off).
We responded to those winter rains. It was the first we saw of the wildflower displays in the dunes, and in the thorny herbs that began to sprout out of the beaten swales. It was too cool for the grasses that stayed as seed until the light summer rains in the coming years allowed them to accrue root masses and the first softening of the hot, hardened ground.
The first managers – Len and Jo Wall – overlapped with the previous owners and started the conversion of the station house and quarters to a reserve base and visitors' accommodation.
With stock gone the imperative was now to keep the new growth for native species. Surrounded by stock this was always going to be a challenge in a hungry and thirsty landscape.
Staff looked out for weeds that might also get released with the removal of stock – especially buffel grass.
With the visitors' quarters renewed the reserve effort was increased with the use of volunteers.
Mark and Nella Lithgow were the next managers. Sydney uni’s Rat Catchers spread their research questions to the now untrammelled flats and swales to examine their role in acting (now) as desert refuges for small mammals.
Max Tischler replaced me as the Bush Heritage ecologist for the area.
The Traditional Owners – the Wangkamadla people – were welcomed onto their country and discussions started on a Cultural Heritage Agreement.
The feral animals were greatly reduced, especially feral camels, horses and straying cattle, once the artificial waters were closed down.
Mark and Nella Lithgow were replaced with Peter and Linda Weldon as the rains came. Resetting the desert system will happen with the return of the rhythms of wet and dry.
Sequential wet years such as 2011 to 2012 occur every 10 to 20 years. But this was the first in over 100 years that the massive post-rain productivity was directed back to the natural systems of the Simpson Desert and its northern fringe.
We were able to document for the first time aspects of the ecology of the desert river that flows from Cravens through Ethabuka Reserve to Lake Eyre to the south.
Their images of thriving fish populations astonished everyone. Mike Letnic with Sydney University would study the now unhurried dingoes harrying of foxes and cats of Cravens Peak alongside the plethora of other activities of Sydney Uni.
The rains were inevitably going to be followed by extensive fires hitting us with one of a few hard lessons. The extensive hot fires of 2011 proved us capable of the coordination and courage to protect the property and infrastructure from the wildfire.
The pressure of stock coming out of the wet years has tested our boundary fences in our more productive areas removing the precious regeneration. Effort is now increasing to protect those.
As I'm now reviewing our progress on Cravens Peak I dug back through some old images taken from Len Wall’s small plane in my early visits to the place. On my last visit I flew over some of the same locations to photograph them again.
Cravens is striking and intriguing from the air and the ground. The view ties together the good and the challenges – those met and to be still met.
It's a landscape that will always need management. It brings home the impressive scale of what has been taken on and the vision and generosity of supporters that made it possible: A very happy birthday to that.
Of course, no reflection can escape recalling the tragedy of losing a life out there. The loss of our staff member Mo Pieterse is still sorely felt.