Our time volunteering at Naree Station

By Mick Moylan (volunteer) 
on 10 Sep 2015 

We arrived at Naree on a Sunday afternoon in July, after a three-day journey from Benalla with overnight camps at Jerilderie, Mt Hope and Bourke. We were welcomed by the Bush Heritage Australia managers David and Sue, after which we set up the caravan near the visitor quarters, complete with 240v power. No need for a diesel generator, as Naree is connected to the single conductor rural power network, which runs from property to property and is rarely seen from the road - large spans and few poles. There's no mobile phone coverage or free to air TV, but Naree has satellite internet – slow but very useful. With our new satellite TV dish on the caravan, we're able to access all ABC and SBS TV and radio channels across the country, as well as most of the commercial TV channels.

Naree Station is a former sheep and cattle property of 14,400 hectares or approximately 13km by 13km in size. It's located 150km north west of Bourke NSW, on the unsealed Bourke to Hungerford QLD road, which is also known as the Dowling Track. It was purchased by Bush Heritage in 2012 because it's situated on the Cuttaburra Channels that connect the Paroo and Warrego rivers. While the average annual rainfall is only 300mm, floods occur sporadically, transforming the area into a vast network of wetlands that attract many thousands of water birds to breed. It's one of the top 20 waterbird sites in Australia. Over 170 species of birds and a similar number of plant species have been identified on Naree, several of which are listed as vulnerable or endangered.

The induction

During our three-day induction with David and Sue, we visit Yantabulla, the property which shares a boundary on Naree’s west side. South Endeavour, a charitable trust, has recently purchased Yantabulla and has entered into a partnership with Bush Heritage to manage the property. So David and Sue will now have double the land area to manage. Yantabulla Station contains additional ephemeral wetlands, including the huge Cuttaburra Basin and so is as environmentally significant as Naree.

We had visitors on the first Monday evening – Bruce and Christine, our eastern neighbours on Comeroo Station. We had a great night and learnt a lot about the district from Bruce, who is a third-generation farmer here.                

The next two days were busy as I helped David put out fencing material for two contractors who are due soon. Steel pipes for post and rail strainers, heavy bundles of star pickets, even heavier rolls of high tensile wire and hinge-lock mesh are delivered along the 4.5km fence route using the Toyota and a tandem trailer which I drove and unloaded using the forks on the tractor that David operated.

A visit to Comeroo

On their last night David and Sue drive us to Comeroo for another meal with Bruce and Chris. We travelled for 40 minutes from Naree to Comeroo via station tracks across both properties. The Cuttaburra had water in two fairly deep channels that we slid through in the Hi-lux, amazed that we didn't become bogged. The district had 30mm of rain in the previous month and flooded clay pans are a daily hazard.

Bruce is quite a character and took great delight in showing us his collection of around 1,500 rabbit traps and dozens of metal tractor seats. Very impressive. The property has tourist cabin and camping accommodation, either at the homestead or 12km away at ‘The Oasis’ which is at a hot artesian bore. There's a great open-air bar and fire pit at the homestead and that's where we ate and had another entertaining night. I was impressed with the bright red ‘Complaints’ button at the bar – located on the plate of a set rabbit trap!

David and Sue departed to start their annual leave early the next morning. We had a large list of tasks to keep us busy, however David and Sue stressed that we weren't expected to do them all, and that we should pick the jobs we found most interesting.

Yantabulla

Our first job was to drive 20km to Yantabulla Station and meet with musterers who were finalising the round-up and yarding of any cattle that belonged to the previous owner and other neighbours. The boundary fences of these large remote properties don't strictly contain stock, so it's a matter of trust that neighbour’s cattle are returned after a muster. We drive to the stockyards and counted 12 cattle and 6 calves in the yard. Previous owner Craig was out on the motorbike with a couple of others. We waited for the helicopter to return and refuel. Then we meet the pilot Dan and agreed arrangements for us to change all the padlocks on a specified day after the muster. From that day any access to Yantabulla was to be via Bush Heritage only.

Two days later Kerry and I return and changed padlocks on four gates along the public roads as well as a shipping container and the homestead door – the original homestead is gone and an ex-school classroom serves as the house now. Elsewhere on the property is the derelict Cockabinnie homestead, which is a long way from any road – many years ago the Dowling track passed near here and Henry Lawson possibly stopped here on his famous 200km walk in 1892 from Bourke to Hungerford.

Craig later phoned us at Naree to report on the muster. Only about five more of his Santa Gertrudis cross cattle and a bull were found as well as about 15-20 wild herefords which could not be yarded. They took off in the direction of another bordering property with poor boundary fencing, Nil Desperandum! Craig reported on the feral goat muster prior to this – 370 goats. In return for these Craig will do some bulldozer work that is deperately required on Yantabulla. David earlier explained that it's almost impossible to obtain contractors due to the remoteness, so barter deals are common.

The polypipe job

We soon get stuck into our major task at Naree, which was the removal of 3km of poly pipe, which runs east from the shearing shed to a disused tank and a couple of old concrete stock troughs. The pipe is out of the ground in a lot of places and is not a good look when potential donors are shown around the otherwise picturesque track that winds through lignum and black box swamps, and sandy mulga landscape sections. We used the Toyota to pull the pipe out where it's exposed or in shallow earth. Where it's underwater or covered by tree roots, we chopped it off and buried the ends. We used rakes to restore the soil after ripping long furrows. One day we were circled by a Cessna flying low – a phone call to Bruce at Comeroo that night confirmed that it was indeed he – ‘just checking on youse’.

We chopped into 3 metre lengths with an axe and took them in the Toyota to a tandem trailer at the homestead. It took us five days to finish the job and tow the huge load to the dump. Any larger diameter green-stripe pipe and all poly fittings were kept for later use. We enjoyed this physically demanding project and slept very well each night as a result.

The fencing contractors, Stuart and Peter, arrived and we caught up each evening for a beer by the fire at the visitor quarters before they ate and turned in. They were gone by 7:30 each morning and didn’t return until 6pm each night. They're brothers-in-law and both were born and bred in the district – Stuart’s property is Willara, 50km west of here and Peter farms at Glen Hope, a further 30 km west on the Hungerford-Wanaaring road. They too told us all about the district and how all the properties once had large families living on them.

Yantabulla township is now a ghost town of half a dozen sad ruined houses and an old community hall. Stuart can remember when this hall was crowded with people after Saturday sport events. Kerry and I later visit the ghost town on our way back from Yantabulla station. There's a small building with the door swinging open that I recognised as an old telephone exchange. We entered and there was a rack with a Phillips TMC 3-Channel carrier system installed, empty battery cabinets and some circuit diagrams. The manual switchboard is gone but there's a mail sorting table complete with old Christmas cards scattered about. The building served as the Post Office as well.

Down came the rain

A day after the pipe recovery was complete, we just finished putting out more fencing material for the contractors when the rains came. We recorded 13.5mm one day and 2mm the next. All driving ceased as the whole place became a quagmire with huge sheets of water everywhere. Stuart and Peter took off for home and later rang to tell us that they'd arrived safely but were are almost bogged several times on the way out of Naree.

We had plenty of other jobs to do around the place during the wet – building a wooden step for the visitor’s quarters toilet, assembling and installing pumps for 200 litre petrol drums (to fuel the Honda Big Red All-Terrain Vehicle) as well as a diesel pump for the new 5,000 litre portable diesel ‘Mine Tank’. This replaces the old gravity fed diesel tank. And we cleaned and painted the homestead deck with 50/50 linseed oil and turps.

Pig shooters: not on our watch!

Three men in a four-wheel drive with several pig dogs drove into the homestead after the rain, seeking permission to hunt pigs. I refused permission and was not impressed that they'd damage the track by driving in – a later trip to the mailbox in the Honda Big Red confirmed some badly chopped up sections. David explained earlier that hunting feral pigs was a very ineffective control, as other pig groups quickly moved in to a vacated territory. A better control is the Total Grazing Protection fencing being installed currently, along with better management of water supply.

We did a great walk on some little-used property tracks. Another day we did a 15km bike ride which was great. The tyres are filled with anti-puncture ‘slime’ as otherwise the huge bindis (sharp hard prickles) would flatten them quickly. We saw many birds including Grey-crowned, Chestnut-crowned and White-browed Babbler colonies. A fourth variety, Hall’s Babbler, is also at Naree, but we didn't see them. We heard the elusive and ventriloquial Crested Bellbird often, but couldn't locate it. Each day we had emus near our caravan and one full moon they kept us awake splashing around in the nearby flooded clay pan all night. Red kangaroos joined in, thumping around the caravan in the bright moonlight. Brolgas honked each morning and evening as they flew past our camp.

Safety first

Each day we called the Bush Heritage Field Safety call centre to give our movements and obtain a sequence number. At all times we carried a SPOT location device, a satellite phone and water. At the end of each monitored period we called the centre to log out.

Our other major task was loading the Honda generator onto the Hi-lux, with the help of the fencers, and using the angle grinder to fit caps on the posts of the new fence strainers at the air strip, then ground and sanded back the strainers, primed and later painted them with two coats of white. These two sets of strainers support the two airstrip gates and need to be visible to pilots.

Dunny – fixed!

We filled uneven ground around the visitors quarters toilet and water tank overflow with sand, after first removing a few barrow-loads of sticky clay, which was making access difficult after the rain. We installed the new wooden step and put in some stepping stones and rock paving using material we found at Yantabulla.

Once the property had dried out enough, we revisited the poly pipe route and used the GPS (geographic positioning system) to map all start and end points of poly pipe still in the ground. We were very pleased to see that evidence of the pipe had almost disappeared after the rain event and the drive had become very scenic.

Our final task was removing all beading and rusted flywire from the meat house, so David could later re-screen it and hang some goats. Kerry did most of this using a battery drill, while I tried unsuccessfully to configure a new Wi-Fi repeater to improve internet at the visitor’s quarters. I worked with the Bush Heritage helpdesk and also did some research, finding out eventually that the equipment was not compatible with Naree’s network.

Time to go

We heard from David and Sue that they would extend their leave for a few days. But as we'd completed three weeks and all our tasks, we decided to pack up and head north after chaining up the main gate and planting a key for Stuart and Peter, who planned to return soon to complete the fencing.

After a slow and muddy six kilometre drive to the Naree gate, towing the caravan, we drove 185km via the gate in the dog fence at Hungerford, to Eulo in Queensland where we finally struck a bitumen road, completing another very rewarding Bush Heritage Australia caretaking job.