As we turned through the gate, I felt like we’d landed on the moon. We’d been driving for six hours, having refuelled at Bourke before the final 170km of dirt road to Naree Station. “That’s the homestead,” said Justin, pointing to the home of Reserve Managers, Sue and David Akers. “And this is where we’re staying,” he finished, as we backed into the parking area outside the visitor's quarters.
“Always wear your boots,” he warned, throwing open the toilet door to look for snakes.
It was totally silent as we watched the earth darken. Some goats ran across the driveway and a pig lay wallowing in the mud near the wetland. I silently felt a hopelessness. How could we possibly bring change to this hostile landscape? I feared the isolation in an environment where you had to wear your boots to the toilet, and longed to go home.
It was a military-style schedule. We were up at 5.30am, then we'd log in to the Bush Heritage Field Safety System, collect the research gear and head off to check the pitfall traps before the sun regained its heat from the previous day. A precious respite was the espresso Justin made for us every morning with his inner-city roasted coffee beans and manual grinder. You can take the hipster out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the hipster!
We were rewarded on Day 1 to find a Stripe-Faced Dunnart and a tiny Ringed Brown Snake (an endangered species in NSW). PhD Student and Bush Heritage scholarship recipient, Justin McCann, is researching how small mammals, such as dunnarts, respond to the boom and bust ecosystem of Yantabulla Swamp on Naree.
Over the next eight days we weighed, measured, took samples from and released a total of ten dunnarts. We also discovered numerous species of geckos, frogs and a scorpion. But they were only the scientific discoveries.
Over the same eight days, what I discovered was a landscape of immense beauty. As the Whistling Kites circled overhead, the Wood Swallows left the trees and soared into the sky to object. The Coolabah and copper-barked Yapunyah trees reached out to shade us as we worked under the hot sun.
The Corkwood and Leopardwood trees stood like sculptures in the landscape, their thick bark in relief against the sky. Among the tangled mess of the lignum swamp slept the kangaroos and emus, and waiting for the cool of the night slept the dunnarts. A dry and arid landscape harbouring a patient life.
And then it rained.
I had longed for a day of rain and here it was, beating on the roof of our cabin. I leaped out of bed and stood under the clothesline recording the sounds.
The rain also meant we took 'the high road' to the traps at Yantabulla and could look across the clay pans now set out as glistening lakes.
Stepping out onto the grey floodplain to check the traps amongst the lignum, I become acquainted with mud. The rain had softened only the top 2mm of earth, which now stuck to our boots like cement, lifting us higher off the ground with each step until we stood on thick grey heals that remained for the rest of our trip.
As we turned back towards Bourke for the journey home there was a brilliance in landscape. The rain had cleared the dust from the air. The blue sky reached down to touch the horizon, and the emerald foliage stood out in 3D against the orange earth. I shared with Justin my initial thoughts of hopelessness.
“Oh there's so much hope here," he said. "Most of what this landscape requires is still here. We just have to give it a chance”
I can’t wait to go back.