Volunteer caretaking: Bon Bon in Summer

By Mick Moylan 
about  Bon Bon Station Reserve  
on 26 Mar 2015 
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Kerry and I arrived home in north east Victoria recently, after an enjoyable February/March stint as volunteer caretakers at Bush Heritage's Bon Bon Station Reserve in South Australia. Here's an overview of our experience.

There are many buildings at the Bon Bon homestead, which housed a community of around 30 people in the old sheep farming days. There's the main homestead building, a cookhouse (which is now used as the Bush Heritage office), an overseer’s three-bedroom cottage, a similar sized mechanic’s cottage, the men’s quarters as well as sundry sheds, workshop and store buildings. There is even a cowboy’s hut. Apparently the cowboy looked after the yards and gardens and his was a single-roomed hut with a fireplace.

Hard to imagine anyone needing a fire here! Temperatures during our first week are around the low 40s each day. We're quite comfortable in the overseer’s cottage though, as it has a split system air conditioner.

Mike tells us that he knows two sisters in their 60s who worked in the Bon Bon cookhouse when they were young girls. It was common for Aboriginal girls to work as domestic labour on outback stations. One of the ladies now lives in the nearest town - Kingoonya. They told Mike that the big wood stove, which is still here, blazed away 365 days a year and they had to work in the fierce heat - of course there were no air conditioners in those days.

Two more recent outbuildings are bomb shelters. The property is situated within the Woomera Prohibited Area (WPA), so presumably the odd spent rocket could liven up your day, here at sunny Bon Bon! There are old telephone poles and insulators still to be seen here and there. These are the remains of a network of manual phone lines from the Woomera testing headquarters to each station on the 124,000 square kilometre WPA.

After a couple of days during which we are given a comprehensive induction and familiarisation tour, Mike and Julia depart for their annual leave. We keep busy with regular chores around the main homestead quarters.

We also start restoring infrastructure such as the screened-in back veranda of the overseer’s cottage. The work entails replacing rotted and split timber beads and sills, then scraping, sanding, filling and undercoating the spouting, barge boards, screen beads and sills. Other jobs on the go are preparing and painting the badly blistered door and window timbers of the cowboy’s hut and constructing a timber deck on an old steel tank stand, to accommodate a new 7,000 litre polyethylene water tank.

After a brief respite of low 30 degree days, the heat returns with a vengeance for a couple of days. We start work earlier on the hot days and knock off early, always with a Bush Heritage safety service call centre log on/log off sequence number.

We work hard and sleep well. Birds seen include grey butcher birds, zebra finches, white plumed honeyeaters, spiny-cheeked honeyeaters and a magnificent wedge-tailed eagle perched low on a dead mulga tree. At first light each day, a flock of shy mulga parrots can be heard at the water trough. They're gone by sunrise. We also briefly see a group of white-browed babblers.

Bon Bon Station and its homestead water supply, Billa Well, owe their names to a local bird – the crested bellbird (Oreoica gutturalis). It's named in this district by Aborigines after its melodious bell-like call, which sounds like ‘bon-bon-billa, bon-bon- billa’. Early European settlers were not so poetic and named the bird ‘Dick-Dick-The Devil’. We don't hear or see any, but we're excited to report that we can hear chiming wedgebills calling, during early morning walks.

Parts of Bon Bon are beautiful tracts of myall trees over pearl blue-bush, which look great even in the heat of summer. The night skies are spectacular and one night, around full moon, is a highlight. The International Space Station passes over just after dark - the best viewing for quite a while.

We take a trip to Coober Pedy after a week and a half, to pick up more paint and some hardware for our projects. Plenty of flies at the tip!

One Friday night we visit Kingoonya for a meal at the pub. It's about 80km away, two thirds of it dirt road. Soon after we arrive, a ute pulls in and we met Lenny and Dan, a young Englishman on a work visa. They are mustering sheep at Wilgena station, 60km west, as shearing is about to start. Lenny is an Aborigine who was born and raised on Bon Bon. He tells us that his father built many of the yards and fences on the property. His two sisters are the ones mentioned previously, who worked in the Bon Bon cookhouse as young girls. It's a great night learning more about Bon Bon’s history.

Great weather for our last couple of weeks, around 30 degrees each day and sunny. Evenings are balmy and barbeques pleasant, with praying mantises and geckos for company. 

We finish up all our jobs, put all the tools away and clean up the workshop. Our last jobs are restoring the gables from the meat house and making up new flashing timbers and a final from second-hand timber from the station tip. They're all primed and ready to put up, but we have run out of time. Kerry paints the diesel generator shipping container and it looks great. We have a half-day free to explore more of the reserve.

Using Mike’s prior instructions, we log on, load a safety grab bag and drive to Orwell’s Well on the property, to check a monitoring camera. We check the images on the SD card, which show kangaroos, rabbits and foxes. Encouragingly, no cats. We re-arm the camera after changing the batteries.

Julia arrives home later in the day. We pack the caravan for our three-day trip home. Early next morning, Julia takes us for a drive to Lake Puckridge, in the southern section of the property. On the way we see the results of Julia and Mike’s recent buffel grass spraying, adjacent to the Stuart highway. The buffel looks pretty sick, but it's apparent this work will be ongoing. Stock road trains spread the seed, evidenced by the main outbreaks being on the north-east side of the highway, caused by the prevailing wind.

Lake Puckridge is a spectacular dry salt lake, several kilometres in diameter and lined with ti-tree. Julia explains that this is where the locals would camp and water-ski when the lake filled. It can be up to seven metres deep in a wet year and just about all of Bon Bon is the catchment. The last water-skiing was in the 1970s. We walk out onto the salt-encrusted lake bed.

After a short walk during which Julia points out many salt-tolerant plants such as samphire, we start slipping and sinking through the crust. It's very moist and boggy below. We also see insects, unique to that environment, moving about on the salt. Julia tells us about a microbe which breeds only in the moist holes left by kangaroo footprints in the salt. On the high lake shore we come across some bright red insects busily doing over some emu droppings, like dung beetles.

We say goodbye to Julia and sadly leave Bon Bon. However, we now have a much greater appreciation of the value of the reserve and the importance of its conservation. We once again benefit from gaining an insight into local history while thoroughly enjoying the Bush Heritage volunteering experience.

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