The sun burns brightly in an endless blue sky, beating down upon the scorched, cracked earth with its rusty, red soil and tough, grey saltbushes.
Out here on Bon Bon Station Reserve, the heat can sear your skin and leave you breathless. And yet this massive piece of land, which rivals the size of Sydney, is home to some of Australia’s most extraordinary creatures like the southern hairy-nosed wombat and the rare chestnut‑breasted whiteface.
Nestled between the Great Victoria Desert and the shimmering saltpan lakes of Eyre, Torrens and Gairdner, Bon Bon is an outback jewel.
“It’s a very beautiful place to live,” says Julia Harris, who manages the property day in and day out alongside Mike Chuk. “It’s a fascinating and endlessly variable landscape that changes every few kilometres. Every time it rains you get a different little plant growing that you haven’t seen before. I think that’s why we enjoy it so much.”
Western Myall tree and Blue Bush shrubs. Photo by Julia Harris
But as the mercury rises – as the earth’s climate continues to warm and Australia faces one of its longest and harshest fire seasons – Bon Bon’s unique landscapes, vegetation and wildlife are under threat.
According to a 2014 climate report by the CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology, the fire season has lengthened across large parts of Australia since the 1970s, and extreme fire weather conditions continue to increase in many areas, including the north-west pastoral region of South Australia, where Bon Bon is located.
Exacerbating this threat is the infestation of buffel grass, an extremely invasive and highly flammable grass that can cause a wildfire so hot it can transform entire woodlands into single-species grasslands.
“The problem with buffel is its ability to thrive in any season,” Mike says. “We had significant summer rains last year and it was growing like mad. But by the same token, during the dry months, it stock-piles fuel and greatly increases the risk of fire. We can’t allow this to happen; in the past wildfires have devastated the landscape.”
“Unfortunately, buffel has a very aggressive root system and it’s possibly the single worst weed we’ve had in the outback.”
If buffel hits the sandy mulga woodlands, one of two state-listed threatened ecosystems on Bon Bon, the consequences could be catastrophic. Fires would become ‘supercharged’ – potentially hotter and more frequent – threatening a host of woodland birds.
This is why the work that Mike and Julia are doing now, on behalf of Bush Heritage supporters, is so important. Ongoing manual spraying has been used to great effect, as Mike explains:
“When we moved here early in 2013, there were significant infestations of buffel grass. But we now have areas where there is very little buffel after spraying seven or eight times. It’s fairly painstaking work but we’ve seen pleasing results.”
With the help of Bush Heritage supporters, Mike and Julia are carrying out critical management activities across the reserve all year round – and ensuring the habitats of native species like the southern hairy-nosed wombat and crested bellbird are protected from the threat of fire.
Sturts Desert Pea. Photo by Steve Heggie
It’s a slow, ongoing process that includes reducing the impact of feral animals, eliminating weeds and restoring Bon Bon’s landscape after 100 years of grazing.
Although any significant ecological change will take time, this work is part of a long‑term recovery plan. We’re already seeing some remarkable results since Bush Heritage started managing this former sheep station seven years ago.
Ancient bluebushes, which were once under pressure from grazing and drought, are now slowly regenerating and increased sightings of the chestnut-breasted whiteface, a rare bird species found only in South Australia, have been recorded.
Mike and Julia, together with volunteers working at Bon Bon, have consistently recorded a bird that hadn’t been seen prior to this year, the white-browed treecreeper, which is very much reliant on our mulga trees.
“They hadn’t been recorded by any of the birdwatchers until Easter this year,” says Mike, “but we are now seeing them breeding at Bon Bon.”
It’s a wonderful achievement that has been partly driven by a number of good seasons, but Mike and Julia know better than most that the battle to protect Bon Bon is far from over.
“Most of the major threats to young mulga trees, the rabbits and sheep, are no longer there. But fire still has great potential to alter the landscape,” Mike says. “Returning Bon Bon to its natural landscape is never going to be entirely possible, but we’re hopeful we can return it to a much more diverse habitat in terms of species, and a much more stable ecosystem.”
Bon Bon Station Reserve was acquired in 2008 with the help of the Australian Government under the Natural Heritage Trust’s National Reserve System Program, the Government of South Australia and the Besen Family Foundation.