Canoeing in the desert: Ethabuka under water

on 06 Dec 2016 

Bush Heritage volunteer Mick Moylan was treated to a rare site during his most recent visit to Ethabuka: a desert reserve underwater.

At least 330mls of rain had fallen at Ethabuka Reserve by November this year. Photo Mick Moylan.
At least 330mls of rain had fallen at Ethabuka Reserve by November this year. Photo Mick Moylan.
The last time Mick and Kerry Moylan visited Ethabuka they were greeted with red sand and scorched earth. Arriving today after a 2,500km journey that started a week earlier in North East Victoria, Mick is met by kilometres of water, streaked with soggy tracks and sodden mounds.

The sight is a rare one, and before continuing his journey with his trusted four-wheel drive and caravan, Mick takes a moment to savour the spectacle that is a soaked Ethabuka Reserve, alive with plant and animal life following long and heavy rains.

Singing in the rain

Sun rising over the spinifex on Ethabuka.
Sun rising over the spinifex on Ethabuka.
Photo: Kate Cranney
Mick and Kerry Moylan have been volunteering with Bush Heritage since 2012. Their work has taken them to reserves across Australia, but they’ve always had a soft spot for Ethabuka having first visited in August 2014. This time however there were drastic changes awaiting.

“It looked incredibly different,” Mick says. "When you reached the top of a dune you could just look at long stretches of water spreading out for kilometres in some places. That was a sight to see.”

Mick recounts with wonder, the experience of canoeing down the Mulligan River, an ephemeral stream of interconnected waterholes transformed into a 300m wide waterway. Reserve manager Matt, daughter Bella and Mick paddled 3kms and return from the Ethabuka–Kamaran Downs boundary, enjoying a view of the Mulligan few will ever get to see.

“It was incredible canoeing through the desert. It was just an explosion of bird life and there were fish literally jumping out of the water. I’ll never forget it.”
– Mick Moylan, volunteer

Rain check

Ethabuka Reserve Managers Matt and Amanda Warr and family. Photo by Kate Cranney.
Ethabuka Reserve Managers Matt and Amanda Warr and family. Photo by Kate Cranney.
The ‘big wet’ has been unlike anything Matt and Amanda have seen in their short time managing Ethabuka Reserve. At least 330mls of rain has fallen so far this year – but in a cruel irony, it’s been too wet to reach the weather station since its last official reading.

No one knows for sure how much rain has fallen, but it’s safe to assume that it’s at least double the average yearly rainfall. When the weather allows, Matt and Amanda focus much of their attention on feral animals, fire management and fence maintenance.

Ethabuka’s post-rain beauty disguises the fact that camels foul important watering holes and destabilise dune crests, and that native habitats still wear the legacy of grazing.

With Bush Heritage donors’ help the cattle are now gone and the focus has since shifted to eradicating feral camels. Sensitive artesian springs have already been fenced off to keep camels out. Wildfire is also a threat to the reserve, but firebreaks and controlled burns are part of a robust management plan that is in place at Ethabuka.

This work is paying off, with areas of samphire and saltbush shrublands showing signs of recovery, and more small mammals returning in the absence of cattle.

A Zebra Finch.
A Zebra Finch.
Photo: Mick Moylan
For now, the rainfall has given Ethabuka a new complexion. Native shrubs, grasses and flowers have sprung to life, attracting birdlife that's rarely seen. The skies are alive with Red-backed Kingfishers and cockatiels. The watering holes have become home to Black Swans while pelicans scoop up the abundant fish life.

“This is the best it has looked since we've been here,” Amanda says. “We’ve had a couple of dry years and a big fire, so there were a lot of bare dunes with nothing but burnt spinifex and fire scars.”

“Now all the dunes are green. You can't see much sand apart from the track. There's just green clumps all over it sprinkled with flowers.”

While the rain has been welcomed, it has forced a change of operational priorities. The constant threat of bog has left heavy machinery stranded at the homestead, making routine fence maintenance impossible.

Matt, Amanda and Mick have instead focused on repair work around the homestead and have constructed a new visitor carpark and shed. They're keen to see the altered landscape and reassess their management plans.

New life, new threats

However, such is the nature of Australia’s harsh interior that the good fortune of abundant rain also brings with it a host of new threats.

“The boom is obviously going to be good for all the small mammals who will have more cover from predators and more seed to feed on,” Matt says. “They'll follow the boom wave through, but you're also going to have an increase in feral predator numbers as well, like your cats and foxes that will follow them. That’s something we need to plan for.”

The Warrs are also especially mindful that flourishing plant life will inevitably lead to a larger fuel load when summer arrives and the landscape dries out — making fire management planning a key priority in the New Year.

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