Darwin’s legacy

Published 11 Dec 2018 

Fifteen years ago, two men sat on a log and talked long into the night. Their conversation would shape the future of the land upon which they rested.

Charlie Nicholson (L), Chris Darwin (C) and Jacqueline Courtney (R) on Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Frances Andrijich.
Charlie Nicholson (L), Chris Darwin (C) and Jacqueline Courtney (R) on Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Frances Andrijich.
In September 2002, Chris Darwin, great-greatgrandson of naturalist Charles Darwin, travelled with his wife Jacqueline to Western Australia. They were in high spirits. For the past year, Chris had been wrestling with the idea of how he should use a recent inheritance to honour his ancestor’s legacy, and he thought he had found his answer.

Chris had resolved to spend his inheritance on a cause that he felt was “the greatest need in the world” – the mass extinction of species – by protecting a piece of land with high conservation value. Not long after reaching this conclusion, he began talking to Bush Heritage about financing the purchase of a new reserve, and the organisation set about searching for somewhere suitable.

York Gum Woodlands on Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Kerry Trapnell.
York Gum Woodlands on Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Kerry Trapnell.
On paper, the 68,000 hectare White Wells Station looked ideal. The former grazing property is located north-east of Perth, largely within the Southwest Botanical Province – a region that supports an enormous diversity of endemic plants and animals. It's also one of the last uncleared parcels of northern wheat-belt land, making it a vital refuge for many species that were once widespread in the region.

But when Chris and Jacqueline arrived at White Wells Station, they were confronted with what looked to Chris like a “lunar landscape”. Six years of drought and a recent bushfire had taken their toll.

“We saw overgrazing,” recalls Chris. “We saw fire damage; we saw emus by the emu-proof fence, dead and dying… it was depressing and I was frustrated.”

Despite its rundown appearance, White Wells Station still contained intact ecosystems. Bush Heritage understood this, and so did Charlie Nicholson, who had been asked to guide the visit because of his knowledge and understanding of the property’s ecological values.

Upon seeing Chris’s frustration, Charlie said to him, “Let’s camp, Chris. Let’s talk.”

As the others packed up and left, Charlie drove Chris to a stand of gimlet gums, and he and Chris watched as the setting sun caused the gums to glow the colour of burnished copper.

“It was like the trees had internal lights – as though they were being turned on one-by-one as the sun set. I was blown away,” says Chris of the memory.

Olivia, Hamish, Will and Louis Hansen on Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Frances Andrijich.
Olivia, Hamish, Will and Louis Hansen on Charles Darwin Reserve. Photo Frances Andrijich.
With a bottle of port and a small campfire, the two men sat on a log and philosophised into the night – about what Chris wanted to set right in the world, about humanity and about the weight of responsibility he felt carrying Darwin’s legacy.

Over the course of that night, Charlie realised Chris had a deep concern for nature and was extraordinarily dedicated to his cause. Not wanting Chris to miss out on what he knew was an amazing opportunity to protect Australia’s biodiversity, Charlie said to him: “You have to trust me. This place is special; it will come back to life.”

Several days later, Chris called Bush Heritage to confirm his commitment, and White Wells Station became Charles Darwin Reserve.

The transformation that has occurred on Charles Darwin Reserve in the 15 years since is remarkable. Today, Will Hansen knows this place perhaps better than anyone. As Reserve Manager, he and his family (wife Olivia, and young sons Hamish and Louis) call Charles Darwin Reserve home, and his day-to-day work takes him all over its wildflower strewn plains, York Gum woodlands and acacia shrublands.

White everlastings photographed during the 2018 wildflower season on Charles Darwin. Photo Frances Andrijich.
White everlastings photographed during the 2018 wildflower season on Charles Darwin. Photo Frances Andrijich.
“Goats that once ran rife are now absent,” he says. “The soil is in much better condition so is able to soak up more of the rainfall, which greatly improves the flora regeneration potential. Species numbers grow every time we survey. This place is a Bush Heritage success story.”

“It’s unrecognisable,” agrees Chris. “The red dirt is ablaze with pink and white wildflowers. I think back to the place that was so scarred 15 years ago and I ask, ‘Are you sure this is the same place?’”

“We all hope to make a difference. The day I bought this property with Bush Heritage, I made a huge difference. It’s the biggest and best thing I’ve ever done.”

Bush Heritage acknowledges the support of the Charles Darwin Reserve patrons, who have played a pivotal role in the recovery of this unique reserve. For more information about the Charles Darwin Reserve Patrons Circle, please contact Dr Jo Axford on [email protected] or 0428 122 788.

Bush gift cards
Got your newsletter?