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Fish River Station

Published 14 Jun 2022 
by Eliza Herbert

Indigenous rangers and Bush Heritage come together at Fish River Station – 178,116 hectares of immaculate beauty, conservation value and cultural significance in the Northern Territory.

When the road is rough, it can take Terry Nimit over two hours from when he turns off the bitumen on Daly River Road to arrive at his place of work.

The mighty Daly River in the Northern Territory. Photo by David Hancock
The mighty Daly River in the Northern Territory. Photo by David Hancock

“You’ve got hilly country that you come over and then you go through the gate, and down the belly. It’s flat ground and you’ve got a couple more ridges to climb and creeks to cross until you get to the homestead, Fish River.”

But the drive is always worth it. Terry is a Ngan’giwumirri (Labarganyin) Traditional Owner looking after a 178,116-hectare property in the Northern Territory known as Fish River Station.

Approximately 270km south of Darwin, Fish River is a former pastoral lease of immaculate beauty and conservation value. It protects long stretches of the Daly River, with billabongs fringed by savannah woodlands and pockets of rainforest, and it is culturally significant for the Wagiman, Labarganyan, Malak Malak and Kamu clans.

“I like to be out on country, out there with family, looking after the land and letting the land look after you,” says Terry. “When you need supplies out there, like meat or bush tucker, we go out camping. And that’s why I love being out there: to get the land back, not only for me, but my family and the young children growing up today.”

As is the story across most of Australia, Aboriginal people looked after this country for millennia until European settlement disrupted their environmental stewardship.

Today at Fish River, through efforts of the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation (ILSC) and conservation groups, Traditional Owners like Terry are reconnecting to their country and are continuing this stewardship once more.

Fish River Rangers and Traditional Owners gather in March for fire planning. Photo Rhys Swain.
Fish River Rangers and Traditional Owners gather in March for fire planning. Photo Rhys Swain.

In 2010, when the property’s former owner put the place on the market, it was purchased in partnership with ILSC, Caring for our Country, The Nature Conservancy and Pew Environment Group.

Together, they worked closely to employ Indigenous rangers and establish a ranger station at the old Fish River homestead, which has since been used as a base to undertake feral animal control, biodiversity surveys and reintroduce fire practices that have reduced the impact of late dry season wildfires from 36% of Fish River Station to less than 5%.

In 2022, Bush Heritage continues this legacy – having entered into an agreement with ILSC to support the management of Fish River through the appointment of a new reserve manager to assist with day-to-day management. This includes coordinating the ranger program; maximising community access, connection and management of country and strengthening Traditional Owner engagement.

“Bush Heritage lives and works with deep respect and a right-way science approach, which are the foundations upon which the Aboriginal partnerships program is built,” says Kelly Retief, Bush Heritage’s Aboriginal Partnership Manager in the Northern Territory.

“By entering into this fee-for-service model with ILSC, we can support land management outcomes through an annual work plan and, importantly, assist Traditional Owners with their aspirations for healthy country for the benefit of people and biodiversity.”

Fish River Ranger Ryan Daly in the early dry season. Photo Rhys Swain.
Fish River Ranger Ryan Daly in the early dry season. Photo Rhys Swain.

The illustrious Daly River is a stronghold for the Pig-Nosed Turtle, an important cultural icon and food source for Indigenous people, as well as a huge diversity of fish such as Barramundi and threatened sawfish and Freshwater Whipray.

At least 225 animal species have been recorded at Fish River, including threatened species such as the Northern Quoll, Gouldian Finch and Northern Masked Owl.

A team of four full-time rangers helps manage the property and some of the Traditional Owners are opening a cultural centre and exploring nature-based enterprise opportunities like art, cultural tourism and bush foods. Their voices are essential for the ongoing management of this land.

“I’ll put it this way, if I go to another man’s land, I don’t know what’s there. So, the Traditional Owner from that land needs to tell me and direct me and tell me what’s right. When other people come to my land, I’m going to look after them and teach them.

At Fish River now, there’s a lot of sacred sites and rock art paintings. Country needs the Traditional Owners out there because they know their country,” says Terry.

In the first week of May, Traditional Owners from the community of Nauiyu, Fish River Rangers and Bush Heritage staff travelled to Fish River to participate in aerial incendiary machine operator training, work on fire plans and conduct prescribed fire burning. For Terry, it was also another opportunity to keep connecting his family and the next generation to country.

“All of my focus is on teaching the boys how to live on the land and to look after the land - going back to our homeland and looking after it and getting more family out there to come and see what it’s like.”