Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary Volunteers – 2 weeks
Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) sanctuary 15 – 30 June 2016
Having kept an eye on the SA Outback Roads website for a month it was clear that with the recent rains we were lucky to make it to Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary’s gate on schedule. All the way up the Birdsville Track was green. Sanctuary Manager Tess met us at the gate with a welcoming smile and instructions on driving carefully in her tyre tracks. Over the first big dune a large claypan opened up. Over the next was the homestead and nerve centre for the property. Arid desert country at the meeting point of the Tirari, Sturt Stony and Simpson Deserts and bordering Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre, the old grazing property now provides a continuous reserve system linking the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve and Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre National Park. Cath and I, both recently retired, had committed to a two week volunteering stint.
On the first day we settled in to our extremely comfy cottage. After an induction Tess drove us out to a beautiful place on the Warburton Creek, Stoney Crossing. The birdlife was plentiful on the strongly flowing floodwater. Sunset across the enormous sky was stunning.
The property is managed by a couple, Mark and Tess, who are employed by Australian Wildlife Conservancy. On our second day we cleaned and tidied up the Saddlery which is set up as a base camp for scientists and research survey groups. Tess drove out to the remote part of the property to escort back in a couple of palaeobiologists who were investigating 100,000 year old egg shells of Genyornis, a large emu-like bird – now extinct. Showers were threatening. Mark had been stranded in Leigh Creek by closed roads and rain further south. We started a cleanup of the workshop and garage area and unpacked some new air conditioning units. As rain started the scientists just made it out to Mungerannie before the access road was closed again. Apparently when the big rains came on New Year’s Day (180mm) Tess and Mark couldn’t get out for 4 months due to floodwaters coming down from the Channel Country and the damaged roads. Over sunset we watched black kites in groups cruising over the dunes and swales.To minimise damage to the internal tracks we restricted ourselves to the homestead area. Next day we tidied up garden areas and removed bushes that could have been a fire hazard. Cath did some caulking of the cracks in the cottage while I made up some bed bases and tops for work benches. It was a wonderful change to be doing work that at the end of each day you can look over what you have achieved and actually see the results. We drove over to the next door air strip and collected the mail.
Our days took on a pattern. Start work at 8.30am and go thru till 4.00ish including breaks then go for a sunset walk over the dunes and along the claypans birdwatching, exploring and photographing. Dinner, catch up on emails, read. Be in the landscape, experience the weather changes, live on the property, learn about all sorts of things, do physical work.
On day 4 we continued gardening and carpentry. Mark finally got through with his load of solar panels and batteries and food supplies for him and Tess. Amazingly a fuel tanker arrived and filled up the diesel and generator tanks and dropped off some helicopter AV gas drums. There was heavy rain in the Channel Country in the Cooper and Diamantina catchments. We got the TV going in the cottage and discovered that the one station we could get broadcast AFL during prime time 5 nights a week. A shame those games last so long!
Mark burnt the piles of brush that we’d removed from around the buildings. Then we drove out together to check on the campsites in readiness for a couple of small groups of ecologists and volunteers – to “Pretty Place”, “The Island”, “Stoney Creek” and “Boat Ramp”. Yellow flowers were starting to carpet the landscape. Mark spotted a red backed kingfisher. After lunch I helped unload the heavy solar gear at the airstrip hanger and washed down the vehicle that had been in to town. It’s quite a job to remove all the mud to ensure all the weed seeds are removed. Kalamurina is mostly weed free but a few species are knocking at the fence to get in.
On day 6 heavy morning fog lay in the home claypan. I cleaned up and fitted a new battery in the tilt trailer hydraulic unit and finished the bed bases. Cath got the plum job of “tyning” the outer part of the airstrip which involved driving slowly and carefully up and down and round in the landcruiser ute towing a heavy meal square which scraped the ground smooth and free of weeds – all while listening to the only cd in the cab – Slim Dusty. I started fabricating some signs and working on a mobile workbench.
Day 7 we worked on the airstrip together, driving and hoeing the round markers. The strip is used for visiting tour groups and emergencies mainly so must be maintained to RFDS standards. The property strip is clay based, next door’s is sand based and 60km away at Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track there is an all-weather gravel strip. We had the afternoon off and went birdwatching at “The Island”.
Next day we were homestead bound again due to rain so I assisted Mark prepping the area for the solar installation. On the property nearly everything is recycled. I spent time stripping the plastic off various bits of copper wire to take into town for recycling. Cath assisted with stocktaking the RFDS emergency box. In the afternoon I continued with measuring up and routing the signs while Mark did several jobs. He’s a super talented guy with immense skills developed over intensive time in the bush. He welded, backhoed, fenced and road maintained like an artisan. He and Tess must be some of the hardest working people in the Southern Hemisphere. They have amazing attention to detail and safety and deep care and concern for the property. We drove out to “Stoney Crossing” and saw pelicans, kites, spoonbills and a host of others. 4.8mm of rain fell overnight and in the middle of it I inexplicably received a text message.
I finished fabricating some metal signs and together we painted a stack of survey pegs. More showers fell during the day and Cath had an afternoon off. In the evening we watched a video from the collection, counted out our supply of teabags and rationed our remaining fresh vegies.
On day 10 we did more signs – I routed and Cath painted. We sorted and cleaned the sheds some more. In the afternoon it fined up and in the evening we walked west to a large claypan through the now blooming desert.
At last next day the roads had dried out so after lunch by the Warburton we spent the afternoon out at “Mia Mia Camp” dismantling and removing broken rural structures and old building materials – tin, timber, logs, poles, wire. The rechargeable angle grinder worked a treat along with the shovel, mattock and rake hoe.
Day 12 was Sunday. We had the day off. More rain overnight so a group of campers were brought in from “The Island” camp to base themselves in the Saddlery.
On day 13 we finished the sheds and continued on with the signs. Day 14 the weather cleared again. I washed down the vehicles that had been into Mungerannie and back the day prior. We continued routing and painting then walked out to “The Island” to stretch the legs. On day 15 I washed down the wash down pad before the drying mud turned to concrete. We finished the set of signs which stood proudly against the back wall of the super tidy and clean sheds. We walked parallel down the dunes to where they dropped steeply into the Warburton. Wildflowers profused in white, pink and yellow and a variety of birds sang the sunset.
On our final day we packed up the “Saddlery” after the visitors left, cleaned the cottage, pulled out a line of star pickets in the home paddock and packed the car for a crossing of the Simpson Desert. The tracks on Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary were still muddy so the annual July bird survey had to be cancelled. More rain was forecast. We departed and made it out between closures of the access road.
Brown song lark
Red capped robin
Gull billed or Caspian tern?
Horsfields bronze cuckoo
White-winged fairy wren
This was a pretty good tally for us beginner birdwatchers.
Special thanks to Mark and Tess and AWC for the opportunity to live in the desert and make a small contribution.
Thanks to Dr Phil Tucak (AWC) for corrections and to AWC for permission to publish this narrative and photos.