Wallaby watch in the Olary Ranges

By Quentin Chester August 25, 2015
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Yellow-footed rock wallabies are beneficiaries of conservation in South Australia’s remote Olary Ranges

ONE OF THOSE age-worn knolls scattered with orange and rust-red outcrops. But move closer to the quiet shade of a mulga, keep an eye on the rocks above and, before long, furry shapes appear, scooting among the ledges and crevices. At first it’s one or two animals. But, get your eye in, and they’re everywhere – dozens of yellow-footed rock-wallabies. One moment they’re bopping up steep faces. The next, a pair is jumping a crevasse-like gap with ease. Then others in the troupe suddenly appear higher up, balancing sentry-style on the skyline. More than acrobatic, it’s a sheer marvel.

So too is the recovery of this intrepid macropod. Twenty years ago the species was in freefall. Fewer than 50 individuals remained in these hills on Plumbago station in the Olary Ranges, 440km north-east of Adelaide. “Those old boys were just hanging on here by their fingernails,” says Peter Watkins, resident ranger at neighbouring Bimbowrie Conservation Park. “It was desperate stuff.”

Peter has been on the front line throughout Operation Bounceback (see AG #55), a two-decade-long conservation push involving Aboriginal landholders, pastoralists, volunteer conservationists and government agencies to secure the yellow-foot’s future across its South Australian homelands. In nearby Flinders Ranges National Park – another of their strongholds – the population now tops 1000. Meanwhile, Plumbago and Bimbowrie have upwards of 1800 wallabies between them.

Controlling the pest trifecta of goats, foxes and rabbits is critical to Bounceback’s success. Having been given half a chance, the yellow-foot’s natural resilience has seen it through recent drought years and tough times. For all their cliff-face charisma, these are gritty, resourceful creatures.

Terrain of the yellow-footed rock wallaby

THE OTHER IMPERATIVE for their survival is terrain. The Olary Ranges form an archipelago of domes and blocky pinnacles rising from expanses of saltbush plain. Arcing 160km from SA’s mid-north to the New South Wales border, these substantial yet little-visited hills are mostly tucked out of sight north of the Barrier Highway. To the west, the Flinders Ranges, home to famed gorges and tall razorback peaks, have a star’s jealous hold on the tourism limelight.

Yet, despite this relative anonymity, the past 20 years have brought a new regard for the natural legacy of the Olarys. The hills, with all their diversity and niches, are the hub of a rich diversity of plants, reptiles and birdlife. And from a rock-wallaby’s point of view, there’s an all-important range of grazing habitats and accessible hideouts.

As it happens, the yellow-foots are tenants in some serious geological real estate. Their high-rise homes are built from mineral deposits and geological processes dating back more than 1.7 billion years. They include the ancient granites that give many Olary bumps their distinctively voluptuous silhouettes.

The evolution of the present-day landforms came about through an extraordinary sequence of ructions and sedimentation. It’s made this one of the most mineral-diverse corners of the continent – and it gave rise to the lodes that put Broken Hill on the map. Over the past 1000-500 million years, bouts of uplift and sustained weathering have gradually stripped away younger rocks to expose a vivid spectacle of bedrock structures.

In 1906 a 24-year-old lecturer in mineralogy and petrology at the University of Adelaide spent weeks exploring the region by horse and motorbike. So began Douglas Mawson’s lifelong association with these remote, hard-bitten hills. Among his finds were deposits dating from one of the planet’s oldest and most widespread ice ages.

The Sturtian glaciation kicked off about 30-million years ago. Gouging their way across the already ancient granite landscapes, these glaciers left behind masses of boulders and debris. The material endures on Bimbowrie as conglomerate formations strewn along what geologists call the MacDonald Corridor. As Mawson describes it, the discovery was inspirational. “I was face to face with a great accumulation of glacial sediments of the Precambrian Age, the greatest thing of its kind recorded anywhere in the world,” he said.

Fired up, the following year he jumped at the chance to sail south on the first of many landmark expeditions to Antarctica. In time he’d become our most feted polar pioneer. But as a young scientist who loved to scratch around among outback rocks, the trip wasn’t about heroics. Mawson simply wanted to meet a real-life glacier. As he put it: “I desired to see an ice age in being.”

Geological treasures in the Olary Ranges

HONOURING BIMBOWRIE’S geological treasures was part of the rationale for proclaiming this former pastoral lease a conservation park in 2010. Yet, you don’t have to be a glacier buff to revel in the heritage here. Spend a sunny morning scrambling over Cathedral Rock and the venerable spirit of the place seems to glow from the red stone itself. At every step this knobby turret of a hill reveals crusty slabs, odd blades of rock and deep fissures hewn by the elements.

Close to the summit there’s a long craggy brow forming a sheltered overhang. It’s a secluded refuge. The back wall is daubed with white and red inscriptions: animal tracks, linked circles and other ochre symbols. It’s no stretch to imagine people gathered here in song and ceremony, the art-filled walls lit by the warmth of campfire flames.

The Olary Ranges hold many meeting places for the Ngadjuri, Adnyamathanha and Wilyakali -peoples. As it has scant permanent water, this was an area often occupied seasonally, for trade and traditional gatherings. Although links to country are preserved in archaeological sites dotted throughout the region, it’s fitting that the ties are recorded indelibly in art, perched high in the shelter of some of the most ancient rocks on Earth.

Water has long been a controlling force for life in these parts, a factor that may have been a hidden blessing for the native vegetation. “Compared to the Flinders [Ranges], this is poorly watered country,” Peter says. “In bad times, as soon as the water went, the stock came off. So this place tends to be in better nick than parts of the Flinders, where the land was hammered and the weeds moved in.”

Even so, the vast saltbush plains of the Olarys were pushed hard. Pastoralists arrived in the district from the mid-1800s. A measure of early grazing ambitions is the imposing Antro Woolshed, another of Bimbowrie’s important heritage sites. Built by the McCulloch family in 1878, it was one of the grandest in the country. During Antro’s first decade, some 56,000 sheep were shorn here annually by teams of 70-plus shearers toiling away with hand shears.

Today the big stone shed sits idle. Ten years on from the changeover, Bimbowrie is destocked and firmly in nature conservation mode. Rattling around his 72,000ha in a HiLux ute, Peter is a virtual one-man band. The job sheet – taming weeds, maintenance and pest control – just keeps on scrolling. Yet he presents a chirpy, unflappable air. As a seasoned Bounceback campaigner, there’s even a reflective regard for his adversaries.

“To be honest, everything out here needs a pat on the back for their resilience. They don’t know they’re doing anything wrong, they’re just eking out an existence.”

Near the park’s southern boundary, Peter points to encouraging new growth amid a recovering mulga and a small stand of vulnerable, slender bell-fruit trees. Even so, there’s evidence of goat damage to some plants. “We’ve just got to get these young ones through,” he says, cradling a half-munched, knee-high mulga seedling. “Over time, if enough can get up and away – well then, I can go home.”

Goats remain an obdurate challenge. Indeed, more than 140,000 have been removed from the sprawl of landscapes covered by Bounceback. The work has been costly, is ongoing and has been complicated by the recent rise in the value of goats as livestock. As a result, a few neighbourhood landholders are more interested in harvesting than effective control. As Peter notes, “It’s hard to convince some people to cull a $50 animal.”

Cooperation and conservation in the Olary Ranges

SUCH ISSUES PUT another kink in the twisting road to restoring vigour to the Olary Ranges. It’s one thing to buy up a sheep station, but, for nature projects on this scale – and determined foes so mobile and pervasive – the momentum for change can easily falter without broad community support.

In this regard, Bimbowrie is helped by like-minded neighbours. On its eastern boundary sits -Boolcoomatta Reserve (see AG 106), a 64,000ha property owned since 2006 by private conservation mob Bush Heritage Australia. The one-man band here is Glen Norris. A former earthmoving contractor, he’s been on his own pathway to change. A job with Telstra (then Telecom) to roll out optic fibre gave him a dose of bush life. A few years on and he eased into environmental management studies before landing operational jobs with Bush Heritage. “It’s taken a while but I’ve gone from pushing trees over to hugging them,” he says.

Similar to that at Bimbowrie, the mission at Boolcoomatta is largely restorative. “We want to build ecosystem resilience,” Glen says. “Over a 10-year cycle we have a boom-bust ecology. With climate change and possibly less rain, higher temperatures and more erratic conditions, we’re looking to give this place a rest. It’s about building landscape continuity and allowing for species movement.”

The Boolcoomatta works program is on its way: rabbit warrens – 7000 ripped; ground sites for monthly fox baiting – 220; invasive pepper trees – 4000 gone; cat traps in place – 18; exclusion plots protecting stands of vulnerable purple-wood acacia – four. The last project spotlights the role of rabbits in this species decline. Plots excluding rabbits bristle with healthy young acacia suckers and seedlings. Elsewhere, offspring are nowhere to be seen.

Helping get the job done, Bush Heritage properties benefit from generous benefactors and a cadre of willing volunteers. Last year 26 helpers from near and far chipped in a total of 376 working days on this reserve. At the same time, Glen is quick to highlight the organisation’s regional emphasis. “We’re looking to broaden our influence in the community, employ local contractors and be part of things like the Olary Weed Action Group.”

Although Boolcoomatta takes in the eastern outliers of the Olary hill country, much of the reserve’s topography is more subdued. Rolling bullock bush shrublands and rocky rises spiked with mulga are interspersed with sandy drainage lines flanked by river red gums. However, it’s atop lonely high points such as Dome Rock in the north of the reserve that a bigger picture unfurls.

This dark pedestal of a hill is the last hurrah for the Olarys. Below, the ranges spill into a colossal bluebush plain, sweeping east to the NSW border and beyond. It’s the province of red kangaroos and emu mobs, as well as many smaller and more secretive residents such as the dusky hopping-mouse and endangered plains wanderer.

After just a few years, Boolcoomatta is starting to pulse with renewed diversity. Woodlands echo to long-absent birdsong and yellow-footed rock-
wallabies have been sighted on the property for the first time in 80 years. Such are the rewards for giving back a little integrity to natural habitats, not just on a single property, but along a corridor spanning virtually the entire length of the ranges.

A stronghold for yellow-footed rock wallabies

MORE THAN A decade before Boolcoomatta and Bimbowrie got going with conservation, Plumbago set the pace. Former station manager Darren Wilson embraced Bounceback with a passion. In short, he had it in for the ferals. In the 1990s, Darren virtually scoured clean the Plumbago hills of goats. Early on, up to 3000 animals were mustered off a single hill.

Today, Plumbago remains a working sheep property and the single biggest stronghold for -yellow-footed rock-wallabies in Australia. Since 2006 it’s been amalgamated with Mount Victor station and two other properties as part of the MacLachlan family’s extensive pastoral holdings, Jumbuck Pastoral Group.

Mount Victor manager Richard Williams now oversees the whole operation. It’s a big hunk of country, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. As a young bloke Richard had a couple of goes working his parent’s small property south of Adelaide, but he kept coming back north. “It turns out I’m not into farming as such,” he says. “I need the space and freedom of station work.”

All up, Richard has 2000sq.km to play with and 30,000-plus sheep to care for. He has a bright, bustling manner, energised by the challenge. “I’m into the diversity of the landscape. Everywhere you go it’s different. There’s every mineral known to man here,” he says. “I just love the bike work and the hills are big enough to be interesting. I guess I’m very easily bored – so yeah, for me it’s all good.”

Backed by the MacLachlan family’s commitment to land management for conservation, Richard continues to work closely with the Bounceback program. “In the old days a lot of damage was done – no-one can deny that – and we’re always looking to do things better,” he says. Mount Victor operates on a policy of zero tolerance for goats. “The bottom line is that if you’re running goats it affects the country’s capacity to carry sheep.”

As well as goat control there’s an annual program of baiting around the hills for wild dogs and foxes. That’s good for the livestock and another boost for the wallabies. The results on Plumbago – the rising survey numbers – are impressive. The newfound health of the country is also writ large in the bounding, endearing presence of the yellow-foots.
“Since Bounceback the wallabies are now all over the rocky country. You see them everywhere. They reckon one hill’s got more than 600 on it,” Richard says. “I’ve been out mustering and had to get off the bike to walk the rocks and you get within a couple of metres of them. They’re pretty curious.”

And so, year by year, fascination with the yellow-foots becomes enmeshed with the day-to-day feel of place – a sense of how the land should be and what makes it healthy.

The Olary Ranges are proof of diversity’s power – both in the habitats themselves and teaching how to care for them. Conservation is a many-headed beast: strategies, volunteers, blokes with guns in helicopters, deep-pocketed benefactors, endless meetings and lots of hard slog in the field. Mostly it’s slow and painstaking. But then, the Olarys are evidence aplenty of what a glacial pace can bring.