Photo by David Maurice Smith
Photos by David Maurice Smith
Emma John explores Australia’s efforts not only to conserve but revive its wildlife.
From its deserts to its reefs, Australia’s unique ecosystems have long been under pressure from human activity. Now some humans are helping nature push back.
This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home page—and be sure to subscribe to the podcast! And, though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.
The last words I hear before takeoff are from the man sitting behind me, finishing his phone call. “I’ll be out of contact for the next three days,” he says, as we leave the Adelaide airstrip.
After that, it’s hard to make out conversation over the noise of the twin propellers. The copilots exchange an occasional, untranslatable sentence of flight jargon. They’re so close I can’t shake the feeling I’m in an Uber; I have to resist the urge to lean forward and ask if I can charge my phone.
Down below are shades of khaki and tan and chestnut and russet, seamed with a single, dead-straight road. I’ve driven that road before on a previous trip through the South Australian outback: It takes you five hours north from Adelaide to the rugged Ikara-Flinders Ranges, where I’m headed now. I remember the city suburbs giving way to quaint country towns, wheat fields becoming cattle stations becoming wilderness, until there was nothing by the roadside but racing kangaroos.
You don’t get that unfolding drama on an hour-long flight, but you do get scale. South Australia’s topography reveals itself in crinkled shapes that seem to resemble the skin and spines of its scaliest animals. A ridgeline has the beveled back of a giant lizard. Riverbeds look like seismological snakes; not one of them winks with water.
There are hints, too, of a much younger species. This mass of land has been marked out in geometric lines, its trapezoid parcels proof that humans are trying to domesticate the place. I spot plowed furrows and tap one of the pilots on the shoulder to ask what a farmer could hope to grow out here in the outback. “Nothing,” he says. “They’re rip marks, to stop dust storms happening when the wind blows.”
Australia is home to one of the largest remaining wildernesses on the planet. From its famous Red Centre desert outward—through barren landscapes and inhospitable bushland, to ancient rain forests and coastal waters teeming with marine predators—this is a country that presents nature at its least tameable. And yet, since the arrival of European settlers in the early 19th century, humans have been trying to domesticate this land. Its natural environment has been under attack.
Farming, industry, and the reckless introduction of foreign species have decimated the native flora and fauna. Hundreds of plants and creatures that existed nowhere but here have been lost forever. And now there is a new threat: global climate change, which last year precipitated a bushfire season of unprecedented range. Dozens of people lost their lives, more than a billion animals were killed, and more than 45 million acres of land burned in the last year. Such species as the long-nosed potoroo, a rodent-like marsupial the size of a rabbit, have lost so much habitat that they could be on the brink of extinction. Forest recovery will take decades, if not centuries.
A generation or two ago, the concept of “rewilding” a place as wild as Australia would have met with little support, but now the idea of returning cultivated land to its former natural state is an increasingly urgent cause. An army of organizations and individuals is aiming to reverse the destructive trajectory of the past 150 years of Australia’s history, to restore ecosystems as they used to function before colonization. Former mines, denuded of vegetation, have been reforested; no-fishing zones have been introduced in the oceans to restore marine biodiversity. The Tasmanian devil, in danger of extinction in Tasmania, is being reintroduced on the mainland in monitored colonies. Tracts of land that were once grazed by cattle and sheep are being transformed into wildlife sanctuaries—and attractive destinations for travelers.
I have come to witness Australia’s rehabilitation both on land and at sea—a trip that will involve two retreats in two very different locations, about 1,000 miles apart. Both are pioneers of the rewilding movement and, thanks to their longevity, are already demonstrating the successes such efforts can deliver.
My journey begins here in South Australia, where huge tracts of the outback have been given over to mining and pastoral land. Arkaba Conservancy in the Ikara-Flinders Ranges was an unremarkable sheep station until 10 years ago, when its new owner, Charles Carlow, decided to dedicate its 60,000 acres to wildlife conservation. Since then, the farm has been entirely destocked, and its homestead converted into a lodge where visitors can enjoy the outback as it was always meant to be.
First, however, I have to get there. Arkaba’s signature offering for visitors is a three-day group walk, during which hikers stay in a sequence of permanent camps on the property. I’ll be hiking it with the seven other travelers who are on my flight from Adelaide. As the Ikara-Flinders Ranges emerge from the heat haze ahead of us, long tendrils of sandstone stretching in all directions, it feels as if we’re about to land on King Kong’s Skull Island. We’re a handful of strangers, tempted here by the promise of a guided walk across a remote and inhospitable environment that would otherwise likely kill us, but whose ancient majesty has no comparison on Earth.
We’re met at the landing strip by our guides, Louise and Alex , and begin our walk a little outside the boundaries of the Arkaba property, on the edge of a natural wonder eight times the size of Uluru. From the air, the elliptical mountain formation known as Wilpena Pound looked to us like a giant crater, a vast hollow bowl surrounded by jagged rock that reaches nearly 4,000 feet high. On the ground, it inspires a different kind of awe, as if we had been deposited back in the Mesozoic era.
The Pound’s traditional name, Ikara, refers to its use as a “meeting place” for the Aboriginal Adnyamathanha people. Exploited and expelled when the Europeans began their land grab, the Adnyamathanha are now custodians of this extensive national park and the animals living within it. We haven’t gone far before we spot our first family of emus. Their outsize bird bodies have always made me smile, but that leggy bulk makes sense here, where they’re perfectly in proportion with the immensity of the landscape.
It takes the better part of a day to reach, and climb, Bridle Gap, a trail that will lead us out of the Pound, and we’re thankful for the eucalyptus trees that shade us as we walk. These particular eucalyptuses—river red gums—play a vital ecological role, Louise tells us: 40 percent of all wildlife here makes its home in their wood hollows. They’re beauties in themselves, their multicolored bark swirling with pattern, sometimes breaking out in salmon pink, other times revealing threads of gold that seem to melt down their trunks.
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The only sign of human habitation out here is the abandoned Hills homestead, a stone building that housed the family who tried to farm this land in the 1880s, convinced, as were many pioneers, that rain would follow the plow. They were wrong, and their time out here was so tough that I feel a pang of guilt when we arrive at our first camp, with its timber-construction sleeping shelters complete with cushioned mattresses, bucket-shower stalls, and a pre-prepared three-course meal. I’m not sure the Hills family was dining on juniper brisket and sticky date pudding every night.
Still, they would have shared in the greatest extravagance of all. The Australian desert delivers one of the clearest night skies on earth. Before we fall asleep, we’re treated to the same bejeweled sky that has covered this land for millennia, one that cannot help but make you feel the smallness of the human claim on the universe.
It’s a surprise to me how markedly the scenery changes over the course of our walk. On our second day, the majestic parades of eucalyptus give way to open plains of scrubby acacia and stunted bush. Some slopes are covered in cypress pines, haunted by the white, bowed figures of their dead. Even the ground beneath us shifts color. For a couple of hours we find ourselves crunching over dark purple shale, the multimillion-year-old gravel of a meteor.
While our eyes attempt to take in the ever-expanding landscape and the vastness of the blue sky above, Alex keeps us on course, finding paths without markers, encouraging us up and over the steeper climbs. Louise is the tracker, spotting animal signs, parsing paw prints, and, occasionally, poking at scat with a stick. “See the feathers in the droppings?” she asks. “That’s how you can tell it’s come from a quoll.”
Evidence of quolls is particularly welcome: These small nocturnal marsupials were only recently reintroduced to the area. They had been all too easy prey for the most dangerous predator the Europeans ever unwittingly introduced to Australia—the cat. One of the most important operations in Arkaba’s rewilding mission has been the trapping and removal of feral animals: rabbits, foxes, goats, and especially cats, which have no natural enemies in this environment.
“Throughout Australia we’ve introduced animals that have just caused havoc,” says Alex. In addition to invasive species, the increasingly extreme climate is making survival harder at every stratum. We see plenty of life on our safari, such as the shingleback lizard, whose blunt tail looks like a head to confuse predators; and a walking bush—a clump of blond spikes that turns out to be an echidna. But we also see a lot of death. For every kangaroo we spot, be they big reds, western grays, or little Euros, we come across a sun-bleached skeleton. Some lie where they tried to find shelter in the shade of a tree’s roots. “The latest drought has hit them hard,” says Louise. “Even the ones that survive won’t breed.” Kangaroos have the extraordinary ability to delay their pregnancies during lean times—“embryonic diapause.” The vegetation, too, is doing all it can to hang on. Some trees have sacrificed limbs, cutting off their water supply until they fall off entirely.
Pollution, fishing, and coastal development have all caused devastating destruction to the reef, with a 50 percent loss of coral cover recorded between 1985 and 2012.
The next morning, we wake at dawn under the vast rock facade of the Elder Range. It flares instantly at the touch of the sun, as if God has flicked a switch, treating us to a light show, a psychedelic sequence of orange and pink. The mountains are ancient seabed that predates the continent of Pangaea, raised by tectonic movement. Their sedimentary rock, jagging out of the ground at our feet like brittle wafer, is a multilayered geological treasure of sandstone, quartzite, mica, and much more.
We climb to the ridgeline. The panorama, with its rocky moonscape and sudden sproutings of tufty yuccas, stretches for miles in every direction. A snaking green line of trees marks an empty river, too dry to run.
From this vantage point, you can’t avoid the impact that sheep farming has had on the landscape; the long tracks where livestock have eaten their way through the bush are called “scars.” Closing in on the homestead, we come across Wards weed, an invasive species introduced to Australia in the early 20th century.
And yet the sheer ambition of Arkaba Conservancy brings its own kind of hope. At our final dinner together, in the luxurious surroundings of the lodge, with its soothing pool and its well-stocked wine fridge, we congratulate ourselves on our stamina. But we also chew on the things we have seen. The indigenous nations that claimed these lands before the European invasion survived the harsh conditions because they lived alongside nature, rather than trying to conquer it; their name, Adnyamathanha, means “people of the rock.” It is still not too late to learn from them.
A week later: another tiny plane on its way to the middle of nowhere. There’s less to see from the window this time, just the azure surface of the Coral Sea. Until, that is, we spot our destination, a white dot in the infinite ocean, a coral cay so small the landing strip runs its entire length. You could fit Lady Elliot Island into Arkaba more than 500 times.
An inventory of the island’s assets doesn’t amount to much. An unstaffed lighthouse, a small canteen restaurant, a pool table. Visitors are accommodated in prefab structures with a minimal footprint. But the attraction isn’t what’s on the island so much as what surrounds it: the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef. Here are manta rays and reef sharks; turtles as old as your grandparents; fish they haven’t invented Pantone colors for yet. People fly to the island, 50 miles from the mainland, for one purpose only—to swim near and observe these extraordinary creatures.
Within an hour of stepping off the plane from Brisbane, I’m being fitted for flippers. I’m also extremely well briefed. Most of the staff on this island have degrees in marine biology or environmental science, and no one here gets into the water until they understand the significance of where they are: The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef system Earth possesses, and tourism has been one of the very industries threatening its survival. Pollution, fishing, and coastal development have also caused devastating destruction to the reef, with a 50 percent loss of coral cover recorded between 1985 and 2012. Since then, climate change has triggered mass bleaching, wherein the coral loses the algae that feeds it and is left extremely vulnerable to disease and death. Half of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached since 2016.
“This whole reef is a World Heritage–listed marine park,” says Shari Kempshall, who became activities manager on Lady Elliot Island in 2018 after researching nearby islands for her studies at Griffith University.
“If we were on land, you wouldn’t be allowed to do anything to disturb it.” Instead, commercial fishing and trawling is still allowed in designated areas of the reef, sharks have been subject to a state-sponsored cull, and the Queensland government has thrown its support behind a controversial new coal mine that will bring both more polluted runoff into the state’s waters and more shipping across the reef. “It’s bizarre,” says Shari. “Sometimes you feel you’re fighting a losing battle.”
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But Lady Elliot remains a pocket of hope. In 2003, its owners lobbied successfully for the waters around the island to be declared protected Green Zones, where fishing is completely prohibited and tourism strictly regulated. The “no-take” policy extends to us all—no sneaking shells or coral home as a memento. But as I don my snorkel and drop into the water for the first time, I notice that my human urge to collect and acquire seems to have less power here. Perhaps it’s the sheer busyness of this vast aquatic community; its comings and goings are so mesmerizing, so independent, that my own existence feels exquisitely irrelevant.
Drifting with the current over the island’s submerged offshore reefs, known as “bommies,” is like taking a bus tour through an alien civilization. At first, my eye is caught by the brightest individuals: the angelfish that looks like a sideways ace of spades, the triggerfish daubed in neon street art, shoals of damselfish that strobe blue and silver as they change direction.
It takes a while before I can perceive the sheer mass of life surrounding me. Tiny wrasses are suspended in the water like leaf litter. Even the ocean floor is barely visible beneath the thick black sea cucumbers, which Shari has described to me as “the vacuum of the sea” and “a very basic animal.” They have no heart and no brain, and they suck up seabed and poop it back out in a way that helps the coral to grow. It’s a long way from the suave glamour of the giant rays that glide by. But what sea cucumbers lack in star power they more than make up for in dedication. I love them immediately.
The educational role of guides like Shari includes leading themed tours each day, which interpret the sights and sounds I’m encountering above and beneath the water. It’s on one of these tours that I learn the history of the place. By the time the island was officially “discovered” by a 19th-century British seafarer—who named it after his ship—it was richly vegetated, covered in pisonia trees and octopus bush. The black “soil” that makes up this island isn’t soil at all: it’s weapons-grade guano. But with guano sought after as both fertilizer and an ingredient for gunpowder, the island was quickly mined to depletion. By 1873, its surface had been stripped bare, and just eight trees remained.
For a long while after that, the only people who lived here were a series of lighthouse keepers and their families, whose homemaking efforts included dynamiting the coral to create a swimming pool for their kids and planting nonnative poinsettia that immediately smothered the island. Then, in the late 1960s, a pilot named Don Adams spotted this pitiful plot from the air and decided to do what he could for it.
After purchasing the lease from the government, he began his own revegetation program, seeding species native to nearby islands, like casuarina trees, whose ability to retain nitrogen in the soil benefits nearby plants, and pandanus palms, which make cozy homes for tree frogs and birds. Successive leaseholders have continued his conservation efforts, including current leaseholder Peter Gash, who created a plant nursery at the center of the island.
No reward has been greater for Gash than watching birds return to the island. The booming population of white-capped noddies is considered a coup. They’re a rarity in the seabird world for making their nests in trees. And when courting, the male flies up to a potential mate, offering her a leaf that he’s dipped in the sea. The wedge-tailed shearwaters are harder to spot—they burrow themselves a home—but I hear their eerie wailing at night. It was this sound that kept European sailors from landing on the island: They were convinced it was haunted.
On my second day on the island, when I’ve traded the snorkel for scuba gear, I’m so distracted by the carnival of color that I somehow miss the giant green turtle until it’s right in front of me, head stretched out, peering around as if searching for someone it knows. I find myself backing away, trying to maintain my distance, not out of fear, but in reverence.
The reintroduction of octopus bushes, with their spacious roots, is providing safe space for turtles to lay their eggs—an attempt to recover an endangered population that will take decades to see results. The island also operates a nighttime blackout so as not to disorient them. Come sundown, we’re requested to keep our room curtains firmly closed. There’s something very likable, I thought, about a place that puts the needs of its reptilian residents above those of its human visitors.
On my final day, I take a behind-the-scenes tour. Chris Gabriel, the resort’s carpenter, shows me around the self-sustaining infrastructure, from the shed of photovoltaic batteries providing the island’s nearly 100 percent renewable energy, to the desalination plant meeting all its water needs. “I’ve worked my way around most of Australia,” says Chris, “and when I heard about this place I just thought, I want to work with people who are so passionate about the environment. I’ve got to be a part of it.”
No one here has any doubt that restoring the delicate ecological balance of both the island and the reef beyond will be the work of many more decades, and they see no point in inviting tourists if their presence itself causes strain on the environment. Here, as at Arkaba, there is a recognition that rewilding is not the responsibility of one generation, but of many.
The past decades have been drastic ones for this reef, and the past year a catastrophe for wildlife across the Australian continent. But rewilding is not just a response to an urgent environmental need. It addresses, too, a matter of human psychology: reminding us of our place on the planet. The wild is wild for a reason, and a healthy relationship with it depends on a certain awe.
By Mekalyn Rose
Writer Emma John chose her lodgings based on their outstanding rewilding efforts. Read on to learn more about visiting these conservation-minded retreats.
Set in the outback surrounding the Ikara-Flinders Ranges, the 1850s-era Arkaba Conservancy is a five-star bush experience where 2 percent of the room rate goes directly to conservation. It’s a scenic five-hour drive from Adelaide—or an hour-long privately chartered flight—to reach the retreat, which features four en suite guest rooms and a private cottage. All have verandas and are furnished with fleece-wrapped headboards; two have deep soaking tubs. There’s no Wi-Fi or television, just a small library with a fireplace; a swimming pool facing Arkaba Creek; and plenty of resident wildlife, including emus, kangaroos, mouse-size marsupials called dunnarts, and yellow-footed rock wallabies. Visitors explore Wilpena Pound and the Elder Range via bush walk, jeep safari, or the property’s single-engine plane, which offers bird’s-eye views of the landscape; a helicopter carries hikers to remote trails. Three nights from $1,660.
At the southern tip of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, this eco-resort lies on a protected coral cay surrounded by a sanctuary for more than 1,200 species of marine life, including manta rays, turtles, and reef sharks. The island is one of the world’s top sites for snorkeling and diving, and daily activities include snorkeling tours in a glass-bottomed boat (equipment included), as well as nature walks that showcase the island’s history and ecosystem. Guests commit to a sustainability pledge that requires them to keep their distance from wildlife and to minimize their energy and water usage during their stay. Close to half of the resort’s 44 rooms are set along Sunrise Beach; two tented rooms offer lagoon views from private balconies. Seair Pacific offers daily flights to Lady Elliot Island from Hervey Bay/Fraser Coast, Bundaberg, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast. From $120, all inclusive.
>>Next: Plan Your Visit With AFAR’s Australia Travel Guide
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