Near perfect planning
Standing around a campfire late in the afternoon, a group of South Australian hunters work out their strategy for the last big duck hunt of the season on Loveday.
Jim Godden's house overlooks the wetland, which is the pride and joy of the Barmera Moorook Field & Game Australia branch.
He knows who is about and where they will hunt on the wetland; this final meeting is to fill in the gaps to ensure good coverage.
"All we aim for is to cover the wetland and ensure everybody gets the chance to have a good hunt," Jim said.
Earlier in the day, in one of the few structures remaining from an old abattoir, we meet the Greek contingent.
They have already added a few sheets of tin and nailed down the rest to shelter from the Antarctic breeze blowing across the evaporation pond.
They offer up food and drink and the hospitality extends to a few yarns, which explains why a small cluster of reed topped mounds in the wetlands is marked on the map as the Greek Islands.
It started as a somewhat disparaging nickname for the area hunted exclusively by Greek immigrants who toiled on fruit blocks in the Riverland.
Many of the original members are still around, and although later generations have drifted to the big cities, they still return year after year to hunt and contribute to conservation efforts. "This is my 50th year hunting here," George Sourbis says proudly.
"Most of us went to Adelaide to give our kids a better chance at education but we love the life up here."
Peter Economou is 76 years old and a regular fixture at Loveday.
"I love to hunt; we come here all the time” he said “You can walk, you can fish; this is a beautiful place. I come down here with my boys, shooting or no shooting.”
Chris Pallis has been hunting Loveday for 44 years.
"Most of the time I come I get my ducks, not a bag limit but enough," he said.
"It isn't just the hunting, it is the camaraderie, the camp life." The plan looked perfect when teal started dropping in on a decoy spread in the minutes before the opening time but hunting is rarely that easy.
George was a member of the executive committee that made the decision to buy the Loveday lease and his love for the wetland is evident.
"This is life, this is where we belong.” he said.
“It is a way of life; you light the fire, you sit around and you meet new people.
“I started shooting with my father here 50 years ago with a single-barrel shotgun and a hessian bag."
Shannon Baxter only started hunting ducks this season with her husband Nathan and father, Jim Godden.
They were discussing getting into hunting, which led to a text from Shannon to her father asking: 'Can girls hunt ducks?'
Jim's response was a resounding yes. For generations, duck camps in his family were for the boys but times have changed.
"Obviously I've been around it all my life but I only started hunting this year," Shannon said.
"A couple of times I went out and got two birds. Today is the first time I haven't pulled the trigger."
Positioned on the edge of the reeds with her dad, the final big shoot of the season looked promising.
As the first glow of a magnificent sunrise peaked over the sand hills, a lone teal plopped gracefully into the decoy spread, even before Jim had waded back to get into cover.
As the light improved another two teal flared their wings and joined the decoys bobbing on the still water.
"This is looking good," Jim said.
None of the teal appeared to be wearing watches but their sense of timing was perfect — 7.13 am was the official start time but by 7.12 am, they had all gone.
A single Black duck clearly didn't get the memo, and Jim took his chance even though it was a long shot. It would be the only bird for the morning and Jim joined a long and illustrious list of hunters who bagged a single. Top gun was three birds.
Loveday often welcomes returning teal towards the end of the season but not this year, with the heavy rains in New South Wales and Queensland. There are small mobs of birds about but by now they know to get up and stay high.
On a patch of water called Big Mussel three hunters are set up along flight lines they know well but on this day, strange things are happening.
Ducks are following the Murray River, which runs along one boundary of Loveday and cutting back across dry land.
The trio, including Philippe Gravier, need eyes in the back of their heads as they study known flight lines only to be surprised by birds sneaking through from behind.
"I only had two cartridges — I got one and missed the second one," Philippe said.
"Two ducks came from behind and I didn't see them and generally they were flying very high, so not many opportunities."
Originally from France, where he mostly hunted on private property, Philippe is enjoying the transition to wild ducks rather than bred-and-released birds.
"I love this place, it is a pleasure every time," he said.
Dubbed "Outback Phil" by his mates, Philippe is a handy addition to any camp. Post hunt, while the birds are being plucked and dressed, he serves up artisan bread with prosciutto followed by the same bread smothered in Dijon mustard topped with a Gruyère cheese.
The feast on the eve of the hunt featured a goat's leg.
Philippe likes his ducks slow cooked in white wine or duck fat and served on a bed of sauerkraut and, with his French roots, he makes the most of duck liver.
Today yields one duck but like every other hunter on Loveday, he's satisfied as he prepares fine food in a peaceful bush camp — where else would you want to be?
“It is a way of life; you light the fire, you sit around and you meet new people."
Jim Godden and and Shannon Baxter mark incoming birds
Clockwise from left; Peter Economou, Tony Plarinos, George Sourbis, Chris Pallis and Jom Godden
A long shot but Jim Godden got his Black duck