TUR­TLE DIARY

A con­ser­va­tion pro­gram on Cape York re­minds vol­un­teers of their place in world, re­flects Jeanne Eve

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

ON the north­ern banks of Janie Creek, on the Cape York Penin­sula, 200km from the north­ern tip of Aus­tralia, shel­tered Camp Chiva­ree is nes­tled safely be­hind a waist-high, metal fence with bit­ing green ants guard­ing its top rail and signs with croc mo­tifs in­sist­ing gates must be kept shut.

Inside this com­pound are sev­eral twop­er­son tented cab­ins, din­ing shed and kitchen with mos­quito-net­ted win­dows open to sea breezes, en­closed bush toi­lets and spa­cious show­ers with sus­pended can­vas buck­ets. A gen­er­a­tor sup­plies power for hot wa­ter and light­ing, and ca­suar­i­nas pro­vide am­ple shade.

This is my home for five nights while I vol­un­teer on the Camp Chiva­ree tur­tle con­ser­va­tion pro­gram. The near­est habi­ta­tion is Mapoon, a 30-minute ride away by four­wheel-drive ve­hi­cle along beaches. No mo­bile phones here, just the sounds of na­ture and a few peo­ple.

Mapoon is a re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity al­most 90km north of Weipa. The Camp Chiva­ree tur­tle con­ser­va­tion pro­gram be­gan in 2005 af­ter re­search demon­strated nest­ing tur­tles were un­der threat from feral an­i­mals and ghost net en­trap­ments. To­day the pro­gram brings to­gether Mapoon coun­cil­lors, el­ders, rangers, sci­en­tists, gov­ern­ment fund­ing bod­ies and eco-tourists.

This re­gion of Aus­tralia has not al­ways been as peace­ful. In the past there was con­flict over land ti­tle for west­ern Cape York. Af­ter baux­ite was dis­cov­ered, the Batavia River Mis­sion was closed in 1963 and tra­di­tional own­ers were moved to New Mapoon, near Ba­m­aga on the tip of the Cape York Penin­sula.

How­ever, there were a few lo­cals who lob­bied for the re­open­ing of their orig­i­nal com­mu­nity and in March 2000 the in­au­gu­ral Mapoon Abo­rig­i­nal Coun­cil was formed. A year later, the West­ern Cape Com­mu­ni­ties Co-Ex­is­tence Agree­ment was signed, recog­nis­ing the equal­ity be­tween tra­di­tional owner groups, Cape York Land Coun­cil, lo­cal shire coun­cils, Co­ma­lco and the Queens­land gov­ern­ment. Mapoon is a Tjun­gundji word mean­ing place where peo­ple fight on the sand hills, but to­day there is a strong sense of com­mu­nity among its 300 res­i­dents.

From June to Oc­to­ber, in­dige­nous rangers Lau­rie and Ce­cil con­duct tur­tle pa­trols with vol­un­teers on Flin­ders Beach, a 24km stretch from Pen­nefa­ther River to Janie Creek and ac­ces­si­ble only by boat. Us­ing a cou­ple of Land Rovers, we are search­ing and stop­ping for nest­ing flat­back tur­tles or erupt­ing nests on the twice-daily pa­trols.

My day be­gins with a morn­ing pa­trol look­ing for erupted nests. Once spot­ted, the rangers count the baby tur­tle tracks into the sea; feral dogs have been feast­ing on ev­ery nest site and paw prints cir­cle the rim, scuff­ing those of the oc­ca­sional prey­ing goanna or curlew. Then the vol­un­teers care­fully scrape out sand with hands down into the egg cham­ber to re­cover hatched and un­hatched eggs. The typ­i­cal re­sponse from vol­un­teers is that they haven’t had as much fun dig­ging in the sand since they were kids.

Some­times de­formed hatch­lings are still climb­ing and th­ese are re­turned to Camp Chiva­ree to be eu­thanised and sexed. The sex of tur­tles is de­ter­mined by the tem­per­a­ture of the nest dur­ing in­cu­ba­tion. Early in the nest­ing sea­son, which be­gins in trop­i­cal win­ter, hatch­lings tend to be male, but as the sun warms the sand, the ma­jor­ity are fe­male.

Wit­ness­ing a nest erup­tion is un­for­get­table: tur­tle eggs hatch af­ter in­cu­bat­ing for about 45 days in a scooped-out nest cham­ber more than 50cm be­low the sur­face. It can take up to five days scrab­bling through aer­ated sand be­fore the hatch­lings emerge into air and pat­ter down to the sea. This walk will be their last on land un­til they re­turn for nest­ing.

In an ideal world, the life span of a flat­back tur­tle is about 70 years, but to­day they are listed as vul­ner­a­ble and data-de­fi­cient. Even with tur­tle con­ser­va­tion pro­grams, if hatch­lings es­cape, the 70 per cent pre­da­tion rate of nests by feral an­i­mals and nat­u­ral preda­tors means they have a one in 1000 chance of sur­viv­ing to sex­ual ma­tu­rity.

There’s noth­ing like an en­counter with tur­tle hatch­lings and a large salt­wa­ter croc­o­dile for a re­al­ity check. It is mid­night and our evening tur­tle pa­trol is al­most over. Stand­ing in the back of the ve­hi­cle with some of my fel­low eco-vol­un­teers, I hear the two-way ra­dio in the driver’s cabin crack­ling, ask­ing if we are on our way back to camp. ‘‘ Take care, there’s a croc near the land­ing site,’’ warns our camp cook. ‘‘ I’ll put the ket­tle on.’’

We con­tinue our slow drive along Flin­ders Beach search­ing for new tur­tle tracks, ready to jump down and lo­cate a new nest, record its global po­si­tion­ing sys­tem lo­ca­tion, then mea­sure and tag the nest­ing tur­tle be­fore it re­turns to the sea. Head­lights shine on scav­eng­ing ghost crabs be­fore they scurry back into the calm Ara­fura Sea. Mean­while, dark­ness cov­ers the hideous line of tan­gled nets, plas­tic bot­tles, thongs, light bulbs and gas can­is­ters along the high tide mark; this de­bris has drifted across the Gulf of Car­pen­taria.

Tonight the Milky Way shim­mers af­ter a

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scorch­ing day and glo­ri­ous sun­set. The pa­trol fin­ishes when we reach Janie Creek and the ve­hi­cles are parked next to fuel cans, stakes and anti-feral an­i­mal de­vices. Ahead our dinghy bobs on its moor­ing in black wa­ter. It holds only six peo­ple, ne­ces­si­tat­ing sev­eral trips back to camp. My group of nine paid-up vol­un­teers has swelled with four ex­tra Queens­land gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials who have joined us for hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence be­fore de­cid­ing fu­ture fund­ing.

Clam­ber­ing down with only torches or head lamps for il­lu­mi­na­tion, we dis­cuss who wants to re­turn to Camp Chiva­ree in the first cross­ing. I of­fer to re­main be­hind while the oth­ers put­ter back to camp for tea and bed. It is dark and quiet and I am weary, not from phys­i­cal ex­er­tion but the ex­pe­ri­ence of ob­serv­ing the in­tense harsh­ness of life and death on this an­cient coast­line. Jabirus, egrets, terns, pel­i­cans, oys­ter­catch­ers, sea ea­gles and brol­gas are asleep and, al­though it ap­pears peace­ful, my angst is ris­ing.

I know feral dogs are hid­ing, watch­ing from the heath. There are no feral pigs, as a re­cent shoot has culled more than 800, but there is at least one salt­wa­ter croc nearby. Lau­rie has told us he has seen a mon­ster bask­ing at a pop­u­lar fish­ing spot near the camp. It is not ex­actly a Steve Ir­win-style crikey mo­ment but, while wait­ing, I re­alise my fee­ble torch­light barely iden­ti­fies white seashells around my feet, let alone a pair of eyes or hun­gry jaws.

A splash causes me to help­lessly swing my thin light beam over the wa­ter. Most likely it’s a bar­ra­mundi, but my mind is un­rav­el­ling. In those few min­utes, wait­ing for the friendly drone of the out­board mo­tor, I re­alise my po­si­tion in the nat­u­ral food chain on this won­drous and eco­log­i­cally rich penin­sula. Fe­male tur­tle hatch­lings, no big­ger than a child’s palm, re­veal life’s pow­er­ful force and a lurk­ing saltie has stripped me of city slickness. Camp Chiva­ree’s magic is work­ing and I ac­knowl­edge the spirit of the land. Chiva­ree Tur­tle Con­ser­va­tion Camp of­fers two, three or five-day stays from June to Oc­to­ber. As well as morn­ing and night tur­tle pa­trols, the longer stay of­fers op­por­tu­ni­ties to source bush tucker and visit the de­serted Batavia River Mis­sion. If an Aus­tralian Quar­an­tine and In­spec­tion Ser­vice of­fi­cer calls in, guests learn about il­le­gal shark boats, ghost nets and other nas­ties. Qan­tasLink flies daily from Cairns to Weipa on the north­west coast of the Cape York Penin­sula; guests are trans­ferred to Camp Chiva­ree, an hour south of Mapoon.

www.capey­ork­turtleres­cue.com

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