Cus­to­dian of the out­back

Tak­ing care of the land like win­ning the lotto

The Western Star - - Rural Weekly -

Don Row­lands is a Wangkan­gurru el­der and in­dige­nous ranger of Munga-Thirri Na­tional Park in the Simp­son Desert. Munga-Thirri is the largest na­tional park in Queens­land. As part of the Our Liv­ing Out­back project he has sub­mit­ted his story.

I’VE seen a lot of changes hap­pen in Birdsville over my life­time. I re­mem­ber start­ing school when I was 10 years old, much older than some of the other kids. That worked for me – I got to be the smart one in class, al­ways get­ting asked to help with the lit­tle kids as they learned the ba­sics.

I left in grade 5 and got my first job mus­ter­ing cat­tle on horse­back. Back then we didn’t have pad­docks or boundary fences or even in­di­vid­ual prop­erty lines. Cat­tle moved freely – we moved them on to each wa­ter hole when needed.

Life was pretty good back then. We didn’t need money, didn’t have cars, nor a mort­gage or power bills. Each house was lit with a kerosene lamp and we didn’t care about what we didn’t have. Work­ing on the land, all we needed was a camp­fire for light and a swag to sleep in. What more could you want?

It’s funny think­ing about how we used to en­joy the out­doors – espe­cially the heat. It was no big deal to ride out into the land­scape, with just a hat to shade your eyes. Liv­ing un­der the shade of tree as you watched over the cat­tle and looked up at the stars. Now I live in a nice house with air-con­di­tion­ing and ev­ery time I walk out I’m hit with the blast of the out­back heat. Once you get used to mod­ern com­forts, it’s hard to go back.

Mus­ter­ing with horses was a lot of fun – it kept you grounded to the land around you. Things move quicker th­ese days – I see op­er­a­tions that need to move cat­tle in days, not weeks. Shift­ing stock into big road trains that power down the high­ways rather than mov­ing slowly over the land­scape.

This land is unique, in ev­ery sense of the word. Over ev­ery rise, over ev­ery sand dune is a dif­fer­ent view – of wildlife, rivers, moun­tains and val­leys. It’s tak­ing care of this land and en­sur­ing it is pro­tected that is a big part of my job to­day as a ranger for the Munga-Thirri na­tional park. I was the first em­ployee here – go­ing on 25 years now – and it’s quite pos­si­bly the best job ever. I get to care for coun­try that I’m a tra­di­tional cus­to­dian of – do­ing what I’m paid to do as well as my spir­i­tual re­spon­si­bil­ity.

This job is an hon­our, and I of­ten feel like I’ve won the lotto to be able to do it. It gives me the chance to fol­low the song­lines of my coun­try – to look over it and en­sure that the con­nec­tion be­tween land and peo­ple are kept alive. I of­ten stum­ble across an old camp­site, or a burial ground, or an old humpy, and those

Work­ing on the land, all we needed was a camp­fire for light and a swag to sleep in

are the truly spe­cial mo­ments. See­ing ev­i­dence of life that ex­isted here hun­dreds, or even thou­sands of years ago. See­ing the his­tory of my peo­ple in tan­gi­ble arte­facts – like wooden or stone tools – blows your mind a bit.

I re­mem­ber be­ing taught the sto­ries of my peo­ple when I was younger, and I’m hon­oured to be able to im­part that on to the younger gen­er­a­tions now. Ev­ery story tells a part of our his­tory, but it’s more than that, it’s a map of how to travel from one place to an­other. Some of th­ese places are phys­i­cal and some are not. That’s a fun­da­men­tal thing to un­der­stand about how this land is part of my peo­ple, and we are part of it. It’s some­thing that I love to share with oth­ers as they come vis­it­ing the park – to see their won­der as they en­joy the beau­ti­ful land­scapes, wildlife and cul­ture.

The old days of mus­ter­ing and sleep­ing un­der the stars have more than a nos­tal­gic im­por­tance to me – they are a les­son in how we need to work along­side this coun­try, not work against it. With the pas­sage of time, we need to pre­serve the old ways of look­ing af­ter coun­try – most im­por­tantly giv­ing it the time to re­cover.

One thing that con­cerns me greatly is how we use wa­ter across this land. It’s such an im­por­tant re­source, and goes much deeper than the sur­face – lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. It comes in the rains, runs through the rivers and the plains and is stored deep un­der­ground. It’s a cy­cle that plays an im­por­tant role in keep­ing this land alive and healthy. Our wa­ter is an im­por­tant re­source that needs to be man­aged sus­tain­ably.

It’s so im­por­tant that we keep our rivers clean, and that has to be with an un­der­stand­ing of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween na­tive species and the land. I re­mem­ber a time when na­tive yab­bies could be found up and down our river sys­tems – now they’re strug­gling to sur­vive in mud chan­nels that are choked with in­tro­duced carp. Rivers stay healthy if we main­tain the nat­u­ral bal­ance.

If we are to man­age and sus­tain the health of this land, it’s im­por­tant that we con­sider the her­itage of that coun­try. It’s been great to see progress on this over the years – from land­hold­ers, gov­ern­ment and Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple work­ing along­side each other. My job and those of other in­dige­nous rangers are tes­ta­ment to that. The fu­ture of Aus­tralia de­pends on car­ing for our coun­try.

Above all else, I’d like to see all of us who call the Out­back home come to­gether and work on a sys­tem that works for ev­ery­one – peo­ple, plants, an­i­mals and the land. We all care for this coun­try in var­i­ous ways – what is needed is a shared un­der­stand­ing of that care and a com­mit­ment to work­ing to­gether.


GREAT JOB: Don Row­lands is a Wangkan­gurru el­der and in­dige­nous ranger of Munga-Thirri Na­tional Park in the Simp­son Desert he de­scribes his job as like ‘win­ning the lotto’.

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