And so to Bimblebox...
Thursday on the Galilee Road Trip. Just after sun-up. A beautiful morning in the bush. Grabbing a (hot) shower before most other campers. Galahs for company. And today was the day I would finally get to Bimblebox.
Breakfast and packing up with a spring in my step. Into Jericho to fuel up. Indulge me: I loved Jericho. There is art in Jericho's street, including fine murals. Slight concern about this character, bottom right, at the entrance to the women's loo.
We enjoyed an impromptu pavement disco – in increasingly warm sunshine. Well, some of us did. With thanks to Mackay Conservation Group for their musical contributions on this trip. Somewhere there's a video...
More than 1000 kilometres northwest of Brisbane and 500 west of Rocky, Jericho is a small town getting smaller. Someone else had up sticks just last week. Parents are increasingly home-schooling their sons and daughters, so numbers are falling at the school. Shopkeepers are doing it tough: as increased costs of bringing in supplies raise prices, people can no longer afford to buy, the shopkeeper can't afford to restock, so the people don't shop there any more. I heard that the cafe once enticing grey nomads and other travellers to stop in the town is now in competition with a tearoom in the tourist information office. Who made that decision in Barcaldine?
How do you stop the young leaving town in search of better prospects? There are townsfolk who believe that the Galilee mines would breathe new life into Jericho and Alpha, and they are alarmed at talk of falling commodity prices and stranded assets. (Some of them had joined us to listen to a talk about this the previous evening – more in a later post). If you argue against exploitation of the Galilee's coal deposits, then your list of alternatives to fossil fuel development has to extend beyond renewable energy sources to different economic activities for already struggling communities.
I wasn't concentrating on the route from Jericho. We turned off the Capricorn Highway sooner than I expected; I think it was at Beta, 20 minutes or so east of Jericho? There was a lot more dust. Then a left turn by the Glen Innes sign. And, finally, Bimblebox. The convoy seemed to be rolling on through the gate, but I pleaded for a photo op. Two years I'd been waiting to get here: I had to record the moment. The bus door opened for consultations and I leapt out.
We reached camp well before lunchtime. We were to spend two nights at Bimblebox, which felt like luxury compared with our schedule up to that point. Time to relax, even contemplate. Stand and stare. Listen to the silence. The donga* was for cooking and eating, and small study/discussion groups. Alternatively, gatherings took place in the 'field'. After dark we debated around a campfire while above us a thousand million diamonds glinted. How could you fail to be inspired?
We made ourselves useful by doing much-needed weeding, but alas, not enough. We were looking for Seca Stylo. Now graziers like seca because it makes their cattle grow fatter and means they can graze cattle more densely. But it tends to push out native grasses and, being a legume, also acidifies the soil. Bimblebox is not heavily grazed enough to keep it in check, hence the weeding campaign. We had to take out small plants, and leave them to die, but bag up and remove larger, flowering plants so they wouldn't seed and spread this environmental weed, a native of the Caribbean and South America but naturalised in northern Australia.
There was a trip round the property that provided a real ye-har moment – sitting on hay bales on the back of a ute. And birdwatching with an expert, for those prepared to get up early enough.
And – a real treat – landowner and campaigner Paola Cassoni supplemented our provisions with Italian home-cooking, in the middle of the Australian bush. Even instruction on how to make gnocchi. She must be mad to have agreed to 40 opinionated conservationists descending on her haven of tranquility in the Desert Uplands. But there are no bounds to her efforts to inform people of the fate of this Nature Refuge in the hands of an oversized and overbearing investment billionaire who doesn't care for six regional ecosystems in his way.
Our ye-har tour revealed a rich diversity of vegetation – far removed from Clive Palmer's insulting description of Bimblebox as a degraded cattle station. We could see what the neighbouring, cleared property looked like beyond the boundary.
Early-morning birdwatching revealed the following: Little Friarbird, Red-browed Pardelote, Striated Pardelote, White-plumed Honeyeater, Pied Butcherbird, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Royal Spoonbill (in flight), Weebil, Buff-rumped Thornbill, Striped Honeyeater, Raven, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Pale-headed Rosella, Jacky Winter and Collared Sparrowhawk. For a number of reasons – not least of which was trying to keep up with the fount of all birding knowledge – I managed to take only one or two photographs. Had I paid more attention to photography, I would have missed the birds themselves.
More than 150 species of bird have been logged at Bimblebox since 2003, many of them of conservation significance, and some endangered. There are mammals of conservation significance, and many species of reptile, amphibian and invertebrate. You can read more about the fauna and flora in Bimblebox: A Nature Refuge Under Siege, edited by Maureen Cooper and available here.
Did I mention how beautiful Bimblebox was? How the sun catches the canopy in the early morning, and the soil matches the pink sky. The Ironbark thickets. The peacefulness. And the backlighting at sundown.
My favourite explorer Ludwig Leichhardt passed through the northeastly reaches of the the Desert Uplands in April 1845. He noticed extensively burned Ironbark forest, and observed Aboriginals burning grassland. The region was white-settled in the late 1800s: sheep were reared at first but they weren't really suited to the area. (Barcaldine became known for the shearers' strike of 1891, one of Australia's earliest examples of industrial action.) In fact, much of the Uplands was only used for drought relief by graziers who also held land blocks in the more productive Mitchell Grass Downs. A gradual transition to cattle began. The railway brought development in the region from the 1880s, especially when bores were able to tap into shallow sandstone aquifers, longer-distance fencing was possible and large-scale mechanical land clearance became the norm. More recently, Buffel grass has enabled graziers to upgrade pasture.
In 2000 the present owners purchased the Glen Innes property – which came with a clearing permit – to ensure that it was never cleared. Two years later, the Bimblebox Nature Refuge Agreement was signed with the Queensland State Government. It promised protection in perpetuity.
More than 95 per cent had never been cleared; nor had it been extensively grazed by previous owners. The state government contributed two-thirds of the price of the property in order to protect the conservation values of this intact ecosystem. The Nature Refuge's guardians had to provide a land management plan, and they continue to report on progress to the federal government every two years. Research into the compatibility of cattle grazing and nature conservation is ongoing at Bimblebox, and has ranged from developing (stock) carrying capacity models for the Desert Uplands, to understanding vegetation change in grazed woodlands, and the use of fire in maintaining open eucalypt woodland. Years of hard graft by the owners and their helpers have eradicated many invasive species.
Back in 2002, no one envisaged the likes of Waratah Coal – acquired by Clive Palmer in 2008 – baying at the gate in the knowledge of valuable coal seams beneath the Galilee's 'pretty droughty sort of desert' landscape. Waratah's Environmental Impact Statement in 2011 confirmed the worst news for Bimblebox; half of it to disappear in an open pit and half to be literally undermined by a longwall operation. The battle for Bimblebox had to be raised to a whole new level: see regular posts in this blog beginning in March 2012, through to the present day. One hundred and ten Nature Refuges are currently at risk from (coal) mining leases in Queensland. It would appear 'perpetuity' has been redefined.
The last few months have seen increasing activism among environmental protectors. Governments are just not listening to their concerns: for the conservation of biodiversity; for the preservation of Australia's remarkable landscapes, the security of prime agricultural land. I always believed that, if the call came one day to make a stand at the gate I insisted on photographing in April, I would answer it. My recent pilgrimage to Bimblebox – for it truly was a spiritual experience – only served to render that commitment a certainty. And I know I won't be alone.
If you enjoyed reading this – and the other Galilee Road Trip posts – please share with friends and connections. One of our principal aims in making this journey was to spread the word about the Galilee Basin.
With thanks to all those who helped identify plant and animal species
This post was last edited on 10 November 2016