Galilee Road Trip: farm hopping... and hoping
It was with some reluctance we left lovely Springwood Station and got on the road again… to Springsure… then the Gregory Highway to Emerald... and the Capricorn Highway to a point 17 km beyond Anakie, where we took a dirt road north. Another 15-20 km further on was Withersfield, where John and Diana Graham graze Brangus cattle organically on 48,600 hectares. They have lived there since 1973. We were also to meet up with our Mackay contingent.
We had to find a place in the middle of nowhere in the dark: we didn't spot a ruined house supposed to be a marker. Again, we arrived late, tired... and dusty. We put up the tents with some illumination from vehicle headlights. Wise campers sported head lamps: it's hard to erect a tent and a stretcher bed with one hand while your other holds a torch.
We headed over to the homestead for supper. John and Diana have built their house from local stone and it's a very very very fine house. The chunks of sandstone make for thick solid walls that keep the family warm in winter and cool in summer. The stonework reminded me of farm houses in the dales of Northern England.
It was late by the time John began to talk to us. Withersfield is not at risk from mining, but he supports neighbouring landholders who are affected and resisting. One he mentioned is the by-all-accounts beautiful Degulla Station, 100 km north of Alpha close by the Belyando River. There had once been a plan to include this property on our itinerary... but the reality of Outback travel is that dirt roads and distances tend to downsize your must-see list.
It was too late in the day to take notes, so I just listened. He had two clumps of grass as props, and proceeded to explain how his grazing animals help keep carbon in the soil. He spoke of his cows with an empathy gleaned from decades of care, including low-stress stockhandling methods and paddock rotation to avoid overgrazing and nutrient depletion. He almost flitted from subject to subject, as relevancies occurred to him – drought, rough terrain, demand for organic beef, WWOOFers (Willing Workers On Organic Farms) – and his style was mesmeric after a while. I didn't want him to stop. This was, after all, what I was here for. But our dusty campsite eventually beckoned.
The contribution of grazing animals to soil carbon sequestration is a contentious subject. Some see grazing animals as destroyers of soil, vegetation and landscape. But others believe in the principle of 'rational grazing' (aka mob grazing, rotational grazing, short duration grazing, et al), originated by a French biochemist and small farmer, André Voisin, who spent some time simply watching his animals graze. He wrote a book called Grass Productivity in the 1950s. Voisin's ideas were picked up by a South African, Allan Savory, 20 years later. Essentially, it's more about animals grazing at the right time in the growth cycle of the plants they're eating than the number of animals grazing. If cows spend too long grazing in one place, or return to it too quickly, then overgrazing results. Their trampling also has benefits: hooves break up the soil and press dead vegetation and seeds into the aerated surface layer. Confining cows to one area at a time and then moving them on means their dung improves soil fertility while they're away in the next paddock.
So, overgrazed, degraded land means cattle have been mismanaged, not overstocked, the theory goes.
The next morning in the sunshine Withersfield looked completely different. A sizeable solar array on the outhouses was impressive (top of page). Everywhere looked dry. Dust followed us up the hill and away.
Next stop was Jericho, 130 kilometres west along the Capricorn Highway. Once through the beautiful Drummond Range, the road was straight and the plains flat. It was golden grassed country peppered with isolated trees. We had a bakery stop at Alpha, with its pleasant wide main drag.
In Jericho we uncoupled the trailer from the bus and left it in yet another showground where we were going to spend the night. And then it was 78 km up north to Speculation, home of Bruce and Annette Currie, and 2000 'breeders' on 25,000 hectares. Along the track the convoy had to spread out, the dust clouds were so thick. Not only does it tickle your back-of-throat and eyes, it gets into your bags and gear.
We were now well and truly in the Desert Uplands, 75,000 square kilometres of biogeographical region in Queensland's Outback and the middle of the state. It extends, roughly, from Hughenden and the Flinders Highway in the north to Blackall and the Carnarvon Range in the south, and from Barcaldine to the Belyando River west to east. It is described as 'desert' because of its red sandy soils, semi-arid climate and tussocky grasses. These include Spinifex, Mitchell and Buffel (an introduced species); while common trees are Desert Oak, Gidyea, Ironbark, Yellow Jacket, Box and Wattle.
The region consists of sand and clay plains and sandstone ridges. Speculation has a number of farm ponds but relies mainly on two bores taking water from the Clematis Sandstone of the Great Artesian Basin. The area's primary industry is cattle grazing: it used to be sheep. Dry land farming here would necessitate considerable inputs such as fertiliser and weed control. The Curries try to operate as sustainably as possible, but production has to be profitable, Bruce adds.
Our tour of the property included a 650-kg bullock named Wag, who liked having his back tickled, cute but skittish goats, and a Maremma sheepdog. Maremmas are large white dogs that resemble feral woolly Retrievers. They are bred to bond with and protect (but not herd) sheep, or any vulnerable flock species for that matter – cows, goats, chooks, even alpacas. They are fairly aloof, independently minded creatures, and live with the flock, not a family. As pups, Maremmas spend three months penned with the flock, and then are allowed into a paddock with them. Fascinating.
I was pleased to see the Curries in their proper context. I first met them in the Land Court in Brisbane last September (see Farmers vs Big Coal, September 2013). It cost them a lot of money and time and angst to take action against Hancock's Alpha Mine, the operation of which will more than likely affect their groundwater supplies. Their property is within the drawdown zone of the mine. They were rewarded a few weeks ago with a recommendation by Member Smith (whose decision is not binding, unfortunately) that the Minister in the Queensland state government with responsibility for the Mining Resources Act, and the Minister responsible for the Environmental Protection Act, reject Hancock's mining lease application. And should they choose not to reject it, that Hancock obtain water licences 'such that all concerns pursuant to the precautionary principle are resolved'. That is, essentially, all fears about impact on groundwater should be allayed. In addition, the Environment Minister should ensure water monitoring devices are installed on possibly affected properties, and make-good agreements are in place before mining commences.
As Bruce has always maintained, 'If the mines are so confident they are not going to impact on our groundwater, why is it so difficult to get a make-good agreement?'
The world now awaits the Ministers' responses. They are imminent. Hence the hoping.
In the meantime, the Queensland government has today approved the fourth – and largest – mine of nine in the Galilee, the Carmichael.
Our visit to Speculation over, we returned to Jericho to establish camp before nightfall. Someone reported one of the loos was leaking. Thanks to the experience of our birdwatcher extraordinaire (and wildlife expert generally), the problem was soon solved: green tree frogs in the cistern.
A few of us escaped to the pub in Jericho for supper. Special treats: drinks in glasses; proper plates and knives and forks; tables and chairs; people not covered in dust, in a normal building. We had to be back at camp for 7.30, ready to learn all about stranded assets and meet more locals. Busy days.
If you enjoyed reading this – and there are several Galilee Road Trip posts still to come – please share with friends and connections. One of our principal aims in making this journey was to spread the word about the Galilee Basin.