Outback Visionaries

  • June 15, 2018
  • by Daniel Lewis

Australia’s Outback—the country’s vast, wild, beautiful heartland—is one of the few large-scale natural regions left on Earth.

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A Champion of the Outback

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Today, though, it is under threat. Across much of the Outback, there are fewer people managing the land than at any time in world history, which is causing problems such as the uncontrolled spread of feral animals, noxious weeds, and wildfires. This land needs people. It has been home to Indigenous Australians for more than 50,000 years; they have shaped and nurtured the landscape, and had their identity and culture shaped by it in return.

Pew works to conserve this critical region of the world and recently issued a report, My Country, Our Outback, that celebrates the relationship of people with the land by profiling those who live and work in the Outback, and are attempting to carry it safely into the future.

THIRD IN A SERIES

Artists endeavor to capture the unique landscape during a week-long painting retreat.

At Nooldoonooldoona Waterhole, where Arkaroola Creek kinks deep through the ancient rocks of the Flinders Ranges, a group of artists is intensely studying the landscape.

Armed with sketchbooks and easels, pencils and paints, they’re struggling to do justice to the area’s incredible colors, shapes, spirit, and antiquity. These artists are deep within a postcard-like view of the Outback, complete with iconic vegetation and wildlife and a mountainous geology like nowhere else on Earth.

They’ve come to Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary from far and wide for a seven-day plein air painting retreat, paying $2,500 each for the experience. They’re loving their creative Outback adventure.

These artists are painting the perfect picture of Outback ecotourism; the experience they are paying for helps to protect the very landscape they are enjoying. They’re also sketching a picture of what the future Outback could look like: a place that’s beautiful and biodiverse; a place of research and education; and a place that’s environmentally, economically, and culturally sustainable.

Arkaroola is a sprawling, 235-square-mile former sheep station (ranch) in South Australia, 375 miles north of Adelaide, that for nearly 50 years has been a privately owned pioneer of Outback ecotourism.

The sanctuary’s modest tourist village has 50 motel rooms with hot showers, as well as powered van sites and backpacker accommodations. There’s a little general store and a service station, the Native Pine Restaurant for ordering tasty kangaroo kebabs, and the Pick & Shovel Bar for a cold beer.

Arkaroola has something for everyone: students pursuing a career in science, retirees on their  bucket-list holiday, four-wheel drivers, campers, hikers, mountain bikers, geologists, botanists, birdwatchers, astronomers, photographers, and seekers of solitude.

Most importantly, there are the hands-on owners, siblings Marg and Doug Sprigg—a dynamic and hospitable duo in their early 60s who are the soul of Arkaroola and keep their late father Reg Sprigg’s dream alive.

Reg Sprigg and his wife, Griselda, bought Arkaroola in 1967 after the years he spent urging politicians to turn it into a national park came to nothing. Sprigg quickly set about managing Arkaroola for wildlife preservation and conservation, and re-establishing native flora and fauna.

Siblings Marg and Doug Sprigg, co-owners of Arkaroola, work to preserve it, sustaining a family legacy. Their father, Reg, purchased the 235-square-mile former sheep ranch in 1967 after his efforts to have the government declare it a national park failed.

A geologic paradise

Arkaroola’s hot springs are a natural feature that makes geologists salivate. The sanctuary has the world’s only known hot springs created by rainwater warmed as it passes down a fault line through radioactively heated rocks. And that has NASA interested, because bacteria manage to live in this incredibly hostile environment.

Arkaroola’s geological wonders are so unusual that its landscape is the closest match on Earth to Mars. It’s been identified as a prime site for Mars-related research because of the diversity of its geology and landforms, and the range of potential habitats of astrobiological interest.

Arkaroola features an incredible 122 mineral types across four main groups: precious, ore, radioactive, and rock-forming minerals. There are igneous rocks, metamorphic rocks, sedimentary rocks, and breccia rocks. It has rocks from the Permian, Cretaceous, and Tertiary periods. The oldest date back 1.6 billion years, which means Arkaroola houses geology that covers 40 percent of the Earth’s history.

This extraordinary geodiversity in turn underpins a rich flora and fauna including endemic and threatened species. The weird-looking spidery wattle and slender bell fruit are two rare plant species the Spriggs monitor for scientific purposes. The precious yellow-footed rock wallaby, jewelled gecko, and Flinders Ranges short-tailed grasswren are also part of the sanctuary’s native menagerie.

Doug Sprigg fuels his plane before piloting an aerial tour.

When it comes to Arkaroola’s human inhabitants, Doug Sprigg is an Outback Renaissance man, as comfortable welding as he is guiding guests through the jewels of the night sky with a telescope.

From the moment he picks guests up in the bus to transport them to his Cessna for a scenic flight, Sprigg—an experienced pilot—enthusiastically holds forth about geology, plants, animals, history, weather, the neighbors, and more.

He points out fault lines, tilted seabeds, landmasses crashing together and being torn apart. He shows them Lake Frome, a vast body of glaring white salt and water used to calibrate satellite imagery equipment. And the dog fence (built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of Southeast Australia)—at somewhere between 3,300 and 3,450 miles, is the longest man-made fence in the world. Once the plane is aloft, Sprigg’s commentary is as rich and stimulating as the landscape he is flying over.

Arkaroola employs about 30 full-time workers during its peak period in spring, when it can host several hundred guests a day. For over 45 years, the Spriggs have had a policy of employing local Aboriginal people, and one of Marg Sprigg’s great hopes is that Aboriginal people will play a much bigger part in Outback ecotourism in the future.

Arkaroola has been showered with tourism awards over the years, and about 90 percent of its business is from word of mouth or repeat customers.

Marg is acutely aware of the constant balancing act between letting people have the freedom to get around the property and do as much as they can versus the risk such access poses to the fragile Outback environment.

“The biggest challenge for Arkaroola is the fact that you’re trying to encourage people to come here, but the minute you have people in the equation, you’re having an impact,” Sprigg explains. “Managing those impacts is really the crux of the matter. You want them to enjoy but not damage.”

Arkaroola’s rocky ridges harbor extraordinary geologic diversity, including 122 types of minerals and rocks from the Permian, Cretaceous, and Tertiary periods; the oldest date back 1.6 billion years. “We get kids who were going to drop out of school and instead have gone on to have careers in science after a visit to Arkaroola,” says Marg Sprigg.

Generations of conservation

Sprigg is also passionate about keeping alive her father’s vision of Arkaroola as a place of conservation, education, and research. She loves the visits from celebrated academics as well as schoolchildren who are getting their first exposure to practical science. “We get kids who were going to drop out of school and instead have gone on to have careers in science after a visit to Arkaroola,” she says.

Keeping the property, with its dozens of miles of trails, accessible and safe for tourists requires constant maintenance, and the war against weeds and feral animals is never ending.
Because Arkaroola was a sheep station for only 30 years, its native vegetation was not as badly degraded as on many other Outback properties. Reg Sprigg also had the foresight to limit the majority of tourism and vehicular access to only a portion of the property.

“The minute you get people in cars, you get weeds,” Marg Sprigg says. Any vehicles about to venture into Arkaroola’s most pristine places must first be put up on a hoist and blasted with a high-pressure air hose to eradicate any stowaway seeds.

Arkaroola’s weed and feral animal control measures, coupled with strict controls over the impact of tourism, allow its native vegetation to flourish to the extent that it’s now regarded as the most intact in the Flinders Ranges.

A new management plan for Arkaroola formalizes Reg Sprigg’s intention to keep all but hikers out of the sanctuary’s wildest area, the mountainous Mawson Plateau, which is a wilderness of national significance and probably supports endemic species as yet unknown to science.

From the Acacia Ridge summit, the beauty of the panorama is interrupted by half a dozen black feral goats standing out starkly against the red rocks of a nearby outcrop. Miners introduced domestic goats to the Flinders Ranges for meat and milk in the 1850s. Some goats quickly ran wild and have been destroying native vegetation, fouling waterholes, compacting the soils with their hooves, and outcompeting native animals for food, water, and shelter ever since. It’s a familiar story that continues to be played out across almost a third of the continent; Australia’s feral goat population is estimated to be at least 2.6 million.

Boundary fences don’t stop goats, so Arkaroola also became a pioneering advocate of the need for regional goat management, which has helped bring their numbers down. The Spriggs now rate feral animal control as one of their triumphs, but constant vigilance is required to stay on top of things.

The Spriggs built the property’s original walking trail network and have skillfully maintained it for many years with volunteers from South Australia’s Walking Trails Support Group. But track maintenance is hard work. The group’s members are now in their 70s and 80s, so new help will be needed soon.

The property’s water supply is a constant concern. Mount Elva Dam was built in the 1980s but has filled only a few times.

Arkaroola relies on rainwater captured from rooftops and underground water, but the underground supply is poor, requiring rare floods to get recharged. Every bathroom in the tourist village bears a notice begging people to be water-wise, because of many years of below-average rainfall.

Despite being a ferociously hot place for much of the year, Arkaroola asks visitors not to swim in its beautiful waterholes. These consist mostly of salty water that comes from underground, but on top sits a thin layer of fresh water that native wildlife relies on.

One big, cooling splash into a waterhole by a tourist is all it takes to destroy that drinking source, so the Spriggs encourage everyone to use the village swimming pool instead.

Grass trees flourish across Arkaroola’s range. The plant’s prominent dark seed spikes reach for the sky after its fragrant white flowers have disappeared—accentuating an unusual landscape that attracts all manner of visitors, from hikers, mountain bikers, and photographers to geologists, astronomers, and botanists.

Safeguarding the future

In the village’s Native Pine Restaurant, young backpackers with exotic accents wear tops that read, “Ark Up! No mine in Arkaroola. We did it!” They hark back to Arkaroola’s overcoming probably its greatest threat: being dug up.

A mining company illegally dumped radioactive waste near Arkaroola’s Mount Gee in 2008 while exploring the area for uranium, and a big fight ensued to head off the company’s bid to establish a uranium mine inside the sanctuary. It ended with the South Australian government passing special legislation safeguarding the property from any future mining, the Arkaroola Protection Act 2012.

It was a victory made possible by a noisy coalition that included the Spriggs, The Wilderness Society, grassroots Arkaroola devotees, members of the local Indigenous community, and eminent scientists from around the world. That’s how Arkaroola became South Australia’s first legally protected wilderness sanctuary.

The Spriggs are by no means anti-mining—when Reg Sprigg was South Australia’s state geologist, he led widespread mining surveys throughout the state and was instrumental in setting up an oil and gas company. But as Marg Sprigg says, “Some places are too important to mine, and Arkaroola is one of them.”

The legislation that protects Arkaroola also comes with requirements for its owners. The Spriggs are obliged to keep doing what they have always done: manage the property to foster conservation, research, tourism, and education. And that all costs money.

It’s $50,000 a year for a contractor to grade the roads. Another $50,000 is spent on environmental protection and monitoring, and at least that much goes into supporting Arkaroola’s role as a center for scientific research and education.

The Spriggs would love to manage their land in an even more environmentally friendly manner if they had more resources—using solar panels and batteries or geothermal energy from hot rocks instead of burning diesel to generate electricity, installing a system to recycle wastewater and effluent instead of using evaporation ponds.

To make sure there’s money for that to happen, the Spriggs have established the Arkaroola Education and Research Foundation. It has an independent board of high-profile people and aims to raise and allocate funds in line with the Spriggs’ philosophy, regardless of what the future may bring in tourism or government spending.

Arkaroola’s most iconic resident is the yellow-footed rock wallaby, a delicate and nimble marsupial with beautifully colored fur. Reg Sprigg loved rocks, but he loved yellow-footed rock wallabies too. They were a symbol of precious biodiversity to him.

Marg and Doug Sprigg remember their father expressing how angry he was when a group of miners shot an entire colony of wallabies for sport in 1946. It was an incident that galvanized his determination to buy the sheep station and turn it into a wildlife sanctuary.

Most importantly, the wallabies are barometers of the sanctuary’s health. Across their normal range in the dry, rocky hills of inland Australia, their numbers have fallen dangerously low, and the species is listed as vulnerable. In the bad old days, they weren’t hunted only for sport; they had a bounty on their heads because they competed with sheep for feed, and their coveted pelts were sold to England for the fashion industry. On top of that came extra predation from cats and foxes, competition for food from rabbits, and competition with goats for shelter.

Wallaby numbers were low on Arkaroola when the Spriggs took over in the late 1960s, but today the animals are a common sight, thanks to decades of hard work. Numbers rise and fall with the seasons and are estimated to have doubled in recent years. The rising numbers, Doug Sprigg says, are “a good indicator that the ecosystem is working.”

Photography by Kerry Trapnell