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The bulldozer ploughed on

©Ian Buchanan August 2009
Out on the edge of the desert, things get a bit feral.

The bulldozer ploughed on, in a straight line, widening an already-cleared path to the horizon. We stopped the car, and got out to watch, and the desert heat made me gasp.

There wasn't much to clear, in terms of greenery, and the scrubby saltbush and withered gums were easily bundled up and rolled out of the way. The desert soil, freshly exposed, was a brilliant orange-red, but quickly faded in the baking heat to a toothless, bony pink.

The bulldozer was now some distance away, but the diesel exhaust lingered.

A driving holiday to central Australia had, by chance, led us to Scotia. At the Mildura tourist information centre, the middle-aged woman who helped us had floundered a bit in describing Scotia to us.

"It's not a National Park. It's some private investment company. They're reclaiming a huge chunk of Mallee desert, turning it into a private sanctuary."

We'd been asking about interesting places to camp. Evidently you could stay at Scotia.

Our tourist guide was a bit dubious. "It's pretty rough. The facilities aren't much. But you won't be crowded....."

It was in the middle of nowhere. North of Mildura it gets pretty dry, and Scotia was a couple of hundred kilometres off the main road, halfway to Broken Hill. That's nowhere!

It wasn't all that well signposted, but surprisingly, we found our way there, bouncing our van along the poorly maintained clay road. We stopped to gape at the salt pan by the side of the road. A bone-dry lakebed, with a crust of salt that crackled as you walked over it. The large salt crystals were a dirty, pink-grey, but the shattered sunlight bouncing off it made my eyes water.

The heat was stunning, and the dead landscape subdued my kids, so there wasn't a lot of talking as we crunched around. No breeze, no birdlife, any sounds we made were sucked into the desert vacuum.

Later there was a broken timber bridge to negotiate, and more badly rutted clay roads that had baked hard into sharp ridges. Our old van battled through, and we came over a rise to see the bulldozer gouging its path.

The Scotia plan was simple. Mark out a massive rectangle. Build a feral-proof fence around the perimeter. Kill all the feral animals inside the grid, and leave the native animals to reclaim their turf. A few species that had become regionally extinct were to be introduced.

It was the scale of it that was astonishing: the Scotia property was 65000 ha/160000 acres. The fenceline, I found out later, was intended to be a square with each side being 20 kilometres long.

Australia is a big place, and it has a lot of desert fringe areas, so in overall percentages we're not talking about much, but to humans standing on the ground it's obviously a big space.

We kept driving, and found where the fence had been started. It was over two meters tall, with loose, hanging wire at the top that collapsed when a fox tried to scale it. On the base was a metre-wide layer of wire pegged to the ground, wide enough to discourage diggers from getting in. On either side of the fence was clear-felled space, room for a convoy of trucks to drive through. This was more to stop any overhanging trees breaching the fence or providing a jump point. The fence was fanatically straight.

Fanaticism seemed be part of the driver for this. Who would come all the way out here, drive for days over broken roads, to see, frankly, a dispiriting, withered desert enclosed in a cyclone-proof fence?

As it turns out, they didn't have to drive. The bulldozer had already graded the runway for light planes, and later we found the partially completed visitor centre with accommodation for 200 people. These guys were building a conference centre......!

We didn't have to camp. Scotia, before it went bankrupt, had been a sheep grazing property, and there was an old stone farmstead. Some basic kitchen furniture was still inside, but we slept on the floor with our camping mats and sleeping bags. It did feel a little haunted.

The house stood alone. What garden there had been was long gone, and red was the only color you saw looking outside. The top of a windmill was visible, and before it got dark we climbed a small hill to see it. It had been a wind-powered water pump, feeding a dam. No wind still, so the windmill was stationary. The dam was nothing but scarred clay, cracked into massive slabs of a deep red color. The blocks vaporised on touch, clearly devoid of any moisture at all.

There was some rudimentary tourist information pasted to the wall in the house, and I read that while eating our dinner, which we had cooked on the camping stove we had lugged inside.

Once you'd seen the farmhouse, and the desert, there wasn't a lot more to see. We'd seen the building works. On the hand-drawn, not-to-scale map on the wall was marked a bird aviary. In the Scotia scheme of things I was thinking it might be some sort of large-scale cage to retain a few birds in safety while the fencing was completed.

Scotia had been Mallee desert. In its wisdom the government had encouraged settlers to try and set up large-scale sheep grazing operations. They survived for a short time, the starving sheep eating what little edible plantlife there was. The harsh climate prevented rapid regrowth, and the areas quickly reverted to unsustainable desert. Some genius worked out that goats lasted longer than sheep, and introduced them, and they ran amok. Feral goats now denuded the landscape, had eaten out the native animals, and now were the single biggest obstacle to salvaging the countryside.

With people came foxes, cats and rabbits, and while it was tough for them, they got by, gradually helping the goats in eliminating all native animals. The property was purchased for almost nothing when the sanctuary plan took off.

Next day we walked a bit. More desert, more red earth. A broken down shearing shed. We went and stared at the conference centre building site, and by lunch time had pretty much seen it all, we agreed, "Let's try and find the aviary."

We piled into the van, and ploughed our way, sliding and occasionally getting stuck, in the powdery red soil road. Our hand-drawn copy of the hand-drawn map led us down the wrong track, which crossed another track, and it didn't take long to start to worry about the possibility of getting lost. It would be easy enough to follow our wheel tracks back, of course, so it was just city-caution.

"Look! There!", my daughter called, leaning forward between us and pointing through the scrubby trees. It was an angled shape, either a bird cage or perhaps a building...certainly not an organic shape.

It wasn't where you would expect it to be, as it turns out, and we had to drive a bit further on before a turnoff, leading back at an angle, took us back to where the building was.

It wasn't a bird cage or a building. More like a lean-to, a simple shelter to keep out the rain. It had no walls. Underneath were a rough open kitchen, and a couple of hammocks. It was a semi-permanent camp site, and there was all sorts of beaten-up junk scatted around. Oil drums, storing stuff, two weathered 4WD vehicles, stained red with dust, a campfire with two chairs, a couple of tables and workbenches, cluttered with equipment.

Two men were in the camp. One stood and faced us, waiting for us to slow and stop, the other was in the background, working at one of the tables. Four burly dogs roared at us, barking furiously but wagging their tales.

I got out, waved a lazy hand-hello and walked over. Mike was friendly-enough. He was a strong-looking man in crusty, work-work jeans and a grubby khaki shirt. Jake wasn't as friendly, and neither spoke nor stopped working.

Behind me my wife and two daughters climbed out of the van and joined the conversation. The girls were bubbly and excited...we hadn't seen anyone for days now. They eyed the dogs, who were edging forward, no longer barking.

I showed Mike the map and he explained where we had gone wrong. The map itself was wrong. The aviary had been moved. He rattled off some directions. I listened, but it wasn't really sinking in.

While he was talking I had started to notice...chunks...of fur and pieces of meat scattered about. Across his shoulder, I could see, on the ground, a large kangaroo leg. My two daughters had moved away, and were patting the dogs, who, ecstatic at the attention, were wriggling and buffeting each other.

Mike caught my look. He grimaced. "Yes, it's a kangaroo. We've been away two days, on a rabbit shooting contract. We leave the dogs here, in the cages," – pointed to some rough wire cages, obviously dog pens – "They got out while we were away and caught a kangaroo. Not their fault. They're hunting dogs."

Mike and Jake were contract shooters. Scotia had hired them to eradicate the goats. As the fence enclosure neared completion, their job was to methodically clean out the feral goats. I had seen a few goats skulls walking around, usually with a neat bullet hole.

The pay was poor, basically a weekly retainer, so when a short-term contract came up they took that then came back.

From the shadow, where he was working, Jake called out. "Where are you staying?" He had stopped what he was doing and turned to face me when asking the question. He held a large knife, and I realised he was cleaning a skin pegged out on the bench.

Mike cut in. "We'll be shooting tonight. If we know where you are camping, we can keep clear. You won't be walking around in the dark will you?"

I hastily reassured him we wouldn't be doing that. Watching my daughters patting the dogs, I thought how odd it was. The dogs were trained killers, but you wouldn't know it watching them.

Just like Mike and Jake.

"We've been staying at the farmstead. We'll be inside. " I said. Mike nodded.

We chatted for a bit more, then I chased my kids into the van and we left. I went straight back to the farmstead and we packed and left.

We never found the aviary.
© August 2009 Ian Buchanan If you enjoyed this, try http://www.thejettyjournals.com


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