The ranger station was a hive of activity when I arrived. A line of Toyotas, bonnets up, were parked in front of the ranger station. Some had been washed and some were being washed and all were having the essential elements for a hard day in the bush checked – tyres, oil, fuel etc. Safety is a huge priority for the rangers who operate in a landscape where an accident or breakdown could be life threatening.
The rangers were as smart as their vehicles in their ranger uniforms and caps. It’s a big thing to be a ranger in this community – it’s a position of respect and of envy as it provides a socially valued job and allows people to get back on Country and out bush. There’s always the chance of some bush tucker too – something you can’t get in camp!
Before we set off, Dominic Nicholls, “Dom”, the ranger coordinator, briefs everyone on their jobs for the day. The women rangers are going, with the fire truck, to one community outstation to burn around the community and so create a firebreak in case of wild fires later in the hot season.
Another group is sent to check the crocodile trap near the wharf where a large 5 meter crocodile has been lurking for some time and has been seen taking a dog or two that foolishly went swimming. Such crocodiles are usually old and cunning and hard to trap. As the area is frequented by children and people walking along the beach or occasionally swimming, the reptile presents a risk.
I am assigned to another group that has a number of tasks. We are going to some outstations to burn fire breaks, but also on the way to carry out a more general burning in the landscape. For many thousands of years this has been a managed landscape and in a sense has co-evolved with people. The landscape was burnt in the cooler months of the year, when fires crept along in the semi green undergrowth after the wet, often leaving a mosaic of burnt and unburnt country. Many plants and animals have evolved through time to depend on the ‘cool mosaic burning’ and eventually required it for their continued survival.
Past government policies have encouraged people to leave the land and live in the larger towns, leaving the landscape ‘empty’, and as a result the traditional burning practices ceased. Before the wet, in the hottest time of the year, lightning storms set off wildfires that burnt out large areas with hot and damaging intensity and cause landscape scale destruction.
Darrel – a senior ranger and I travelled together, talking all the time. I had to be careful I did not tire him out as, like almost everyone there, English was probably his third or fourth language. As much as the coming of white people has had a significant change on landscape management, this has been mirrored in changes to culture and one of the more significant changes is the loss of the numerous languages that occurred in the area previously. Language carries culture and with it a knowledge and understanding of the bush that has been accumulated over thousands of years.
Anyway, on the way to the outstations the rangers and I set fire to kilometres of bush along the roadside. Some of it exploded in flame sending great sheets of smoke into the sky, while other parts trickled along and died out – all good. Fortunately in this area there are none of the imported grasses introduced by the pastoral industry that choke out endemic species and burn at very hot and damaging temperatures … these weeds are a prime target for the rangers and they make all efforts to keep them out.
We burnt around three outstations as a protective measure. The outstations are really just a small group of houses situated on tribal country where those families responsible for the country can continue live and care for it. Mostly they are occupied, but not always as families come and go often for cultural duties. There is usually water and often a phone which may or may not work. The bigger outstations may have electricity, but generally the ones I saw did not. There is an enormously strong connection between people and country and it is critically important in all sorts of ways that this connection is not broken.
At each community we came to, if there were people there, Darrel stopped and explained to them what we wanted to do and sought their permission. This was readily given as the rangers are popular people! The rangers play a really significant role in connecting with these communities and ensuring – as much as they can – their safety and wellbeing. There was no community where something was not left or given – smokes, ice out of our water container, food or in one case where we shot a kangaroo, we returned to the community to give it to them.
In one community that was situated not far from a billabong where the children wanted to swim, they had set up a crocodile trap. On our arrival we found a 2 metre crocodile in the trap! So the rangers went back to the community and picked up the children and took them down to the trap to show them what they could have been swimming with! We shot the crocodile and took it back to camp where it was to be eaten for dinner!
On the Saturday following our departure the football grand finals were going to be held at Maningrida and this was to be a big day in town! People would be coming in from far and wide to support their team – a bit confusing for me, as the teams had the same names as their southern counterparts – this Saturday I think it was the Swans vs maybe the St Kilda! One of the jobs the rangers were tasked with was supplying some wild caught meat for the event.
Some three hours’ drive from town and late in the day we fulfilled this mission – two large buffalo downed with a single shot each. The rangers were expert in skinning the animals and removing the best parts – the legs, ribs and strip loin, all removed and placed on a bed of leaves on the back of the Toyota in no time at all! Things were looking good for the finals!
Our last outstation was far from anywhere – just two houses at the end of a long bush track that most people would not think of driving over. One house was empty, but outside the other sat a man and his two children and several dogs on a blanket. The mother was apparently inside. They looked happy and contented – no electricity, so no fridge or stove. Running water not far away in a small creek. No phone. Just a roof over their heads. I was told that this family believed that it was important to live ‘on country’ or as we would say, on their own Country.
The parents wanted the children to learn the ways of the bush – to hunt and gather and to be self-sufficient on their own land. They were also learning how to take care of and look after the land – just as their forefathers had done over thousands of years. This is an important way – perhaps even the only way, of preserving experiential knowledge and the culture that goes with 40,000 years of habitation. I am sure that what they didn’t know about the landscape they lived in, was not worth knowing!
I felt incredibly humbled to have met these people who had such a rich and meaningful connection to the land in which they lived and the culture that they were part of. Their knowledge and skills enable them to live a life of happiness and contentment in a landscape where most of us would starve to death. To see these skills and knowledge being lost is a tragedy.
Shortly after waving our farewell to the family, the rangers shot a kangaroo and took it back to the family – several meals at least!
Three hours driving and we were back at the ranger station. The fires we lit earlier were still trickling along and we drove through a lot of smoke, past logs and stumps struggling to stay alight in the cooling of the day. Dom, was there to meet us at the ranger station and check that we all returned safely and so he could lock up and head home – thinking, as he always appeared to be, of the work that needed doing in the weeks ahead.
I can’t thank the rangers enough for sharing this experience with me. The deep connection between them and the land they care for provides a subtle message for us all – we need to care for the land that cares for us!
Guy Fitzhardinge, May 2015