Last year, whilst on a trip in the Kimberley, we came across the vast – and vastly remote – Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary. The story we found there was both heart wrenching, and heart-warming. To help spread the message, we asked 60 Minutes reporter (and ardent Kimberley fan) Allison Langdon to join us on a trip there.
Let’s, for a moment, consider the possibility that you have found yourself obliged to host an uncomfortable dinner party. If you were smart (and of course you are), you’d consider extending an invitation to your neighbourhood journalist, wouldn’t you? For, by the very nature of their pursuit, it is a journalist’s prerogative to prove your salve: they cannot help but forage compulsively for stories; merrily engaging in conversation with whomever they find themselves near. (Usually sustained by the meagre earnings of a writer, too, they will generally also be most grateful for the free meal.)
Of course, that does not mean that journalists are insurmountable. Even the hardest of noses can, on occasion, be at a loss for words. Take the scene that greets us at the beginning of this tale, for example: where Allison Langdon – arguably one of Australia’s most outstanding examples of this profession – is confounded by a sudden silence that not so much as gently descends, but crashes through the car window, snatching breaths as it whooshes through the vehicle and out the other side.
In fact, in the seconds afterwards, as four passengers grasp the air for phrase, it is not Langdon, but our wilderness guide, Laura Smelter, who first manages to react. “This is a lifer,” she murmurs into raised binoculars.
To any Australian acquainted with the 60 Minutes program (and really, who is not?), it would be a challenge to find one who is not, at least to some degree, familiar with Ms Langdon. She might not have done the magazine covers or ‘human interest’ interviews of her peers, but you don’t land an anchoring role on the most successful current affairs franchise on all of Earth without earning it. A journalist from the moment she could be (“it’s what I’ve wanted since I was 12,” she admits during a quiet moment on the road), her resume reads like a map charting north: a New-York-based CBS internship here, an ‘Australia’s best new journalist’ award there; 10 years with the Nine Network, spent putting some exceptional stories on Australian screens: the murder of baby Tegan Lane (born to former water polo champion, Keli Lane), the devastation suffered by Marysville in Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta… and all before landing her ultimate career goal by the remarkable age of 31. (A dream dinner party list would have to include her, wouldn’t it? Just imagine the boast factor.)
But even she did not expect this to happen. Though, having just arrived at Mornington Sanctuary, a wedge of ancient landscape and jurassic proportions in the deep heart of the Kimberley, not two days earlier, we had joked about it. High on fresh air and the fact of our sheer remoteness, conversation had turned with speed from our long drive here (spectacular, if you were wondering), to the upcoming highlights of days in front of us: the dramatic, glossy waterholes we would swim in, the giant valley of boab trees we would visit, and the unicorn of the bird-watching world, which we would never see: the gouldian finch.
Mornington is, in ornithological circles, widely known as one of the bird’s last refuges. But they are so incredibly difficult to come upon (partly because they are somewhat nomadic, but mostly because they are so very rare), that “they really should be renamed the ‘elusive gouldian finch’,” Smelter had ruefully told us. “They used to be seen in flocks of thousands across the north, but now most people never see them.”
Yet, right here in front of us, flitting about the rocky bed of a creek trickling with typical dry-season slowness, is the almost-impossible: not one, nor two, but three of the sylph-like creatures, as kaleidoscopically coloured as their reputation would have you believe, and at least twice as lovely. They drink from the pure shallows whilst twittering sweetly and hopping prettily about; behaving, despite our mad fumbles with cameras and cords, as though nothing could be more ordinary.
A brilliant discovery
For all its unexpectedness, however, you could not have engineered a more appropriate introduction. Established by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) in 2001, Mornington Sanctuary is a rare stretch of landscape; one of Australia’s last remaining vestiges of ‘pure’ nature, where ecological harmony remains a priority above all else. (If you are about to point out that the entire Kimberley is a ‘pure’ wilderness, allow us to furnish you with a less fortunate truth: the vast majority of this area is, in fact, operating under pastoral lease, which has resulted in serious damage to the natural balancing act – a particularly devastating fact when you consider that many of the cattle stations in the area are not particularly profitable). Here is where dwindling native populations like the gouldian finch come to seek final shelter, in a last attempt to avoid the calamitous wave of extinction flooding our continent.
But the original impetus for Australian Traveller to come here had nothing to do with any gouldian finch. It was, in fact, a Kununurra local, who had called the camp “a best-kept Kimberley secret”, that had set the lure. When further research revealed its bogglingly remote position – two hours off the Gibb River Road, amongst a spectacular set of ranges – the desire to come here had turned compulsive. (In the grand tradition of excellent travel tales, the requirement of such a travel commitment could only provide rewards in equal measure, couldn’t it?)
One visit later, in which we had learnt of the Mornington story and seen some of the most extraordinary sights of Australia, we were expeditiously planning our next trip here. And who better to return with – and help cast attention towards Mornington’s conservation efforts – than someone already so intimate with its associated challenges?
It is a shimmering afternoon on the savannah plains when we settle into conversation on the topic. Langdon, speaking between photographs, is positively luminous in the afternoon light, though characteristically unaware of it (or more accurately, maybe, actively ignoring it: one gets the impression she has deliberately cultivated a dismissive attitude toward her looks; perhaps as a defense mechanism to the attention they would have no doubt initially garnered in a testosterone-dominated newsroom). Though this is her first visit to the sanctuary, it is not, by any stretch, her first trip to the Kimberley. That privilege dates back to her early 20s when, while working in Channel Nine’s Darwin newsroom, she took a helicopter to Mitchell Falls.
“Until I came, I had this idea that the only reason you’d come to the Kimberley [from Darwin] was to get to the west coast,” she says with a grin. “And boy, wasn’t I wrong. We landed on the plateau and jumped into this deepest, coldest water, and it felt like we were the only people on Earth… I remember thinking it was the most spectacular place I’d ever seen.”
Since then, she says, the Kimberley has become her favourite place in Australia. “Its remoteness, its beauty… And you get to meet the Stans and Jennys of this world [owners of Imintji Roadhouse, Stan and Jenny Anderson are known as a particularly friendly pair of faces along Gibb River Road]. Truly special.”
She is well-qualified to say so. “I like to think that I’ve been to a fair few cities and countries,” she agrees – an understatement from someone who, just minutes ago, hilariously recounted a tale about having maggots fall on her head during an interview, whilst living on board a rickety old boat with 17 sea gypsies in Borneo.
“But Australia is totally unique. Though I’m not sure we completely appreciate what we’ve got,” she adds. “Here, we have this huge space” – she gestures at our glittering surrounds – “while basically every other pocket in the world has too many people.”
She is well-qualified to speak about this, too. As you might have observed, Langdon has, since joining 60, devoted a marked amount of time to shooting wilderness-related stories: it’s an area she is personally passionate about. Travelling to the obvious hotbed of conservation issues, Africa – a continent she visits regularly – has only made her more aware of Australia’s good fortune, she continues.
“They’ve got the fastest growing population on the planet at the moment; it’s where you’re seeing wildlife habitats disappear at a truly frightening rate. And that affects all the animals, but it also affects things like the gene pool of a species, because their wildlife corridors are being cut off, which leads to in-breeding, and we don’t even know the long-term impacts of that. I think Australia is in much better shape [than that], but I do think we need to be far more aware of what’s going on in our own backyard. Just look at Mornington – you’ve got 10 species here that could be extinct in the next couple of decades, yet I’d say most Australians would have more awareness about saving the elephant or rhino.”
Over in Kenya, a prominent American conservationist, Dr Lawrence Frank, has devoted the past 40 years of his life to studying a number of the area’s predatory species. Langdon recently travelled there to interview him on his work involving conservation of the local lion population, and walked away with a profound sense of urgency about humanity’s current situation.
“What he said really struck me,” she states. “He thinks that the human population has to halve for the survival of animals. He talks about us getting to this point where we will wipe ourselves out, and that he just hopes we’ve left enough lions, tigers and gouldian finches, so that when we’re gone, their numbers will replenish.”
Cripes: a fairly dire prediction, isn’t it?
She grins good humouredly. “Who can say whether that will happen or not? In any case, it’s just vital to have places like this.”
A trip worth taking
Mornington, even by Kimberley standards, is breathtaking. Make the turn off from Gibb River Road, and you’ll be greeted by a palette of savannah’s pastels: creamy white roads, muted green forests and pale pink skies,
each smudging into a horizon of striking ranges, which lap like lazy waves at the far edges of Earth.
The park itself is filled with some of the more spectacular sights of the Kimberley – like the grandeur of Dimond Gorge, which rivals Katherine Gorge in scale (but offers croc-free swimming, and far less people) or the unexpected majesty of our cover location, Sir John Gorge, where sunsets cast a caramel warmth over a million-year-old canyon of silvery water and smooth, rust-coloured rock – yet a sanctuary, it has not always been. The land was initially used as cattle ground, before the property was turned into a tourism camp for fishing enthusiasts. (Keen anglers would have found it a dream pasture – the thriving Fitzroy River slices through the property’s south-east, replenished every wet season with waters so great that they have been known to pick up entire buildings and deposit them intact somewhere downstream, for unsuspecting staff to recover at a later date.)
Since first acquiring the property in ’01, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) has worked steadily at resurrecting the ecosystem, destocking part of the land and establishing a wilderness camp “mainly for supporters who want to see where their money goes,” says AWC’s CEO, Atticus Fleming, though the camp has proved so popular, not just among its donors but general travellers, that, in fact, AWC initially declined this feature in Australian Traveller. (“We’re almost permanently booked out,” Fleming had pointed out.)
But the camp’s primary function is not tourism. (And neither, you might have noticed, is the focus of this article; though let it be said that the camp here is more than civilised, with semi-permanent safari tents, mini-bars, ensuite bathrooms, and an open-air restaurant/bar, which serves up surprisingly excellent meals of sustainably produced, thoughtfully prepared fare.)
“We’re not doing this to make money,” says Fleming, bluntly. “Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world. The camp is set up so that the people who support us, or who are interested in conservation, can get out and see what’s being done.”
With a total of 23 sanctuaries across Australia, AWC protects “an extraordinarily high percentage” of wildlife, says Fleming. “Eighty-three per cent of native bird species, two-thirds of all native mammal species, nearly half of all native reptile species, and the largest remaining populations of several endangered wildlife species – bilbies, numbats, the gouldian finch. Many species have more protection in our sanctuaries than in Australia’s national parks.”
Such claims sound like the sorts of half truths you might hear from a politician, but a conservationist? Surely not.
Yet how can such things be true?
“They’re true,” Fleming says, flatly. “The bridled nail-tailed wallaby is a good example – there are only 300 left in parks, but 2500 in our sanctuaries.”*
Then why, with all these incredible results, has no one heard of AWC?
“Because it’s funded by mums and dads and philanthropists. Our money goes straight back to conservation.” Even the AWC’s most publicly-known board member, Tim Flannery, has publicly appealed for donations on occasion: such as in 2009 when, speaking at a fundraising event, he summarised the Australian situation as a “biodiversity crisis”.
Blue sky thinking
But it would also be easy to imagine some initial hesitation, in more conservative circles, about supporting such an organisation. Despite its demonstrable successes, AWC’s methods aren’t necessarily conventional:
for starters, almost 80 per cent of its staff are based in the field; a much higher proportion than that of similar (perhaps more bureaucratically-minded?) counterparts.
And then there’s its unique land management initiatives. Take the issue of feral cats (one of whom we spot early one morning, strolling across the rocky 4WD track with the casual righteousness of an emperor). To further their research, on-site scientist Hugh McGregor decided to personally catch over 40 of them, only re-releasing them when they were wearing GPS-transmitting collars and, in some cases, Go-Pro cameras. (He’s “something of an inventor,” Fleming observes.)
It’s a particularly brilliant initiative, says Smelter. “Watching the footage can make you a bit seasick,” she concedes with a grin. “But the information we’ve gained is priceless.”
We’re sitting in the open-air restaurant after a typically generous breakfast – scrambled eggs, olive oil mushrooms, toasted muesli, sliced fresh fruit and so on – when she pulls up a map of the Kimberley on her laptop, in response to my queries.
“These are the movements of Bruce the cat,” she says, pointing to a series of dots. “His original home is here” – she points to the west of the map – “but then a really intense wildfire happened here.” She points to another spot, around 15 kilometres away.
“Fires like that one – the same kind of fire that Turia Pitt was caught in – are unplanned, unpredictable and extremely intense, and they totally strip the landscape bare of shelter and food, leaving native animals nowhere to hide and nothing to eat.
“So cats like Bruce will leave their normal home range,” – she traces the line of dots across the map – “and travel huge distances for these fires, where they’ll sit on the edges and pick off native animals as they come out.”
The result, she says, is an increase in the already devastating number of small native mammals eaten by cats each day.
“At a very conservative estimate, we think it’s around 75 million small mammals daily,” she says. She pauses. “Seventy-five million.”
But there’s an upside.
“We’ve also learnt that Bruce won’t bother travelling to low-intensity fires,” she continues. “So if we can reduce the number of high-intensity wildfires – which only happen as a result of poor land management – we can reduce the hunting opportunities of feral cats.”
The story she tells next is quintessential outback stuff, involving sitting down with the neighbours, several cups of tea, and a very large map.
“Basically we all got together and worked out a fire management plan that benefits everybody,” Smelter explains. “Using a helicopter, we burn in a continuous mosaic pattern at the beginning of each dry season, when there is still enough moisture to ensure cool, patchy fires, as opposed to intense wildfire.” And it’s working.
“So far the occurrence of ‘bad’ fires is down from 95 per cent to 40 per cent, meaning the land could potentially support a 30 per cent increase in cattle each year,” she says. “It’s also great for indigenous communities, because it generates employment and helps to protect cultural sites.”
How to save the world
It is two o’clock on another bucolic Mornington afternoon when I ask Langdon what she thinks is required, in order for Australians to get behind the idea of saving this wilderness they’ve never seen, and these animals that they’ve never heard of. We have just eaten the entire contents of a gourmet picnic hamper, after a lazy swim in the sun-warmed rapids of the Fitzroy, and she remains silent for a long time before answering.
“I think this idea of ‘saving the environment’ is overwhelming,” she answers finally. “You’ve got so many groups out there, fighting for nature. And most of us overlook our own country; we put these other places on a pedestal, at least until we’re older and wiser.”
Combine those challenges with the fact that there’s a charity or fund to save almost every endangered animal on the planet, she says, and the Australian message becomes almost impossibly diluted.
“How is the little gouldian finch, or a hairy-nosed wombat, supposed to compete for conservation dollars with the orangutans or the elephants?” she asks. “Very few people would notice if the gouldian finch disappeared. But a world without elephants… or sharks…” she trails off.
But surely people notice when a spectacular wilderness like this starts to disappear – don’t they?
“Actually, I think most people still aren’t aware of what’s here,” she counters. “I’d imagine most Australians, if you asked them about the Kimberley, would think ‘barren, hot, not much to see’.
“We have to make people aware of this place; of what’s here. The tide is shifting a little – I do think Australians are more inclined to appreciate their own backyard these days – but it’s a process.”
As the afternoon turns golden, conversation moves on to the blissful lack of phone reception in the Kimberley, and our inability to post updates about this trip to the various social media channels (on Twitter: “Work is big on it, and it can be a great news tool. But I’ve only managed about 300 tweets since 2009.”)
Do Australians consume too much media?
“No,” she says thoughtfully, “but media can become a problem when you’re consuming the wrong types.”
What does that mean? She smiles.
“Quality of news… [laughs] I just think we spend way too much time looking at screens. It’s so impersonal. And it’s such a medium for bullying and harassment.”
We discuss the recent suicide of TV personality Charlotte Dawson, and her well-publicised love-hate relationship with social media. Does Langdon think it’s too long a bow, to draw a link between the rise of social media and its propagation of narcissism, the rise of mental health issues, and the world’s declining wilderness spaces? Don’t humans need to feel connected to their natural surrounds in order to remain, well, sane? (The World Health Organization, if you weren’t aware, has predicted that depression will overtake obesity as the number one health issue in the western world by 2030*. Number one! A recipe for global disaster.)
“You know, I recently heard this term, ‘biophilia’,” she says, by way of response. “It’s used to define man’s inherent affinity with nature; the idea that we actually need to be out in the wilderness. “It’s a universal condition, I think. I don’t think there’s probably anything better for the soul than being in an environment like this.”
Lost in thought
Langdon grew up on a farm in the small town of Wauchope, near Port Macquarie in New South Wales: an upbringing that she credits with making her “sturdy”.
“I don’t have kids, so I could be completely wrong, but I’m sure that there are kids out there now who don’t understand where the meat in the supermarket comes from; kids who have no connection with the land, and therefore no reason to think about it, or care about it, or want to save it,” she says. “I was lucky enough to grow up mostly outdoors, with space, and I think most of us were. It was a more well-balanced generation.”
“I hope I don’t sound self righteous,” she adds, in a rare moment of uncertainty. “Growing up in the city is a fabulous thing in its own way, of course, but not having any connection to the natural world, or to the outback, which is what so much of Australia’s history and character is built on… I think that could make for a narrow life. And, perhaps more to the point, I just don’t think there are enough Australians aware of the significance of places like this.”
Perhaps not. But, among certain Australians at least, there is an unmistakable shift in perspective taking place. In 2012, AWC became the first non-government organisation to be contracted into managing public conservation land – a quiet, but important acknowledgement (“our model for conservation is definitely being noticed,” agrees Fleming). Mornington’s fire management plan has also become the largest of its kind in Australia. And if the upward direction in Australia’s wilderness tourism is anything to go by – a trend currently increasing by three per cent each year, according to The National Environmental Research Program – then there is hope for public awareness yet.
“I do think we’re at a point where people are incredibly concerned about the environment and want to do something to save not just Australia, but the planet,” Langdon agrees. And travelling is an important part of the education process, she adds. “Mornington is an amazing opportunity for anyone,” she says. “You can come here as an Australian, having no idea of the amazing creatures we have in this country, and go back, spread the message and hopefully prompt interest and awareness in others.
“If we could see more operations like this around the country…”
She pauses. It is hard to finish that sentence. But you can appreciate what she’s trying to say. In a place like this, where space and time feel infinite, it is easy to have much to hope for.
The details: Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary
The turnoff to Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary is found on Gibb River Road (from Derby, it’s on the right-hand side of the road about 20 minutes after Imintji Roadhouse; from Kununurra it’s on the left, about 20 minutes past Adcock Gorge). It is clearly signposted. At the turnoff, you’ll see a small shed on the right – pull over here and use the radio to let the staff at the camp know you are on your way. (Very Survivor.) From that point, it is a two-hour drive to the camp, and an absolutely spectacular one at that.
Sites at the (generator-free) campground are $18.50 per night, but if you’re a fan of the mattress, book one of the 10 semi-permanent safari tents here. At $258 per person, per night, they might not sound cheap, but the price includes a fully stocked mini-bar, canoe hire and all meals each day – a full breakfast, your lunchtime picnic hamper (ask for the couscous salad!) and possibly The Gibb’s best dinner. (Sample menu: saltwater barramundi with sweet potato mash and ginger; blanched green beans with almond slivers and herbs, olive oil mushrooms with parsley, and from-scratch brownies with fresh cream.) Plus, your money goes back into AWC’s conservation work.
Need to know
• You’ll need to book your safari tent stay ahead of time – they’re very popular.
• Just 50 visitors are allowed into the campground at any one time and forward bookings aren’t taken – it’s first come, first served. Radio your reservation down on the day, any time after 7am.
• For more info, call Mornington direct on (08) 9191 7406 or see australianwildlife.org
Australian Traveller’s Ultimate Guide to The Kimberley