Rene Woods slams on the brakes as five emus dash across the road, zigzagging like drunken ballerinas in front of our Land Cruiser.
I’ve traveled to the heart of Australia’s breadbasket, the Murray-Darling Basin, to explore some of the last wild wetlands amid a sprawling, flat landscape that produces more than $15 billion worth of agricultural goods every year. Woods, a Nature Conservancy project manager and my guide for the day, barely blinks as he watches the last of the 6-foot-tall birds dash past, its tutu of tail feathers fluttering.
We’re about five hours north of Melbourne, driving toward a vast reed swamp that TNC recently purchased for more than $38 million. This swamp and the adjoining lands contain some of the last large wetlands in drought-prone New South Wales, making it a critical lifeline for water birds
Today’s agenda is to visit the nearly 350-square-mile property next door to the swamp, called Gayini by the Nari Nari people, an indigenous community of which Woods is a member. His long line of ancestors has lived on Gayini for about 50,000 years. In other words, Woods’ people were already here when Neanderthals still inhabited Europe. In the first half of the 20th century, however, the federal and state governments gave the land to soldiers returning from the two world wars.
The new owners turned forests and floodplains into irrigated farms and dusty sheep paddocks. As the land got divvied up, so did the region’s water. Today, nearly every drop of water from the Murray, Darling and other major rivers in the aptly named Riverina region is allocated for use by agricultural landowners and cities and towns. Rene says the process leaves precious little available for wetlands, but he has promised to show me a place where nature is still flourishing.
Emu collision averted, we continue driving along the top of a wide dirt embankment bordered by a deep, dry channel on either side. The surrounding land is so monotonous and flat that if the ragged grass were swapped with corn I’d swear I was in Kansas. Just as I start to wonder how this place can possibly be a conservation project, Woods pulls up behind another truck. We’ve reached the end of the road, where suddenly a vast wetland comes into view, spilling out across the horizon in front of us. I gasp, doing a double take between the lifeless field behind us and the lush wetland ahead.
We step out into the windy winter sunshine. I can see water flowing from the wetlands into a pipe beneath our feet, spilling out into the shrubs on the other side of the road.
“This is where we’ll probably have a bird breeding event,” says Jamie Woods, Rene’s brother and the property manager at Gayini, as he waves us over.
As Jamie checks the flow regulators from a nearby control box, Rene and I look out over the wetlands. Countless frogs call from deep within the tangled shrubs, called lignum, whose leafless branches glow green with pea-sized blossoms. Black swans glide by and Jamie joins us, noting that the swans are a totem animal for the Nari Nari people.
Sensing my questions, Rene and Jamie explain: Before European settlement, water flowed across Gayini through a network of small creeks, streams and wetlands. And every few years, after massive rains, the Murrumbidgee River to the north would flood, inundating the land and creating the perfect habitat for water birds. During the floods, tens of thousands of ibis, spoonbills and pelicans would descend to breed in giant colonies, building their nests atop the lignum and the river red gum trees in a raucous, smelly, spectacular event.
But these days, hundreds of miles of ditches and embankments built by farmers block the flow of floodwaters and starve the natural wetlands. That started to change at Gayini in 2013, Rene says, when 11 landowners sold their land and water rights to the state government. The land is now managed by a TNC-led consortium with the Nari Nari Tribal Council, the Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group and the University of New South Wales.
Much of the conservation work at Gayini hinges around bulldozing embankments to let Gayini’s water move freely. “The goal is to always have water somewhere on the landscape, even without a flood, so the birds have somewhere to stay year-round,” says Rene.
The brothers tell me that just a few weeks ago most of the land I’m seeing was brown and bone dry, like the country we passed during our drive. But the land is incredibly resilient. “You just have to treat it right and love it, and it will come back,” says Jamie. This water is the first to flow across Gayini since the deconstruction ended, and already the country is coming back to life. And when the water returns, Jamie says, so do the birds.
Later, Jamie and I drive around the southern end of Gayini as Jamie checks where the water is flowing. He stops to show me Loorica Lake. The lakebed is dry, but the trees at its edge are still decorated with hundreds of pelican and cormorant nests from the last flood.
Looking down at my feet, I notice an odd, dark patch of earth covered with small, terra-cotta-colored pebbles. “This is a kitchen,” says Jamie, smiling proudly. We’re standing next to the remains of an ancient hearth, where Aboriginal Australians roasted emu, kangaroo and other game in an oven made from fire-heated clay. I kneel down and touch the dirt, near speechless.
“Anywhere you walk, fly or drive in Australia, you’ll find signs of Aboriginal occupation,” says Jamie. He points to the low ridge on the other side of the lake, which stays dry even during a flood. “There are a lot of burial mounds up there.” As we get back in the car, Jamie tells me that this is just one of more than 1,000 cultural sites on Gayini.
As we talk, I realize that these places are not anthropological curiosities—they’re vital touchstones in a living culture. Jamie explains that Aboriginal culture is inextricably linked to the land. Europeans disrupted that connection, depriving the Nari Nari of both country and culture.
But things are changing. Rene and Jamie have visited Gayini since they were children, walking across the country and paying respect to their ancestors buried here. Gayini sustains and fulfills them in a way that no other place can.
Recognizing that deep connection, the consortium managing Gayini plans to exercise its option to purchase the land from the New South Wales government. It will be a significant moment: In the Murray-Darling Basin, Rene tells me later, Aboriginal Australians own less than 3% of the land and less than 1% of the water.
As the sun sets on my last day at Gayini, I walk from the small homestead where I’m staying along a tree-lined creek. I’m learning to read the landscape after a few days with Jamie and Rene. Looking out on the sun-drenched country, I can pick out the subtle, water-carved depressions, the low sand ridges. I see where the water will flow when the floods next come and the birds descend on Gayini.
Back at the homestead, I reread the handwritten poster on the wall, left by consortium members when they gathered to discuss their long-term vision for this country: “That the traditional custodians of Gayini heal its lands and waters, and in return, Gayini heals its people.” I believe it.