JUNE 22 WALKING WITH DINGOES
Before this recent trip, we had been in contact with A, the man who had been our employer for the six months in 2005 that we worked at Pungalina. It is now a decade since we were privileged to spend that time living at and roaming this beautiful wilderness.
To recap, Pungalina is a three quarter of a million acre property in the Gulf country of the NE corner of the NT, straddling or bordered by the Calvert River. Leichardt’s expedition of 1845 named and crossed that river here. It had sporadically been an open range pastoral property, but little worked as same, as it was too small in that country to be economic. So there really had been minimal impact on the natural environment by European activities.
The Calvert River
And what a superb natural environment it was, consisting of several different and special ecosystems, ranging from coastal, fringing the Gulf of Carpentaria, through riverine along the Calvert, to uplands, limestone outcrops, massive underground cave systems, thermal spring fed swamps, perched lakes, waterfalls…Rainforest and huge paperbarks along the rivers and creeks. Sandstone ridges and extensive swathes of savanna grass and scrublands. Really ancient stromatolite formations. The variety of habitats ensured varied and prolific birdlife. Ditto wildlife. The scourge of northern environments – the feral pig – was not so much of a problem there, kept in check by the natural dingo populations.
Extensive underground cave systems formed in limestone
A Melbourne-based professional acquired the lease around 2000. Initially, he was interested in having the place as a hunting retreat and it was managed for him by the experienced bushman who had found it for him. The idea of running a small tourist operation grew and some foundations were laid for this venture, based on tented accommodation and guided activities. We first visited in 2003, when this was in its early days, having met the bushman when he passed through Adels Grove and sounded us out about working there. It was a long day’s drive from Adels, with the last stage being a rough, 65km long “driveway”.
But life happens, and the professional had to sell the place. The purchaser A, owned an aviation company, in Melbourne, that specialized in small group tours by air. Pungalina slotted well into his operations and he had visions of the place becoming a go-to remote experience, both for those who could fly in and those prepared to drive in there – an adventure in itself.
We arrived at this point, running the safari camp tourist operations for six months in 2005. Lived in our van, set up in a rough bush clearing, 5kms from the bushman’s home – a rather primitive establishment. Our water came from the nearby creek, our power from the van’s solar panels. A Telstra satellite dish at the main home gave telephone and internet access from there – when the resident dingoes had not chewed up the cables. Weather permitting, a light plane brought the mail, once a week. The main source of supplies was by road train from Mt Isa, once or twice a month, as far as the Redbank Mine – someone from Pungalina would have to do the 200km round trip over the rough track to fetch these. Providing interesting and varied meals for our paying guests could sometimes be a challenge.
The bushman who originally “discovered” Pungalina, had become a part owner and was our boss on the ground for the time we were there. He had established a network of rough tracks – sometimes just wheel marks in the long grass – to various special features of the property. There was no shortage of places to explore on our days off.
It was remote – there were no other people for well over a hundred kms, and no easy access to anywhere, except by light plane.
We became part of the “pack” of the bushman’s three semi-wild dingoes. They spread their time between his place and our camp and became our regular companions. Learning about their characteristics was fascinating. They would invariably chew up any accessible vehicle upholstery, electrical wiring, camp pillows. They practised payback, usually involving some destruction, on anyone who offended their dignity. They knew the often open kitchen tent at the safari camp was out of bounds and never once set paw upon the tarp that was its floor, but would spend much time teetering right at the edge of the tarp, with head through the tent opening, sniffing away at delectable smells like roasting meat. We became firmly convinced of the value of wild dingo populations in controlling introduced problem species like cats and pigs.
Happy hour with a couple of “dings”
John guided guests fishing for barramundi in the waterholes and river. He still has never caught a barra in his life!
Again, plans did not work out as intended and in 2007 Pungalina was again sold, this time, fortunately, to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy. This organization acquires properties with great conservation and research values and attempts to manage them in appropriate ways. Since acquisition, a number of rare and unique species has been discovered on Pungalina. The sale meant that independent tourist access was no longer possible. As at the AWC Mornington sanctuary in the Kimberley, the environmentally ethical Outback Spirit tour company has been able to include Pungalina on its tour itineraries and set up a camp at our old safari camp site.
Where did those ten years go? Our time at the incredibly special Pungalina remains the highlight of our travel times.
I think all of us associated with the property before 2007 have our regrets: the owners for selling it, us for not going back again while we could.
Anyway, A told us that our bushman friend had written a book about his experiences at Pungalina, from about 1999, until his departure nearly a decade later. We ordered this and now our copy had arrived. He had titled it “Walking with Dingoes”….what else could it have possibly been?
This story of a real pioneering venture, remote from the modern Australia most of us take for granted, made fascinating reading, particularly with our knowledge of the property – and even our little cameo roles in the saga.