Outback love only grows stronger in harsh times

Queensland Cattleman Graham Woods and artist-turned-bush-regenerator Sally Gray aren’t your typical couple.

First published in the Rural Weekly.

We have been stationed at Piccaninny Plains permanently since 2013. We keep the station running and manage a very big fire control and feral animal reduction programme as well as maintaining 750km of roads and tracks, and over 360km of fences. We’ve been at it for six years now, working and living together 24/7, and we’re still loving it. Hardship and the environment has brought us closer together.

Living out here is a crash course in survival. We are completely off grid, run on solar, and have freezers and cold rooms to store our provisions. We bake our own bread and the meat is paddock to plate. There is a lot to think about and manage; if we have caretakers we have to be confident they are competent and will be safe if left alone. In the dry season we are mustering and burning, and then in the wet season it is difficult or impossible to get around by car. We run a small herd of cattle but our focus has always been on managing and caring for the land.

It’s a hard life, but what we lack in comfort and convenience we make up for in natural beauty: the wildlife here is extraordinary. We have 265 different bird species, 67 mammal species, 611 plant species, and we protect 17 threatened species. We have the spotted cus-cus, the magnificent rifle bird, and palm cockatoos that are really threatened, so the more we do to manage the threats like feral animals, noxious weeds and wildfires, the better.

The sanctuary is about half a million acres in total. It has flood plains that end in the western side of the Great Dividing Range; the Wenlock River to the east, and the Archer River forms our southern boundary. We are about 100km from both the east and west coasts, and 250km from the tip of Cape York. Piccaninny Plains is a primordial and remote landscape, with no ground disturbance or land clearing aside from fences.

Once the rainy season arrives we become more isolated than just about any other property on the Cape. We can only get in and out by helicopter or plane. With all the cyclonic action of late, we have been sharing our home with a whole host of native animals that have been trying to escape the wet. Taipans, a dingo that took shelter underneath the TV, a galah that blew in during the storm - even the land crabs moved in.

When it’s hot and we’re tired from the work, the photographs Sal takes that document our life and the changes in the landscape really remind us why we’re here. Looking at the photos we can stand back and say, wow – this is an extraordinary place and an extraordinary life. The longer we’ve been on Piccaninny Plains, the more passionate we have become about the natural environment.

Living on Cape York is hard and it’s rough. We had over 2.2 metres of rain recently and it all came in a couple of months. And then 10 minutes later it is 39 degrees and 100 percent humidity. Your clothes are saturated in your cupboard and your bedding is wet when you go to sleep at night. You put your boots out and the next morning they are covered in blue mould. And in the dry season they curl up and crack. It is extreme.

The payoff is seeing the results of all our hard work, like the bounce back of the wetlands and lagoons. Since starting here, we have removed 7,500 feral pigs and horses, and another 7,000 head of cattle. This work has helped to restore 100,000 acres of magnificent wetlands: it doesn’t dry up now; it holds water. And the birdlife is extraordinary - it’s like Kakadu but in Queensland! Seeing the difference we’ve made and knowing we’re actually leaving something behind for future generations is as good a feeling as looking at a healthy bank balance.

We feel very lucky to be living here in this precious place and doing what we do, especially when we go off the sanctuary and see how dramatically the environment has been affected elsewhere. The further you go south the more land degradation and water contamination you see. Piccaninny Plains is a dream and we can’t imagine our lives without it. 

Out here nature needs caretakers like us, to manage the threats like feral animals, weeds and wildfire.  Graham has always made his living off the land or associated industries, but we think it makes sense to stop and think about managing the land so that it’s healthy and the native critters can call it home too. It’s been great for us to have the opportunity to give back rather than take.