‘Up the Creek’ with ‘Down the Track’
– Investing in the next generation of ecologists

Written by Adam Kereszy, fish biologist at large

The Lachlan River flows through the lands of the Nari Nari, Ngiyampaa, Waradjuri and Yita Yita Nations, forming part of Songlines and Dreaming tracks.

The ‘Down the Track’ project at Lake Cargelligo has become one of the most important and high-profile youth initiatives over the last two years.   Existing to support disengaged and at-risk youth, the project is run by Lana Masterson and Katy Quinn.  Participants engage in a range of activities – everything from catering to shearing – that aim to promote engagement and self-esteem.

The ‘Down the Track’ project itself is an off-shoot of the original ‘BackTrack’ program founded and championed by jackaroo-turned-youth champion/advocate (not to mention Australian of the Year) Bernie Shakeshaft.

In Lake Cargelligo, 90% of ‘Down the Track’ participants are Indigenous, and all are teenagers from the local area – predominantly the lake itself and the nearby former Aboriginal mission Murrin Bridge.

In 2019, Lana first hinted at the idea of getting the ‘Trackers’ involved in some biological survey work, and in early 2020 we managed to pull it off – and not just a simple survey, but also incorporating a boat trip and an overnight camping trip to Robinson Crusoe Island.

Adam (pictured here) is part of the Flow-MER Program’s Lachlan Selected Area team whose work is focusing on monitoring the outcomes of environmental water in the lower Lachlan river system, from Lake Brewster to the Great Cumbung Swamp.

In 2020 we managed to pull it off, getting the ‘Trackers’ involved in some biological survey work…

The Island sits in the middle of the lake, and is managed by the local not-for-profit Cargelligo Wetlands and Lakes Council (CWLC). To help with logistics, we hauled in not only staff from the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder, but also Mal Carnegie from the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre and Dr Jo Lenehan from NSW DPIE, and CWLC chairperson Peter Skipworth.

We needed all seven metres of the oversize aluminium barge that the group owns in order to ferry participants, organisers, and an absolute mountain of sleeping bags and pillows across the shallow lake.

Following a prolonged period of dirt-sweeping, swag-unrolling and giggled conversations about spiders and snakes, the kids – all of whom were between 15 and 17 – assembled in the main camp area and Peter gave them the rundown on the Island.

He explained how it had been a grazing lease for as long as anyone could remember, but that CWLC decided to obtain the lease in order to preserve and enhance the biodiversity and also the cultural heritage: there are middens, stone scatters and scar trees from thousands of years ago close to the area we were camping, and the remains of a dance hall from the 1920s, sit a couple of hundred metres to the north.

Bird identification was next on the list, and armed with binoculars and a local bird guide put together by Dr Lenehan, we wandered off in different directions to tick as many feathered critters as we could find off our lists. Along the way we also encountered numerous turtle shells and skulls, and we talked about the impact feral carnivores like cats and foxes have on native fauna.

The Down The Track crew on Robinson Crusoe Island preparing to go bird watching.

We hit the water at about 4pm.

Given it was March, the first footsteps were a little wet and cold, but before long we were all soggy but happy, and the Trackers proved their worth by running out the wings of the big fyke nets and hammering in posts. To their oft-repeated question – ‘whaddayougonnacatch?’ – I reminded them it wasn’t me but them doing the work……and also that the water would likely be a fair bit colder the following morning when we returned to pull the nets in.

Dinner was ‘Down the Track’ chilli con carne, beautifully prepared on a fire of red gum in a big cast iron camp oven. For some reason a big warm dinner always tastes better when camping, or maybe it was just that their catering skills really were exemplary.

As expected, net retrieval the following morning was all about cold water, cold hands and the occasional belly-laugh.

In amongst it all we sampled plenty of native fish – mainly bony herring, small gudgeons and hardyhead – and discussed their role in maintaining the ecosystem of the Island. The fact that without small fish there’d be no big fish, and without large numbers of fish, the Island and the lake wouldn’t be capable of sustaining such healthy populations of fish-eating birds like cormorants and pelicans. The kids were fantastic throughout: not only did they have a great time, but they learnt a great deal while having it.

Down the track fish sampling…

By mid-morning, as the wind picked up, it was time to roll the swags, pack the pillows and clamber back on the barge for the journey back to the mainland. By then, Lana said they were already asking when they were doing it again, so we collectively consider our little ecological weekend to have been a huge success.

As Lana said in an article in the local paper a week or so later, ‘these guys are the ecologists of the future’, and as an ecologist of the present in their 50s I certainly hope so. They can come along anytime they like.

“It’s always great to have the kids along – they can join us anytime.”

– Adam

Our work in the Lachlan Selected Area

The Lachlan River flows through the lands of the Nari Nari, Ngiyampaa, Waradjuri and Yita Yita Nations, forming part of Songlines and Dreaming tracks. It has provided food, shelter and resources to Aboriginal people for between 40,000 and 65,000 years. The Lachlan supports a diverse range of landscapes and species that vary enormously through extremes of weather conditions. Our work here is focusing on monitoring the outcomes of environmental water in the lower Lachlan river system, from Lake Brewster to the Great Cumbung Swamp.

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