Red dirt roads intrude through a savanna carpeted with dry spear grass and spinifex. Cycads and Pandanus plants rest in the dappled shade of gum trees, breathing in the smoky air from fires burning in the distance. Red flowered Grevillias and yellow wattles bomb colour through the bush mosaic. This is Arnhem Land.
My second week of semester took a short but intense detour from the classroom and brought me here to collect data for a new research project on the biosecurity of cane toads. Toads haven’t established on Groote Eylandt yet but the menacing threat is obvious each time someone spots a successful invader hunkering in a wet puddle somewhere near the port.
North of the airport sits the township of Alyangula. It is reminiscent of many small beach towns in Australia with a picturesque esplanade containing parks and a recreational club. It is interspersed with portable buildings in miniature designs, a reminder of the temporary and transient nature of the mining industry. People walk around in high visibility clothing, speaking English in the streets lined with signs that read “Silence: Shift workers are sleeping”.
I tingled with nostalgic emotions as we drove into the Aboriginal communities of Unbakumba and Angurugu. Purple wheelie bins juxtaposed against the ochre dusted streets lined with shabby low set houses. Camp dogs sat in the road gnawing at their backs and scampering out of the way of passing cars at the last possible moment. The sound of loud music drifted over from several streets away and a celebration of colour covered every wall and surface of the school’s buildings, painted with aboriginal art designs in bold display.
The week was spent installing cane toad traps around the island with the Anindilyakwa rangers and the environmentalist from the mine. We hope the traps will serve as an early detection device, should any more rogue invaders make their way onto the island. It was a great chance to be involved in a project tying together research and land management and to meet some interesting characters. We had a chance to explore the island in search of frog communities and to help out other researchers working on the biodiversity of native mammals. The northern quoll population is abundant and it was an amazing experience to catch 10 quolls in a single morning, their curious noses twitching up in anticipation of their release, free of the toad plague platter that so many mainland quolls have been poisoned by.
We also visited children in schools to talk about the importance of keeping the island free of cane toads.
“Can I call you sister?” asked a young voice during our visit to a class of children in Milyakburra on Bickerton Island. I had a permanent smile on my face as I sat between two teenage girls chatting away about our families, dancing and friends. I plan to go back early next year and install acoustic monitoring devices for frogs on the island. I can’t wait to meet again in the heavy heart of the wet season.