Ningaloo Coast, WA

By: Amanda Burton, Photography by: Mike and Amanda Burton

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Will Government intervention pave the way for a paradise lost?

On June 30 2015, all of Western Australia’s 507 pastoral leases, covering more than 35% of WA, or about 87 million hectares, will expire.

Many of the leases were set-up more than 80 years ago in a very different world. At that time, the government was happy to lease potential farming land to anyone who was optimistic enough to think they could successfully make a living from running livestock.

Some of these stations have now been in the same family for four generations. Each generation has worked hard, the eternal cycle of a farmer’s labour of love, aiming to hand on the land in a better state than they received it. Things are tough on the land and many pastoralists have diversified into tourism as a way of making their stations viable. In this way, Quobba, Gnaraloo, Warroora and Ningaloo stations are no different to many others. They offer a range of low key camping and station stay options along the Ningaloo Coast, alongside their pastoral activities.

When the WA Department of Lands sent out pastoral lease renewals for signing in October last year, times got tougher for six Ningaloo Coast stations, with decisions relating to controversial pastoral coastal exclusions made in 2004 and 2005 — under review — one step closer to coming into effect.

What this means for the Ningaloo Coast stations

Leaseholders at Ningaloo Station, the Lefroy family, will incur significant hardship, losing their shearing sheds, airstrip, watering points and coastal camping areas. The government’s decision to endorse the department’s pastoral coastal exclusions left the Lefroys unable to qualify for a pastoral lease renewal, due to failed discussions in 2005.

In accordance with the 2005 agreements, lessees for Quobba Station were told to relinquish management of Red Bluff camp. The leaseholders on Warroora Station were to surrender rights to a 2km wide strip of land along a 50km stretch of coast, which included camping areas and station’s richest grazing land, and operators at Gnaraloo Station discovered they’d lose the right to manage a big chunk of land.

At the time of printing, four of the five impacted properties eligible for renewal were negotiating with the department on the size of the coastal exclusions outlined on their leases, with outcomes to be announced down the track.

The Government’s stance

The government claims the changes are necessary in order to "protect the world-class natural values of the Ningaloo Coast while enabling sensitive development of the region as a nature-based tourism destination of international significance". But will the government’s plan achieve these outcomes?

In these pastoral coastal exclusion zones, the government wants to establish several tourism nodes to "provide a range of tourism accommodation to cater for a variety in visitor experience". At least six of these nodes will accommodate 500 people. Another four are described as "100 bed eco-lodges" — one of which is proposed to be sited at Gnaraloo Bay. The current station owner prohibits camping at Gnaraloo Bay to protect the loggerhead turtle breeding grounds on its shores, and access is only by foot. Which begs the question: is building a 100-bed tourist resort near such a fragile ecosystem really "sensitive development?"

It appears the government has minimised the pastoralists’ intergenerational efforts in looking after the local environment. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), responsible for securing World Heritage sites, recognised that the management skill of the pastoralists was part of the reason why the Ningaloo Coast remains in almost pristine condition. And when, in late 2014, an individual complained to the Department of Lands regarding the perceived degradation of a Ningaloo Coast campsite, the department’s own onsite investigations, subsequently tabled in parliament, found that "the lease appears to be in satisfactory condition".

Clearly evidence supports that the local pastoralists, who have lived on the land and relied upon it for their survival, understand the conservation and land management issues unique to the region. What’s not known is whether the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) can uphold the standards of care in place, given staffing limitations and the pressure applied from lobbyists to the government of the day.

The pastoralists provide tourists with monitored low-impact access to the magnificent coastline. Those who camp here are passionate about the coast. Many return annually to invest their own time and effort to help maintain and improve the environment. Take the efforts of hundreds of campers who have shifted thousands of donated seedlings into Ningaloo Station since 2013 and contrast this to the likely commitment of a one-off visitor paying $500+ a night to stay in an eco-lodge. What’s at stake here versus what’s to be gained? Surely there are already more than enough costal resorts to cater for those looking for an easy, no obligation option?

Camping along the Ningaloo Coast

But fear not, there will still be camping opportunities along the Ningaloo Coast. Although, if you read the fine print there will be "rationalisation of some sites" and those remaining will be "formalised" and "managed" and there will be "delineation of sites". Which means, fewer sites will be available and those remaining will be bollarded and cost more.

Having been fortunate enough to have camped on a few of these stations over the years, I can only try and convey to you what a unique and priceless experience they offer. What makes it so special is that it’s simple, it’s remote, it’s undeveloped, it’s not crowded and it is all literally right at your doorstep.

Picture this: from your campsite behind the dunes you walk through talc-like white sand onto a totally deserted beach. Turquoise blue waters lap gently at the shore, while the roar of waves crashing on the outer reef electrifies the air. You secure your mask and snorkel before gliding into the warm, clear water. Within seconds you encounter colourful coral bommies teeming with tiny, vibrant reef fish. As you float deeper the coral becomes a continuous multicoloured carpet beneath you and you are surrounded by dazzling schools of darting fish. As you quietly drift through this wonderland you spot an ancient turtle, snoozing peacefully amidst the plates of coral. You are the only interloper in this pristine, aquatic wonderland.

That is what makes this place special. That is the experience people come for. And it doesn’t come at a thousand-dollar price tag. Yet, the region is rapidly at risk of losing its core to dense, luxury-tiered tourism under the guise of the greater good.

Unfortunately, the lyrics of this song so aptly sum it up: "They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot, with a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot. Don’t it always seem to go? That you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot" — Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi.

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