As a child, the author spent time at Alexandra Seddon’s farm in southern NSW, unaware of her connections to Russian royalty. Now he visits the the Panboola Wetlands she established with her inheritance.By Luke Horton.
Panboola wetlands, NSW
The baby starts wailing about 20 metres in. We are already unsure, large sections of the flood plain are falling under shadow, there is a chill to the wind and we need to set quite a pace if we are to see anything at all. After a moment’s conference, we decide that my partner, who is wearing the baby in the carrier, will turn back for the car, and I will rush.
At speed I cross a footbridge over a billabong and the flood plain opens up before me. I am stopped in my tracks. It is golden hour and the fields are lit with the intensity of a sun drawing level with the Earth. Slicing through the trees along the fence line, it throws wide bands over the fields, setting the dense yellow grass ablaze with light.
I try to parse what I am responding to so immediately. Beyond the light, the flatness first, perhaps. In a stretch of coastline dominated by bush-covered headlands and green rolling hills, the absolute flatness is a shock. It makes you experience flatness and distance as a physical sensation, eyes adjusting to the depth of field. Makes you realise the only other time you can see this far is from elevation. Then there are the colours. The national park where I usually walk when I visit home is all muted greens, greys, soft pinks in the dust. Here the only green is driven into corners, concentrated in pockets: a stand of gums in the distance, scattered scrub. Most of everything else is on another spectrum altogether, a shifting, mutable palette running from bone to auburn to fiery red. And finally, the seeming emptiness. What I know it contains but cannot see.
The immediate impression it makes on me sits in stark contrast to my prior experience of the site, which is no experience at all but 15 years of ignoring it completely as I pass on the A1 close to the end of the eight-hour drive from Melbourne. This time we’d flown, and simply driven half an hour from my parents’ place to see it (as much as “simply” exists in our new lives with a three-month-old). There is a sign, if you know to look for it: “Welcome to Panboola: a conservation and rehabilitation site.”
I was first made aware of Panboola via Being Change, a documentary about conservationist Alexandra Seddon and her work on the far south coast of New South Wales. Alexandra is a family friend, and we’d looked for glimpses of ourselves in the archival footage and found one – my sister sitting on the grass in front of a puppet show at Cowsnest, a communal farm that Alexandra helped establish in the 1970s, and where we’d spent a lot of time as children. But I also learnt that Alexandra’s story was more remarkable than I’d known. The great-granddaughter of a lady-in-waiting to Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia, Alexandra had been using her own share of the family fortune to buy up and rehabilitate endangered habitats throughout the region. Probably her biggest project to date was Potoroo Palace, an ailing wildlife park she’d transformed into a native animal sanctuary, but there was also a flying fox hospital and 82 hectares of wetlands south of Pambula, which she’d named Panboola after the Thaua word for the alluvial river flats that had once been a rich source of food for the Indigenous population.
Alexandra had a habit of taking on mammoth, risky projects. But she was driven and she was savvy. She’d placed a Voluntary Conservation Agreement on Panboola and donated the land back to the community, thus preserving forever the wetland home of a large range of native animals, including about 160 species of birds. Her acts of altruism and acuity were now attracting attention, and inspiring much-needed donations, but Alexandra remained matter-of-fact about her work: “I only do what is sensible,” she says in the film. “And I expect others to do the same.” She doesn’t look at the camera when she says this, doesn’t sound strident, but the implication is clear.
There is no signage but I follow a path mowed through the grass. First, over the billabong, a few small purple-chested waterbirds drawing arcs on its surface, and then along its bank until, through tall reeds that mirror their profile, their long necks and downturned bills, I spot swans. Black swans, gliding lazily around, preening themselves. And more waterbirds, but this time on the shore, picking through the grass. Later Alexandra will tell me these are purple swamphens, which have “wonderfully communal extended families where teenagers brood the young ones and take them out to forage”. From here through a gate I’m in the waterbird sanctuary, the six hectares that were the first piece of the flood plain bought in 1997.
In the sanctuary I can see a stand of swamp gums, some wattle and bottlebrush, but no birds. No water either. Maybe they nest here, I think, and look up. I can hear calls, but see nothing.
I like how unassuming it all is. How little fanfare. And how little there is to see, to the untrained eye. Other than the pamphlet with its map showing various things I know I will not get to – such as the Thaua basket installation – there is little guidance on how to experience the place or what you might see. Good, I think. But I also register the hypocrisy in this. I might relish the fact humans are not being pandered to here, that this is a place governed by another logic. It seems to add to the genius of the enterprise. The brilliant act of noticing it constitutes to save a place like this, a place that as a series of cleared swampy fields exhibits so few of the standard markers of natural beauty. But aesthetic approval, I remind myself, is beside the point. Or more precisely, it is part of the problem.
Feeling the urgency to see more before dark, I veer off the path and for a moment tramp across the grass. Rich dark pellets lie in piles around me and I instantly feel my trespass. Then I am crossing another footbridge, heading for the Aboriginal information panel – one thing the site does is keep its Indigenous significance ever-present in your mind – when my gaze is met by two dark eyes about 15 metres ahead of me on the path. Eyes that clearly have been considering me longer than I have them. As grey as a tree, as tall as I am up on its hind legs, the kangaroo holds my gaze.
Earlier that day, on our morning walk, two large kangaroos had bounded down a sheer rock face in front of us, spotted us, wheeled around, bounded back up the cliff and disappeared. In all of 10 seconds. We were at a coffee cart at the time and the sighting prompted a man eating nachos out of a cardboard tray to tell us how once, while camping nearby, he and his daughter had disturbed a male kangaroo courting a mate. The kangaroo had stood tall, puffed out his chest and charged at them. They had fled back to the campsite, yelling, and the noise and other campers were enough to persuade the kangaroo to call it off. Later, this story prompted another from my parents about a friend who had been badly injured in an attack.
All of this is fresh in my mind and, despite coming across many a kangaroo in my time, I am spooked. There is not another soul on the flood plain, and if it goes for me I will have nowhere to hide. I turn back, my quick pace turning into a jog, and then a run as I shoot back glances to see if it is in pursuit. It is not, but I don’t slow down until I am back on the other side of the gate. I catch my breath, smarting at my ridiculousness, and make my way back to the car. As I do, I spot a hole in the fence and it occurs to me that in reality I am no safer this side of the fence than I had been in the sanctuary. It’s low and could be cleared easily by a kangaroo of that size. But the fear has lost its grip. The kangaroo simply isn’t that interested in me.
Looking back across the fields, no longer aflame but lying now in shadow, it is a still, grey place, but just as wondrous, and to me, inscrutable, its secrets intact. The mountains glow bluer by the second, powdery pink blooms above them, and my heart continues to pound.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "On golden pond". Subscribe here.