Being part of a national response to nature’s unpredictable cycles takes on a whole new reality when you discover that your office is the sharp end of a four-wheel drive traversing a sixth part of Australia’s landmass – and maybe a bit more.
The Drought and Flood Agency’s Northern Territory Regional Recovery Officer, Jane Mack, hit the ground running in the past month and covered enough ground to have crossed the width and north-south extremes of western Europe.
But her bailiwick is far more interesting and challenging.
Forget the trams and traffic jams, Jane’s challenges lie in highways that stretch to the horizon and engaging with people whose backyards are the size of some small countries.
In the north of the Territory, where explorers opened up the vast open grasslands to cattle in the days of the colonial cattle barons, the rains have been intermittent in the past few wet seasons. Weather there is only measured in the wet and the dry. One is usually steeped in a couple of metres of rainfall, fed by the monsoon, and concentrated into massive storms within a few short months.
That promotes growth that has to last livestock, wildlife and the people working with both for the rest of the year, when sometimes searing heat or strong dry winds try to crack the place up – literally.
In Australia’s misnamed “dead heart” some 1,500 kilometres south, arid zone rains fall in the summer, but there are genuine winter frosts and the desert can sometimes encroach on what have been grasslands and light forest. Only careful husbandry and an understanding of the land won through decades of sheer grind and guts can let cattlemen and women survive and thrive – let alone continue to make a profit.
Often success across a natural area as unforgiving as the Territory relies on bravery. Bravery of investment. Bravery in accepting new technology and methods. Bravery of persistence when – on top of all efforts – it’s circumstances you cannot control (like rain) that fail you.
Jane grew up among cattlemen. Her Dad was one. Her friends’ dads were, too.
She left the land for a law degree, but still works cattle in the yards when presented a chance and is a handy horsewoman, stock manager and jillaroo.
Taking on a new role to get out and find out what can help her pastoral community in the face of the challenges that have come about through lack of rain in the southern regions and through innovative practises across the whole area of her responsibility is proving a labour of love.
From her home base now at Katherine in the centre of the Top End and soon to be Alice Springs in the Centre, Jane has now been to the Victoria River Downs District, the central Barkley and into the new feed growing projects near Ti Tree. And that, within just a couple of weeks of starting in her role.
“I have been privileged to reacquaint myself with friends I haven’t caught up with for years,” she says. “Now I have a chance to meet with communities and pastoralists and have a cuppa while on a genuine fact finding exercise, listening to the unique problems that each station can bring to its owners or stewards.”
And there lies part of the catch.
Cattle stations across the Territory can encompass vast areas. Ecosystems can change from east to west or north to south across a single holding, determining different problems and – therefore – different solutions for a single operator. “And those issues can be somewhat at odds with what might be needed right next door, because next door can be 50 kilometres away – or more,” says Jane.
“It’s remarkable seeing the innovative way the various operators of these stations are dealing with issues and speaking with, not only them, but government advisors and their association staff from various organisations across the NT. Having these conversations has been hugely beneficial to understanding issues that have existed in some cases for years, alongside new challenges such as COVID-19 which has affected every aspect of their livelihoods.”
Armed with technology, backed by the Agency, equipped with transport and the enthusiasm that drives her in her new role, Jane is mapping out a program of visits to businesses, communities, landholders from families and companies and to government reps in all parts of this vast heart of Australia.
Her advice: “Put the kettle on, I’m here to listen.”
Find out more about the Agency’s Regional Recovery Officer network and how to contact your local RRO here.