With less than two months until their contracts expire, leaseholders of coastal stations between Carnarvon and Exmouth in Western Australia are continuing their fight against state government plans to reclaim large swathes of land for development and tourist accommodation.
On June 30, all of Western Australia’s 507 pastoral leases, covering more than 35 per cent of the state, or about 87 million hectares, will expire.
Many of the leases were set-up more than 80 years ago and some of the 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.
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.
Four of the five impacted properties eligible for renewal are 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 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”.
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.
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.