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Tom Brinkworth's water world

Some who have seen this watery wonderland have described it as South Australia's Kakadu

Story: Nigel Austin
Photos: Leon Mead

ImageOne of the great, self-made men of the inland, Tom Brinkworth, has a different vision of the interior of this continent from most people.

He sees it not as a dry, red heart, rather as a region of wetlands. But he nearly didn't live to see his dream materialise.

In 19997, Tom was in Adelaide to make a presentation to a State Government department about the unique Watervalley Wetlands when he suffered a his first heart attack.

He dismissed it as flu, made his speech and returned home to Ninga Ninga Station near Kingston in the south east.

He suffered a second heart attack and was flown by the Royal Flying Doctor Service back to Adelaide, where doctors gave him a one in three chance of recovering.

But the doctors didn't count on the fierce determination of the South Australian farming magnate. His almost overwhelming urge to return to the family's extensive pastoral holdings to finish the remarkable wetlands conservation project that he had started 14 years earlier helped him through the crisis.

With a heightened awareness of his own mortality, he was soon once more running the 100,000 hectare pastoral empire he had developed during the previous 28 years. At an age when most men are slowing down, Tom Brinkworth,61, increased his workload as the desire to complete the intricate links for his Watervalley Wetlands drove him on.

ImageHe was determined to restore the natural flood regimes, which existed before European settlers arrived in the low-lying upper south east in 1864, and began digging drainage channels.

The 7000 square km area flood in most winters, but within a century the construction of several thousand km of drains had reduced the wetlands to a mere 240 sq km.

The impact included the extinction of 12 of 42 native mammal species, with a further eight becoming rare. Six species of birds also become extinct and many more uncommon.

The Brinkworth family arrived in the south east in 1970 after running a large pig and poultry operation near Gawler River on the outskirts of Adelaide.

Their first south-east property was Cortina Station, near Kingston on the coast, to which they added a string of properties over the years, including "Watervalley" and "Didicoolum".

Today the Brinkworth land stretches for 150 km parallel with the coast from south of Beachport to north of Kingston.

In the early years, Tom focussed on developing the land and building his sheep and cattle business into a pastoral empire worth tens of millions of dollars.

But he had always had an interest in the environment and as time passed he became more enamored with the idea of developing the Watervalley Wetlands private conservation project.

ImageFrom the top of a sandy hill on part of his Watervalley empire, lakes and marshy swamps stretch far into the distance. Waves of solitude wash the shores of the Watervalley Wetlands, the peace broken only by the noise of birds in the thousands.

It is a majestic land of wooded, hilly slopes , fine grazing pastures and low-lying country.

Some who have seen this watery wonderland has described it as South Australia's Kakadu. Story end

Full story Issue 4, April-May 1999

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