The water is there, but our swamp is dying


Above and below: Water flushing out rather than into the Ankerre Ankerre wooded wetland – which isn’t wet.

Ankerre Ankerre (Coolabah Swamp ). We have tried so hard. 450 hours work a year on average, over ten years on just a small section, about five acres. Chipping out the buffel grass, pushing back the saltbush monoculture introduced as a dust suppressant in the ‘70s.
But here we are, watching the flow of water right through, in a period of drought, dust, and the occasional sprinkle that gives us hope, that the deeper rains will return.
Why, in a time of increased environmental scrutiny, does a town, a desert town, still discharge its water? Like a nuisance, a pest, a blow in. This swamp, botanically termed a ‘wooded wetland’, used to hold clay pans and host ducks according to custodian departed.
Mr B Stuart, a man of great generosity and spirit. He said, “You live here, you got to take care”, and we try. The road construction in god knows what era, Stott Terrace, on a route that custodians agreed to as the one of least destruction to their sacred site, did not compensate the trees.
Mike Gillam took a photo for the cover of ‘The Coolibah Swamp Plan of Management’ around the mid 1980s. We went back to that place to compare images, 20 years later. Just one branch seemed to have thickened, extended and foliated.
That gave us the sense of this place in antiquity, in culture, in Dreaming, an ancestor site of the great caterpillars entering. Those trees are at least 400 years old, and now in senescence. Holding, waiting for awareness, appreciation, value and care.
‘Senescence’ is the right term used to describe this state of being. A holding and waiting, for inevitable death. But the water is there. There is just no regional commitment to this small justice for our town.
Here we have a site, just 600 metres from the centre of Alice Springs. A site to which intelligent engineering and commitment could return some (natural) water flow.
Water flow and sequestration was achieved opposite the YMCA. There you can find shield shrimps and ducks (at certain times of the seasons) in an artificially constructed bed that sheds runoff water from the road into the roadside pan. Occasional fires take their toll. Couch grass weed persists, but saltbush and buffel don’t like soggy feet, so on the whole it is a healthy little ecosystem to be commended.
Water flow experts have visited and cast their eyes over this site. “Remove the road rubble and the asbestos, the drain edges, get sheet flow”, “harvest from the road”, “scrape the sodic salt-bush soils away – that’s where your clay pans should lie”.
But we are volunteers, chipping away, flies, sweat and mattocks, and it just takes more than a mattock. The effort of coordination, of sitting at a table of so many departments, without budget, vision or will. And you’re just a one-issue player, bypassed.
Can you imagine? The anticipation and excitement of rain. Your kids walking the edges of a clay pan in town, an area devoid of vehicles, the dogs can run, bicycles through the mud, and quiet evenings watching the maybe ducks roll in. Maybe black swans, certainly kingfishers and galahs, brown kites, and rainbow bee-eaters, martins, and crows. Shield shrimps to catch and marvel.
Something local people would remember and visitors would love.
Note: The next working bee at the swamp is on Sunday, March 29, 7.30- 10.30 am.  Meet mid way along Stott Terrace , at the yellow Landcare sign. Covered footwear, gloves and mattocks if possible; rubbish raiding for little kids.

Below: The potential of clay pans is evident. 



  1. This is an interesting and somewhat hopeful story.
    Is a site survey or an aerial plan/layout available indicating the planned works?
    If there was a plan indicating proposed ground works, to restore water sheeting etc, the business community could perhaps work to provide something with a bit more oomph than a mattock.
    A bobcat will effortlessly do the back breaking work of what a hundred volunteers can.

  2. A very timely story for a much undervalued part of Alice Springs, the Coolabah Swamp, which is being kept alive thanks to the hard work of Jude Prichard and her team of volunteers.
    This place was where I first saw the iconic coolabah trees in 1984, shortly after first coming to Alice Springs, and it has angered me how successive Territorian and local governments have overseen its deterioration with through roads and drainage systems that have undermined the natural conditions upon which the swamp depends.
    As a town, we have engineered a stormwater drainage system that works to get the water out through The Gap as quickly as possible, something that I believe is contributing to the occasional flooding of our town centre and retards the re-charge of our town basin aquifer, which is said to be at a critically low level and possibly contributing to our tree losses in summer. Time for a re-think, in my opinion, particularly as we confront inevitable climatic changes. Perhaps we should see the swamp as Nature had intended: as a relief valve for floodwaters when the Todd River rises above its banks. Perhaps we should use our drainage system as a catch-and-store mechanism that can replenish the town basin in medium downpours and retard water trying to get through The Gap in heavier storms. It is a big job, much too big for any volunteer group. It requires a cultural change in our political leadership and for them to step up to the task.

  3. I was fortunate to live in a house in Lindsay Avenue with an old style stock gate as the only thing between us the the Coolabah Swamp as it was known then. Sunrise through the grass and the trees was the highlight of starting my day. I wrote to the editor of the other paper that shall not be named here, as the whole area was under threat those decades ago, and the Stott Tce causeway added insult to injury by its design, which gave little account of the damage to the area. It is a very handy link to Sadadeen and Undoolya, especially in times of flooding etcetera, but, given that, more love and attention, and funding by government agencies needs to be forthcoming now to support and encourage the longevity of this remnant from our ancient past. Otherwise if allowed to wither and die, well may other fellow Australians and overseas visitors say … Why?

  4. Clean up of asbestos is a major issue. Only need to go for a short walk near Undoolya Road to find plenty.

  5. Back in early eighties before the Burke Street redirection of the creek from Greenleaves caravan park (now housing), the creek flowed behind (the now) Community Garden, down through the Francis Smith park and through 13 Burke St where my friends lived.
    They had to retrieve their pine bark from their garden at the Undoolya Road intersection.
    The water from the Burke St creek would probably have flowed into the Coolabah swamp. An event never forgotten.

  6. It is sad to see the degradation of ankerre-ankerre. Combined with all the other environmental damage and mess around the town.
    The community hoped Lhere Artepe would have been more active in the area of protecting and looking after country.
    Unfortunately, they’d rather fight over who can speak for what, rather than organise and activate, grab a rake, shovel or fill up a ute to clear the rubbish throughout and look after these once special places.


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