Visiting the Eyre Bird Observatory

… and getting back again

In 1977, Birds Australia established the Eyre Bird Observatory in the remains of the first Eyre Telegraph Station, a repeater station built in 1877, and replaced by the current limestone building in 1897. Beyond the birding aspects of The Observatory, there's a small museum in the house that features “a display commemorating the role the Telegraph Station had in establishing national communications in Australia along with Inter-Colonial Telegraph Line.” Kirsty gave us an introduction and then turned us loose to have a look around.


original station sketch


The tiny, one-room museum had lots of telegraph memorabilia as well as specimens and skeletons of the flora and fauna found in the area. However, it was the information provided about the Graham family that lived and operated the telegraph station from 1877 for ~20 years that intrigued us. In particular, the poignant narrative of Jessie Graham, second youngest of the eleven children of William “Iron Man” Graham, the first station master, had us captivated.


museum collage


Here's one of her stories …

“In our house, there were no girls”, she said. “There were no children. Only workers.”

She recounted that at age five, she was sent off with her seven-year-old brother to tend horses several kilometers away from home and it turned into a nightmare. At night, the dingoes came around and they were terrified. The two children climbed to the roof of a small shed and huddled under a blanket there throughout the night, trembling. They had, however, forgotten to bring the saddle up with them and the dingoes, attracted by the mutton fat and emu oil used to treat the leather, tore it to shreds. When the two returned home the next day, Jessie was blamed for her carelessness and irresponsibility and beaten so thoroughly that she bore the scars on her ribs, both physically and emotionally, till she died. How's that for a hard, heart-wrenching, pioneering story and an SOB of a father?


jessie graham


At Kirsty's suggestion, we chose to the 45-minute circular Rope Walk, easily followed by the rope laid along the side of the trail (duh!). Kirsty also supplied us with a guidebook that described the flora, potential fauna and the historical aspects we'd see along the way, including the chimneys from the original 1877 telegraph station.


chimney from the old station


Though we heard birds, we saw few and except for a giant ant with huge, menacing front pincers, we saw no other animals though we're told that feral camels sometimes visit the area.


giant ant


As we walked, we felt protected by the huge dunes on the seaward side, but when the breezes became a bit brisk, we began worrying about the boat and returned to the station to say our farewells. We would have enjoyed several more of the illustrated walks in the area, but a brief visit was definitely better than no visit at all and we headed back along the sandy trail to a waiting Cups.


cups and dinghy


Getting back to the boat was no trivial affair. The wind was up and with it, the surge. We dragged the dinghy into the water, keeping it straight as waves broke. When we were knee deep, we timed the waves and when there appeared a short respite, I jumped into the bow and began paddling like mad and with a shove, David jumped in over the stern, losing his shoes and taking up a paddle in one swift motion. We thought we were good and David stopped paddling to start the engine. A wave larger than the rest caught us, pooped the dinghy, and turned us broadside to the next wave which carried us with some alacrity back to the shore. So, the process repeated and on the third try, we made it beyond the breakers and were on our way, rather tumultuously, back to Cups. We were wet through and through, dripping and totally bedraggled. Ah, but the saga did not end there.

Tying up the dinghy with the waves thrashing took two of us. Clambering aboard Cups from the jerking dinghy was not a graceful affair and still we had to haul the engine and get the dinghy aboard. David always takes the precaution of fastening a line to the engine and securing it to the boat, so we don't lose it overboard. It's never happened, but you never know. Especially in bouncy situations, I hold the line taut as he's loosening the engine bolts that secure it to the dinghy. Quicker than you can say, “Yikes, the engine's heading for the drink”, I was wrestling to keep hold of a 50# (22kg) engine blowing in the breeze after it came loose from the dink. It dangled ever so closely to submersion level. David was up in a flash, hauled the engine and had it back in its mount and secure before any damage was done. Thank, Neptune.

Now, it was time to haul the dinghy, always a challenge when the wind is up. In days past, I slowly winched up the 165# (75kg) dinghy while David manhandled it into position and tried to keep it from beating up the boat or itself on its way up. With the new system David has devised, we use the windlass and a pulley system which gets it on board in a matter of a couple minutes. I'm pleased to report the dinghy was stowed in its place on the foredeck with no mishaps and only a few bruises.

All chores complete, we were relieved to find that Cups was weathering the waves like a trooper. She was pitching a bit, but all in all, especially compared to the dinghy ride, she was quite comfortable and holding tight on her anchor. Warm, dry clothes and a hot cuppa made everything okay.


wet clothes hanging to dry


A fine walk ashore, some new friends, an exhilarating ride back to Cups … quite honestly, a pretty good day. As for the birds, well, they seem to have eluded us. Reason to return by land at some point?

Tomorrow, the weather looks good for heading to Daw Island, part of the Eastern Group at the western end of our Great Australian Bight crossing. I've just made a kettle of Lemay Special for our passage soup and there'll be warm carrot cake muffins to have with your tea or coffee. Care to come along?

Anchored at Eyre

sand patch  

The passage from Eucla was a quick broad reach (170 nm) and the coordinates that Eucla Paul and Vince the cray fishermen provided were spot on. The landmark to look for on entry is the Eyre Sand Patch, a huge sand dune, noted and named by Edward John Eyre on his historical first trek across the Nullabor (story to follow) and it's hard to miss.

We were anchored just after Noon on a gloriously sunny day. We hadn't slept much on the night passage and thought we'd make sure the anchor was holding before heading ashore (read that: take a nap with the anchor alarm on). We were awakened suddenly out of anchor watch nap when we heard a loud “halloo” off the port side and a rough and crusty Vince, introduced himself, wanting to check that we'd made it in safely. Very neighborly of him. Now, of course, it seemed too late to go ashore. When you're lazy, it's easy to convince yourself that things don't need doing just now. We busied ourselves aboard for the rest of the afternoon and evening, eating, drinking, writing, watching a movie … delightful decadence in the midst of the Great Australian Bight.


dunes ashore


Eyre (pronounced “air” and no relation to Jane at all) is not a port, but rather an anchorage that a couple of cray fisher boats call home in season and, because we're here, our home for a couple of days. It's also the location of the Eyre Bird Observatory, Australia's most most isolated research facility. The closest neighbor is the Cocklebiddy Roadhouse about 50km (30miles) away and access to the Observatory off the Eyre Highway is 29 km (~18 miles) on a 4-wheel drive road that purportedly shakes your dental fillings loose. Or … you can arrive by sea, anchor in the backyard, dinghy ashore, walk 1 km and call in for tea.


1 km sign


The next morning, grey and overcast, we headed to shore. The sandy beach trail led through dunes, up a narrow, 4-wheel drive road and into a small, very green valley with lots of flora and birdsong. Signs and lengths of hawser marked the way. We could see the tin roof of the Observatory nestled in the little hollow as we crested the hill.


hawser along the trail


This area has loads of historical significance and we'd feel remiss if we didn't share it with you.

In 1841, Edward John Eyre and his friend, John Baxter, accompanied by three Aborigine guides, Wylie, Joey and Yarry, set off across the arid, unknown territory called the Nullarbor Plain in a do or die effort to find a route across it. Discord, treachery, starvation, lack of water and the unrelenting environment contributed to the demise of Baxter, Joey and Yarry, and in the end, only Eyre and Wylie survived. A saving grace for Eyre was finding the Eyre Sand Patch in this very locale. With local Aborigine knowledge, a 2m well was dug through the fine white sand and yielded a source of water, saving the party from dying of thirst. You'll remember at Eucla, we saw a memorial to Eyre and here as well, a memorial with plaque honored the Eyre party and their harrowing traverse of the Nullarbor.


eyre memorial


Gavin and Kirsty were just saying goodbye to a visiting couple when we arrived and Kirsty wasted no time in putting the kettle on for tea. They are volunteer caretakers at the Observatory and will spend three months living here full-time, overseeing the area, doing bird counts, transmitting weather data three times a day and welcoming guests among other duties.


kirsty making tea


We sat on the veranda chatting and drinking tea, while birds chirped and tweeted and fluttered by. They seemed to favor the bird baths, but I'll be darned if I managed one photo. We were waiting for a flock of Major Mitchell Cockatoos to make their usual morning entrance, but the grey skies or the company must have kept them away, because they never showed. To overcome my disappointment and help contribute to the Observatory, David bought me a fine cockatoo tea mug for my on-board tea-drinking pleasure.


cockatoo mug


More on our visit to Eyre tomorrow. In the meantime, however, we wanted to thank those of you (and there were quite a few) who shared words of wisdom, sage advice and ideas while we were figuring out our little predicament at St. Francis Island. Most said “Get the hell out of there and across the Bight, you dolts!”, but the advice came too late and we were already in Eucla by the time we received the comments. That said, as always, what seems like a calamity at the moment has a way of working itself out with time and further consideration. We are not taking this crossing lightly by any means. It's an ocean passage and the Southern Ocean at that. It's serious business, but unique and remote areas like the Eyre Bird Observatory are places we might never see otherwise and we hate to pass them up.

Also, those weird cylindrical, cigar-shaped clouds that caused us grief en route to St. Francis? Thanks to Miks in Moody, Maine (ain't that alliterative?) who informed us that these are “roll clouds” formed in advance of cold fronts. They certainly do pack a wallop.