Young volunteers who can handle solitude are being asked to help preserve a unique 19th century building in Western Australia.
It’s also one of the most isolated bird observatories in the world, located on a remote stretch of the Great Australian Bight.
It is so remote, the location of Eyre Bird Observatory in Western Australia is almost a state secret that could fade into history unless more volunteers step up.
Almost exactly halfway between Esperance and the South Australian border, right on the coast of the Great Australian Bight, Eyre comprises just one building, and a permanent population of two.
Access to Eyre is by four-wheel-drive only and the nearest town is five hours drive away.
It’s also home to 240 species of birds, and is a nationally significant site for ornithological and environmental research.
It is the only bird observatory along a 1,500 kilometre stretch of coast, making it one of the most prized of its kind.
Rescued from a derelict state in the 1970s, the limestone building, built in 1897, is steeped in early West Australian history.
Volunteers rebuilt the limestone former telegraph station, which was constructed near where explorer Edward John Eyre and his companion John Baxter, along with three aboriginal expedition members, found water in their trek across the Nullarbor in 1841.
For the last 40 years the former telegraph station has become a haven for bird watchers, environmentalists and volunteers who have kept the facility habitable and functional.
But time is beginning to tell on the 121-year-old building, and its ageing army of volunteers.
A beautiful building that ‘needs to be looked after’
John Hanrahan is the organiser of the volunteer restoration group who make an annual 1,200km journey from Perth to Eyre. It’s a trek he has made every year for the last three decades.
The 81-year-old assembles a group of retired men of around his vintage to paint, repair or replace the rotting woodwork, fixing roof leaks and broken flywire.
“We are in a beautiful building which is unique in this sort of environment. Here’s a beautiful limestone building stuck in the bush and it needs to be looked after, and needs to be used,” Mr Hanrahan said.
“We believe it is an important historical building. People come here for the history and the natural history. It’s unique.”
What’s worrying Mr Hanrahan is the drop in interest by a younger generation of potential volunteers to keep the Eyre Bird Observatory habitable for visitors.
“There used to be a queue of volunteers to caretake the property for three months at a time,” he said.
“Just in the last year or two the waiting time has diminished. Because there is a lag time between being appointed and when you take over, and if the waiting time gets down to less than six months it could be a serious problem, and the last thing you’d want to do is leave this place unmanned.
“The place does need to be rewired, and people with the skill and the right certificate need to come and do that.
“So anybody out there who happens to be properly qualified, happens to be in the vicinity and who would like to help this place out, it would be greatly appreciated.”
British ornithologists put their hands up to help
Two young British ornithologists have responded to the call, pitching in to caretake for three months in one of the most remote areas in Australia.
Will Smith and Molly Faulds, both in their 20s, stumbled across an advertisement for the caretakers position and jumped at the chance to come to Eyre so they could work together.
Ms Faulds had some misgivings being so far from any community, but she says she has thrived on the experience.
“In some ways it is pretty isolated and out in the sticks. But it’s good really because we don’t have any help so we have to learn how to fix trucks and fix generators and like, we have to learn how to get ourselves out if we get stuck in the sand, but it’s fun and it’s all part of the role,” she said.
Mr Smith loves the isolation after living in the densely populated UK.
“I think one of my favourite things is just being right out in the middle of nowhere and just driving out on tracks and onto beaches, it’s really just really exciting, really fun,” he said.
“And then you get a really cool sea eagle going over the top of you and you look around and there’s no-one else for miles and miles who going to see that bird. It’s amazing.”
Mr Smith and Ms Faulds are the exception when most of the volunteer caretakers are grey nomads and the number of couples expressing interest to help is dwindling.
Ms Faulds believes the observatory needs to reach out to the new generation using social media.
“I think one of the reasons they don’t get young people like us applying is that the social media is just not there,” she said.
“I know that’s how our generation communicates and that’s how we find out about stuff.
“This just doesn’t have a social media presence at all. I know you want to keep it remote and you want to keep it with a few people and tranquil and calm but to get people like us in you probably need to start thinking about branching into a more modern sort of world really.
“I just think it’s such a great opportunity for people like us, who are trying to build up a skill set for the rest of our working life, and we are going to learn so much here and it’s going to be so valuable to us.”