Don Burnside and John Morrissey, Outback Adventurers.  Email:


A zest for a modest adventure in the mulga woodlands and shrublands of the Southern Rangelands in WA led to John Morrissey and Don Burnside loading up the 4WD with swags, food, refreshments, and essential survival gear and heading off for a few days camping in the outback.


Off the beaten track!


It was a nostalgia trip.  John was born in Wiluna in 1938, and lived in Wiluna as a Department of Agriculture employee from 1958 to 1973.  In the early years he was off-siding to David Wilcox, and then later he was the Officer-in-Charge, being responsible for pastoral research and extension, and also management of the Wiluna Groundwater Research Station, which was growing a range of irrigated annual and perennial crops (melons, citrus, lucerne etc).  Don had also worked in the Southern Rangelands from 1975 to 1988, and although his territory did not include the Wiluna area, he travelled through many times.  Neither of us had spent any time in the areas traversed for about 30 years.

The rather scruffy map below shows where we went – a total distance of about 1,100 km from Perth and back again, mainly through extensive mulga woodlands and sandplains, interspersed with salt lakes, and increasing areas of spinifex sandplain to the east of the area.  Along the way we visited the small towns of Sandstone and Wiluna, looked at old fenced exclosures on Lake Mason (once a sheep station, now a 147,000 ha Nature Reserve managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions), and Albion Downs (previously a sheep station, now running cattle), we stumbled upon some Western Australian Rangeland Monitoring Sites (WARMS) and called into see some of the remaining pastoral families who were in the area when John was based at Wiluna.  We were made very welcome.


The adventure route 


The land system maps and descriptions from the Rangeland Inventory and Condition Surveys completed by the (then) Department of Agriculture were invaluable in informing what we were looking at and in reducing the number of intra-vehicle arguments about where we were!  See the references below.  In our opinion, they are a ‘world’s best’ information resource.


And now for some observations and impressions from our trip.


How does the country look?

The Wiluna area is enjoying a good season.  Wiluna has a median annual rainfall of 228 mm, and in the months January to May 2023, 210 mm was recorded.  The shrubs were looking well, but we were disappointed not to see more perennial grasses establishing, in particular the desirable broad-leaf wanderrie (Monachather paradoxa).  Beyond that, our overall and certainly imperfect impression is that the country is getting ‘thicker’ with many more mulgas and other tall acacias in the extensive mulga wash plains and sandplains.  The smaller areas of chenopod country looked rather as we could remember them – as in having a fair number of shrubs and mainly missing saltbush –  but as noted, our capacity to remember what it looked like 30-50 years ago is not good.

In areas where there has been little or no grazing in recent times, and in the Albion Downs exclosures there were large numbers of rarely seen palatable shrubs – most notably mulga bluebush (Maireana convexa) and Warty Leafed Poverty Bush (Eremophila latrobei).  Where cattle have been busy, what is completely puzzling is that within a mulga grove, the cattle will have picked on one tree and pulled it to bits, while not touching the others.  What is going on?  Does anyone know?


Mulga woodland in the Murchison region


WARMS monitoring site on Lake Mason


The legacy of the sheep industry

In the mid-1980s, the whole area was sheep country, at stocking rates on between 1 DSE to 8 ha on chenopod shrublands to between 1 DSE to 12-20 ha in the mulga woodlands and shrublands.  The collapse of the wool price in the late 1980s as some realism came back into the market made wool-growing in much of this country uneconomic.  People survived by seeking work off-station either in the expanding mining industry, or they did contract work for shires, or harvested sandalwood through permits or they took in tourists.  Cattle started to come into the area and landholder dingo control was over-looked.  Quite quickly, sheep numbers fell and the sheep infrastructure (hundreds of kilometres of 5 wire fences per station, yards, watering points, shearing sheds and outcamps) on land we traversed has become derelict.  It is depressing to see what are now unsightly and dangerous messes left behind, and there is no indication that they will ever be cleaned up.


The developing cattle industry, and the need for a ‘new system’ ….

The ‘old system’, sheep mainly for wool on mainly family run pastoral leases has gone.  But its replacement – properties often held by mining companies, or mainly used by the lessees as bases for contracting to mining companies is dominating – at least it seems so in this part of the world.  Carbon sequestration projects are known to be popular across the Southern Rangelands, but we retain some scepticism about how these will turn out in these semi-arid lands.  On our trip, cattle were present everywhere, sometimes where they should not be (as on nature reserves), and management would appear to be minimal.  In the small mobs of cattle we saw, it was rare to see more than a third of the animals with an earmark or tag, and there were cows with calves that should have been weaned long ago.

The sheep infrastructure has gone, and the cattle infrastructure is yet to catch up on most of the stations we went through.  Where we did see windmills replaced with solar systems, and walk in, walk out yards around troughs (mainly on a property held by a mining company), there was still a preponderance of un-marked cattle.  In short, a ‘new system’ for managing the land and animals has yet to be bedded down, and it is going to be hard to do that where the rewards from contracting for mining companies are so good.  Having a few million dollars invested in mobile plant (dozers, graders, dump trucks etc), means that they need to be used.  Our observation – rightly or wrongly – is that cattle management comes a poor second, and as such many of the cattle are in reality feral.  While this is obviously not a universal situation, where it occurs is a bad situation both for the country and for the productivity of the cattle.  We know that good operators do much better than this, and we hope that best practice grazing management does become more widely established …


Where are the kangaroos?

Over the whole journey, we encountered one live kangaroo and we saw two road kills.  In the late 1980s, kangaroos were sufficiently plentiful to be a constant hazard when driving.  What is the difference?  In the 1980s, when wool prices were adequate, dingoes were few in the area, with live meat baiting using 1080 poison, plus trapping maintaining them at very low numbers.  As a result, kangaroo numbers boomed.  Now that dingoes are in reasonable numbers, kangaroo numbers are being controlled.  An increasing percentage of pastoralists running cattle are happy to see dingo predation of kangaroos limiting their numbers.


The status and future of the towns

We were told that Sandstone now has a population of 42, and the ABS states that Wiluna town had a population of 240 in 2021.  They are both headquarters for very large, sparsely populated shires.

Sandstone is a tidy small town and has an attractive old Hotel, well patronised by locals and tourists, with accommodation provided for mining employees and those passing through.  The school has closed, and other services are few.  However, when we were there the Shire-owned caravan park was full (tourists? prospectors?) and there is a coffee shop.  These facilities are catering well to the tourists and the hopefuls prospecting for gold.


Don and John at London Bridge near Sandstone


Wiluna, which is located at the southern end of the now frequently travelled Canning Stock Route, and at the western end of the equally popular Gunbarrel Highway does not have any accommodation, and although there is a well-stocked supermarket, there is nowhere to have a coffee or a meal.  The Shire is in the process of establishing a caravan park, which given the plentiful tourist numbers passing through would seem to be well over-due.  The town does have the Ngangganawili Aboriginal Health Service (NAHS) to provide health and medical services to the residents of the Wiluna Shire and other people from outlying areas, the mining industry, the pastoral stations and tourists visiting the town.  The former hospital – where John Morrissey was born – has been well restored and is now a very good museum and art gallery.  Despite these facilities, we were concerned to learn that neither the President of the Wiluna Shire nor the Chief Executive Officer live in the town, and instead commute from distant places.

Further, these two small towns are dwarfed by the large mining camps accommodating FIFO workers on the large goldmines in the area.

Overall, we were concerned for the future of these towns and the limited services they offer residents and travellers.


And finally ….

Apart from nearly freezing to death on the last night camping (as in ice on the swag in the morning), we had a great time and are planning another trip.  Does anyone want to join us?



Payne, A.L, Van Vreeswyk, A.M.E., Pringle, H.J.R., Leighton, K.A. and Hennig, P. (1998).  An inventory and condition survey of the Sandstone-Yalgoo-Paynes Find area, Western Australia.  Technical Bulletin 90, Agriculture Western Australia, South Perth, WA.

Pringle, H.J.R., Van Vreeswyk, A.M.E. and Gilligan, S.A. (1994).  An inventory and condition survey of rangelands in the north-eastern Goldfields, Western Australia.  Technical Bulletin 87, Department of Agriculture, South Perth, WA.