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James Jooste and Carmen Brown, 20 Jul 2016, 9:55 PM UTC

Boom times: unseasonal winter rains bring life and economic certainty to outback South Australia

Boom times: unseasonal winter rains bring life and economic certainty to outback South Australia
Australia is known as a land of droughts and flooding rains, with few places more fitting of the description than South Australia's remote pastoral zone. Rainfall patterns across the vast arid landscape are highly variable and unpredictable. The yearly average rainfall figures are between 120-210mm, but pastoralists rarely tip that amount out of their gauges. Perhaps the most reliable aspect is the timing of the rain, with storms often arriving during the summer. This year has been a little different though, with soaking rains frequent and widespread, even during the normally dry and mild winter months. It has been a welcome sight for local pastoralists, some of whom were in only a year and a half ago. ABC Rural recently travelled through the region to find out just what impact the rain has had on those who live, work and travel through the region. Coward Springs: Best rains in nearly three decades For Oodnadatta Track local Greg Emmett, the rain has been a blessing and a curse. As a commercial date producer, with the only irrigation licence in outback South Australia, the frequent downpours this year have been welcome. But his iconic Coward Springs campground and camel safari business has suffered at times because of the rain. "We've had a rain event almost every week, so we've had a lot of road closures," he said. "If we get a road closure just when the safaris are happening and people can't get up here, then no safaris." Mr Emmett said while the wet weather had caused more than a few headaches, it would ultimately help attract more tourists to the region. "It is absolutely beautiful, a vibrant green — the birdlife, the budgies and everything at the moment are just amazing. It's a blissful scene," he said. "This is the best I've seen it in 26 years. So anyone that is in the cattle business in this area is making really good money at the moment." Tourists amazed by outback in bloom Victorian couple Simon Cross and Solveigar Saule have been cycling their way from Alice Springs to the New South Wales Riverina, via the Oodnadatta Track. Speaking with ABC Rural in William Creek, the pair shared their amazement at the scenes encountered along the way. "The landscape is fantastic. We had no expectation it would be both as green as it is, and also all the flowers are really early," Mr Cross said. "That has been a real pleasure, because with the flowers early there has been a heap more birdlife. "The finches, the budgerigars, and then all the birds of prey are really active." While it has been a difficult year for those trying to navigate the slippery and frequently closed track, Mr Cross said it had been less of an obstacle for those on two wheels. "It might have been closed for four-wheel drives, but they don't have a category for bikes," he said. "So if we can get down it, it's actually never closed for bicycles." Lush now, but more fires later For Roxby Downs ecologist Reece Pedler, it is an exciting time to be studying the local birdlife. He said conditions had not been this good across the north in quite some time. "Fantastic vegetation growth, and it's these multiple follow-up rains that really get the system going," he said. "Some of the big inland rivers have had a good flow, and out in the stony deserts and sandy deserts, claypans and swamps are full of water. "So it's a real boom time for some of the nomadic waterbirds, like ducks and other waterbirds that move around the landscape. It's a time for them to breed and do well." The rain has spurred on growth in native species, but also the highly invasive weed and fodder species Buffel Grass. Mr Pedler said the increased growth could result in more fires later in the year. "Buffel Grass amongst all other plants is something that does really well with these wet seasons," he said. "It increases the biomass significantly. It outcompetes other species and importantly it really changes the potential for fire in some of these landscapes, which naturally don't have fire very frequently. "So Buffel brings much more frequent and more hotter fires to these places."
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