The Accidental Activist
Tassin Barnard, owner of Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park, with Ugg the Eastern Grey Kangaroo, one of the characters you will meet at the sanctuary.
Approaching the visitor's centre at Walkabout Park, you suddenly realise you're not alone.
It's the kangaroos you notice first – big Eastern Greys hopping over to investigate newcomers – but if you stop to look a little closer you'll also see wallabies, potoroos, pygmy possums and pademelons. Sensing someone looking over your shoulder, you spin around to find an emu trying to see what all the fuss is about. And pick your way carefully through the roo droppings that litter the veranda and you'll meet Zoë, an Eastern Grey who came to this sanctuary as an orphan. Her diamante collar flashes in the sun as she nuzzles up to her protector – a slight, pretty strawberry blonde woman whose pale skin seems incongruous in this dry, sunbaked environment.
How does a gentle and unpretentious South African insurance executive come to be the guardian of a unique slice of Australian cultural and environmental heritage?
Tassin Barnard, 45, is the general manager financial protection for AXA Australia. She is also, in concert with her husband Gerald, owner and managing director of a feral-proofed wildlife preserve on the central coast of New South Wales. Just to make things a little more complicated, Tassin manages both jobs via a weekly commute from her bushland domain to her office in Melbourne. It's an unexpected destination for a little girl who dreamed of being a nurse, but the ideal habitat for the woman she became.
Previously known as the Calga Springs Sanctuary, the Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park has been open since April 2001, but came into the Barnards' lives in September 2005. Situated a 50-minute drive north of Sydney, it's the only feral-free natural bushland in NSW that also has the fortune to contain ancient Aboriginal sites, including cave paintings and middens. While the whole site is roughly 170 acres, the area free of feral predators amounts to 80 acres. Surrounded by a state-of-the-art fox- and cat-proof fence, the exclusion zone is home to around 180 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs. Many of these animals are species on the verge of extinction, but here, protected from introduced dangers, they are thriving.
The Barnards had no intention of becoming the guardians of the native creatures of a foreign land; their only real desire was to find a bushland home for their family. When their real estate journey began, there was no way of knowing they would fall irrevocably in love with this unique but labour-intensive place. "We were looking, you could say, for a rural idyll," says Tassin. "Gerald saw this place in a magazine. It was quite dramatic – he clutched it to his chest and said, 'I'm about to show you something I know I'm going to regret!' So I was incredibly curious when he finally handed it over." Initially unimpressed by the ad, and Gerald's enthusiasm, Tassin never-theless agreed to have a look. "Even once we got here, I didn't feel excited. It was so far from what we were looking for that I couldn't relate to what I was seeing. I left, but I couldn't get it out of my head."
Tassin soon discovered the park had got under her skin. "It was just so alive," she explains. "When you think of the bush, you think of quiet. What I realise now is that quietness is just aridity – it's the result of our destruction of the environment." The preserve is teeming with often uncelebrated animals, and over the hum of the freeway the air is suffused with the bustle of creatures in the undergrowth. Snakes, spiders and lizards, treated as vermin by city dwellers, are treasured members of this wild community.
The further the Barnards explored the park, the more committed to its survival they became. "Barry Cohen [minister for the Arts, Heritage and Environment in the Hawke Government] bought this place when he retired," explains Tassin. "He said to me that at the end of his stint overseeing the environment he finally realised that it wasn't humans who were the biggest threat to native animals, but the predators we'd introduced." Inspired by his former portfolio, Barry Cohen bought the land, had it rezoned and spent 13 years predator-proofing the sanctuary. In 2005, ready to retire and move on to a more leisurely life, he put the park up for sale. "The more we saw and the longer we talked to Barry, the more I realised not just how important his mission was but how much potential this place has," says Tassin.
About the Darkinjung people
Much of what we know about the Aboriginal tribes who inhabited Australia prior to colonisation comes from archaeological digs, the papers of early colonists and the oral histories of the tribes themselves. The following information about the Darkinjung people is based on research by the Australia Walkabout Wildlife Park.
The Darkinjung people were an inland group whose territory extended from the Hawkesbury River northwards about 60km to Wollombi and the Hunter River. Archaeological excavations have revealed that the Darkinjung consumed a lot of seafood, primarily during the summer when fish were abundant. Women would fish with lines while men would use spears. During the winter the Darkinjung turned to the land for food, eating animals such as potoroo, emu, kangaroo, quoll, echidna, flying fox, wallaby and wallaroo.The people made canoes from sheets of bark skewered at each end then plugged with Xanthorroea gum.Darkinjung dwellings, usually in groups of eight or nine huts, were constructed from sheets of bark flattened and supported on timber frames. Art played an important role in instructing tribal mythology and values. The Hawkesbury engravings are among the richest and most varied indigenous art in the world. The sandstone platforms of the region provided ideal surfaces for the art form, and there are over 4,000 Aboriginal art figures in this area.