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Central Australia field trip reflections, Anna Rose 

Central Oz salt pan AWC as Smart Object-1-wide The plane to Alice Springs flew over parched white and brown New South Wales farming and grazing land, while airing news footage of the devastating flooding in Southern India that killed over 324 people. It was all too much; every part of our planet is changing so fast. Tears ran down my face for most of the plane ride. Even before we landed and spent a week learning how the hot, red heart of Australia is becoming hotter and drier, climate change was on my mind. The images of the NSW drought and Indian floods made it a sad start to the trip for me,but meeting the rest of the group in the lobby of Alice Spring’s Double Tree hotel soon cheered me up. Being in the presence of an amazing group of generous, inquisitive people does that to you. Bindy. Megan. Eytan. Neriman. Helen. Stephen. Anne. Bruce. Vicki. Wally. Pamela. Amanda. Ione. We’d all made time in our busy lives, juggling various work and family commitments, to be here in the heart of Australia. And Amanda and Ione were determined to make sure we squeezed the most out of every single minute, so before long we were walking down the street to the Olive Pink Gardens to do introductions and a tour of the garden. Miss Olive Pink was one hell of a badass woman – an activist and a gardener who stood up for social justice – particularly Aboriginal rights – while living in a tent, wearing full Edwardian dress and starting a world-renowned botanic garden. She caused hell for the authorities, and left a legacy anyone would be proud of. I don’t think any of us had heard of her before, but we’ll never forget the amazing stories that curator Ian Coleman told us about her. You can read her biography here, and there are a number of books about her life that are now on my summer reading list. After the garden tour we met Aunty Doris for an acknowledgement of country and some stories about the Aboriginal history of Alice Springs, and then heard presentations about the Arid Lands Environment Centre, Indigenous Deserts Alliance, and the Ten Deserts Project. It was a big afternoon and a lot of information to take in, and we all got an early night to prepare for an even bigger ‘Day Two’. I won’t go through every organisation we met on Day Two, or my allotted word count would soon be chewed up. Suffice to say there are some incredibly strong and inspiring people, especially Aboriginal people, working in Alice Springs to make things better for the land and its people. The highlight for me was hearing from young Aboriginal leaders Nick Fitzpatrick and Vanessa Farrelly, a couple who I’d previously met briefly through SEED Indigenous Youth Climate Network. Now, Nick campaigns against fracking and mining in his community, and Vanessa runs a project reconnecting the kids in her community to their traditional places. A big shout out must also go to the indefatigable Jimmy Cocking, who runs the well-respected and high-impact Arid Lands Environment Centre and has a big impact on a shoestring budget. Jimmy volunteered to be our bus driver during our time in Alice and is coming to Sydney and Melbourne soon for events hosted by AEGN members. I highly recommend getting along to these if you can to learn about the range of amazing work they’re doing, including partnering with Lock the Gate and SEED on the globally important campaign against NT Fracking. Day Three saw us travel on a monster 4WD bus to Newhaven sanctuary, run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). The bus ride was fantastic – over a red dirt road running alongside the MacDonnell ranges, narrated by ex-CSIRO scientist Steve Morton. Steve knows SO MUCH about the ecology of the region and it was an absolute honour for him to share his knowledge with us. We spent two nights ‘glamping’ at Newhaven, learning about their efforts to protect the reserve from predators through a fence and tracking, as well as AWC’s broader work around Australia. And then we got to see the landscape from above during sunrise, as we took light planes to Yulara, which for me was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. In Yulara  we met Tracey and some of the senior women from the Mutitjulu community who gave us some background before getting back on the bus and bush-bashing through scrub to Kulpitjata Outstation. We said goodbye to mobile phone reception just as it was unclear whether there was going to be a leadership spill within the Liberals for Prime Minister. There are plenty of other things to focus on, like the strong and continuing connection between Central Aboriginal communities and their land, and the fantastic work of the Tjakura Rangers. On the way to camp, we stopped to see stunning views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and were then guided by the ladies on a walk to see very special places and rock art. We tasted kangaroo tails for afternoon tea, then rolled out our swags. There’s a fine art to making sure you’re close enough to the campfire not to worry about dingoes, but not too close that you get too much smoke in your face as you’re trying to sleep. I think I nailed it, personally. The sun rose the next morning and it was suddenly our last morning of AEGN Field Trip. The rangers took us on a trip to see a special waterhole, we learnt a bit more about their work, and we drove back to Yulara. Eytan and I were frantically checking news sites to see whether Dutton had won the leadership spill, and it soon became clear that somehow, Scott Morrison had pulled a hat trick and was our new Prime Minister. Ah, Australia. When you can go camping for a night with one head of State, and come back the next day to another. Our final “official” part of the program was visiting Michael and Tim at Parks Australia’s Uluru office to learn about the joint management of Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, followed by a group debrief where many of us began exploring what projects we would fund – separately and together. It is clear that there are many challenges facing Central Australia – from climate change, feral animals, the ongoing effects of white invasion and colonisation, and an unprecedented attempt to open up the NT to fracking. We all came away with a deeper understanding of these problems. But like everywhere in the world, there are inspiring people and organisations working to solve them, and philanthropists like us can have the amazing privilege of supporting their work. The author Paul Hawken, who attended an AEGN event earlier this year, uses the metaphor of an immune system rising up against an attack. We can all be part of the immune system that protects and strengthens the central desert, whether we live there or not. After the trip, my husband and I decided to support the work of the Arid Lands Environment Centre on the NT Fracking campaign, giving them 20% of our philanthropic budget for the year. I’d encourage all AEGN members to look at the work being done by the organisations in Central Australia, whether you went on the field trip or not. I’m sure all attendees would be happy to answer questions and provide more information. For me, and I think for all of us, being in the desert was life-changing. Seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta up close was breathtaking. We learned so much from each place, and each person – other group members just as much as guest speakers. A huge thanks to Ione and Amanda for organising the trip, and to every attendee for bringing their whole hearts and minds and selves to each and every discussion and learning opportunity.