A grandparents’ farm. A childhood home. A community centre. A family cemetery.
Lot 50-Kanyanyapilla (L50K), 50 kilometres south of Adelaide, is all of these things, yet, also none of these things.
It’s not an ecological restoration project, though it does seek to revive local native species.
It’s not a public cultural heritage site, though it does seek to preserve and understand thousands of years of human habitation here.
Owner Gavin Malone, who describes himself as a “cultural geographer,” regards his 16 hectare McLaren Vale property as an ecological vault and cultural ark, honouring the landscape’s past to provide the seeds of a better future.
His unique plan is regeneration with a “bi-cultural approach,” Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, which recognises the cultural practices and traditions of both cultures.
At its geographical heart is a rare remnant of Adelaide Plain phragmites (reed) swamp.
The reeds are valuable – Indigenous people say the shoots are edible; can be woven into rafts and baskets; and as a convenient source of fibre for string.
That, combined with expansive views from the ranges to the sea, is probably why the region became a hive of human activity some 6000 years ago.
Now Malone hopes to restore the site’s significance through a pragmatic blend of cultural, ecological and economic necessity.
“One of the things informing the process here is how do we take the best of both cultural paradigms and merge them into bi-cultural thinking and create something that we haven’t had before?” says Malone.
It’s a matter of perspective.
“I call it a regeneration project,” says Malone. “If it were a pure ecosystem revegetation, L50K would be different to what it is.”
Exactly what it will become is yet to be seen.
“What I’m aiming for is a self-replicating minimal human intervention ecosystem,” he says. “But that’s too big a mouthful. We don’t have the language for these concepts.”
His project partner, now neighbour, is the senior traditional owner of the Kaurna Meyunna (Kaurna People), Karl Telfer. In August 2021, The Catholic Church granted Telfer a 50-year tenure to an adjoining 3.5ha portion of the Kanyanyapilla heritage site.
L50K embraces about 4ha of swamp and 12ha of dry land. Beneath it lies what Malone says is $25 billion worth of sand.
It was going to become a mine. But the discovery of Aboriginal artifacts buried up to 90cm beneath the surface in the early 1990s triggered a 30-year legal battle. Once that was over, the now registered Aboriginal heritage site sat stagnant on the property market for another four years – despite a rush to plant vineyards in the region.
“I got it in February 2015,” Malone says, “and I was faced with this long-abandoned paddock covered with weeds up to my chest.”
But Malone, the former South Australian Heritage Committee secretary and acting secretary to the Environmental Protection Authority, knew what he was getting himself into. And the land’s significance.
His PhD in cultural geography spurred him to act.
“Once people here had a symbiotic relationship with their homes,” he says. “But my cultural heritage has been ecologically degenerative from the first day it stepped foot on this land. And it’s still degenerative. Perhaps we are slowing the rate of that degradation. But we have not stopped it.”
“We have archaeological evidence of human occupation at the [nearby] Moana Sands Conservation Park some six to seven thousand years ago, plus or minus. So we’re taking what’s been found here to be about the same time,” says Malone.
It was a world that could change erratically and dramatically over a single human lifetime.
“The Aboriginal peoples saw lands lost to the rising sea levels,” he says. “They felt it getting hotter. They would have been wondering when this was all going to stop. And how long do you have to wait, after it seems to have stopped, before it really did?”
The changing landscape also shaped South Australian Aboriginal cultural language groups.
“We have to accept these processes, the difference between human time and ecological time,” says Malone. “In ecological time, a system regenerates itself every 50 or 75 years. I’m working in human time. I want it fixed next year! But I have to balance my thinking and accept I can only do so much.”
His Kaurna Meyunna colleague Telfer sees things from a different perspective.
“In terms of Western science, we put this area’s human history into categories of thousands or tens of thousands of years. But, as Karl explains it [to me], he’s been here since the first sunrise,” says Malone.
The L50K swamp and hill are at the midway point of an Indigenous travelling corridor.
“You’ve got drinking water here. You’ve got food, fibre. And up on the hilltop, you’ve got an overview of what’s going on in the whole Willunga Basin,” says Malone.
The richest archaeological deposit identified at the site is near the peak.
“Which makes sense,” he says. “That was a perfect spot to sit down. You must consider the likely vegetation pattern back then – dappled shade, wind protection, expansive views, and all the local ecological services like river pebbles. So if you wanted to sit here and chip away making something, you can look up from your work and see what’s happening around the place.”
While the Kaurna people can access small pockets of McLaren Vale land for traditional purposes, Telfer is the first to have freehold tenure over a significant property.
“He can now make independent decisions, and the church has been really supportive on this,” says Malone. “It’s now his prerogative as to how he evolves cultural activities with his family and clan.”
“I’m working on five-year phase plans,” says Malone. “The first five was basically to pull this place up by its bootstraps. Weed management has been critical, almost overwhelmingly so.”
Only now, halfway through the second phase, can he pursue the reinstatement plan.
“I don’t call it a revegetation project,” he says. “Because that looks back. And we don’t know exactly what was here anyway.”
That’s not through a lack of trying. Malone has gone through local records, examined colonial paintings – even accessed the sealed notebooks of the 1839 McLaren survey party.
“They were just preliminary maps,” he explains. “But it did give some indication of vegetation patterns as well. They had sketches, the first visual records of this region.”
Malone says compromise is a necessity.
The planting, he says, is the combination of best science and best imagination.
“I just accept a lot of things which you could say are annoying or not desirable because the systems are so out of balance. The resources required to regenerate degraded land are huge, and the cost is significant.”
He’s calculated the price of purchasing, preparing, planting, staking, mulching and watering each seedling to be about $25.
“I’ve planted 8000,” he says. “I’ve literally worked on this site full-time since I acquired it in 2015.”
“My cultural paradigm doesn’t have a long-term future here unless we better adapt,” reflects Malone. “We’re in the process. But we haven’t done enough. We are a culture addicted to economic growth and consumption.
“Why do we think it’s a privilege for our species to destroy things like those wonderful old-growth forests in Tasmania? Why do we continue even to think that? We say we seek to understand our world through science. So why do we reject our science?”
Malone believes those questions represent an existential crisis.
“I can’t control it. But I have a little influence here,” he says.
That’s why he is keen for L50K to become a community centre once again. A place for respite; peace; learning and for science and spirituality. Or even simply a picnic.
“But if you want to plant a tree here, you have to earn the right”, he declares.
That can be through participating in revitalisation projects.
“You also have to earn the right to know,” Malone adds.
He’s referring to the Kaurna Meyunna people’s rich dreaming tradition encompassing the cultural and ecological evolution of the southern vales.
“Even in our institutional structures, you enter as an apprentice,” he explains. “You don’t become the Pope without being a seminarian. You have to earn the right. But when it comes to Aboriginal cultural heritage, we white fellows can act as though we have the right to be told everything.”
Cosmos sought to talk to Karl Telfer for this article, but he was unavailable.