Jill Hooper

Jill Hooper is a farmer, photographer and field naturalist whose love of wildlife and wetlands has been a constant theme throughout her life. Now based at a property near Deniliquin, Jill finds comfort and inspiration in the ever-changing beauty of the wetlands and rivers around her.

Jill HooperThe importance of water . . .

My life revolves around water on so many levels.

As a child, I learned that water was a precious commodity, not to be taken for granted.

I grew up on a farm on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. I remember the natural spring creek running through our property, the house on top of the hill with four rain water tanks, and the wall hand pump that brought water from the dam (100 metres below the house) up to the tanks during dry times. I also recall the shared baths as youngsters, the three-minute showers as teenagers with dad tapping his wrist watch at the door and calling, ‘time’s up’ and the ‘no-unnecessary-running-water’ rule while brushing teeth, doing dishes or washing clothes.

Living on a rural property, reliant on tank water, I also learned the value of underground aquifers. For our stock and garden, we had a bore with large, concrete storage tanks. This water was brackish and only useful for stock and other outdoor activities.

From around the age of 13 our family started hiring a Bulls Cruiser on the Gippsland Lakes for summer vacations, together with another family. I remember the joy of hopping into the little emergency dingy, learning to row expertly, cutting gracefully through the water with my oars, marvelling at the phosphorescence of the water and enjoying night swims around the cruiser.  Eating the fish we caught was always a bonus.

Water has always played an important part in my everyday life.  Wherever I have lived, I have set up a garden, using plants indigenous to the area, that once established, could survive on natural rainfall.

I spent some years working in outback Queensland as a jillaroo, a governess, and later, opal mining. I was again confronted by the lack of and preciousness of rainwater. Government bores were an important source of water. In the early years, some of these sub artesian bores flowed freely through lengthy bore drains, wending their way across station country. Windmill bores also pumped water into tanks with troughs for stock, which we had to clean regularly.

One of my most treasured outback memories was the ability, after a hard day working on an opal field, to slink away into the darkness and lie in the bore drain with my head resting on a piece of wood placed across the drain, enjoying the warm to very hot, heavily mineralized water flowing over me along with small native fish and green algae.  Just magical.

To outback women, the importance of water to maintain station gardens was enormous. A small patch of greenery and sprinkled colour was something that kept the women calm when problems presented themselves. Vegetable gardens were also treasured, and relaxing areas for contemplation. I remember the men constantly doing their ‘bore runs’ to see that the stock troughs were kept clean and full. Climbing windmills for maintenance was dangerous work.  Their very livelihood in these outback communities was reliant on the availability of water.

When my husband and I began farming near Cohuna, water was once again a major focus of our daily life. Because our farm was an irrigated dairy farm, the supply of irrigation water was essential. Without this supply, dairy farming could not exist under the natural rainfall of the Murray valley.

It was here that I learned that I could successfully do a little water divining with makeshift wires.  Rather fun and quite useful for finding pipe lines.

In retirement, my husband Ken and I have taken on two very important projects involving water. Firstly, we had a run out block for our dairy farm in Victoria at Murrabit West.  Before we sold the dairy farm at Cohuna, we had already begun to preserve what is considered one of the last remaining areas of indigenous vegetation in the Lower Loddon floodplain, both the wetland and grassy box woodland. In 1998, we purchased the remainder of a large wetland area that was partly on our property. 

In 2008, we placed a Trust for Nature Covenant on this property largely due to the wetlands.

But, wetlands need water. Irrigation run off from our farm and surrounding properties had kept the wetlands going, but with cessation of irrigation in this lower Loddon River area we entered into a 10-year agreement with the North Central Catchment Management Authority, Victorian Environmental Water Holder and Goulburn-Murray Water to restore and manage the wetlands complex on the property we call ‘Wirra-lo’.

This private/public partnership was a first for Victoria and has produced biodiversity benefits beyond anyone’s expectations with species of rare and threatened flora and fauna being recorded.  It is amazing just how much can be achieved with a relatively small amount of water.

Alongside this project, our property ‘Moona’ has also been the subject of environmental restoration activities. Our property has been put back into the Edward Wakool flood plain flow-path.  We are in the process of finalising plans for removal and modification of illegal banks put up many years ago so water can flow through our property from the lagoon, back into the Werai Forest to an area that currently doesn’t receive the amount of flood water it should. This is a tremendously involved project but of great importance.  It has been a difficult task to plan water manipulation to give maximum benefit to the many ecological vegetation classes on ‘Moona-Bingel’.

Since purchasing ‘Moona’ in 2003, we have used our water licence to water our red gum wetland on a number of occasions when the height of the lagoon was significant. In doing so we were able to save a number of the remaining ‘grandfather trees’ that were dying when we purchased the property.

Where do you go to get away from it all?

Purchasing our property ‘Moona’ was a retirement decision.  On first inspection, we both fell in love with the property. It had a very special feel about it. The house was in exactly the type of place we would choose for overnight or extended stays when camping in the outback. 

Our home at ‘Moona-Bingel’ is tucked in behind a horseshoe-shaped lagoon of the Edward River. On the other side of our property we are bounded by the Werai Forest with the Edward River just through the boundary.  The house is situated on a high sand-hill within 30 metres of ‘Moonyah Lagoon’. All the main rooms of the house overlook it.

The house at ‘Bingel’ is also rather special. It sits within one metre of the steep bank of the lagoon but high enough to miss being inundated by water. Visitors find the experience calming and unique. During flood times, it is like living on a house boat, but without the movement.

When I awake of a morning, I look out from my bed across Moonyah Lagoon. There is always something happening either on the water, in the trees or on the frontage surrounding it.

How could one not feel happy and content? Where else could I see baby turtles hatched in our garden travelling through the short kikuyu grass, headed towards the lagoon? Or a water rat, bounding over little pieces of wood, as it follows the water’s edge to its hideaway in a red gum’s roots?

Yes, water has figured enormously in many ways throughout my lifetime.  All these happy memories, and now, in retirement, to live alongside the Moonyah Lagoon and the Edward River, leaving the legacy of ‘Wirra-lo’s’ wetlands and rejoicing in the rebirth of the watered red-gums on ‘Moona-Bingel’, give me a tremendous sense of satisfaction and contentment.

How often do you go there?

We are lucky all the main rooms of our home face the lagoon so we are able to enjoy the goings on of this waterway on a daily basis from whichever room we are in.

What do you like to do there?

One of my hobbies is photography.  I have spent many happy times capturing the wetland beauty of ‘Wirra-lo’ or photographing the many changing moods and lighting of Moonyah Lagoon - high water, low water, sunlight through the trees, the evening glow and reflections of trees in the water, the gently rising mists of a morning, together with the ever-changing patterns of the ripples on the surface in the wind. My husband says, ‘this must be the most photographed lagoon in Australia’, and he could be right. Water with its surrounding beauty in other wetlands has been like a magnet for my camera and my happiness.

Another pleasure provided by the lagoon is watching my family and grandchildren swimming down at the waterhole and using the canoe and kayak when the water level permits.  Their enjoyment of the water, combined with that of the adults and children who visit the Bingel house, gives me great joy.

How do you feel when you are there?

Living in this environment has a calming effect on me. It is like living in another world, away from the noise of traffic, away from anxious people rushing by, always in a hurry. I am back to and one with nature here.  My artistic nature is nurtured by living in these surroundings.

Why is water an important part of your relaxation?

No matter the stresses in my life, there is always something attracted to the waterway to catch my attention - a sea eagle overhead or in the trees; a hare slowly creeping along the frontage, stopping here and there for a bit of green pick; perhaps a black wallaby sitting relaxing on the edge of the lagoon or travelling slowly through. I see kangaroos hopping past, and enjoy watching the waterbirds on the lagoon change from season to season. I enjoy seeing the wood ducks flying up and down the lagoon in large groups and the pelicans from time to time. I love listening to the kookaburras and watching them dive into the vegetation to snack on a field-mouse or lizard. I never tire of listening to the frog symphony in the evening or looking towards the swimming hole to the row of kangaroos lined up along the water’s edge. These fascinating acts from nature take my mind away from my daily troubles. Out of sheer curiosity, I have to slow down and watch nature unfold in front of me.

Happiest memories?

Some of my most cherished childhood memories include playing down along the creek, swimming there when the pools were deep enough, removing black leeches with matches amidst screams of ‘quickly, quickly’, and jumping, with wooden poles for support, from island to island where the creek was fragmented by stands of tea-tree. Also, swimming in our sunken stock dam full of brown water, feeling the ‘nibbles’ of something tiny and imagining underwater monsters.

We were always pestering mum for trips to a neighbour’s swimming pool where, unlike the water in our creeks and dams, this horrible tasting water was so clear you could see into it. It was always with amazement that when staying with our city cousins, taps ran continuously, showers were no longer timed, and sprinklers showered the lawns with water without thought of running short.  To us, filling our small 1ft high paddling pool was a treat.

Although water was an absolute necessity, and something essential in our lives, it could cause devastation during floods.  On the other hand, the shortage of water was always a worry during fire season.

In excessively wet winters, our little valley became a torrent, spreading out over the flats and completely isolating our property from the community. I recall anxious moments, watching my father drive the tractor across the old wooden bridge for the first time after a wet spell. He reasoned, if the bridge was compromised, the tractor (being heavier than a car) would drop directly into the water, and not be washed away.

Our farm was on the Mornington Peninsula which meant another of my treasured memories was the trips to Dromana Beach - snorkelling over the small rays that came in to the shallows; swimming out to the sand bar at Mount Martha beach; night trips to spear fish there as a teenager; exploring the rocks at Shoreham Beach, collecting crabs and stone fish in our buckets, unaware of the danger, and taking them home to show our friends.

At Shoreham, there were only certain places one could enter the water due to the huge depth of seaweed in the water. It became deep near the rocks very quickly and there was a strong undertow. It wasn’t for those that couldn’t swim well. There were no life guards in those days. There was also a little creek we enjoyed swimming across at the entrance despite the abundance of seaweed.  The water was cleaner when we headed inland in our canoes. It was such an adventure paddling through this dark water with high, densely vegetated cliffs on either side.

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