Case studies

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Case Study Budj Bim Cultural Landscape inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2019

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, located on the traditional Country of the Gunditjmara people in south-western Victoria, contains one of the world’s oldest and most extensive aquaculture systems. Created by the Gunditjmara at least 6,600 years ago, it is a rare intact example of a cultural landscape formed by innovation (Lin et al. 2021b, Parks Victoria n.d.). The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape shows the strong relationship between the Gunditjmara people and Country, and demonstrates how Australian Indigenous heritage is part of a continuous, living culture (UNESCO WHC 2019, Lin et al. 2021b).

The Gunditjmara created the aquaculture system by manipulating the Budj Bim lava flow to form a complex network of channels, weirs and dams. The sustainably engineered wetlands allow the Gunditjmara to trap, store and harvest kooyang/short-finned eel (Anguilla australis), which migrate seasonally through the system (Lin et al. 2021b). The creation process of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape is narrated by the Gunditjmara as a deep time story, which, from an archaeological perspective, represents a period of at least 32,000 years (UNESCO WHC 2019):

In the Dreaming, the ancestral creators gave the Gunditjmara people the resources to live a settled lifestyle. They diverted the waterways and gave us the stone and rocks to help us build the aquaculture systems. They gave us the wetlands where the reeds grew so that we could make the eel baskets, and they gave us the food-enriched landscape for us to survive. Aunty Eileen Alberts, Gunditjmara Elder (Wettenhall & Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation 2010)

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape demonstrates Outstanding Universal Value through the relationship the Gunditjmara maintain with Country through traditional practices, which include:

  • kooyang (eel) management, storage and harvest, and related environmental modifications
  • water flows and undisturbed hydrology, including wetlands, swamps and sinkholes, that provide a habitat for kooyang and other fish and aquatic plants
  • Gunditjmara aquaculture knowledge and practices, including sourcing and weaving grass for gnarraban (kooyang baskets and traps) and adapting traditional catching techniques (Lin et al. 2021b).

The World Heritage listing of Budj Bim, powerfully led by the Gunditjmara community, highlights the symbiotic relationship between the physical (tangible) and cultural (intangible) aspects of the Gunditjmara people and Country. Complex knowledge, song, dance, storytelling, art, design and sculpture are directly related to the channels, houses and hydrology that have been innovated and refined by the Gunditjmara over 6 millennia (Wettenhall & Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation 2010). The Gunditjmara continue to maintain and strengthen their cultural practices, which maintains their connection to Country and community (Lin et al. 2021b).

The Budj Bim Cultural Landscape also provides a habitat for the nationally endangered southern bent-wing bat (Miniopterus orianae bassanii) and threatened bird species, including pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax varius), whiskered tern (Chlidonias hybrida), great egret (Egretta alba) and grey goshawk (Accipiter novaehollandiae) (Lin et al. 2021b).

Case Study Juukan Gorge rockshelters – highlighting the poor protections for Indigenous heritage under current Australian Indigenous heritage legislation

In May 2020, mining company Rio Tinto destroyed a sacred site on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples in the Pilbara region of Western Australia (WA) to expand an iron ore mine. The rockshelter site had been shown, through archaeological investigation, to contain cultural remains dating back at least 46,000 years directly linked to the PKKP (Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia 2020).

There was a widespread negative reaction to the destruction of the ancient rockshelters in Australia. For the Traditional Owners of this Country, the grief experienced was marked and sustained, and will continue to cause irreparable harm into the future. PKKP Traditional Owner Burchell Hayes shared this statement (Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people 2020):


Myself, my family, our elders and our ancestors are in mourning at the desecration of our sacred site. This is part of our land that we are deeply connected to and which was an important feature of our future. Healing is slow and painful and will not come easily. Our trust in the system and our partners has been broken completely. I hope that some good can come out of our pain as we all work to build a new future for ourselves and future generations.


Rio Tinto’s action was technically legal, the company having obtained a permit under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA). The permit was given before the long history of occupation of the rockshelters was understood, and there was no option to review the permit based on the new findings or for the PKKP to appeal the permit. The PKKP raised their concerns with Rio Tinto immediately before the destruction.

An inquiry into the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia (2020) attributed the destruction to failures on the part of Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, native title law and legal advice they were given. The final report found that state and Commonwealth legislative frameworks enabled Rio Tinto to exercise excessive power over the PKKP in negotiation, but it was Rio Tinto’s internal processes that made the destruction of the Juukan Gorge heritage sites almost inevitable. It also noted that there is evidence flagging the need for legislative reform more broadly at the state and national levels. The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia (2020):


Western Australian law played a critical role in the destruction of the shelters. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 has failed to protect Aboriginal heritage, making the destruction of Indigenous heritage not only legal but almost inevitable. It is inconceivable that such a valuable heritage site could be destroyed in complete accordance with the law and without any means for Traditional Owners or their representatives to effectively intervene – yet it happened. The Western Australian legislation that enabled the destruction of Juukan Gorge is woefully out of date and poorly administered … The need for new laws is widely recognised. In the meantime, without government and industry action, Indigenous heritage will continue to be at risk.

Ongoing threats

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rockshelters highlights the large-scale impact mining can have on Indigenous heritage. In Western Australia, from mid-2010 to March 2020, 463 permit applications from mining companies to disturb or destroy sites were considered, and all were approved (Allam & Wahlquist 2020b). The Juukan Gorge experience did not stop this, with permits issued to BHP Billiton enabling the destruction of at least 40 – possibly as many as 86 – sites only days after the Juukan rockshelters were destroyed. This is despite knowing that Traditional Owners opposed the permits (Allam & Wahlquist 2020b).

The destruction of Indigenous sites by development is not new. In 2011, an investigation by the Western Australian Auditor-General concluded that the Western Australian Government was not adequately protecting Indigenous heritage sites. Between 2008 and 2015, more than 3,200 sites in Western Australia were removed from the statutory register without informing Traditional Owners.

In the Pilbara alone, the threats to Indigenous heritage from mining are substantial (Allam & Wahlquist 2020a). For example, the Eastern Guruma people have 6 Rio Tinto mines, a Fortescue mine and 3 railway lines on their lands. They estimate that 434 of their heritage sites have been destroyed, and a further 285 are very close to current mining areas.

In Western Australia, there is no avenue for Traditional Owners to appeal such acts or the issuing of permits, although landowners and companies with mining or resource extraction rights do have appeal rights.

In addition, Traditional Owners attempting to negotiate land-use agreements with mining companies do so ‘in the context of an imbalance of power’ and having ‘no real choice but to take the deals that were offered or take nothing’. This results in the ‘cumulative destruction of our country, (which) is something (that) sits uneasily with our people’ (senior Martidja Banyjima elder, Maitland Parker in Allam & Wahlquist 2020a). For example, the agreements between Rio Tinto and the PKKP peoples required the PKKP ‘to cede their rights and prevented them from contesting company decisions, raising concerns, or having recourse to law to protect heritage sites’ (Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia 2020:5).

The PKKP peoples have emphasised the need to understand that this destruction affects all people, not just Traditional Owner groups and that ‘this is a national disaster with international implications’ and that ‘our common heritage is at risk’ (Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia 2020:7).

But there have also been some encouraging recent changes. For example, in March 2021, the Minerals Council of Australia adopted new guidelines that involve stricter rules around project impacts on Indigenous communities and the environment (Cross 2021a). This involves the adoption of the Towards Sustainable Mining initiative, which requires companies to regularly assess their relationships with Traditional Owners, ecological impacts and labour practices.

Case Study The koala – protecting an iconic species as part of natural heritage management

Dr Sarah Munks and Dr Daniel Lunney

The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is an iconic tree-dwelling marsupial of cultural significance to all Australians (DAWE 2021f). It is endemic to Australia and has a wide but patchy distribution across eastern and southern Australia (Martin & Handasyde 1999). Its natural range includes:

  • the coastal and inland areas of north-eastern Queensland
  • westwards into the inland, hotter and drier semi-arid climates of central Queensland and New South Wales
  • south into Victoria and South Australia.

The koala is closely associated with the distribution of trees of the genera Eucalyptus, Corymbia and Angophora on which it feeds (Moore & Foley 2000, Au et al. 2019, Marsh et al. 2021).

The size of koala populations varies greatly, with marked fluctuations since European colonisation. Large increases in population in some locations in the southern part of the koala’s range have led to overbrowsing. In the northern parts of the range, extinction has been an issue. Population decreases have resulted from the fur trade in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, habitat loss and fragmentation, drought, wildfire, disease, dog attack and vehicle strikes (Melzer et al. 2000, McAlpine et al. 2015).

In 2012, the koala was listed as Vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (but not Victoria or South Australia) under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). In late 2021, the koala came under Commonwealth consideration for uplisting to Endangered (DAWE 2021f), largely in response to the impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires (Legge et al. 2021).

Increasing threats to koala populations include climate change–related impacts. For example, a reduction in climatically suitable habitat has been predicted, which would significantly contract the koala’s range further to the east and the south in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria (Adams-Hosking et al. 2011). Fires have a direct impact, with at least 5,000, and potentially many more, koalas dying in the 2019–20 fires in New South Wales alone (NSW Parliament Legislative Council 2020). These fires highlighted the considerable knowledge gaps on how populations change, how that differs across the range of the koala and what management actions are needed. Threats in combination, such as drought followed by fire, compounding the loss of habitat and fragmentation of the habitat that remains, will have the most significant impact (Lunney et al. 2012).

Long-term studies are lacking, although there has been valuable use of modelling and expert opinion, and research continues on many aspects of koala biology. An emerging finding from these studies is the relative importance of local-level threats and the need to prepare management plans tailored for local conditions. Overabundant populations also need to be managed (Menkhorst 2008).

Researchers have called for prioritisation of koala research and a proactive approach to conservation planning to protect the koala and other species that depend on eucalypt forests (Lunney et al. 2012). Recent conservation actions include:

  • formal reservation of habitat under the NSW Koala Strategy (DPIE 2020)
  • a draft national koala recovery plan, released for discussion in 2021 (DAWE 2021c)
  • surveys and field studies of koala populations
  • amendments to conservation planning frameworks to increase habitat protection in Queensland and New South Wales.

Figure 03 A koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) – one of Australia’s iconic species

Photo: Geoff Williamson

Case Study Lord Howe Island Rodent Eradication Project

Lord Howe Island is home to many unique and endemic species, including:

  • 241 species of indigenous plants, almost 50% of which are found nowhere else in the world
  • 207 species of birds, including the endangered Lord Howe Island woodhen
  • 1,600 terrestrial insect species, including the world’s rarest insect, the Lord Howe Island phasmid (a stick insect).

Because of its outstanding natural values, the Lord Howe Island Group – which includes Lord Howe Island and several other islands and marine environments – is on the National Heritage List and the World Heritage List.

Exotic rodents on islands are one of the greatest causes of species extinction in the world. Rats have already been implicated in the extinction of 5 endemic bird species, at least 13 endemic invertebrate species and 2 plant species on Lord Howe Island. Rodents are also a recognised threat to at least 13 other bird species, 2 reptile species, 51 plant species, 12 vegetation communities and 7 species of threatened invertebrates on Lord Howe Island. Of these species, 7 are listed as Critically Endangered under New South Wales and Commonwealth legislation (LHI REP 2017).

Since 2017, a major rodent eradication project has been conducted on Lord Howe Island. The issue was identified in 2001; planning and logistics took place in 2017–19, and baiting happened in 2019–20. Poison was placed inside 22,000 lockable traps around the island, and pellets were distributed via helicopter in inaccessible areas.

By February 2021, this $15 million eradication project program had shown remarkable success, with no rodents being sighted on the island in 15 months. Two rats thought to have come from mainland Australia were caught in April 2021 (Kurmelovs 2021). The population of the endangered flightless Lord Howe Island woodhen has more than doubled since the start of the program (Martin & Rubbo 2021).

This island-wide holistic ecological restoration program also included the eradication of cats and pigs in the 1980s, feral goats in 1999, and myrtle rust in 2018 (a world first) (LHI REP 2017).

The ecological restoration program is underpinned by the Lord Howe Island Biodiversity Management Plan and managed by the Lord Howe Island Board. The rodent eradication project is funded by the Australian Government, the Lord Howe Island Board and the NSW Environmental Trust.

Case Study ‘Marnpi story’ (creation story) of the bronzewing pigeon – an example of co-existing Indigenous–geoheritage values

Barkandji Elder Uncle Badger Bates

Marnpi dreaming, bronzewing pigeon, 1994, a linocut artwork by Uncle Badger Bates, depicts the creation story (‘Marnpi story’) of the bronzewing pigeon (Phaps chalcoptera). The artwork shows the 3 hills known as the Pinnacles on Barkandji (Wilyakali dialect) Country near Broken Hill, New South Wales, where the pigeon is said to have landed (Figure 8). This is a major story that travels across Country, incorporating many different language groups to link them all together.

A flock of bronzewing pigeons flew across Adnyamathanha Country from Murnpeowie (pigeon water) to Barrata, in the Flinders Ranges. A man attempted to catch the pigeons with a net, but one escaped. He threw a boomerang at the pigeon and wounded it, but it flew towards Broken Hill. As it circled around, its blood, kuna (excrement) and feathers fell to the ground and formed the rocks and minerals; the blood formed the Broken Hill gossan or weathered ore body, the kuna formed the quartz outcrops, and the feathers the other rocks that correspond with the colours found in the feather of the bronzewing pigeon.

Finally, the pigeon flew north from Broken Hill and died at a place known today as Mount Brown near Milparinka, where gold was ‘discovered’ in the 1880s. Its spirit went on and up into Mount Isa, Queensland, also known for its minerals.

It is understood by Barkandji peoples that the wounded pigeon formed the distinctive rocks and minerals as it travelled. The ancient story of the bronzewing pigeon and its flight across the Country is mirrored in the western discovery of rich silver, lead, zinc and gold deposits. The Marnpi story attests Indigenous knowledge of Country and of these rocks and mineral deposits long before western science ‘discovered’ them and began mining.

Figure 08 Marnpi dreaming, bronzewing pigeon, 1994

Source: Uncle Badger Bates, Barkandji Elder

Case Study A-tents in Kosciuszko National Park – small-scale, rare and highly vulnerable geoheritage

Sources: Spate et al. (2018) and J Brush, pers. comm., 23 April 2021.

Cooleman Plain, Kosciuszko National Park (an important component of the Australian Alps National Parks and Reserves National Heritage place), has an extensive suite of small-scale karst landform features known as A-tents (Figure 9), which are regarded as significant national heritage.

A-tents are a relatively rare form of surface rock exfoliation feature that results from compression stress release when the compressing force is removed relatively quickly (in geological terms). For many overseas examples, the compression stress release is normally in the form of removing overlying rocks or ice.

Australian A-tents occur in slightly to relatively heavily metamorphosed – hence, coarse-grained – limestone, which is different to the normal context overseas. They have not formed due to deglaciation, but are thought to form once the limestones are exposed, allowing unloading to happen, possibly triggered by the sun’s heat. There are only 3 known localities of A-tents in Australia:

  • Cooleman Plain, with more than 30 identified features
  • Chillagoe, Queensland, with 3 A-tents
  • Wombeyan, New South Wales, with 1 A-tent.

At Cooleman Plain, 102 ‘pop-up’-type structures have been recorded, of which 33 are classic A-tent features, with the rest being blisters, raised arches, separated caps or slabs. The Cooleman Plain A-tents and blisters are small, varying in scale from tens of centimetres to about 2 metres. These karst microstructures are fragile and are at risk from natural weathering and impacts from humans and animals.

In recent years, feral horses have been damaging the A-tents at Cooleman Plain (Spate et al. 2018). There are an estimated 14,380 feral horses in Kosciuszko National Park, with few management controls in place. Kosciuszko National Park was created largely to prevent damage to the alpine environment from introduced animal grazing, and sheep and cattle have been removed from the park because of the damage they cause to the natural environment. The A-tents continue to be at risk, as are many other aspects of the karst such as the spring-fed bogs.

Figure 09 A-tents, Cooleman Plain, Kosciuszko National Park

Photo: Regina Roach

Case Study Geoparks

As well as site-based interpretation and appreciation of geoheritage, larger, landscape-scale opportunities exist. One globally recognised mechanism for this is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Global Geoparks. These are single geographical areas (usually small regions) with international geological significance, which are managed holistically for geoheritage protection, education and sustainable development. They may be based on community-led, voluntary initiatives or on top-down designation (Crofts et al. 2015, UNESCO 2021).

Crofts et al. (2015) regarded geoparks as providing ‘an international framework to conserve and enhance the value of the Earth’s heritage, its landscapes and geological formation’, but noted that they have limitations for geoconservation in that are not systematically identified and classified as a comprehensive global network.

There are 161 geoparks in 4 countries around the world, but there are currently none in Australia (UNESCO 2021). Australia’s previous geopark – Kanawinka Geopark, South Australia and Western Victoria – was deregistered in 2012 (Joyce 2010).

There has, however, been recent interest in proposing the Murchison region in Western Australia (Hayes 2018) and the economic mineral zone of western Tasmania as geoparks (A. McConnell, pers obsv).

Case Study Managing extreme event impacts on the Jenolan Caves

Based on information provided by Dr Kevin Kiernan, formerly University of Tasmania

The Jenolan Caves are part of the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve, which comprises more than 40 kilometres of surveyed underground passages. The Jenolan Caves have been developed into one of Australia’s most celebrated tourism attractions. The reserve also protects important biological, Indigenous and historic heritage; and research, educational, recreational and water catchment values. First reserved in 1866, pre-dating the declaration of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, Jenolan is now on the National Heritage List and the New South Wales State Heritage Register. It is one of 8 areas included in the Greater Blue Mountains Area World Heritage Site. The caves hold significant meaning for the Gundungurra people, who call them binoomea, meaning ‘dark places’.

Managing karst areas can pose particular challenges. The dissolution of limestone that produces karst caves, and re-deposition of the carbonate within them to form stalactites and other speleothems, depend heavily on natural geochemical processes within the overlying soil. Safeguarding soils from degradation is therefore of particular concern when managing karst areas. This is especially true given that only small volumes of eroded sediment may be enough to block underground drainage channels. This can degrade caves, as well as displace water onto the surface above the caves and cause further erosion.

Potential large and intense fires and erosion were identified as significant risks in the late 1980s. This led to recommendations for careful, localised hazard reduction burning of key areas (Dunkley et al. 1988, Kiernan 1989, Stanton et al. 1992). Fire hazard mapping in 1989 estimated that 70% of the reserve had a high fire hazard, but a fire management plan was not developed until 2009.

In 2009, new research (ANU 2009) highlighted the potential for more variable and extreme rainfall events and wildfire due to climate change to cause significant detriment to the karst and caves. This required reconsideration of fire management planning for the reserve. Although general guidelines for managing fire on karst were developed in 2012 (OEH 2012), it was not until 2019 that a new management plan for the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve accorded high priority to updating and implementing the reserve fire management strategy (OEH 2019).

However, no risk management plan has been developed for the area, meaning that firefighters had no advice on key issues and protective approaches when south-eastern Australia experienced major bushfires in January 2020. These fires razed most of the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve, although the historic Caves House was saved. This event was followed almost immediately by torrential rain in February 2020 (see Figure 11), which triggered massive flooding, soil erosion landslips and sedimentation that closed the access roads to the reserve and caused sedimentation in the cave system. The implications of this sedimentation, together with the ongoing instability set in train by the extreme events of 2020, are yet to be assessed.

This highlights the importance of reserve risk management planning where there are significant identified risks to the natural environment. Without such planning, the environmental and heritage costs that can accrue cannot be overestimated.

Figure 11 Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve after the extreme events of 2020

Photo: Ian Brown, New South Wales

Case Study The NSW Rivers Project – recordingunderwater cultural heritage in inland rivers

Based on information provided by Dr Brad Duncan, Senior Maritime Archaeologist, Heritage NSW

Rivers have been central to the lives of many diverse Indigenous communities over countless generations, central to subsistence, transport and all aspects of their living cultures. In colonial Australia, before the introduction of road and rail networks across Australia, rivers acted as highways to the interior, linking agricultural land and other natural resource industries with local national and international markets. Rivers also facilitated social contacts between townships and across borders. With more than 50 river systems in New South Wales alone, documenting the archaeological remains and heritage sites (both above and below water) of riverine cultural landscapes provides a view of the diverse ways of life in Australia’s interior and coastal waterways.

After the discovery of several wrecks in the Murray and Kalang rivers, Heritage NSW began to investigate wrecks and other types of archaeological sites in and around New South Wales waterways. This has evolved into a collaborative project with the Department of Archaeology, University of New England. The project has a major ‘citizen science’ component, with more than 60 volunteers who live in New South Wales inland and coastal river communities assisting with wreck site reporting, documentation and specific field surveys. Community groups and historical societies are also contributing by recording oral histories and identifying previously undocumented sites.

The project, which has been operating since 2010, has contributed significantly to the identification of underwater and terrestrial cultural heritage in the inland rivers of New South Wales, with more than 700 new sites in 30 different waterways being identified.

Projects such as these, which systematically identify and record archaeological information on a statewide basis, are extremely important in improving the recognition and protection of cultural heritage. This project is also contributing to filling a major gap in underwater cultural heritage knowledge and a historic heritage thematic gap more generally.

Figure 17 The wreck of the PS Rodney

Photo: Dr Brad Duncan, Senior Maritime Archaeologist, Heritage NSW

Case Study Objects as cultural heritage: The Australian Antarctic Division’s heritage collection

Sources: McConnell et al. (2015) and Wishart (2020)

Australian Antarctic heritage material usually occurs in situ in Antarctica and on the subantarctic islands in the Australian territories at historic and active bases and other sites. However, a large amount of material is also held in collections in a range of locations in Australia and internationally, including in universities, archives, specialised collecting institutions and museums, and by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD). This material is primarily movable cultural heritage such as tools and equipment, but also includes other objects such as archaeological and structural remains, and documentary material such as government records and diaries. This material is highly diverse, including items such seal brands, sleds, early oversnow vehicles, huts, taxidermied former sled dogs, scientific instruments, medals, flags, midwinter dinner menus, foodstuffs, expeditioner clothing, and other items that form part of the support systems and the lifestyle that underlie Antarctic science and enable it to happen.

This material plays an important role in documenting Australia’s historic connection to Antarctica and the subantarctic, especially Australia’s scientific role, and the development of these territories since the 1800s. The remoteness and extreme environments of Antarctica and the subantarctic mean that much of the material culture was specialised (and hence rare), and tells the story of Australia’s innovative ability and participation in the international scientific arena. Much of this material has social significance because it is highly valued by former expeditioners.

The value of Australian Antarctic and subantarctic collections is not well realised. The material occurs as a large number of dispersed collections, with some material not on public display (e.g. a substantial part of the AAD library’s highly significant special collection of more than 1,000 objects). Also, much of it is not held under archival storage conditions. This situation has the potential to worsen, because the AAD has determined that maintaining a heritage collection is not part of its core business and is therefore looking to dispose of its collection. If done on an object-by-object basis, rather than a collection basis, this is likely to result in a significant loss of heritage value. This would be best resolved by keeping the collection intact and transferring it to another collecting institution, preferably one that already has a significant Australian Antarctic heritage collection and is in a location that has a recognised Australian Antarctic association.

It is also important that the AAD, like other managers of heritage, has a future collection policy and strategy in place to ensure that there is a long-term, ongoing material record of Australia’s engagement in the Antarctic.

Figure 18 Part of the Australian Antarctic Division heritage collection, Kingston, Tasmania

Photo: Anne McConnell