A unique university course in rural South Australia is giving Aboriginal students the opportunity to swap the classroom for time on country, and help restore former farmland into a thriving wetland.

The Mount Burr restoration project, in the state’s south-east, is utilising cultural learning and land management practices to return the 300-hectare site to its former glory.

Students from the University of South Australia’s Aboriginal Pathways Program and local Aboriginal elders have been connecting on site through field trips over an eight-week land management course.

Tutor Barry Tarr said the cultural emphasis was what made the course unique.

12 young people sit in a circle on log stumps by a forested area.

A different kind of classroom.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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Students must write a 2,000-word Healthy Country Plan as part of the course to come up with some strategies to care for and manage the swamp.

“For example, to protect and help the endangered species come back, but also to introduce some traditional methods, using the site for learning, culture, preservation and and also healing as well,” Mr Tarr said.

Country a good place to learn

Mr Tarr reckons students enjoy it more than sitting in the classroom.

“[They] come from all different backgrounds, some have grown up with a strong connection to the environment, and some are just learning about it,” Mr Tarr said.

A woman with blonde hair in a grey houded jumper throws a boomerang into the distance, forest trees behind her.

Students are shown how to throw a boomerang.(

ABC South East SA: Selina Green

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The 18-month Pathways Program aims to create a pathway for students into further study or equip them for entering the workforce.

Previous students have gone on to study law, medical science, nursing and architecture, and enter the police force.

Boandik woman and program teacher Aunty Michelle Jacquelin-Furr said she had seen the passion students have for being on country.

An aerial photo of a small town surrounded by lush green paddocks and forest.

The township of Mount Burr.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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“It’s so good to be able to come here and actually see the country being rejuvenated and changed and brought back to how it was when our ancestors were here thousands of years ago.

“It’s something that was missing. And now we can bring it back.”

Aunty Michelle said it was up to all Australians, not just these students, to care for country.

A man standing outside plays a didgeridoo while a woman dances behind him.

Uncle Doug Nicholls (right) with Aunty Michelle Jacquelin-Furr in Mount Burr.(

ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham

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“But the students are the next ones you know — the next leaders.”

Uncle Doug Nicholls, from nearby Kingston, works with the Aboriginal focus group and shared a boomerang throwing lesson with the students on their final field trip to the swamp.

He said getting students on country was an opportunity to demonstrate cultural values and spirituality, and how that was linked to caring for the landscape.

A man teaching students at a camp

Uncle Doug Nicholls.(

ABC South East SA: Selina Green

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“Students from the pathway program would be at an advantage to have that important knowledge for themselves and for their spiritual and emotional well-being.”

Student Roxanne says she was open-minded about her future study options but enjoyed learning about the legal aspects of native title and heritage.

“The foundation program definitely helps with just setting yourself up and teaching you how to get your assignments and courses and stuff all together, and how to be able to do it all properly,” she said.

The swamp

The Mount Burr property was purchased several years ago by local not-for-profit environmental group Nature Glenelg Trust.

Located adjacent to an existing 600-hectare wetland reserve, the previously drained landscape is slowly being restored to a haven for plants and wildlife.

Senior ecologist Bryan Haywood said the university partnership gave students a chance to think about the issues faced in managing the land.

“We want to encourage people to be able to get out on country and get involved in what we’re doing, from trying to increase and improve the hydrology of the wetlands, through to the seed collecting and plant propagation, planting and weed control.”

Mount Burr swamp full

The site has again filled with water, allowing plants and native species such as water birds and frogs to again thrive.(

Supplied: Nature Glenelg Trust

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He said the site had undergone a big transformation over recent years.

“When we blocked the outlet to the wetland, the water returned to a higher level than it would have been many years and with that, all of the frogs, the bird life, the plant life all just said `thank you’ and have started to come back,” he said.

Aboriginal students help restore 300-hectare swamp site to former glory
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