It started out as an amazing career opportunity but, for Brian Roberts, moving to Charleville in Queensland’s south-west in 1972 turned out to be life-changing.

Key points:

  • In 1972, ecologist Dr Brian Roberts moved to Charleville from South Africa for a 12-month fellowship
  • The year-long study looked at the pastures in 36 sites across western Queensland
  • Now Dr Roberts, who settled in Charleville, is part of a team revisiting some of those sites

The Australian Wool Network awarded the South African ecologist a 12-month fellowship that year and Dr Roberts moved his wife and three kids to Charleville.

“It was a big adventure for my family,” Dr Roberts said.

In fact, they loved it so much, they eventually made the move permanent.

“It was an adventure that led to a big life change,” he said.

“We were coming from apartheid South Africa and we were starting to feel like strangers in our own land.

Tufts of saltbush growing around an airfield in western Queensland, with trees in the distance

Saltbush plains around Yaraka Airfield are one of the 36 sites that Dr Roberts’ team will revisit.(

Supplied: Dr Brian Roberts

)

“[After the 12 months] we spent the next two years trying to come back permanently.

“We [eventually] came back and became Australian citizens at the beginning of 1975 and we’ve been here ever since.”

Study that changed it all

Dr Roberts says his friends call their journey “Roberts’ Odyssey”.

For 12 months, Robert and his team travelled to 36 different sites spread throughout western Queensland, between Longreach and the New South Wales border.

They were tasked with examining the condition of grazing land in western Queensland, and establishing a list of vegetation and soil types at the sites to determine how it may have changed over the years.

1972 photo of 13 men and 3 women smiling, 2 of the women stand in front of a row of men, a third sits cross-legged in front row

Dr Brian Roberts (third from left, upper row) with researchers and participants who assisted him in 1972 for the western Queensland pasture study.(

Supplied: Dr Brian Roberts

)

“We had the clear-cut briefing of trying to establish how the vegetation has changed since settlement,” he said.

After 12 months of travelling around the west, occasionally hitching a ride with the Royal Flying Doctor Service flights to different towns, Dr Roberts published the report “Ecological studies in pasture conditions in semi-arid Queensland”.

It was during this 12-month stint that he and his family fell in love with Charleville, its community and south-western Queensland.

Five decades on

Almost 50 years after the initial study, Dr Roberts and some of his team are returning to western Queensland to revisit those 36 sites.

Now 88, Dr Roberts says he’d always planned on coming back for the 50-year anniversary, but had to plan the trip a little earlier, on the 49th anniversary, due to his declining health.

“It’s a big moment for me,” he said.

“We’re a year head, but I am going backwards, physically, so this maybe the last big one.”

Revisiting the area that he once called home, with most of the original team, is a wonderful walk down memory lane for Dr Roberts.

A man stands in a paddock writing on a notebook

Dr Brian Roberts duing his a year long ecological study of pastures in western Queensland.(

Supplied: Dr Brian Roberts

)

“I’m privileged to have a number of my old team members who were there in ’72,” he said.

“It’s a bit of gathering of the clans.”

Tracking down the 36 sites could prove to be the hardest task, with many now on properties that have since changed hands.

“We’d be lucky if we get to about 10 or 12 of them in much the same shape as they were before,” he said. “But that will do us, beggars can’t be choosers,

“We’ll do the best we can.”

Ecologist comes out of retirement to revisit outback pastures
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