On Barrow Island with Harry Butler and the SAS: memories of wildlife and war games
Updated: Oct 28
Satellite image of Barrow Island, off the north-west coast of Western Australia
I have been reading about the formation and early adventures of the Special Air Service, the crack commando regiment, the toughest of the tough. Ben Macintyre’s superb book, SAS Rogue Heroes, recounts in detail the SAS’s radical approach to warfare in World War II, as they raided and sabotaged behind enemy lines firstly in North Africa, then in Italy and then in France after D Day. Their exploits called for the highest levels of courage and resilience – coupled to a culture of ruthless efficiency.
I have twice crossed paths with the Australian Army's SAS regiment, which is based in Perth.
The first time was when I was the district forester at Pemberton in the early 1970s, and the SAS arrived every year for training exercises in the karri forest. This was the time of the Vietnam War, and soldiering in the dense and often impenetrable bush around Pemberton was considered good preparation for the jungles of Vietnam. I arranged for the Colonel to use our towerman’s hut at Gardner Tree as his field HQ and provided other support, mostly local knowledge about the local forests which helped him plan his training exercises. In return he took me for a wonderful ride in his helicopter, and I was able to make good use of this to examine some potential spots for fire lookouts.
A more recent crossing of paths occurred in 1989. I was a senior officer with the Department of Conservation and Land Management at the time, and one of my responsibilities was the oversight of the far-flung staff of our regional operations division. These were also tough people, well-trained and capable in outback survival as well as in the scientific disciplines of their work. The trips were a highlight of my working life. I travelled with scientists, district officers and rangers to the wildest and remotest corners of the State in the central deserts, the off-shore islands, the north-west and the Kimberley. My job was two-fold: trying to make sure our precious dollars were being properly invested in priority projects, and at the same time finding out first-hand how our field staff lived and worked, so that I could support them when needed. It was work, but also fun and a wonderful opportunity – not only could I experience and appreciate totally different landscapes to those in which I had grown up in the southwest forests, but even better, I could share them with clever, humorous and hard-working people.
The occasion I am now recalling was slightly out of the ordinary. This was a four-day trip to Barrow Island, a long, narrow island about 60 kms from Onslow off the Pilbara coast. With an area of 26,500 ha, it is Western Australia's second largest island (after Dirk Hartog).
Barrow is a remarkable place: firstly, it is a nature reserve and is heaving with wildlife, especially species of mammals now extinct or reduced to tiny remnants on the Australian mainland where they have been eaten out by foxes and cats. Barrow is free of introduced predators and its original ecosystems survive. I will never forget my astonishment on my first night on the island, going outside the living quarters and finding myself almost ambushed by dozens of small scuttling native animals – including boodies, golden bandicoots, possums and spectacled hare-wallabies – animals I had never seen before. I realised that this was a living example of the Australian environment before European settlement.
Spectacled hare-wallaby on Barrow Island (photo by Andrew Burbidge)
The second reason why Barrow Island is so remarkable is that it is also a working oil field, at that time one of the two most important oil fields in Western Australia. The southern half of the island is dotted with wells, busily pumping oil which is later loaded onto tankers for shipping to refineries down south. All the normal infrastructure accompanies the wells: there is an airfield, living quarters, roads, barge landing, power supplies, vehicles and so on, and there are several hundred men and women who live and work on the island.
A ’Nodding Donkey” pumping oil on Barrow Island, euros in the foreground (photo by Andrew Burbidge)
I was visiting Barrow with the Department’s chief research scientist Andrew Burbidge and the oil company’s environmental consultant Harry Butler. Andrew is one of Australia’s great wildlife scientists. He has spent his lifetime studying and working to conserve our native plants and animals and he is a foremost expert on WA’s islands and their history and ecology. In those days he was a tall, angular, rather austere young man, one who I had found hard to get to know at first. But then we had been on a couple of field trips together and he found me eager to share his knowledge and passions about the bush. There had been some long evenings under the stars in remote places, with a chance to get to know each other around the campfire, over the whisky bottle. We found that our wives had been at Modern School together. A respectful friendship had slowly emerged.
Unlike Andrew, who was softly-spoken, modest and mostly shunned the limelight, our companion Harry Butler was noisy, ebullient and world-famous. He was a gifted naturalist and communicator who had made a series of ground-breaking TV programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s which dealt with wildlife and conservation issues. These days you can hardly turn on the TV without finding one or more channels showing a program on threatened wildlife, endangered species, bush tucker or the like, but it was Harry who pioneered the genre. His “Harry Butler in the Wild” programs were seen all over the world and his had become a household name. He wore a battered bush hat and cultivated a rough bushman style (nowadays widely imitated), and spoke in a strong Aussie accent, but there was a touch of the showman about him, and his programs always contained a dramatic scene or two. Harry would run down a racehorse goanna, spring back from the snapping jaws of a saltwater crocodile or stroke a tiger snake which he had just drawn from a hollow in a tree while perching precariously on a thin branch high above the ground.
Harry Butler on Barrow Island
Harry was a showman, but he knew his wildlife, especially the Australian reptiles and marsupials and he was one of the first to admire and highlight the superb bushmanship of the Aboriginal people. I had met Harry once before when he had come to Pemberton in about 1970 to make one of his first TV programs about the karri forest, and to train Forests Department staff in fauna survey. I arranged to take Harry and his crew down to the Yeagarup Dunes, which later featured in the series. I will always remember walking across the bare dunes with Harry when he suddenly stopped and said “Do you want to know how the Aborigines got a drink of fresh water in the middle of a thousand acres of sand on a hot day?”
I replied that I did.
Harry knelt down and pointed to a scarcely discernible mark on the sand, then began to dig with his hands. About half a metre down he uncovered a huge frog, which he excavated and held in both hands. “This little bugger is full of water,” he said, “and if you squeeze it just here, and hold it like this” (he tipped back his head and held the frog over his mouth), “you get about a mug-full of beautiful cool, fresh water, straight from the frog.” I didn’t feel thirsty just at that moment, so the frog was returned unsqueezed to the sand, but it was an impressive display of bushmanship.
Andrew, Harry and I were visiting Barrow Island to make the annual inspection and audit which was one of the conditions under which the oil company was allowed to operate on the nature reserve. Our job was to tick off a checklist of items and review any incidents which had occurred over the past year - one I recall was the discovery of an introduced black rat on the barge bringing supplies from the mainland; this had been dealt with and the island remained rat-free. We also had a good look at the research and management programs and generally reassured ourselves that the wildlife on the place was thriving and the lease conditions were being observed.
Harry showed us around, and he was in his element. He had long since given up show-business and was now an environmental consultant, and he had designed the oil company’s environmental management plan and the system of quarantine that applied to every island visitor. This worked well, and he was rightly proud of it. Our audit, especially the field work, was entertaining, as well as interesting. This was my first visit to a Pilbara island, and I was intrigued by the red soil, and the desert-like vegetation, with spinifex on the sandplains, and clumps of diminutive native fig on top of the low hills, and rocky limestone breakaways. Harry knew the place like the back of his hand (as also did Andrew, who had been there many times before), and he darted around the island showing us a sea eagle here, turtle tracks there, a well-occupied boodie warren (with its resident perentie) on this side of the vehicle and numerous species of reptile and bird on the other. Wherever we went there was something of intense interest to be pointed out, discussed and noted for our report.
A green turtle on the beach at Barrow Island – limestone cliffs beyond (photo by Andrew Burbidge)
I had never seen so much wildlife in my life. These days a project like the Barrow Island oil field would probably never get to first base – there would be a well-orchestrated campaign by environmentalists, egged on by the media, and the politicians would buckle under. The Green Crusade had still to be invented in those days, and approval had been given to operate under the conditions of a management plan and regular independent audit. As far as I could see the whole business was a success: the oil field had been tapped to the economic benefit of the community, and people like Andrew and Harry were ensuring that the wildlife survived, indeed prospered, at the same time.
There was a parallel aspect of this trip that was also intriguing. Our visit coincided with a major military training exercise on the island. The war game scenario was that “terrorists” had taken over the island, disabled the airfield and were planning to blow up the oil wells. They had taken hostages, and these were being held in a building patrolled by the terrorist guards, who were dressed in black fatigues and balaclavas. The role of the terrorists was being played by units from the regular Army’s Pilbara Regiment.
The SAS regiment from Perth was cast in the role of counter-terrorists. It was to be their job to rescue the hostages and disable and capture the terrorists. We discovered that the terrorists were in place already when we arrived on the island, and the counter-attack was expected a few days hence.
Early on the morning of the third day of our visit, we were driving happily along when suddenly Harry braked to a skidding halt and leapt out. “Come on,” he cried, “I know a spot over there teeming with rock wallabies!” So out we piled and off we went cross-country on foot, eventually coming to a high ridge which broke away into a steep limestone cliff. Beyond and across the plain you could see the distant airfield and oil installations.
Typical landscape on the western side of Barrow Island, with spinifex tussock grass on the plains and a rocky cliff dotted with clumps of dwarf fig trees (Photo by Andrew Burbidge)
Standing on the edge of the cliff amongst the dense clumps of dwarf fig trees, we looked down and sure enough, we soon spotted the rock wallabies. There were dozens of the beautiful spring-heeled little animals, bounding about on the rocks, and moving agilely up and down the cliff face, amazingly sure-footed and superbly balanced. Rock wallabies were once abundant on the mainland, but were almost completely eaten out by foxes and cats. They are one of the loveliest of our small macropods, almost playful in the way they go about their daily business. We watched their display entranced and in silence for several minutes … when suddenly an eerie feeling crept over us – we felt as if we were being watched ourselves! The hair on the back of our necks started to prickle!
It took a while to realise what was going on, but there was a tiny sound and our eyes were drawn to a fig clump a few metres away. Slowly we perceived that we were indeed not alone – we were standing in the midst of the SAS! The soldiers were dressed in camouflage outfits and had blackened faces and were lying motionless and silent under camouflage netting in the dark, dappled shade of the dwarf fig trees. There were about twenty-five of them, they were armed to the teeth, and grim-faced.
We found out later that the SAS had come ashore from a naval vessel the previous night (two days before they were expected) and had already reconnoitred a fair bit of the island before setting up this observation post on the ridge overlooking their target. They had planned their military operation meticulously but had overlooked one factor – the uncontrolled careering around the island at that time by wildlife enthusiasts with a special interest in rock wallabies! It had been chance that had brought us to that very spot at that very moment, but even then they nearly got away with it. To say that they were “pissed off” at their cover being blown is to put it mildly. Luckily for them, however, we had no desire to get involved in their war games, so after a few words with the Major (who did not emerge, but spoke to us from within his hide), we left quietly and subsequently kept our discovery to ourselves. We also heard a couple of days later that their attack at the airfield had been a success, the regular army defenders having been routed at every turn and the hostages released.
My main memory of the incident is the effectiveness of skilful camouflage techniques, even in the skimpy vegetation of Barrow Island. It was very well done. The camouflage was designed to trick the mind rather than the eye. It was like one of those visual puzzle tricks where a face is hidden in a maze of dots, and you have to focus your mind, by an act of will, to see it. As soon as we realised the soldiers were there we could see them clearly, but otherwise the part of the brain connected to our eyes seemed to just not register them. We looked but did not see. Had this not been a war game but the real thing, and had we been terrorists, I fear the SAS would have easily ambushed us, and some silent slitting of throats may well have transpired.
I can also remember thinking how different it would have been if we had a dog with us. Even my old dog Ruby, at that time deaf and short-sighted (she and I made a good pair) but still with a razor-sharp sense of smell, would have been sniffing, growling and wagging her tail the moment we came within cooee of those hidden men.
As for Harry, he burst into loud and derisive laughter once the soldier’s cover had been blown – he regarded all soldiers, even the SAS, as amateur bushmen by his standards, and saw the whole episode as a tremendous joke.
As I recall that trip to Barrow Island, I cannot help but reflect on the antagonism from global warming activists to any new gas and oil exploration and drilling. If nothing else, Barrow is a telling example of how responsible environmental management and industry can co-exist. The oil and gas companies know that they are operating in a privileged situation, and under the nose and eyes of the authorities. They understand and accept their obligations. Fifty years on, the island is still a magnificent nature reserve, and one of the most important resources of animals for translocation back to the mainland as part of the various recovery programs for threatened species.
Humans seem never to learn the lessons of war. On the other hand, I believe that we have learned, and are learning the lessons of wildlife conservation. Good men and women are doing good work, based on noble aims and with many fine outcomes. Conservation programs are increasingly being supported by governments, industry, the corporate world and the community. Yes, there are still battles to be won, and barriers to be overcome. Appalling policy blunders, such as the government-supported destruction of jarrah forests by bauxite miners, continue to be made … but the general direction, as my trip to Barrow Island confirmed, is positive.
I thank Andy Burbidge for permission to use photographs from the magnificent book Island Jewells - the natural history of Western Australian Islands which he co-authored with Ian Abbott.
Renowned Western Australian wildlife scientists Andrew Burbidge (left) and Ian Abbott