In amongst the dense scrubland and clouds of dust created by dirt roads, lies a lush, green desert oasis called Coombool Swamp, that holds generations of Aboriginal knowledge near the South Australian-New South Wales border.

Key points:

  • Traditional owners are working to restore wetlands including Coombool Swamp in the Chowilla Regional Reserve
  • They’re sharing Aboriginal cultural knowledge with Governments to help manage the environment and water delivery
  • The SA Department for Environment and Water says it’s important to learn from the traditional owners and keep an ongoing conversation going

The culturally significant lake within the Chowilla Regional Reserve is filled with native grasses and has been the site of a flora and fauna revival since it began receiving environmental water in 2016.

Traditional owner Philip Johnson said it hasn’t always looked so healthy and as natural floods have become less frequent, it has gone dry for decades at a time before environmental water deliveries have occurred.

Prior to additional environmental water deliveries in 2019 and 2020, Coombool Swamp was a dry landscape with deteriorating flora and fauna.(

Supplied: Department for Environment and Water


“We were brought up with the floods and we used to go swimming in them. Now we get none at all. It’s shocking because my kids have never seen a flood,” he said.

Traditional owner Timothy Johnson said his childhood memories of Coombool Swamp were different to the years of dry spells he had seen it go through in his lifetime.

“There was water around when the floods were up, that’s when we did camping and hunting for everything that lived off the land,” he said.

“Now you need keys to get in everywhere we used to go…and I can only go hunting on certain areas today.”

Swan survival breeds hope

Now traditional owners are sharing their cultural river management knowledge with Federal and State Governments to bring new life to this site and many others across the Riverland region.

Traditional owners say the return of swans to Coombool Swamp in 2020 is a sign the lake’s health is being restored.(

Supplied: Helga Kieskamp


First Peoples Coordinator and traditional owner Fiona Giles said two additional environmental water deliveries to Coombool Swamp in 2019 and 2020 has led to the rebirth of swans, which are a culturally significant totem animal, or Ngatji.

“Our Elders have taught us how we are spiritually connected to our Ngatji and that we have traditional lores and practices that have to be respected when hunting, killing and eating Ngatji,” she said.

Traditional owner Delilah Lindsay said seeing the swans, their nests and eggs was “amazing” and unlike anything she had experienced in her life.

The delivery of environmental water to Coombool Swamp has led to positive outcomes for the wetland.(

Supplied: Department for Environment and Water


“The first time coming here was just very dry, grey with dead trees and not much wildlife around, it was horrible to see,” Ms Lindsay said.

The restoration of water to Coombool Swamp has also seen the lake’s surrounding river red gum and black box trees improve in health, and SA’s Department for Environment and Water senior project manager Alison Stokes has been monitoring the change.

Monitoring the health of the environment and sharing cultural knowledge is an important role for the First Peoples of the River Murray and Mallee region.(

Supplied: Department for Environment and Water


She has worked at the site since the early 2000s, through years of drought and environmental decline, and said while it is not the same as a flood, environmental water deliveries can boost the condition of native vegetation.

“The trees provide really important refuge habitats, food and nesting places for lots of species,” she said.

Passing down powerful knowledge

The traditional owners and other key stakeholders agree that a lot of work still needs to be done in and around the 177,000 hectare Chowilla Regional Reserve, which is only achieved through ongoing conversations.

“A lot of sites around here are culturally significant. I’ve seen a lot of campsites and burials around here that still need to get protected from four wheel drives and motorbikes,” Ms Giles said.

“More water deliveries to swamps like these in the back of the river system are also needed to make it healthier for our trees, the environment and the animals,” traditional owner Philip Johnson explained.

Traditional owners Philip Johnson and Delilah Lindsay are happy to see Coombool Swamp looking healthy again and sprouting new life.(

ABC Riverland: Sam Bradbrook


Traditional owners Delilah Lindsay and Kayleen Giles said their position as members of the younger generation has highlighted the importance of listening and learning about Aboriginal knowledge and passing it on to future generations.

“It’s kind of like the old people’s will passed down to us. They didn’t have anything like cars or money back in the day, but they had this,” Ms Lindsay said.