How a Luxury Resort Is Hoping to Save Australia's Wombats From a Deadly Epidemic
Australia’s population of wombats is facing a mange crisis that threatens their very survival. Mange is a mite infestation that causes itching and discomfort so severe that affected animals give themselves sores and scabs from scratching. Those injuries tend to get infected and eventually kill the animal.
Though it’s not known exactly where the mange affecting wombats originated, scientists think it came over with European settlers and the invasive species they brought with them, like foxes and domestic dogs.
Hope is not completely lost, though. One Australian luxury resort that’s known for taking the lead on environmental issues is fighting this scourge.
Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley is located in the iconic, World Heritage-listed Greater Blue Mountains, about a three-hour drive from Sydney. It sits on a 7,000-acre conservancy, of which the resort facilities occupy just 1 percent. The conservancy’s eucalyptus-shaded slopes, pristine mountain streams, and rolling pastures are the perfect habitat not only for the mobs of eastern grey kangaroos, red-necked wallabies, and wallaroos that call the area home, but also a large wisdom of wombats. (That’s the word for a group of wombats.)
However, even the wombat population in this relatively sheltered area is facing the mange crisis. To help, the resort partially funded the University of Western Sydney’s WomSAT app and website, which uses the built-in GPS systems of smartphones to let people report wombat sightings and impressions of the animals’ health so researchers can analyze the data. Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley also collaborates with the university on using drones to survey wombat burrows in the area in an effort to monitor the health of population.
Though infected wombats can be treated for mange, a cured wombat can catch the mites again. According to Matt, my field guide on a nocturnal wildlife safari on the property, part of the problem is that wombats “bed-hop a lot and swap burrows.” If the previous occupant had mange, the new resident might contract the infestation, too.
Apart from educating guests on wombat woes, the hotel’s Field Guide team, along with help from guests over the years, has planted more than 200,000 native trees and shrubs along the riverbanks in an effort to restore the endemic ecology for the 1,500 native species to be found around the conservancy. Resort guests can also hike and bike along miles of mountain trails that are well marked to avoid erosion and landscape degradation.
All that is a fitting legacy for a place where Darwin passed through during his famous world circumnavigation on the HMS Beagle in 1836. Guests can still visit the historic homestead on the property where he was a guest while looking for platypuses in the area. Emirates commissioned environmentalist Ian Kiernan to restore it using original building materials according to Australia’s strict Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Significance. Kiernan is best known for founding a movement called Clean Up Australia Day 20 years ago, where communities across the nation take on local conservation projects in parks, bushlands, waterways and beaches.
Emirates One&Only Wolgan Valley was the first hotel in the world to achieve internationally accredited carbon-neutral certification when it opened in 2009. It remains the only hotel in Australia with it to this day as it incorporates conservation and sustainability practices guests might or might not notice.
While 70 percent of the resort’s drinking water comes from rainwater, the remaining 30 percent is pumped by windmills (rather than electrical pumps) to an onsite treatment plant from Carne Creek, which flows through the property. The resort generates 35 percent of its power from renewable energy and has over 100 solar panels to power its hot water systems, including the ones that heat the private indoor-outdoor plunge pools in each of the 40 guest villas.
The spirit of sustainability extends to the décor, too. Locally quarried sandstone was used in much of the construction, and wood from fallen old-growth eucalyptus trees found on the reserve was milled then crafted by artisans in the region into many of the furniture pieces used to decorate the villas.
The salvage-chic ethos is even more evident in the Main Homestead reception building. Whenever possible, local woodworker Damian Howard repurposed materials found around the property and surrounding region to eye-catching effect. The enormous timber ceiling beams were milled on the property from decommissioned bridges in the area. Fence posts from the original homestead form the wall behind reception. The metalwork on the front doors was taken from horse-drawn carriages. Light fixtures designed by Michael Yabsley incorporate items ranging from a defunct tractor to an enormous cattle-feeding trough that has been turned into the chandelier of the private dining room. Perhaps the most dramatic piece, though, is the clock at the end of the Main Homestead hallway that was created by Howard out of a huge, 600-year-old burl of Red Box wood found on the property.
Even the food here has a low-carbon footprint. Chef Nancy Kinchela’s menus are created using organic produce that mostly comes from within 100 miles of the hotel (seafood is the exception), including the organic on-property garden.
I was still thinking about a dish I sampled of cured Tasmanian salmon, local dairy crème fraîche and celery ribbons, edible flowers, mini cucumbers and parsley from the garden on my way back to my villa after dinner one evening when I heard something grunting on the dark lawn in front of me. Turning on my flashlight, I saw a huge wombat, luckily with no sign of mange on him, happily munching on the grass. Turns out he was having a locally sourced dinner, too.