- Photos: Patrick Jackson, Grant Ohlsson, and David Cobbold

Holden V6 used to power water pump for platypus swamp at wildlife sanctuary

Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary in the Adelaide Hills opted to use the big V6 as it was more powerful and reliable than the solar pump they used before.

A V6 engine lifted out of an old Holden Commodore has been given a new lease on life as it has been repurposed as a water pump power supply to keep the lake system that is home to the world's most successful captive breeding program of platypus full of running water.

Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia – a site previously operated by Zoos South Australia before being shuttered in 2013 and purchased by David Cobbold and Narelle MacPherson in 2017 – is home to the platypus breeding program, and it was the handiwork of volunteer Grant Ohlsson that put the clever plan of how to pump water from the biggest and lowest lake back up to the top of the water network into action.

While a 3kW solar pump was previously used on its own to pump water back up to the top, the system was found to not be up to the task – being described by Cobbold to the ABC as, "mediocre in summer and absolute crap in winter," a sentiment he confirmed to me when I was on site as well.

However, by employing the engine from a VT Commodore – a cheap, reliable, and common 3.8-litre Buick V6 – it provided the pumping power that was required to get the water from Lake Cumbungi back up to the top of the hill near the entrance to the sanctuary.

Combining the $500 engine and transmission with a $550 water pump, the greatest expense involved in the project was the cost of all the plumbing fittings, with the total build coming to just $3000.

Housed inside a shed, a heat exchanger custom-made from 30 metres of copper pipe was employed to keep the Commodore engine cool, with it being fed cold water directly from the water pump's outlet. Ohlsson pointed out as well that the custom-fabricated drive coupling "was the most important part of the build – if I had gotten that wrong it would have been disastrous."

The Commodore's cruise control system was adapted to work on the engine as well to keep it ticking away at a steady 2000rpm as indicated by the Calais gauge cluster mounted atop the unit.

Perhaps the only downside to the clever solution is that it's costly to run at roughly $13 an hour – some quick calculations indicate fuel consumption of around 10 litres per hour – although Ohlsson was keen to point out that while it is expensive, the Commodore V6 was considerably less expensive than a diesel engine to install, while an electric motor would not only be around three times more costly per hour to run but also not possible to employ as there is no electricity supply by the lake.

The inherent irony of "burning fossil fuels to save animals" was not lost on Cobbold and Ohlsson, but with the lack of power putting an electric solution out of the question and the budget preventing anything off the shelf, the in-house solution was the only logical option.

But helping to save the platypus population is something it's clearly already doing, as just this week Cobbold had a chance sighting of a female platypus nesting on the shoreline of one of the swamps which he was able to capture on video.

The platypus – a most unusual mammal that is semiaquatic and egg-laying, with males also being venomous – is endemic to eastern Australia, and although they once inhabited the waterways through the Adelaide Hills and Mount Lofty ranges, they became extinct within mainland South Australia after European settlement, with an introduced population on Kangaroo Island being the only platypus out in the wild in SA.

As such, Warrawong Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the only platypus in mainland SA, and the hope is that this clever V6-powered water pump will only help with growing the population at the site beyond the two known breeding pairs currently there.

Although the Holden brand may currently be in its final days as General Motors shuts it down, it's at least nice to see the engine from a Holden still doing its little bit for Australia.

Note: As there weren't any platypuses out for me to spot when I visited the sanctuary, here's a few other native Aussie animals I was able to photograph instead for your daily dose of cuteness.

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Comments (27)

  • Great story Patrick. Holden saves an Aussie icon, even though Holden couldn’t be saved. They could run it on biogas, gather all that roo poo and make methane...

      9 months ago
    • Cheers Allan! Would be interested to see what the viability of a biogas option such as that would be actually

        9 months ago
    • Even tho the AMERICAN BUICK V6 saved this & saved holden for a few more years, holden had to import engines as they couldn't design their own 4,6,& the 5.0 was a total relic of years past!

        1 month ago
  • Unique in every way

      9 months ago
  • This is my favourite story ever.

      9 months ago
  • Nice to read some local news

      9 months ago
  • The quote about the electric pump being more costly to run must include the cost of solar cells, batteries and a big inverter.

    Once setup though it should be trouble free and virtually cost free until batteries need replacing. If the current system runs for two hours a day its $10,000 a year for the petrol setup + the $3000 setup, I’m surprised they haven’t gone electric as that’s massive.

      9 months ago
    • , "mediocre in summer and absolute crap in winter,"

        9 months ago