August 2005

Essays

Celina Ribeiro

Drought essay: Orange, NSW

“I’m going to die,” pants Jess Wright. “Good,” says Mrs Jennings. “Do it quietly.”

It is a cold Friday night in central-western New South Wales. The Kinross Wolaroi School indoor pool is the makeshift home of the Orange Icebreakers swim team, and this is their last training session before the winter break. Coach Mrs Jennings is not letting anyone slack off. Even if they are going to die.

The pool has the ambience of all indoor pools in winter. The air is heavy and chemical. An invisible haze hangs over everything. Sounds slap the walls and condensation drips rivulets down the foggy windowpanes. The young swimmers wander knowingly through it all, pushing their hair into swim caps, breathing into goggles. Outside a quiet drizzle goes unnoticed. The town has not seen proper rain for years.

Tonight’s team is small and diverse. There are some local kids from Orange. Eight-year-old Caleb Timms and his two big brothers – Bradley, 10, and Corey, 12 – have travelled half an hour from Blayney for training, a trip they make five nights a week. Emily Miller and Mikhaila Kentwell’s mums and nannas take turns driving the girls from Bathurst, also a 30-minute ride away. While swimming facilities are scarce in Orange, there are fewer in Bathurst and fewer still in Blayney. Jess, the oldest team member at 16, goes to boarding school with students who have had their local pools drained because of drought. The Orange Icebreakers know they are lucky, so when they get here they train hard.

Emily and Corey are racing, and she has beaten him three times already. Once more she hits the wall first, a wave crashing over them. “I beat him again,” she calls out. “Mrs J!” Her triumph is short-lived. “On the red forty,” says Mrs Jennings, “take your marks. Go.” They embark on two more laps of the 25-metre pool, fat white chunks of water shooting up over the sagging line of flags. Corey looks painfully determined. They tumble-turn at the far end and power down the home leg. Dead heat. Corey looks proud and relieved. Not beaten by a girl again.

To Corey’s credit, recent form suggests Emily is not easily defeated. “I got to Catholic State. And I got medals at the district. And I broke seven records at the swimming carnival. And I broke a record at Western rep,” she says, each sentence ending in a rolling inflection.

“We always go to carnivals,” says Bradley. “We’ve been to Condo and we’ve almost made it to Brokie.”

“I’m the only one in the family who’s made it to State,” says Caleb. “Breaststroke. And I came fourth.”

“I’m going to the Pacific School Games in Melbourne,” says Aiden Wright, 12, who will be competing in the diving. “I’ll be versing kids from all Commonwealth countries.” All of tonight’s training group, apart from the youngest swimmers, are off to Victoria soon for the Victorian State Championships. They pride themselves on giving city and coastal squads a real battle.

As another hurried tumble-turn loses what must be at least three litres of water to the wet pool tiles, it is easy to forget that Orange has been on water restrictions since January 2003. Spring Creek Dam is at 45% capacity. Suma Park Dam, the town’s other main water supply, recently climbed to 52%. The Kinross Wolaroi School pool escapes the tyranny of water restrictions because the school sits on top of a bore and does not use any town water.

The drought, say the swimmers, makes little difference to their lives. Drought is the normal state of affairs. It’s “not really a big problem” says Bradley, shaking his head enthusiastically. It doesn’t bother Emily except that she now showers at the pool after training instead of at home. For Aiden, drought means that “the ground’s heaps hard” when he plays rugby. As they mount the blocks and prepare to dive in again, they are concentrating on going hard for 15 metres and easy for ten. Not for an instant do they seem to share the worry of their parents and nannas, chatting on the plastic chairs behind them.

“It was really rough,” says Mrs Jennings. “Really rough.” She says the town’s atmosphere changed because of the drought. When it rained recently it was as if the town had been revived, though the area remains drought-declared. Instead of travelling during their winter break, as is the tradition in Orange, she says people have stayed home in happy, nervous anticipation of more rain.

Caleb and Bradley are giggling and gossiping, their chins hovering above the water in lane one. They love swimming. They have big eyes and big hopes. They talk of Ian Thorpe, and of the reasons why they have been coming here every day after school for the past two or three years. “We might get to the Olympics or something,” says Bradley.

On this Friday night, as they towel themselves off and get ready for the cold ride home, nothing seems capable of derailing their plans. Certainly not this drought.

Celina Ribeiro

Celina Ribeiro is a journalist based in London, where she co-edits a small magazine. She has written for the New Statesman, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and New Matilda

Cover: August 2005

August 2005

From the front page

Learner, not learning

Australia’s “L-plate” environment minister goes to Poland

Illustration

The Liberal Party: a rolling fiasco

The government’s suite of half-formed ideas work for no one

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Protecting Craig Kelly

Saving the MP from a preselection battle was another fine display of muppetry

Saving Ningaloo again

Western Australia’s World Heritage site isn’t as protected as you’d expect


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