If you want to find out about Australia you shouldn’t take a trip to the bush. It will tell you about the bush, or wherever you are in the bush, but I’m not sure it will tell you much about Australia, where eight out of ten of us live in A.D. Hope’s parasite cities and fill our soft selves with any mythology that makes us feel better. No, to find out about Australia you should probably start in a sarsaparilla suburb of Melbourne, where Channel Nine opinions are parroted and where even the good newspaper is full of recipes and columnists who know only about coffee. You should start in a place where former footballers are wise because they once coached Collingwood. Mick Malthouse, who still coaches Collingwood, is a leader in this community, so much so that last month he single-handedly instigated a minute’s silence at the Gabba against terror and for the victims of the London bombing.
You should start in a place like Deer Park, where I find myself now, in a hire car so mass-produced that 45 minutes ago in the city depot I expected the uniformed customer service attendant to draw on her uniformed phrase book and ask me, at just the right moment, whether I wanted fries with my four-cylinder sedan. And whether I had Fly Buys. And whether I spent my evenings counting them to see if they’d take me away.
I’m going on a trip to the bush and I need some micro-cassettes for my dictaphone. I walk along the strip of shops. I get cash from the ATM. I check over my shoulder and feel a little surprised – surprised by my feeling of slight unease. I buy a spring roll and a potato cake, although if I’d wanted I could have purchased a tattoo and had my eyebrow pierced next door. There’s a video shop. An old man sits on a bench drinking from a tallie of VB wrapped in a brown paper bag. A cricket pitch away at a table outside a cafe a bloke, probably a real estate agent, whom I think I recognise from Muriel’s Wedding, sits with a couple who are clearly his clients. He speaks to them like he is the holder of the truth. And the truth, as we in Australia all know, is negative gearing.
It is inappropriate to linger, although I’d like to. Because I reckon he’s about to talk to them about the significance of the land, and property development, before bagging the idle poor in general and the old fart with the beer in particular. He prefers the idle rich. I drive towards Ballarat. I find myself thinking of Manning Clark and his phrase “the kingdom of nothingness”. And here I am, another city writer, going to the bush, although I did grow up in the bush. I’m heading up to the Mallee in north-western Victoria, then across to Eudunda in South Australia, where I spent the summer of 1984-85 working in the silos and playing cricket. I’m keen to hear stories, stories of the forever-dry, of years of drought. The funny thing is it’s been raining up there for four weeks and the weather reports on ABC radio tell me there’s more on the way.
I bypass Ballarat and get through grazing country, with its hint of Englishness, and further north where crops are up. Some are high enough to make the paddocks billiard-table green. Some have just germinated and look like a Bert Newton hair transplant. I drive down the long main street of St Arnaud with its 19th century facades and old signs for Drapers. I still need tapes. In a high-ceilinged shop that may once have been a bank a few computers are for sale. The proprietor tells me business has been slow for five years. No rain and no one in the shops. “But the mood changed four weeks ago,” he says, “with the rain. And we’ve had some follow-up rain.”
He sends me to the electrical shop, where the fifty-something saleswoman sells me three tapes and tells me: “I’ve lived here all my life and it was the worst it’s been ever – except for ’82-83, of course … I never used to believe it. But the older I get the more I realise it’s farming which makes this place. If farmers are doing it tough, we’re doing it tough.”
Beyond St Arnaud the country opens up. Plains. Huge flat paddocks, some golden green in the afternoon sunshine, some just planted. An empty dam. Silos along the railway line. A shearing shed. Timber homes enveloped by gum-tree doonas, wispy smoke from their chimneys, like they belong there, nestled into the ground. Kids on mini-bikes. The little town of Watchem, its war-memorial digger on guard duty.
The Mallee starts before Birchip. I know this because a sign tells me. Just before the town an historical marker catches my eye: Campbell’s Tank, a ditch built next to the railway line in 1891 to capture and hold stormwater, which was then pumped into wagons and water carts for domestic and stock supply. The Mallee had very little natural water so settlers made every effort to collect what they could. Evaporation taxed their stores. Australia experienced a protracted drought from 1895 until 1903, the fiercest year being 1902. During those years water trains came from the south and poured thousands of gallons into Campbell’s Tank. That drought made the locals realise farming in the Mallee was futile without reliable water – not for irrigation, just for basic survival of man and beast. And so an enormous labyrinth of channels was dug by hand, and with horse and plough, to reticulate water from the rain-rich Grampians of the south.
It’s all about water. As the sign reminds us: WELCOME TO BIRCHIP HOME OF THE MALLEE BULL WATER RESTRICTIONS IN PLACE. The Mallee bull has a similar place in Australian life to the Bondi tram, except the Bondi tram has never inspired such a piece of artwork as Big Red, the statue of a Mallee bull, which has horns, eyes like Marty Feldman and is in no way testicularly challenged. The local council protects its icon with the sign: CLIMBING ON BULL NOT PERMITTED.
There are a few cars in Birchip’s main street, about the right number for a town of 800 or so. I look at the shop windows. One has a newspaper clipping of old photos from the 1920s – of floods. The Birchip Motel lady is friendly enough.
“Country looks good,” I say.
“Wonderful,” she says. “It’s a good start. Just need a bit more at the right time.”
I pick up a Birchip Historical Society brochure and a copy of The Buloke Times. I ring Dorothy Reid, a key figure in the society. “I’m just making ten litres of vegetable soup,” she says, “which I have to bring into the church hall tomorrow. We’re catering for the Birchip Cropping Group field day. I could meet you after that. At about ten o’clock. Would that be all right?”
I read the Times. The editorial is about rain: “There’s an almost infallible way of making it rain that has nothing to do with cloud seeding, ritual dancing or the eating of sweet corn. All that’s needed is the scheduling of a Buloke Shire Coucil meeting at Sea Lake … At least three times in the past couple of years these meetings have been accompanied by rain in quantities that have filled the tanks with water and the farmers with hope.” There are a number of articles about the rain, and graphs of recent falls, and comparisons with the average (the worm). One story records quite simply that the writer “drove home through steady gentle rain”. That’s news in the Mallee. Good news.
I walk to the pub. The sunset is red and gold and orange. Football voices pierce the air. Laughter. Claps. Macca, Macca, Macca, Macca. A whistle and a booming voice. I can see the lights ablaze in the distance. At the Birchip Hotel there are two drinkers but no barman. So one of the drinkers, Pete, pours me a beer.
“Been dry here for nine years in a row,” he says.
“How dry?” I ask.
“That dry the artificial lawn at the bowls club turned brown,” Pete says. And when I write it down Pete nods to the other bloke and says: “He’s writin’ it down.”
The other bloke is Graeme, who describes himself as a “man with a large wife and a small family”. He’s a farmer in his sixties and we get talking about the nags, which leads into a discussion of the merits of local(ish) trainer ‘Big Dazza’ Dodson from Telopea Downs. Graeme knows all too well the nature of chance. “Good horse, You’re Joking,” he says. “I was at that Horsham Cup.” Horsham is in the Wimmera, a whole weather pattern away.
He’s been on the wrong end of chance. “The 1940s were bad,” he recalls. “Saturday night was bath-night. Wash-day once a week too. But it’s been a dry time now. There’s less rain. The record shows that. Water is precious here. Always has been. I’ve got a tank on every roof. Tanks on every shed. Every drop is saved. But there’s no rhyme or reason. No rule. You just have to wait. Patience. The rain will come. It will rain.”
It has rained around Birchip and the relief is palpable. There are no grim faces, no Hanrahans. Some farmers had taken a punt and planted “dry” – before it rained, in the hope that the season would break and the winter weather pattern would arrive. It did. There were two days of 20 millimetres followed by nine or ten days of showers and sprinkles, enough to help build longer term moisture content. Once it rained those who had waited got to work. It was a frenzy of sowing, neighbours helping each other until every possible paddock was cultivated and planted. Even tiny triangular house-paddocks.
But there can never be confidence in the Mallee. Only hope. “The rain is like gold,” says Graeme, “but the season’s not over until the grain is in the silo.” All it would take is frosts at the wrong time – and there can be some frigid nights in the Mallee – or no rains in the growing season, or a couple of unseasonably hot weeks in the spring, and the promise of these past weeks disappears. That’s happened a few times in the last decade. It’s all so fragile, so delicately poised. Les Murray writes in “Dead Trees in the Dam”:
paddocks. Which, however green, are
always watercolour, and on brown paper
Another bloke walks in. Lloyd is a farmer and a banker. He’s in town for the field day. He tells me how different farm banking is these days, how in days past ambitious young bankers keen on accelerating their rise through the ranks were happy to do a stint in the country despite having little or no understanding of the realities of farming in a dry continent. Now there are specialists. While families are still forced to walk off farms, it has more to do with the vagaries of the season than imposed economic strictures. Properties in the Mallee are still largely family enterprises. And although the Mallee is regularly a Steinbeck dustbowl, local farms are not owned by city banks.
Back at the motel the fairy lights have come on. They are in the shape of sheep, and one clings to the gutter above my basic room. I abide by the sign that implores I shower quickly and don’t leave the tap running while I clean my teeth.
Dorothy Reid pulls up outside the Birchip Historical Museum. The thick fog has lifted. She has delivered her soup. She looks like a member of the Ladies Guild. We go inside the building that was once the old courthouse and where many items are on display, neatly categorised and proudly kept, the stuff of everyday life. She tells me that the soldier in the Redgum song “I Was Only 19” was a Birchip boy, Frankie Hutt, who really did kick a mine the day that mankind kicked the moon, and that he was back in Birchip on Anzac Day this year to tell the tale. And that Ray Neville was the youngest jockey to win the Melbourne Cup, steering Rimfire to victory in 1948.
She also tells me, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, of the worst droughts around Birchip: “1902. 1914 was bad. The men went on the road with the sheep. 1929, a lot packed up and took their sheep away by train. There was always water from the channels, just no feed. 1939 to ’41: that was bad. My husband had to leave school to go on the road with his dad. 1944-45 was another drought. The 1950s were good years. 1967-68 was one of the worst. 1982-83 was very bad. It was so hot. And the price of stock was so low: five cents a sheep. They dug pits and a lot of sheep were shot.”
Dorothy grew up on a farm, trained as a teacher, then married a farmer. They carried on the tradition of the Reid family, a tradition started by Moses Reid and his wife Jane. Moses was born in Ireland in 1846 and came to Australia in 1868. He selected land near Birchip in 1883. After several successful seasons he was able to buy the land, and the family battled through a decade of drought in the late 1890s. Dorothy’s book, Moses in the Mallee, begins: “The story of Moses and Jane Reid and their descendants stretches from Ireland’s greatest potato famine in 1846-7 to Eastern Australia’s greatest drought in 1982-3.” No trumped-up myth of progress there. Just an acknowledgment of human struggle.
The struggle is ongoing. It was most evident in 1967 when the Reids, with three young children, had nothing in the bank and no income. “I remember coming and asking [social security] if there was any way we could have some money,” Dorothy remembers. “But there was no law to say we could.” They lived from day to day. “We had a vegie garden. And a peach tree. There wasn’t one peach that got wasted. If a peach fell on the ground it got used. I still preserve and make our own jams … We made our own clothes.”
There is grace in Dorothy Reid. Recently, before the rain, when things were looking grim, a forum was organised in Hopetoun. People were free to talk of their experiences of the insidious drought and about how they coped. It came to Dorothy’s turn. By sheer coincidence she had a special handkerchief in her pocket. “I held up this hanky,” she gestures. “I said during the ’67-68 drought we were on a farm and had no money. So Mum and I said we’d make hankies for each other. It was the first time I had a sewing machine that could do a little zig-zag. That was our Christmas present.” As we stand in the museum, amid the coppers and the Gestetners, the old telephone switchboard and the Victorian frock, there is a little tear in Dorothy’s eye.
Communities are born of struggle, of shared suffering, and of some well-spring of hope. There is mud around Birchip now and the locals like to say: “Mud makes money.” But Dorothy, like Graeme, is cautious. “We can’t say we’re out of drought yet,” she says, “not till it comes to harvest time.”
I buy a copy of Moses. Well-named I’m thinking, as I drive further north where the wheat-fields are ever vaster. I try to imagine them as desert, like they were last summer. Dams with scab bottoms. Carcasses, pained mouths agape. The screech of a steel guitar. Loose soil at the mercy of the furnace-northerly. The dust-storm billowing like 9/11 smoke, only it reaches further into the atmosphere, and it’s rolling at us. The wailing of the didge. How can this be beautiful? Henry Lawson saw no beauty in dry country. He had no desire to romanticise life on the troubled land. Beauty came in stoicism. In “Bourke” he wrote:
Save grit and generosity of hearts that broke and healed
The hottest drought that ever blazed could never parch the
hearts of men
Now mud is on the side of the road and on the tractor wheels. The sky has been rinsed clean of any dust. There is surface water in places, and crops. And more crops. Six-centimetre shoots for kilometres until you get to Sea Lake, and then onto Manangatang, where Lou Richards used to tell crap footballers to go get a game in the thirds. Now there are no thirds. In fact the footy team is now called Manangatang–Tooleybuc and there’s only a handful of home games this season.
Onto Ouyen, which claims to be the vanilla slice capital of Australia and has a sense of fun about it. How else do you cope with drought? When the district was down in the dumps a lively woman called Lyn Healey organised a nude rain dance at a secret location. (“No blokes. No perving.”) And when the dance was done the whole district got together on the oval and partied, and laughed at chance.
The Victoria Hotel in Ouyen is a cracker. Warm. High ceilings. Bar stools with cushions done as AFL jumpers (I sit on the Geelong one before I realise what they are). Footy tipping comp. A Murray cod’s head mounted on the wall. Sporting memorabilia. A TAB. Races on the telly. I have fish and chips and talk to old Billy, a retired mechanic and the only drinker at the bar. He sits with his fox terrier, Bebe, up his jumper. “Gets dry here mate,” he says. “Dry as a witch’s tit. The drought’s had a big effect. Town’s getting smaller. You know there used to be five mechanics up the shed? Now there’s one. When it’s dry the cockies tighten the belt. They don’t come into the pub. Or blokes who’d have six only have two.”
“What do they talk about?” I ask him.
“The weather. Always the weather, mate. They talk about the weather before they talk about sport. And you can imagine how big sport is round here.”
Everyone listens to the weather reports. They watch the weather charts, trying to make sense of the isobars, trying to anticipate, willing the precipitation. They watch the cold fronts and low pressures as they come across the Great Australian Bight. They look for the tropical air that sometimes pushes south. Billy doesn’t trust the Bureau of Meteorology. “The weather forecasters don’t go over the Divide,” he reckons. He’s got more faith in the moths and the ants, and there’s a bloke whose knee is a pretty reliable indicator.
“The weather’s changed mate,” Billy assures me. “Used to be that we got Adelaide weather. Rain in Adelaide, then it would come here. Now it gets to Underbool and slips south. They wouldn’t know what a drought was in Underbool.” Underbool, one cockie tells me, is “a suburb of Ouyen”, 50 kilometres to the west.
“What’s the annual rainfall here in Ouyen?” I ask Billy.
“Twelve inches. But last few, there’s been years of three, three-and-a-half. Shocking. One year nine inches, but half was summer storms. And it’s patchy. You need a bit of luck.”
“What do the farmers say when there’s no rain?”
“They laugh. Or they piss off. Take the boat and go fishin’. No use sittin’ round thinkin’ about it. One bloke made thousands couple of years ago. Didn’t bother plantin’. Went to Queensland. No one got much of a crop. Yeah, saved himself thousands.”
Billy has an uncomplicated understanding of weather: “If it’s hot, it’s hot. If it’s dry, it’s dry. If it’s raining, it’s good.”
I drive west to Underbool. The crops are up. The paddocks seem to be getting even bigger. It looks like an Irish golf course, which it hasn’t for a long time. Andrew Willsmore is a local farmer who has battled in recent years, especially in 2004, when he decided to harvest whatever he could despite the dry. Just to get something. From 1,500 acres he got a truckload and a half, a tiny fraction of a fair harvest. And he broke machinery parts. And it took him four days. And the prices were terrible. At least the arse didn’t fall out of the price of lambs. That saved him. He keeps going. “I’m forever the optimist,” he says. “You have to be or you’d go silly. But last year it was a misery. It was giving everyone the shits. It was that dry the council closed two lanes of the swimming pool. We just sat around. Nothing to do. We actually had a big cleaning-up project round the place. Looks great. Yeah, and we went fishing.”
It just wouldn’t rain. There were not even any signs of rain. No frill-necked lizards sitting on fence posts. No salt rings coming to the surface. No willy-willies heading south. Families felt the pressure, and not just financially. When you’re the custodian of a long family heritage there are profound issues of identity, issues of failure, issues of upset. As connected to their land and their life as the Willsmores are, Andrew wonders whether he should encourage his ten-year-old son to take on the responsibility and commit to the slog that is farming in the Mallee. There are bumper years when it is lucrative. But there are runs of crook years.
And even if the fickle weather is the ultimate factor, proud farmers still tend to blame themselves, and to internalise the blame. “People don’t talk about it,” Andrew says. “And no one would ever admit to receiving drought relief.” Farmers are eligible to apply for financial assistance and for reduced-interest loans once their region is declared to be in Exceptional Circumstances (EC). Numerous government agencies – like the department of primary industries and the department of human services – offer support, as do the churches and other community groups.
Andrew, at 37, recently played his 300th game of Australian Rules for Underbool. He is club president and a local stalwart. “It’s been hard. Blokes have been leaving the farms. Our pub’s been suffering. Our numbers at the footy club have been hammered. But we keep going. Footy is such a pivotal thing for the community. Everyone meets for footy on Saturday. Then in summer it’s cricket and tennis. If we didn’t have sport we’d be no good.” Julian, from Mildura, married a local girl he met at the Underbool camel races. “Where I am now [in the south-west] people are polite rather than friendly. They’re not as community-minded. If an area has got to do it tough it turns out a better brand of people.” When it rained in Underbool they held a big celebration. “We all just went down the pub,” says Andrew, “and got wet on the inside and on the out. And it’s hardly stopped raining since.”
I drive for hours, past paddock after paddock of healthy looking crops. Into South Australia. Pinnaroo. Lameroo. And across the Murray River. Through the back of the Adelaide hills. Into the Barossa Valley. And onto the little town of Eudunda, which sits in the shadow of the last decent hill before Australia spreads out before you.
My parents moved to Eudunda at the height of the 1982 drought. My father was pastor to the tight-knit Lutheran community. During the 19th century, German immigrants were attracted to the area by the freedom to practise their faith and by the promise of good farming land. The land in the hills is good. The land beyond Goyder’s Line is not so good. George W. Goyder was the surveyor-general who studied soil and rainfall and drew an imaginary line on the map, beyond which farming was deemed too risky. Generations chiselled out their existences, culling the mallee trees to sell for firewood in Adelaide when times were desperate, and living comfortably when the rains came and there was a crop to reap. The bald hills are a monument to the harshness of life in these parts. Theirs is a rich history and culture, captured so well by Colin Thiele, who was born near Eudunda. The people have remained devout in their faith.
Good years followed the terrible drought of 1982-83, and a couple of summers later my brother and I were working in the silos while playing cricket for the local side. We emptied the grain trucks into the grid and talked with the farmers. Our boss was Grantley Doecke, who had saltbush land on the tough side of Goyder’s Line and supplemented his income by managing the silos. So I go to see him. Twenty years have passed but he looks the same. We laugh about the tractor – the antichrist – which I used to shunt the railway trucks, laden with grain. It was in a constant state of overheating and would rear on its back wheels when the trucks were too heavy. I would be cursing. The rest of the boys would be laughing. “No occupational health and safety back then.”
Grantley prefers the pastoral land in the east. “I love the arid country,” he says. “But not when it’s too dry. It was terrible in ’82. I’ll never forget it. Distressing. Putting a gun to the head of sheep you’ve kept alive. They’d look you in the eye. Turn their head away. It was too much. I wouldn’t do that again. Never.”
Grantley has noticed a change in the weather over the years. He watches birds nesting at different times. He sees the mallee scrub shedding bark, especially before rain, something that never happened when he was young. There is much more of a northern influence, with moist air coming down from the tropics. The country in the east is benefiting enormously from summer storms. We have a schluck of port. And I go back into town and stay at the Top Pub.
In the morning I drive out towards Morgan, through country that can be desolate but looks terrific. At the turn-off to Peep Hill I think of the little Lutheran church with its steep roof and its cemetery. Weathered 19th century gravestones inscribed with German script identify occupants who struggled to live in tough circumstances. It is a graveyard of tragedy and victory. The bones rest in the rock-hard earth yet there is an ambience that miraculously announces Gott ist gut. It is a cold drizzly day as I turn towards Truro. Grey sky. Green crops. Abandoned stone houses. I remember driving this road years ago and admiring the summer beauty of dry stubble and white midday sunlight and the palest of blue skies.
I drive on through Adelaide and up into the hills to where my parents have retired. They have retreated to their beautiful garden with its stone fruit trees. Mum makes jams and preserves. Dad grows vegies and argues with Mum about when the cherries are ripe. They want to hear about Eudunda. And the crops. Dad doesn’t need to ask how much rain they’ve had because he still keeps an eye on it. He loves weather. When we were kids Dad was away at meetings most nights, so we had to draw the weather map for him from the ABC news. I can still draw a pretty good map of Australia. And I understand weather.
I head back to Melbourne, through Horsham and the hopeful Wimmera. I hear the weather forecast on the radio. I think of what it means to so many, how it helps make them who they are. In Henry Lawson’s essay “Drought-Stricken”, he begins: “It is so hard to make city people understand.” He is talking about how dry dry really is. But he could be talking more broadly.
Drought is never a good thing. It yields little but suffering. But as one well-known letter writer once observed, suffering produces endurance, and endurance builds character, and character produces hope, and hope never disappoints us.
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