We came from Melbourne up over the Great Dividing Range to be atop the Barrier Range, then onward to a river camp in the corner country of northwest New South Wales. The idea was to travel once more to the desert, starting at Broken Hill, then camp, explore, immerse ourselves and stay a while, not just hop from roadside postcard photoshoot to national pretty park, not to blithely pass through.
With no concrete plan, we headed from Balranald north. The neat lines of machine furrows ran across the landscape. Fenced paddocks and the uncluttered greenery of irrigated stock and grain-fattened fields gave way to a more haphazard vista. The desert, the dry becoming ever more apparent. Harsher lands stretching far off: a red-grey dusty expanse, sparsely vegetated, rocky outcrops, stunted trees, intermittent dunes.
It was (still is) in drought here, with forecast drier times to come; a far cry from Victoria’s green valleys, the mountains, or the coastal verge where we live.
At Menindee, formerly described as the site of one of the most beautiful wetlands in Australia, the lake and wetlands were reduced to a single puddle; close by, a thirsty pipeline tracked north.
In Broken Hill, the automatic sprinklers continued to saturate the parks and sports grounds. It was commonplace to dodge flocks of hungry emus wandering the streets. Outside of town the ‘Living Desert’ reserve was irrigated by a network of plastic pipes, re-created for tourism. The local newspaper the Barrier Daily Truth led with stories of farms crippled by drought. Then there were stories of mismanagement of water allocations, which had left the Darling River without perceptible flow or reserve should this climate changing continue.
North-west to Wilcannia. We counted the roadkill as we travelled, as it was so conspicuous. An average of five roos per kilometre extrapolated into one thousand dead on this remote stretch of the Barrier Highway. On the football oval in Wilcannia, a rubber pipe was spilling river water onto the green turf. Ibis fossicked amid black piles of roo shit scattered across the watery oasis; around the boundary fence, big male kangaroos stood alert, sentinel, in stark contradiction to our recent passage through the roadside dead.
Here, Indigenous people go about their business while grey nomads motor past. I met with Harold Hunt, corner countryman and Aboriginal elder. Harold’s mother was Malyangapa, his father Irish. We chatted. He is an author, shearer and stockman, too. We shared observations about the rich grey Darling floodplains. He told me that he was in Wilcannia in 1934, a year after the last paddleboat came to town, and that the town had once been a thriving river port. He spoke of his mother’s prescience, especially in regard to planting vegetables here. ‘You could grow lollies in this country,’ he said. ‘That is, when it rains.’
We made camp by the Darling, the bendy river line that has long marked passage through this flattened rangeland. Two oldies and a dog. The superannuant nomads were clustered on watered lawns close to town, just a few kilometers away: neatly aligned caravans and RVs cheek by awning beside the power outlets and the services block festooned with their travel accoutrements. The supersized 4WD diesel towing the caravan abode complete with pop-up aerials, barbie, fridge, TV and comfy twin beds. Nomadic homes sat parked, impervious laminated interiors within pristine hermetic aluminum casings.
We opted for a tent, no longer the done thing, it seems. No heater, air conditioner or fan means it’s a lighter footprint. Find a cool spot under leafy canopies then stay, chat, watch, look, listen. The two-wheel, furrowed track led directly from the water tap nomad congregation to our riverside idyll, but in the week we camped there, none ventured to join us.
Our tent site on the floodplain was some ten or twelve metres above the river, shaded by a backdrop of statuesque river red gums. I dug a pit and arranged a surround of rocks. Firewood was plentiful around: it was simply a matter of picking up a fallen bough and dragging it over to the fireplace, snapping off the leafy extremities and twigs for kindling then working down the branch, breaking it by hand, over knee or underfoot then taking up the bow saw and sawing the bough into billets, just enough for the night’s fire and the following early morn’s warming.
There was a sign on a dusty grey track pointing to ‘big red’, a giant of a river gum so the mud map said. It was five kilometers along the riverside track before we pulled in front of the colossus to find it collapsed, its weighty bough and branch broken and fallen to ground. Was this one more example of the climate’s constricting grip? I read that this Darling basin covers some 14 per cent of Australia’s landmass, a figure that is astounding.
Around our river beach camp was wilder life – kangaroo, euro on the bank opposite, echidna muscling into its hollow log refuge, wild goat braving the steeper sandy slopes, hawk circling, parrots chirruping at water ‘s edge, welcome swallow scooping insects above the basin’s surface, pigeon, cormorant, fairy tern, and a currawong nest collecting tree litter in the shadows. The drought was concentrating both animals and birds along the verge. Downstream, a weir provided both a town water supply and the illusion of a healthy navigable watercourse above. Below the weir and above its dam-like grasp, the Darling died, or trickled underground where it formed tepid pools, its waters diverted, snuck and stolen.
Up over the bank and out into the plains we ventured, preferring dirt road to macadamised highway. Those earlier landscape descriptors – dividing, barrier, broken – now pulsed as labels. Dust whirled from our wheels as we drove on: Tilpa, Louth, back of Bourke.
At Brewarrina, where no water flowed through the ancient river fish traps, a storyboard in front of the shire offices declared: ‘estimated fish populations in the Darling are currently 10% of what they were in the 1770s’. They mustn’t have accounted for the carp.
This article is based on a month’s travel and camping in the corner country, northwest of NSW, in October 2018.