Day 3 of our Broken Hill adventure – before lunch
Wayne’s joke of the morning . . . “See all those trees? They are dead Dog Trees.” Really? There’s a tree called that? “Yeah. They got no bark!”
Wayne is back again, this time with a new chariot to take us out to Menindee, 110km (68mi) south-east of Broken Hill. The population of this small town on the banks of the Darling River is reputed to be around 900 and dwindling.
Established from the 1850s, Menindee pre-dates Broken Hill, and was the first settlement on the Darling River. It is famous for its table grapes and apricots, which until recently, were the first to ripen. That explains the vineyard we saw from the train a couple of days before. The sad fact though, is that competition from elsewhere, combined with supermarket sourcing decisions, now see a different grape on shelf a month before. The loss in premium price has been the breaking point for local growers. On today’s trip we saw many vines that had been abandoned or cut back altogether.
Water is always a big topic in Australia, especially away from the coastal areas. Everything needs it: agriculture, livestock, industry, wildlife and people. Broken Hill might be mineral rich, but it does not have much water. So in the 40s work began on creating the Menindee Lakes Storage Scheme by enhancing a series of natural depressions that filled during floods and then drained back into the Darling River as those floodwaters receded.
A sketch map of the lakes are shown in the photo below. The brown, relatively straight lines are the roads in the area, and the squiggly dark blue line is the path of the Darling River. As you can see, it has a meandering path that equates to it being about three times longer than the distance it covers.
The English explorer, Charles Napier Sturt, was fascinated in following our westward flowing rivers, imagining he would one day find they all flowed into a great inland sea. He didn’t find it, but he did much to reveal the path of the rivers.
The Darling River is about 1,472 kilometres (915 mi) long. It rises in South East Queensland, wobbles all the way down the west of New South Wales (with other rivers draining into it along the way) and joins the Murray River at Wentworth on the NSW-Victorian border. Meanwhile, the Murray River has also been fed by another major river called the Murrumbidgee which rises in the Snowy Mountains of NSW, and also takes in some of the Australian Capital Territory. Then the Murray continues on its way, eventually draining into the sea in the Coorong, near Goolwa in South Australia. (Four years ago we did a driving trip along the Murray River, and the blog posts for that trip start here.)
Isn’t nature amazing? The problem however, is that means four states are responsible for managing the water of the Murray-Darling Basin. Uh-oh!!! How to agree on allocation of scant resources?
It rained in this area in 2011 and the Menindee Lakes Scheme was full, or amply so. Two years ago, amid fears the water would simply evaporate, the decision was made to release water back in the Darling to address needs further downstream. I am not here to argue the pros and cons of that decision. Everyone down river has their needs too. However, for some time now, most of the lakes, especially the Menindee, look like this:
All along our drive out here, we saw white crosses on the side of the road and surrounding hills. The locals are protesting the loss of their water. Broken Hill draws its water supply from this system, and that is the pipeline we saw running parallel to the train tracks. Now they have had to switch to an alternative reservoir of suspect water. During our visit, we boiled any tap water we drank, and that had a taint, so as much as possible we stuck with bottled water. If you are very interested in this controversy, there is a much more detailed article and video here.
When the season is good and there is plenty of water, the area offers outstanding wildlife and good fishing. Here is a photo of the boat ramp leading down to one of the lakes.
Eventually it will rain or there will be floods further upstream, at least that is our hope, and then we may consider a return visit. It would be amazing to see the lakes filled with water and wildlife. In the meantime, there are still plenty of kangaroos, emus, lizards – and goats!
Oh yes! We have seen hundreds of feral goats. Innovative farmers are capturing them and sending them for processing to a halal-certified abattoir in Murray Bridge about six hours drive away. It is a good supplement to their regular income. Up here in these harsh conditions, properties are typically 120-180,000 acres, and they talk of stocking in acres per head, not the other way around. Stock (beef cattle, merino wool sheep and some Dorper meat sheep) are placed into paddocks on rotation, after which the “pastures” lie fallow for a long time before re-use. We drove past many homesteads on the way out of town, but they are well out of sight, the only clue of their existence being a letterbox beside the road. Homesteads get mail three times a week, and can get a grocery delivery, and there is a once a day bus into town. Users have to keep their eye on the correct time though. South Australian time applies for a 40km (25 mi) radius of Broken Hill, otherwise everyone is on NSW time. All electronic devices update automatically as you pass this invisible zone, which can lead to confusion!
Back in 1860, when the explorers Burke and Wills camped near the Darling River at Lake Pamamaroo, there was no such thing as electronic devices. You know those jokes that start with . . . an Irishman and a Englishman walked into a pub . . . ?
Well, the Australian version is walked from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpenteria (3,250 km / 2,000 mi). Yep. With a cedar table. And a bathtub. Well, they had other stuff as well. But not enough essentials. They too were looking for this fabled inland sea. But what a feat to reach the north! And, they made it partway back again. Both died in the attempt. One of their probable errors was to split the exploration team.
Many have written the story of Burke and Wills, and one is Englishwoman and former BBC reporter Sarah Murgatroyd, who published The Dig Tree in 2002. Sarah died of cancer only weeks after the release – she was only 34. By sheer co-incidence, I met her husband a few weeks ago. He spoke to me of her amazing endurance during the three extensive research trips she undertook in re-tracing the expedition route, while at the same time dealing with the cancer. They carried morphine with them in case of emergencies. But she was determined to see it through. She is quoted as saying, “The outback is a vast collage of contrasting landscapes, with dimensions of space and light that are as overwhelming as they are exhilarating.”
The Dig Tree has since been re-published, and obviously I have added it to my reading list.
You might like to consider it also?
I will write about our afternoon’s activities in a separate post. Meanwhile, a few photos. Some of these are snapped through the bus window, so not great clarity – but you have to be quick to catch a shot of the Kangaroos and Emus. They blend in well to their surrounds. Take the photo with the fallen log in the foreground as an example. Look closely, and you will see that there is a kangaroo under each of the trees behind.