Day 6 of our Broken Hill adventure (before lunch)
It is not often that one goes on holiday and wishes for rain, but the people of Broken Hill and surrounds are parched. It has been five years since a big wet, and seven weeks since a rainy day. If we need to drink tap water we boil it, otherwise it’s bottled water all the way. So when I heard a rain shower on the motel roof through the night, I was hopeful it would continue. We woke to cloudy and overcast skies. So much promise, but nothing more fell from them.
It is not often, also, that I rise before dawn on holidays. Who am I kidding? I rarely rise before dawn, full-stop. But we need an early start. Today we are off to White Cliffs. It’s 200km (125mi) north-east to Wilcannia, then another 100km (60mi) due north to our destination, the home of Australia’s first commercial opal field.
On the dot of 6.30am, Wayne of the bright smile is back with the jokes and the Warrior all-terrain vehicle. As we hit the open road – a straight line surrounded by 120,000 to 180,000 acre properties – with the dark of night giving way to dawn, Wayne keeps a wary eye out for kangaroos who stop to drink from the puddles on the verges. Back when I worked for an agricultural company, it used to amuse me to read the annual message from our insurance broker, detailing the number and cost of the claims caused by drivers of our company vehicles running into kangaroos. He sounded so resigned as year after year his letter repeated the warning to be vigilant at dawn and dusk. It’s amusing when you are sitting on the 32nd floor of a Sydney office building. Not so amusing when you are alone on a country road. And it’s never amusing for the kangaroo, especially if they have a joey in the pocket. (The photos of these guys was taken later in the day).
The outback may be semi-arid, but its colours are amazing, especially in this early morning landscape of red earth, yellowed grass, sage-green bushes, hills tinged with mauves, pinks, and light blue, under a sky which is a mixture of white and grey puffy clouds.
We’ve been on the road for a couple of hours when we pull into a roadside picnic area for a comfort break. We are welcomed by a pack of feral goats, who swarm around the front of the vehicle, jostling to get a drink from the water dripping out of the air conditioning. One is knock-kneed, but it doesn’t seem to affect him. The photo of him with legs crossed reminds me of myself when I am forced to wait too long for a comfort break 🙂
On the road again, and Wayne points out the cattle station Cawkers Well. I found an article about the owners Charles and Fay Townsing running Hereford cattle (the article dates back to the last big wet), but in my notes I have written Murray Grey. I found another article which says this silvery coloured cattle is “the result of unplanned pairing of an Angus bull and a short-horned cow” – so maybe a trip to the bovine family planning clinic was order? However! The reason I make mention of this property is that some years back they hosted a cricket match in which some 200 Rotarians from New Zealand, India and every Australian state competed. One of the preparation challenges was, “to stop kangaroos and rabbits from eating the pitch” 🙂
Our next stop is Wilcannia. This is the traditional home of the Barkanji Aboriginal people, who dwell along the Darling River. You may recall that a few days earlier we were further downstream of the Darling at Menindee. In 1835 the explorer Major Thomas Mitchell followed the river, naming this place Mount Murchison. From around 1850 other European pastoralists followed him, displacing the indigent population. The town became the third largest inland port, with wool grown here transported 1780km (1100 mi) to Goolwa in South Australia by paddle steamer. At one time ninety of them plied their trade, but eventually gave way to road transport due to the unreliability of the river levels.
Wilcannia hit its stride in the 1880s, boasting a population of 3000, a local newspaper – the Wilcannia Times – a brewery, and 13 hotels. Many of the fine stone buildings in town date from this era.
There is not a lot of work now, and the population has dropped to around 800, about 60% indigenous. Probably unfairly, Wilcannia got a bad reputation, and the grey nomads with their Winnebagos and such like were advised to drive straight through rather than stay at the local camping ground. Which is a pity, as it so pretty along the river as you will see in these photos. Even the fish are jumping, which has caused the ripples on the water in some of the shots. We walked down behind the small hospital. One old Aboriginal lady sitting on the back verandah was trying to tell me something, but by the time I threaded back up the bank through the bush the nurse had taken her in.
Locals are working hard to revitalise their town and address the social issues such as school attendance, and once there, improving attention spans by ensuring all children have a good breakfast. There is also an entertainment and talent show programme. The hub for social activity is the golf club on a Friday night, where the meat raffle is popular. “You are no one if you don’t go there on a Friday night,” says Wayne, who goes on to tell us the story of a teacher speaking of a famous entertainer to his young pupil. “Oh yeah?” says the kid, interested. “Does he come to the golf club . . . ?”
Wilcannia is so desperate for water that the residents are down to drinking bore water. We restrict ourselves to only using the public toilet at the council park, both on the outward and return journeys. We don’t wish to convey to anyone that we are wasting water on flushing toilets. There is a little gecko in the metal washbasin. He must have crawled in chasing a drip from the tap. After several visits, we decide he is stuck in there as his feet can’t get suction on the slippery metal. He hissed at me the first time I saw him, stuck his tail in the air and showed me what it looked like down his throat. It quite startled me and now I am too much of a wimp to handle him, so fashion a cradle out of a couple of sticks. All was going well until he slipped out of the cradle and fell to the floor. I think he survived though. I hope so. The last time I saw him he was in the corner of the shed, backed into a position to hiss at me some more. He looked a bit groggy though. And he does only have a little throat, to be honest.
Someone who didn’t survive his time in the outback was the blacksmith Tommy Lee. The story goes that back in 1886, Tommy came back “home” to Wilcannia on the stagecoach. The coach stopped out of town, to rest or water the horses, and Tommy sat down under a tree. He was depressed about the lack of work and his dim prospects for the future. When it came time to board the coach, Tommy didn’t answer the call. He had taken his own life. It is just too sad. His story struck a chord with the landowner however. He has erected a rough fence around his resting site, and erectec a remembrance stone, and in a simple metal letterbox, has placed a laminated copy of his death certificate. So that all who pass here will stop for a while, and think of the blacksmith Tommy Lee.
I didn’t mean to leave this post on such a sombre note, and we haven’t even got to White Cliffs yet. Heck! We haven’t even stopped for lunch yet. But if I go on this post will be much too long, so I will just have to leave you in suspense for the next episode in our outback adventure.
But just before we left that place, we wandered off to a watering hole, where at first the cattle huddled in the shade of a lone tree, not sure why we were there . . . but they spotted some friends on the other side, and ultimately, they popped over to share a chat . . . and a “nice” cup of tea perhaps?