Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Perhaps the drought has broken. The rain on the eastern coast of Australia, and indeed further inland has been in some places torrential, and in others ground soaking and river filling. This is not so much specifically a garden post, so forgive me, but it relates to the need for water that we all, as gardeners, have.

Until a few months ago I couldn't remember the last time it rained solidly overnight. A thunderstorm and good heavy rain might come, but it only lasted a couple of hours and was gone. There is something so refreshing and cleansing about a good down pour that makes you want to dance.

Until my parents generation, most of my family were farmers. The paternal side were (and still are) dairy farmers. I spent a little time with them when I was younger, in a country town a few hours north of Sydney, where a street was named after them in recognition that they once owned all the land on which the town was built. That was back in my great grandfathers day.

The maternal side of the family farmed sheep. They had farms in various areas of outback NSW and that was where I would spend my school holidays. They were places of little rain. My favourite was a place where my step Grandfather and my Grandmother built a house with help from the family from whatever they could lay their hands on. There was no town water, no town electricity, no town plumbing. Electricity came via a petrol run generator and was stored in a bank of huge batteries.

Conservation of power was important and no lights or television was left on unnecessarily.
Water was saved, if you'll pardon the pun, against a rainy day. Mostly it was pumped from the river into the house tanks. The river water was used for showering and clothes washing. It wasn't needed in for the toilet as that was an outside dunny that got moved as the septic filled. On another property there was a real toilet, though it was still outside, and the path that led to it was knee high in mint which enjoyed the only wet ground. Even now when I smell mint I get the urge to go to the bathroom.

The day was long, hard and exciting. If you weren't fixing something around the house, then you were mustering sheep, clouting and drenching sheep (no mulesing in our area) shearing sheep, feeding the chooks, the few home cows or the horses. There were pumps to maintain, farm vehicles to keep running, wood to chop for the stove and the ongoing building of the house. The trip to town was once a fortnight to save fuel and because it was such a bloody long drive.

Generally the days were stinking hot and dry in Summer or freezing cold and dry in winter. In Summer, the moment you stepped out of the house and put on your work boots you were covered on dust. The paths and tracks exploded with every footstep into a mist of red earth which was caught by the smallest breeze. I think the Australian accent came from the need to open your mouth as little as possible against the dust and the flies.

The river in summer became a string of stagnant pools if you were lucky, and the dams would evaporate as you watched. The shower at the end of the day was a trickle of water that you turned off as you tried to get soap or shampoo to lather in the hard river water. The rain tanks for drinking water sounded more hollow each day. Kangaroos would stand next to sheep and cattle at diminishing waterholes, while galahas and sulphur crested cockatoos tried to splash muddy water over themselves. Farm vehicles not parked in the sparse shade were too hot to use and saddles were tended with care lest they crack in the dry heat. The smell of a fire and smoke on the horizon made the job of keeping combustible material away from the house a necessity, and also dissuaded snakes from taking up residence too close to home.

Then in the distance you would see the cause of the fire. Lightning streaking the huge open sky. Over the hills it would come rumbling, playing arsonist, while the clouds as black as night followed to  play fireman. It could reach you at astonishing speed and the horizon would disappear as the deluge would block the view beyond the home paddock fence.

Work didn't stop. The dubbined saddles were proof against the wet, the land-rover loved a muddy track, and life still went on, though having the brim of your Akubra wilt down around your eyes made it hard to see.

The day would ring to the base drum sound of filling water tanks and the night to rain pounding on the corrugated iron roof. At some stage in the next day or two, depending on how far upstream it had rained, the sound of the river rising to kiss it's banks once more would make you smile in the knowledge that the fences would need to be mended where they crossed its torrent. It was hard work but worth it for the water. Somehow within a short period of time fish and yabbies would appear in the depths. Water fowl unseen for months would stalk the reeds and call their strange cries.

The trees looked green, the grass grew, animals fed and grew stronger, shampoo lathered and clothes dried by the wood burning stove as bread was baked for morning tea to be eaten looking over a fresh washed world that suddenly looked soft and inviting. Full of life.


catmint said...

Oh Paul, I can't tell you how much I love this post. Your words conjure up such vivid pictures of landscape and lifestyle. I laughed when I read your theory as to the origin of the Australian accent.

I heard people discussing on the radio just today whether the rainy winter is just a one-off and the drought will return, or whether this will be the new normal. Personally I think the second option is wishful thinking, but I'm no meteorologist.

As I write this I am listening to the rain hammering on the roof. A lovely cosy sound and feeling. In encouraged it to rain because I put our the washing.

Cheers, catmint

Anonymous said...

No rain here yet, but my eyes are leaking.

There's something about the big sky that invokes the poet, and you've just done Patterson proud.

Lancashire rose said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lancashire rose said...

I'm going to pass this on too my husband. I think he will be interested to read how it might have been for his G Grandfather who was on his way out to Victoria to farm in 1902. He had already been out to join his uncle who was farming near Kerang and returned home to get his family. On the way back he died at sea. The family returned to their dairy farm in Lancashire. There was something that made them want to leave the green fields of England for that dry climate. TB. Enjoyed your post.

patientgardener said...

What a fascinating post. I think here in the Uk we take water for granted and then when there is a short period of dry we have drought warnings etc and hose pipe bans.

I did smile to read you refer to chooks - it reminded me of a visit to my aunt in Brisbane who kept chooks which were partial to pizza

Missy said...

Great post Paul. Your words painted pictures better than any camera.
At least in Oz we will always have rain (too much or lack of it)as a topic of conversation. At the moment, I wish it would stop - even just for a day.

Paul said...

Thanks guys. Sometimes I tire of taking photos and get the urge to ramble on.

Catmint. Thank you for such a lovely comment. I actually stumbled across some catmint at a nursery the other day and bought it with you in mind. It now graces the pot with my Hibbertia scandens snake vine.

CGL. Do you love Banjo too? I would be honoured to stand in the shadow of his shadow.

Rose. Travel in those days was certainly fraught with danger. You really had to want to go. I think most did it as land in Australia could be owned rather than tenanted like it was back in the UK. Plus Australia gets under your skin after a while.

PG. I've had chook on pizza, but never pizza in chook. Bizarre!

Missy. You guys are copping it far worse than NSW by the sounds of the weather reports. Over 200mm overnight. Wow.

Kerri said...

I loved reading this post, Paul. You've painted a way of life and done a great job of it.
The Outback is a place I wouldn't want to live, but it sure is fascinating to read about. Tough people out there!
We had a dunny at our place in Emu Plains when I was very young. And an outdoor toilet in Penrith when I was a little older.
You brought back some memories of Aussie living :)