Road trip brings drought relief

Road trip brings drought relief

The call went out one Sunday at a Gordon-Pymble Uniting Church morning service, “Would anyone like to join my husband and me on a road trip after Christmas?  It’s to support struggling towns in the drought stricken west.  All you have to do is to spend money”, adding, “And it will be hot”.  Five couples answered the call.

The tour was planned so that we stayed overnight in towns with good facilities, such as Quirindi, Narrabri, Coonamble, Gilgandra (famous for the first World War Coo ee recruitment march), Rylstone/Kandos and Oberon. We avoided large regional centres.  We traveled to each town via different routes, making side trips to smaller towns whenever possible.  This enabled us to visit many more towns (such Walgett, Moree, Carinda, Barabba, Coonabarabran, Gulargambone, Warren, Trangie and Tooraweenah) and spread our spending. The plan included places to stay at, where to eat and shops to spend money in.  And we did just that, every day – on food and accommodation, fuel, drinks (milkshakes being the order of the day), clothes, books, presents, all sorts of artifacts that took our fancy and donations to local causes.  

Each couple traveled independently and booked different places to stay to spread our money around. We caught up for dinner every night, mostly at the local RSL or Bowling Clubs, where we had hearty country meals and shared our day’s experiences.

We were always grateful for the air-conditioned comfort of these dining places and of our motel rooms as each day we experienced temperatures of around 45 degrees during the day and over 30 degrees at night.  Coming from air-conditioned premises or the car was like walking into a blast furnace and it felt as if we were about to shrivel up.  We wondered how the locals could stand such heat day after day, with no relief and no rain.

With no rain for years (in Coonamble, for instance, not since 2016) the countryside was desolate, parched,  any foliage burned golden, rivers and creeks completely water-less, the bottoms of dams dried into a patchwork of hard mud and paddocks with absolutely nothing growing, not even a blade of dried grass.  It was distressing to see this barren landscape that in previous years would have been covered with crops or animals.  I felt sad to see the signs warning that stock were ahead, left on the side of the road, the cattle long gone from the “long paddock”.  Nothing that we had seen on TV or read about had really prepared us for what we saw.

Most animals seemed to have been sold and those that remained were surviving on whatever they could scrounge from the dried out paddocks and from being hand fed hay and seed.  But how can the farmers afford to do this when we were told a 500 kg bale of hay, costing around $400 would feed ten cows for only a week? Yet we saw many road trains loaded with hay, coming from Victoria and South Australia heading out west.

We heard disturbing stories about how hard the farmers are being affected.  One farmer at a Farm Stay, who was raising horses, welcomed some of our group saying that the accommodation revenue enabled him to buy hay for the horses.  That farmer also talked about the prevalence of suicide among farmers.  One motel manager knew of a family that recently had to destroy 36 cattle they could no longer afford to feed, and she thought they were very close to bankruptcy.  With these farmers and their families in mind, we were pleased to donate to the Neighbour in Need programme, an initiative of the Rotary Clubs of Narrabri, Wee Waa and Boggabri to help neighbours get together to support each other.  They offer free meat for five families for a BBQ or if 10 families got together they’d provide the whole BBQ.

As distressing as the situation is, we never heard anyone complain; most were cheerful enough and just getting on with life.  The Trangie stock and station agent, suffering a downturn in business, never complained, just saying that “things were a bit slow”.  Even when it barely rained overnight in Rylstone a farmer didn’t complain but laconically just said to one of us, “could do with a bit more”.  A farmer’s wife, on long-service leave from her nursing job, was waitressing at a local restaurant to help make ends meet. She didn’t complain but just told me what she was doing and that most of the waitresses in the restaurant were in the same boat.  We hope extra tips helped.

Christmas hadn’t been forgotten as we saw many Christmas trees made of painted tyres erected at property gates, decorated with tinsel and baubles, and some even lit with solar-powered lights.  Many farmers’ wives have started gift shops or mixed clothing and artifact shops in towns. Some were using shops that had previously been empty; it was so sad seeing whole rows of abandoned shops in a number of the towns we passed through, some only recently gone out of business.  Some have survived by having two strings to their bows — a hairdresser and dress shop in Barraba called “Frocks ‘N Locks” and a florist and cafe in Quirindi.  

These were the sorts of places where we were able to spend our money.  We also sourced some wonderful clothing shops that gave old-fashioned service, arts and crafts shops and places selling local produce.   Very importantly, we were able to bring some cheer to people, as we explained why we were in town.  They were always very appreciative of our efforts and pleased to know that people in the city cared.

One good news story came out of an encounter at the Kookaburra Kiosk at Warren.  Purchasing some honey, I inquired about the bees in the drought.  I was told that there would be no more honey as the bees had gone, but that they may return as the gums were beginning to blossom in summer.  This it was hoped was a sign of rain, as was the frog heard the previous night, the flock of pelicans that had arrived in the area and the ants invading houses.  

It was in Rylstone, however, that we really experienced firsthand country people looking out for each other.  The mega Gosper Mountain fire (called the Kerry Ridge fire locally) was close and the town had, over the past weeks, become the bushfire support centre for the many fires in the area.  The brigade in one small town nearby, led by its captain aged 78, his deputy aged 74 with the baby in the group aged 61, had been fighting fires for 66 days.  Local volunteers were cooking breakfast and dinner for the firies, one lady had taken it upon herself to make up bags of snacks and hydralyte sachets for the firies and the local supermarket was supplying additional water cheaply with donations coming from the townsfolk.  On Sunday night a number of evacuees arrived in town with nowhere to go, so the Globe Hotel, booked out by firies, hauled mattresses into the bar for them to sleep on. A member of the Rylstone Uniting Church was making batches of banana bread for the firies in the church kitchen but was called away when she was told she had to evacuate her home.  Being on the spot enabled us to make financial contributions to the firies (a round of beers was welcomed) and the work others were doing to support them.

The tour was very successful in many ways.  We learnt firsthand the plight of farmers and firies and a bit about how they are coping day to day.  It was success financially for the country towns we visited as between us we would have spent well over $10,000, although we were humbled by the gratitude as really we spent so little at each place. 

We came home inspired by the fortitude, selflessness, decency and community spirit of the country people.  There are many lessons to be learnt by city-folk.  We’ll do it again and hope others follow.

For further information, or help in organising a tour, contact Judy Gill at info@gpuc.org.au

Judy Gill

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