The Great Dry

 

On the shores of Lake Albert, there was no hint of the parched semi-desert in the hinterland. The lake, fed by the River Murray, was full. Water lapped the shores of the Lake Albert caravan park, where we pitched our little dome tent. Water birds – pelicans, water-hens, ibis, and black swans were in abundance.

Lake Albert was big. Standing on the shore and looking out, it seemed like an inland sea rather than a lake. The flat watery horizon seemed endless.

On a bike ride east, we rode on an asphalt road with the lake on one side of us, and low dry hills on the other. We rode as it were between a Great Wet and a Great Dry. Then we left the asphalt road and began riding over an unsealed road which went deep into the Great Dry. The road was limestone and badly pock-marked with deep craters but there were long narrow areas in between, which were reasonably flat. There being no traffic, we were free to seek out the flat areas on either side of the road.

We passed long, low slopes covered in grey-yellow stubble, extending away into the infinite horizon. There were dried up salt lakes, areas of flat, shimmering salt, resembling ice, edged by moss- like formations of samphire plants. In some places, the emptiness was broken by gatherings of small trees at the sides of the road – where we occasionally stopped to rest in their precious shade and drink water. Sometimes we passed large homesteads situated back from the road and surrounded by trees and I wondered then about the main source of income for the farmers here. The enormous areas covered in stubble testified to the harvesting of some sort of crop – but what?

After riding for 2 hours, Anya got a flat tyre. It was midday and hot. It was an inconvenient place to mend a tyre. We needed to find an area of shade, but shade in this country was as rare as water. We walked with our bikes for a good two kilometres before we came to a large tree at the commencement of a long track leading to a farmer’s house. The tree was not a native eucalypt, but rather a tall, wide, pine with thick mats of dark green foliage clinging to broadly spanning branches. I had never seen a tree quite like it. Perhaps it was a native species of pine or perhaps it was introduced one. But it terms of offering shade, it was perfect. It was like a huge umbrella. The only sound to be heard was the ineffably beautiful bird song emanating from a high, hidden bough in that lone tree.

I’d just got the tyre off, found the puncture, and put a patch on it, when a battered Japanese utility drew up and momentarily engulfed us in a plume of dust.

Behind the wheel was a middle- aged man with a bristly, sun-burned face and short curly hair. He asked if us if we needed help and even offered to drive us back to the camping ground with our bikes in the back of the utility. It was a kind gesture, which we politely declined.

We began chatting.

He was a contractor who worked on the large farming properties in the area. On my bike that morning, I had wondered about what kind of farming was being pursued in this dry, semi-desert. This man was a good person to address my inquiries to.

‘Hay. That’s what they’re farmin’ out here! Hay! Bit of canola, but mostly hay’

‘Can they make a profit growing hay?’ (it was news to me that a successful agricultural business could be based upon growing hay).

‘My oath! The holdings out here are big. Bloody big. With a decent winter rain, they can produce a hell of a lot of hay.

’Ten years ago, it was different country. Mostly dairy farms then.’

‘Dairy farms?!’ I exclaimed incredulously.

All around us, in every direction one cared to look, was an expanse of dry, brown-yellow land panning away into an immense, linear horizon.

‘Cows need grass, don’t they?’ I asked, ‘you can’t just feed them on hay?’

‘There was water then, pumped from the lake.’

‘What happened to the dairy farms then? I asked.

‘The drought got ‘em!…’

The way he said it, it sounded as if the dairy farmers had been ambushed.

And in a way, they had.

 

 

‘The drought got ‘em’

I remembered it alright. The drought between 2003 – 2007.

We were in Australia during that time, doing long bike rides through South Australia. The summers were long and fine, great for swimming, and the autumns, sunny with cool nights – ideal for bike riding. There was no rain and even in winters, heavy downfalls were rare. The reservoirs were near empty and there were stringent water restrictions. The years passed and it seemed as if the Great Dry was here to stay, a permanent state of affairs. I could remember once on a bike trip staying at Milang, on the River Murray, well north of Lake Albert. There was a jetty and you could walk to the end of it and look over dry land extending for another 50 metres. The River Murray, the nation’s number one source of water, was drying up. I could remember too, the political storm at the time, the endless debates about what to do In order the save ‘The River’.

‘The drought finished the dairy farmers. The government brought in tough water restrictions. They stayed in force, even after the drought ended. You can’t take the water from the lake anymore.’

There was a tinge of resentment in his voice. The drought ended, but the restrictions on taking water from the lake didn’t.

He missed the days of the dairy farmers he told me.

‘It was different then, different kind of people. Real people. Hard working, friendly. The holdings were smaller and there lots more farmers on the land. Today everything’s big scale. I might work for days and never get to talk to anyone. You might have seen some of the abandoned homes on your ride. Ten years ago, there were still people livin’ in ‘em ’.

The abandoned homes.

Yes, we had seen them alright.

Like bones lying in a dry creek.

He had ideas about the world. He was scathing about the concentration of ownership into the hands a few. He was nostalgic for the past, when the small independent farmers worked the land. It was a familiar theme, especially in our age of globalisation: a world controlled by the few, by the corporations and super-rich whilst the masses of ordinary people lost their jobs and their livelihoods.

It seemed to me that he was living in a world of easy simplicities. The great driving issue for him was inequality. In this, he reminded me of the Marxists, for whom everything was seen through the prism of class. It was so easy to have one-size-fits-all ideology. That way you avoided the complexities. In our modern world however, where the questions were fast outpacing the answers, inequality was just one issue among many. Our world was becoming increasingly complex and fixed ideological stand points were like the abandoned homes we’d seen that morning. 

 
No, I didn’t share this man’s nostalgia.

I didn’t feel any sympathy for the dairy farmers. To be pumping water out of Lake Albert to create grassy fields for cows was sheer lunacy. It was ecological vandalism. The way I saw it, weighed up against the rights of the fish and the birds, the rights of the dairy farmers counted for nothing. My sympathy in this case was with the big farmers, the corporations, who could turn a profit without draining the lake. The drought of 2003-2008 had simply done what should have happened long before.

A few days later, I discovered that my harsh judgement of the dairy farmers, whilst logically sound, left out the human factor.

And that was always a bad one to leave out.

 

On the evening I met Bob and Marjory at the Lake Albert caravan park, Anya and I had got back late from a long bike ride – this time, west of the lake. We were exhausted. I was returning to our tent after having a shower and was carrying my bag of toiletries, towel, and bike clothes.

Bob and Marjorie had turned up late that afternoon and parked their caravan away from the rows of other caravans and down at the end of the caravan park, near the small area which was reserved for unpowered sites. This area was usually designated for tents. It was where we had pitched our tent. But fewer and fewer people were using tents these days. Tents were too basic. People wanted luxury. The unpowered area was hence, available for people with caravans.

Most people with caravans wanted power. The unpowered area however was attractive to those who wanted a bit of seclusion: it was dotted with trees and it was right next to the lake’s edge, where water fowl, heron and pelicans were regular visitors.

The major drawback of the unpowered area was that it was a long walk from there to the amenities block.

Bob and Marjorie were sitting outside on camping chairs, looking over the lake, in the company of two other elderly people, Kay and Steve – who also had their caravan parked in the unpowered area and already been there a few days. We had chatted to Kay and Steve a few times on our way back and forth from the amenities block.

Neither of the couples knew each other, but passing friendships was part and parcel of the life of what in Australia is known as the grey nomads; retirees who buy a caravan or a van and travel around Australia, moving from one caravan park to the next. What I didn’t realise at the time was that Bob and Marjorie were not grey nomads; Bob had hired a caravan for a single journey and was due to return to Adelaide on the following day.

As I walked passed the four of them, Kay and Steve offered a greeting. I stopped and began making small talk – intending on only stopping for a few minutes – when Kay mentioned that Bob and Marjorie had just come back from visiting the old home they had lived in 30 years ago on a dairy farm.
I looked over at the newly arrived couple. Bob was slender, had a lined face and a shock of bristly white hair. He was must have been in his late 70’s. Marjorie was younger, had short, thin, brown hair and was pale and unhealthy looking; there was something clearly wrong with her; she was silent and stared into space, as is she wasn’t there.

Bob however was perfectly lucid.

By way of small talk, I asked him about where his old home was. When I discovered that it was on the very road that Anya and I had ridden over a few days before – and what’s more, that I had taken a photo of during a rest stop – my physical exhaustion vanished. My curiosity was suddenly aroused by the sheer coincidence of meeting someone who had lived in that abandoned old home.

I began asking him a few questions.

It was an odd situation. I was standing there with my hands full. My mind was racing, but I didn’t want to overwhelm this old guy with my questions. I didn’t know how far I could go. Only on the following day did I realise that he wouldn’t have minded at all if I had stayed there all night asking about his life on the farm. But by then it was too late.

 


It must have been different when you were living there?

‘Different? …Yes, oh yes! You wouldn’t believe it was the same place. When we drove out there today, I couldn’t recognise anything.’

I can imagine there was a strong sense of community?

‘Certainly was. Had to be. You had to help each other. There was no other way. You knew everyone.’

Why did you leave?

‘It was too hard. You mentioned the water. Yes, we had water and it was pumped out of the lake. But water cost money too and we were always pulling up short. We had electricity, but no telephone, no TV, only a radio. Never an extra dollar to buy something nice, and we had three kids. We were working, working, every minute of our lives, every day, never stopped…..in summers it was hot and there were swarms of flies and mosquitoes. No air conditioning, only a fan. In winters, we’d get these terrible winds and storms coming off the ocean. Wood stove to keep out the cold. Getting up in the dark to start work. No, it was too much. We had kids and a point came when we just decided, no, this is no life for them. Sold up and went to the city. No regrets, only memories. ‘

So you went back there today? What was it like?

‘We drove out there and I could feel my heart beating inside my chest. I was preparing myself for the worst. The old home was still there. Almost the same way we left it. I was very surprised about that and very happy. My grandfather built that house in the 19th century. He was a pioneer. When we sold up…. that was 1987…I thought the house would be pulled down.

It was damn hard to leave. Marjorie and I put everything in the car, kids in the back, and drove off. We had tears in our eyes. Hard thing to do, knowing you’ll never see the place again. Three generations of my family had lived in that home and I abandoned it.

We went out there today and good Lord, the house was still there. The owner told me that my kids and grand- kids could come out and have a look around whenever they wanted. I’m real happy about that.’

Your grandchildren are interested in seeing the home too?

‘Oh yes! I hadn’t expected it. You know kids these days, what with these new- fangled phones and Facebook and all that. But yes, they want to go there. See, our kids were old enough to remember the farm. They had plenty of memories. I guess the farm lived in our minds long after we put it behind us.’

A point came when I had to leave. Kay and Steve had been silent the whole time Bob and I had been talking. I said goodbye and continued my trip to the tent, determined that on the following morning, I would talk to Bob again.

But I slept in and when I awoke, Bob and Marjorie had left.

They had only stayed one night.

Anya however had an anecdote to tell me.

She had got up early and gone to the amenities block, where she saw Bob and Marjorie outside the entrance to the women’s section.

‘Bob was dressed in trousers and shirt but Marjorie was in a dressing gown. She was holding a tooth-brush in one hand and pointing it as if it was a torch. Bob explained to me that she was suffering from advanced dementia. Normally he showered her, but in this situation, he obviously couldn’t. So I showered her. Once she had the toothbrush in her mouth she seemed to know what to do with it. All the time Bob was nervously standing outside, yelling through the window to Marjorie. It was so sad. He was so grateful when I brought Marjorie outside.’

Later in the morning I spoke to Kay and Steve. We discussed Bob and Marjorie. They’d spent the evening talking to Bob.

They had some interesting things to tell me.

 


Kay: ‘Bob and Marjorie couldn’t make a go of it on the land, so Bob joined the police force.’

Me: ‘Bob was a cop?’

Steve: ‘He had to go to Adelaide for 6 months for training. Marjorie was alone on the farm with her two kids. He got a posting nearby, well, nearby by in country terms, but he had to travel a lot. He came home on the weekends sometimes during the week. Then it was more work.’

Me: ‘How could work as a cop and then try to run a farm?’

Kay: ‘He’d inherited the farm from his father and he didn’t want to leave it. He was dead against quitting. He and Marjorie belonged to another generation. They were old-style Australians, you don’t see them anymore. They were fighters. They had the land in their blood. They didn’t expect any favours from anyone. If you got sick, you had a long drive to get to a doctor.’

Steve: ‘Eventually though, they were beaten. They knew they couldn’t raise their kids in that kind of situation. He got a posting in Adelaide and they sold the property. He said that within weeks of being in Adelaide, he realised they were much better off. Life in the suburbs was easy. Everything close at hand: supermarkets, doctors, hospitals, schools. TV, going to the movies, record player, telephone…’

Kay: ‘But they were still different. They were living in the suburbs but they were fish out of water. They were, well, like they were immigrants. He said they never really fit in. They couldn’t go back, they did their best to forget, but the memories were always there.’

Steve: ‘Na, you can’t live on a farm out in the country all your life and then come to the city and forget the past, especially when you’re older. If they had had the choice, they would have stayed. Yeah, and as you said, then they would have been pushed off the land by the drought in 2003 anyway.’

Kay: ‘The kids adapted but even they still had plenty of memories. They only remembered the good times, like kids do. That’s the difference. They’ve got good memories, but Bob remembers the hard times.’

Steve: ‘Well I don’t know. Bob and Marjorie must have had plenty of good memories too. It wasn’t like they only remembered the bad times.’

Kay: ‘When Marjorie was diagnosed with dementia, Bob was determined he would look after Marjorie and nurse her to the end. He felt guilty about all those years she was on the farm on her own.’

Steve: ‘He’s a good man Bob. Solid. Talking to him though you realise he’s carrying around a load of guilt. Always has. Guilt at losing the farm, guilt towards Marjorie. All those years she was on her own, running the business, looking after the kids.’

Kay: ‘But looking after Marjorie, it’s got too much now. He feels like he’s been beaten again.’
Steve: ‘The kids have been telling him to put Marjorie in a home and he’s finally decided to go along with it. He’s 78 and it’s a hell of a job looking after her.’

Kay: ‘He brought her down here to take one last look at the old house…. he told us that when they walked into the place, her eyes lit up.’

Steve: ‘She remembered it! It was like her dementia kind of vanished. For a short while she knew where she was. That was great for Bob. Very sad though. Bob said that this was his last goodbye to her.’

Kay: ‘When they left that old home, she lost herself again.’

 

 

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