Changing landscapes

Ouyen RSL, Victoria Photo Erle Levey / Sunshine Coast Daily

A road trip can span a lifetime

The trains do not stop at Ouyen to pick up passengers any more.

It’s so much like so many other country towns throughout Australia.

A shadow of itself. In a way made famous by a Weddings Parties Anything song, Hungry Years.

“Mama Mama come listen now, I’ll tell you what I saw, When I was down by the railway gates

I was feeling bored, Then a goods train rolled up clickety clack

You say there ain’t naught special in that, O but it was crowded down it was loaded down, With men all wearing rags and frowns

And if you want to listen, if you want to know, It’s caution to the wind they’ll throw in our town.’’

Hungry Years is a part song-part narrative and the words resonate with me as I sit in the railway yards of this north-western Victorian town.

It’s dusk and the railway station is empty. The levers that switch the railway points are unattended.

Just a little further down the tracks, the wheat silos stand as silent sentinels. The goods shed with its corrugated iron roof and walls, its weathered timber loading area and floorboards silently waits for the next wagons.

The slight breeze whispers in the peppercorn trees.

Across the railway tracks is the main street of this once prosperous town at the heart of the Mallee region.

The hotel, the Returned Services League clubrooms. Where are the roaring days of the 1960s and ’70s when farm workers spilled out into the streets.

Even the Great Vanilla Slice, the national competition to find the best custard-filled pastry, has been lost to the town. Moved to Merbein, 100km or so up the Calder Highway and part of the Sunraysia region on the Murray River, that has a strong citrus and grape-growing industry thanks to irrigation.

Not like the grain and sheep farming around Ouyen. That’s what the Hungry Years was about. Trainloads of fruit pickers would be sent from Melbourne to Mildura, Swan Hill and Merbein.

Ouyen was a stop-off point. In this case where they stayed longer than expected.

“So won’t you spare a smile, Can’t you shed a tear?

In these sad times, In these bad times, In these hungry years

Some say that they are pickers, They are up for honest work

And some they are just hard time men, A little bit down on their luck

So why is it you are frowning Dad, Because you drove us from your cities

You throw us from your trains, So we’re down and out in Ouyen town

And you know we are Mildura bound.

And if you want to listen, If you use your brains

You’d better let us board your trains and leave this town.’’

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That’s why I am driving along a straight road into the sunset.

I had been to the southern coast of Victoria, to Pt Fairy to have a vanilla slice and coffee for our brother who passed away a year ago after a battle with multiple myeloma.

It was better to confront the loneliness head on. Head for the outback of New South Wales and come to terms with things.

The old abandoned farm houses in the western district of Victoria. Like sad faces with their windows and doors peeking out from under the verandas.

It is good grazing land. Swept by the wind and the squalls from the Southern Ocean … a landscape like Scotland or Ireland in some ways.

Past the Grampians, the long low range of mountains that used to virtually be my brother’s front yard when he was farming.

Then the grain fields of the Mallee. The towns I used to know. Dooen, Warracknabeal, Beulah, Tempy and Speed.

“Speed,’’ the road sign reads. “Please slow down.’’

Lascelles with its wheat silos, general store and the two-storey red brick hotel. That was about all. And the galahs, cockatoos, sunrises and sunsets.

It was one of the best country pubs you could ever have stayed at. Cold beer at the end of the day. Dining room for breakfast.

They have built a drive-in bottle shop and bricked in some of the front veranda … to stop cattle and sheep wandering into the bar I guess, and patrons wandering out on to the road.

How do these country towns cling to life? Resilience, pride?

So many services have gone … banks, butchers, produce stores. Yet others have sprung up. Grain is now being stored in huge ground-level silos with tarp coverings. It’s a matter of scale of economy I guess.

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Country towns are not necessarily dying, the politicians tell us, they are changing.

To think that the country was built on the rural industries such as wheat and sheep but now that has changed in favour of the cities. Yet even they are seeing major upheaval with the collapse of manufacturing industries.

In their place are technology-based businesses and services. Perhaps the circle will turn again when business leaders realise what can be achieved in these areas given the right infrastructure.

Driving into the evening, through the Hattah Kulkyne National Park. Here, the wheatfields give way to undulating country – mallee scrub and sandhills. By nightfall I am rolling through the streets of Red Cliffs and Irymple. Grape-growing and citrus orchards have taken over from the grain fields.

Mildura on the Murray River is the sprawling capital of the Sunraysia, an oasis built on irrigation and supplying 80% of Victoria’s grapes. In the 1970s three of us had gone there from Melbourne to pick fruit. It was supposed to be the first step of a working holiday that would take us around the world. Yet it turned into an adventure in its own right.

We got a start picking at a good vineyard out at Yelta, right on the river just past Merbein. It was a little United Nations with about a dozen pickers camping in three huts … Canadians, British, Greeks, Italians and Yugoslavs as well as Australians.

Hot weather, hard work but at the end of the day it was time to cool off with a swim in the river and then get together for a drink and perhaps a shared meal where everyone did their bit.

It was a great time … and why I sought out the farm after all these years, pulled over and slept in the car. A clear night, the moon and stars. The sounds of night in the bush.

The stars are still shining brightly next morning as I crossed the river on the old centre-lift bridge and pulled up at the park in Wentworth. A lovely old town at the junction of the Murray and Darling rivers.

It was the scene of a birthday party all those years ago that lasted a day and half the night. It was for one of the Canadians we picked grapes with.

The first pub we went into had a blue heeler cattle dog in the bar, a stockman and a fuel agent with an Ampol shirt on. Red hair … and named Bluey. That was where we introduced the Canadians to schooners … 15 ounce glasses of beer.

Today, I have breakfast in the riverside park and marvel at the sounds of the birds in the trees … the kookaburra chorus is louder and lasts longer than probably any I have heard before. The moon hangs in the sky.

The townsfolk are restoring a paddle steamer, Ruby. Its ghostly shape reflects the life on the river in those roaring days of wool and wheat, before road and rail transport took over.

I am not alone. Not only are there the memories of those times gone by but another figure is sitting in the park. No car. Just another traveller.

We say hello and I walk across the bridge into town, to explore the streets. The beautiful old buildings caught in the mix of last street light and the soft first hues of dawn.

Then it’s time to turn the ignition key and steer the car north towards Broken Hill.

Driving into the sunshine, salt flats and patchy grasses either side of the road. Flat. There is not much traffic about. A lonely highway.

For a while there are some grain crops and a property of grapes. But then some scrub and spinnifex type vegetation.

Broken Hill? There must be something there, I think, for all those artists of the bush to get excited about … Pro Hart, Eric Minchin, Jack Absolem, John Pickup and Hugh Schultz. Others that caught my eye for their love of the bush and who put fun into frontier were Hugh Sawrey and Max Mannix.

In 1844, the explorer Charles Sturt saw and named the Barrier Range, while searching for an inland sea; the range was so named as it was a barrier to his progress north. At the time he referred to a “Broken Hill” in his diary.

Broken Hill was founded in 1883 by boundary rider Charles Rasp who patrolled the Mount Gipps fences. In 1883 he discovered what he thought was tin but the samples proved to be silver and lead.

That area became Australia’s longest-lived mining city. The BH in BHP. And recently it was named Australia’s first heritage-listed city.

It’s a place where whips and leather mean just that … the name of a stockman’s whips and outfitters shop.

The landscape is vast. You appreciate everything about it. The sunrises and sunsets, the sky at night .. the storms that wander through the outback. The smell of rain on parched soil.

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The country can look the same but it is constantly changing. The people can be warm and welcoming, very helpful and also quite conservative. They are good mannered but also moulded by the land in which they live, knowing that flood, drought or bushfire might be just around the corner.

A few hours north is Wilcannia. A struggle town on the banks of the once mighty Darling River. Irrigation upstream and poor care have seen what was once the lifeline of rural pioneers become horribly degraded.

Wilcannia was the third largest inland port in the country during the great river boat era of the mid-19th century. Yet now it struggles by with a population of about 500. And to think paddle steamers used to make their way up to here and beyond to bring the wool clip in.

It’s another 300km north to Cobar. I focus on a long, low range in the distance. MacCullochs Range rest area has good facilities for a road-side stop – shaded picnic tables and toilet facilities. Just the spot for a cup of tea and a sandwich.

So far on this trip I have seen kangaroos, emus, cattle and sheep on the road. Horses, goats, wild pigs … birds of all shapes and sizes from cockatoos to budgerigars. The parrots have been a stand-out.

But I even came across a flock of feral chooks by a roadside stop. Don’t ask me how they got there … about seven or eight with a rooster taking care of them.

The goats were just as big an issue as cattle and kangaroos when driving, especially right on dusk. They would dart out of the scrub at any time.

Cobar probably got its name from gubar, a word used by the Ngiyambaa people for the red ochre they used for body-painting. Yet today it is a town built on the dividends of its copper, lead and zinc.

Nyngan is my destination tonight. Why? The name, it’s that bit different.

And it’s also the site of a new solar power plant. In conjunction with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the NSW Government, AGL delivered two large-scale solar photovoltaic power plants at Nyngan and Broken Hill.

The Nyngan project will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by roughly the equivalent to removing 53,000 cars from the road. About 10 kilometres west of the township, the solar plant occupies approximately 250 hectares of land making it the biggest in the southern hemisphere.

More than 1.3 million solar panels have been installed on what used to be the flat red earth of a sheep paddock. On an annual basis it will produce enough electricity to meet the needs of about 33,000 homes.

Apart from that, Nyngan railway station is now a museum. And the Mid-state Shearing Shed provides informative displays of the continuing importance of shearing to the region.

A brief stop at Nevertire, population 100, then it is on to Narromine and breakfast in Tom Perry Park. Grain trains rumble past as I have a cuppa with the statue of the town’s favourite son in the centre of the lawn.

Glenn Donald McGrath was educated at Narromine Public School. As a youngster he used to bowl at a fuel drum that sat against his dad’s machinery shed to improve his accuracy.

He went on to be a leading contributor to Australia’s domination of world cricket from the mid-1990s to the early 21st century. He holds the world record for the highest number of Test wickets by a fast bowler and is fourth on the all-time list.

It’s a fitting way to end this part of the road trip. At Dubbo I will rejoin the Newell Highway and head for home in Queensland.

That’s the thing about road trips. They give you the solitude to come to terms with the past but encourage you to look to the future.

Look at life through the windscreen, not the rear vision mirror.

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