“I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of rugged mountain ranges, of drought and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea, her beauty and her terror, the wide brown land for me” – Dorothea Mackellar
Australia is a land of extremes, and the first European settlers were horrified at the world they encountered after the gentler climes of England.
The Orange Oral History group’s resident Englishman John Coxhill could understand that.
“In England if it doesn’t rain for two weeks we think we are in a drought,” he said.
According to my research, Melbourne University – using historical records from First Fleet log books, farm records, newspapers and government gazettes – has given us a picture of weather in the settled parts of Australia from 1788 to 1859.
After a wet start, the summers of 1790-91 were so hot that flying foxes and small birds fell out from trees, and crops failed.
Between 1837 and 1843 NSW endured drought, but the year before the drought began, the Herald reported “nearly an inch of snow” in Sydney.
It was also noted by researchers that in this pre-industrial period there would have been no interference from greenhouse gases, and that there had been 12 major droughts recorded in Australia since the 1860s.
The group, with memories reaching back a considerable number of years, talked about the droughts they had experienced in their lifetimes.
“There was a terrible drought during the war,” said Pauline Jenkins.
“Our dam dried up, the sheep died and crows picked their eyes out.”
Tim Vivers agreed, saying, “it lasted from 1939 until 1945 and broke with storms and snow in places where it had never fallen before”.
Every drought is different,” he continued.
“In 1965 it was more difficult to move stock than it is now, but this drought is unusual because there is a good market for stock.
“I’ve always thought that you should have a policy like de-stocking and getting rid of weaner stock, going back by degrees to a nuclear herd on which you can build when things improve, but you must start early.”
You are looking at something pretty grim this time because people seem to have lost hope. We’ve always come through the other droughts but people seem more worried about this one.Ann Cummings
Reg Golding has worked with horses and stock most of his life and knows all about the problems of managing lack of water.
“Drought, oh drought, it’s always been with us out west,” he said.
“In the big drought in the 1940s most people sent their horses to Victoria on agistment.”
“In the late 1970s my husband – who was a vet – and I had a mid-life crisis and moved to a property between Grenfell and Forbes just in time for the drought in the 1980s,” Joan Heffer told us.
“As a city girl I was amazed at the big balls of dust that used to roll up.”
“I grew up around Nyngan and we’ve had a lot of droughts in my lifetime,” said Ann Cummings.
“It all blends in a bit because in some ways they were the same and in other ways different. You are looking at something pretty grim this time because people seem to have lost hope.
“We’ve always come through the other droughts but people seem more worried about this one.
“I do wonder if the fact that there is so much media attention all the time could contribute to people’s depression, but the high price of restocking is also a worry.”
One of the more unpleasant results of drought are the dust storms.
They were particularly bad in our youth when overstocking, dirt roads and rabbit plagues destroyed the vegetation and caused much discomfort and misery.
“I remember going to my cousin’s wedding in Yeoval when, even with the windows in the church closed, you couldn’t see the ceremony inside the church,” said Lynne.
“When we came out all the cars were red and we couldn’t tell them apart.”
Dick Page, who as a pilot has vivid memories of flying in dust storms, said, “every time I flew to Broken Hill I seemed to be caught in a dust storm and it makes it just a bit more difficult to navigate”.
“We’ve always saved water in the country because drought has nearly always been with us,” said Lynne Sparks.
Barbara Hurst agreed: “we didn’t have a water supply in Cargo where I grew up,” she said.
“We used to get water from the big pump in the reservation and could only have a bath once a week.”
Rosemary Curry, who grew up in South Australia, was very conscious of saving water as “in our part of the world it always seem to be in drought”.
Ann Cummings reminded us that while people have been heart-warmingly generous in their donations of goods during this time of crisis, it is important to remember the small businesses in country towns which have also been affected.
“Money spent in the town would also be very helpful,” she said.
As we all agreed, drought is quite often broken at last by flooding rains which we hope to discuss next time.
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