Drought Series #3: My Country

G’Day Mob,

Welcome to the last of the drought series posts (wouldn’t it be lovely to think this was the last drought post I EVER wrote?).This was originally written at the end of 2009 when our long dry spell finally broke, and I hope it gives promise to those of you doing it tough now – the good seasons will come again. Boil the billy and settle in with a cuppa for a long ramble.

I don’t really know where to start; so much has happened since the last Ramble when we were selling beloved Brahmans, battling the bloody drought and saying goodbye to treasured friends. I think I wrote that Ramble towards the end of November which means it would have been a few days before things got a lot worse.

Summer is supposed to be our rainy season but although the rain tried, all we got was more heat, more dust storms and then a spate of electrical storms which heralded the start of the fires.

The volunteers of the fire brigades had been out to the odd fire from the end of November through to early December including one on our agistment property “Garthowen” where about 300 acres were burnt out and if not for the efforts of the local boys a house would have gone as well.

But Tuesday December 8th was something else.

That day was very long for us. It started in Inverell where we did the usual town jobs and groceries and bought another load of cattle. Then it was home for me to muster cows and calves to the yards, to draft and tag, while Brian carted cattle in the truck. Just on dark we finished tagging the last of the cows; just as a wild storm hit – sending 6 spits of rain in a horizontal direction and blowing up yet another dust storm. With it came the lightning.

Brian was walking back from the yards to the house when he saw lightning strike the neighbour’s place; followed by a flaring of orange flames that signaled the resultant fire. Brian ran the rest of the way to the house, grabbed the phone and mobilised the Coolatai  Bush Fire Brigade who were onto the fire within half an hour. At about 11.30pm Brian got home but as he thought he had seen another fire we were both into the ute and onto the back roads behind Rocky Springs.

What a surreal night it was. It was like the Gods were throwing fire sticks into the kindling that was our drought-riddled country. Never before have I seen so many lightning strikes, and so thick; each piece of forked lightning was literally a bolt with the potential to light another fire. It was incredible, awesome and amazing all at the same time.

With no new fires on our back roads we got home at midnight but had not been in bed for 30 minutes when the phone started. Brian was out of bed and onto a new fire – a mere 100m from the one they had just put out. This fire had more attitude and was off and running before it could be contained.

The men did the best they could putting in fire breaks and Brian was home at 3am, only to be up at 4.30am as we had calves to take to Warwick to the sale. So it was about 1pm the next day before Brian had any sleep. At 2pm the fire broke its containment lines, jumped the bitumen road three kilometres north of Coolatai and headed straight for our cattle on the stock route.

Brian and the boys were on to it again. He opened the gates for our cattle and then joined the brigade on the main fire. I, meanwhile, stayed at home finishing off the cattle work, setting up water stations, moving horses out of harms way and watching – always watching. At about 5pm I saw the fire come over a ridge, heading our way. Concerned, I rang Brian and asked if they were aware of this. “Yep” says Brian, “the fire truck is nearly there”, and sure enough I soon saw the flashing lights of the truck maneuvering its way up a fairly rugged hill – with Brian on the back – I could almost wave to him.

While fire-fighting is hard for the blokes it is lonely for those of us left tending farms and watching. That night as I watched a fire less than a kilometre from us I rang some friends. First I spoke to Jen. I could see her fire, about 30km away, from our verandah. She could see ours. Her fire was threatening in a bush block at the end of their property. She, like I, had packed up important things ready to leave if need be.

"Jen's Fire" - photo courtesy of Jen Jackson

“Jen’s Fire” – photo courtesy of Jen Jackson

Then I rang Amy. Her fire was still a fair way away but in the next few days she too would be packed ready to leave – and watching water helicopters land in a paddock adjacent to her house. Again, surreal is the word that comes to mind.

That night the Coolatai Brigade slogged away and got the fire back under control. I can’t remember what time they got home but they had agreed to meet the next morning at 7am to go around the fire once more. Brian and I were up at 5am as we had to go to Garthowen to pump water. I was greeted on the verandah by a fire front heading our way and as we drove down the road, another fire front heading to the neighbour’s sheds. The mobile phone, which up until this week was a foreign entity to Brian, now never left his side. All the volunteer’s numbers were memorised into the phone and all were now called as he roused them out of bed to start all over again. Another day on the same fire and finally it was beaten although not out completely with stumps and trees still sparking and smoldering.

By now it was Thursday night and I met up with the fire-fighters at the pub. They were buggered. They literally sat around outside the pub – on chairs, on utes, on the ground – by then standing was not an option. Beers were shouted by the neighbours on whose properties the fires burnt. Meanwhile the bureaucracy that is the Rural Fire Service supplied hamburgers from the pub for another brigade that was working on Amy’s fire to the south. This brigade sent a couple of fellas up to collect the hamburgers. They had to walk past my blokes who were fed nothing. Disgusted, I ordered hot meals for them all.

So that was Thursday 10th December and Brian and I had another problem. We were due to pick up a visitor from New Zealand in Brisbane on 12th December. We contemplated making a phone call and telling her parents not to put Tori on the plane but in the end we figured they had wanted her to have a “life experience” and didn’t make the call.  So into Australia at her most fearsome arrived 17yr old Tori.

In her two week stay Tori experienced 40+ degrees heat, more bushfires, more sunrises than she’d ever seen in a row, mustering cattle, tagging calves, shooting cattle, butchering cattle, cattle sales, calf sales, clearing sales, the Coolatai Pub, horse-riding, quad-riding, ute-driving, target practice, no hot water, things that went bump in the night, far less than 250 phone texts per day and waking up to shotgun fire. To her absolute credit Tori handled it all.

With Christmas over and Tori gone and in a country that does not know moderation, the Gods swapped their fire sticks for water cannons and at 7pm on December 28th the rain came down; and down and down. Two and a half inches in the first night, then twelve hours off before another two inches the next night. With showers in between we received six inches of rain in three days. The last time that Rocky Springs experienced a rain event like that was in 2004 – long before we got here.

the dry spell finally ends

the dry spell finally ends

We have full dams, full tanks, gutters in roads, flood fences down, burst contour banks and in the words of Dorothea Mackellar “the filmy veil of greenness that thickens as we gaze”. On cultivation paddocks that were bare two weeks ago we have carpets of liverseed grass, under the frazzled tuffs of coolatai grass are green butts, one long dormant sorghum paddock has come alive with promise, and on the burnt paddocks of Garthowen the green has returned.

But are we out of the drought? Only time will tell. For now we have blessed relief (and wasn’t New Years Eve at the Wallaroo Hotel a ripper), but our Brahman breeding herd is still decimated and we are well down on cattle numbers. It is now a time of rebuilding. May the rain continue and may other farming areas still under the stress of drought be too soon inundated.

Long live the rural communities the world over.

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8 responses to “Drought Series #3: My Country

  1. Every city slicker should have to read this to get an idea of what our country cousins go through so that we can pop down to the supermarket and get our bread and our meat, etc. You’re legends, all of you!

    • Well feel free to send this to any city slickers you know! But it’s really just living with Mother Nature and all her moods – I feel privileged to be part of it.

  2. And also, Mandy, your mention of Jen reminds me of your earlier post about Jen who was in hospital. Is that the same one, and how is she doing?

    • Different Jen, Rob. But Jen who was in hospital is out now though not yet well enough to return to Coolatai. We’ll be having a party when she gets back.

  3. Mandy, this is incredibly well written and demonstrates so well the tireless way in which our farmers handle everything nature throws at them. You must have all been so exhausted. Loved reading this…brought back memories of the QLD floods in 1991 (I was in Longreach at the time). I haven’t had to experience the fires though. You are one tough cookie! Jen

    • So much enjoying seeing you back in the blogosphere Jen. Your comments are always appreciated 🙂 Did I mention that I met your brother in January?

      • You mean James? I think you did. I’m so sorry if I didn’t reply to that. Were you on one of the Tall Ships in Sydney? It’s a small world isn’t it!!

      • A friend and I had a wonderful night on the harbour on a Tall Ship, and the captain was James! Small world.

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