Waiting for the rain

I was visiting the Wimmera, an area just declared drought affected. So of course it rained.

I’d come to have a look at a town in crisis. A region on the edge, battered by drought and devastated by economic hardship. Locals doing anything to get by as they wait for rain to bring the savage drought to an end.

But to my untrained eye, the fields around Charlton look green and fertile, like massive billiard tables for the gods. And it rained when I went there. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure rain and droughts don’t go together. That’s my drought story. Everybody’s got a drought story.

Travelling north west from Melbourne up the Calder Highway, the Wimmera town of Charlton and its near neighbour, Wycheproof, are rest spots. The traveller can stretch their legs after clocking up 250 kilometres of bitumen. Like an invading army, the drought has seeped south, destroying all before it and these places of rest are now firmly behind enemy lines. Drought unites them; 28 kilometres and not much else separates them.

Charlton is dusty. The long main street, High Street, is the Calder Highway. There are petrol stations at either end, and one in the middle. There are a couple of takeaways, a bakery, two motels, two pubs, a B&B, and a whole host of businesses like the auto repair shop and the pizzeria that are now closed down.

The drought’s a disaster. It’s green but it’s just a disaster

Charlton’s home to approximately a thousand people. The Avoca River meanders through town and there’s a memorial to the town’s war dead staring back along the highway at you as you drive north. A statue declares it the birthplace of Prime Minister John Curtin.

Wycheproof is 28 kilometres away. The name is derived from the Aboriginal name witchi-poorp, meaning grass on a hill. The hill referred to is Mount Wycheproof. At just 43 metres above the surrounding plain Mount Wycheproof is the smallest legally recognised mountain in Australia.

Wycheproof competes with Charlton for passing trade. It’s long main street, Broadway, is the Calder Highway. There are service stations at either entry to the town. There’s no river to stroll along, but there’s the ‘mountain’ to climb. While there’s no monument to a dead wartime leader, there is a monument to the town’s fallen soldiers. It’s got two pubs like Charlton, but only one motel and no B&B. There are less businesses closed down, but maybe that’s because there are fewer businesses there.

The Victorian government declared the Wimmera drought affected in October. The paddock’s are green but there’s not enough moisture to support a grain crop through to harvesting or keep sheep and cattle in decent feed. River after river crisscrossing the landscape is parched. The bottoms of the dry dams are cracked: crying out for rain like a fifth day test wicket. There’s not a lot anyone can do but wait for rain.

Colin Dunn is waiting for rain. And customers. He’s behind the bar of the Royal Mail Hotel in Wycheproof. The pub, built at the turn of the last century, overlooks the northern half of the main street of Wycheproof. Colin’s about five feet five tall, has dark grey hair, powerful forearms and wears jeans and a green Royal Mail Hotel polo shirt. He peers intently through thick, square-rimmed glasses. He looks as fit as a Mallee bull. Colin struggles hard then comes up with an answer to my question.

“(I’ve) worked here on and off for forty years” he says proudly, “but I’m not the licensee, that’s Rob and Jan Veering – been here three years.” If the Veerings are outsiders, Colin’s as local as they come. He grew up in the district, went to the Elementary High, then went away to boarding school and came back. Unlike a lot of young adults today, he stayed. Wycheproof’s home to a dwindling population of seven hundred but Colin believes “the sense of community is still strong.”

I ask Colin how the drought is impacting on the community.

“The drought’s a disaster. It’s green but it’s just a disaster,” Colin replies as ears prick up across the room.

As I said, everybody’s got a drought story.

It’s lunchtime Sunday and people are wandering through the door of the hotel. A couple of old timers stand at the corner of the bar and down pots of beer with their eyes fixed on the horse races broadcast on TV. Others – outsiders like me – make their way in to help break the journey. Colin catches me looking at the photos on the wall as he moves about the bar taking occasional food and drink orders.

A trio of travellers on their way back to Ballarat walk in and Colin encourages me to go and take a look at the photos in the poolroom as he attends to the dusty blokes who order a round of cokes – not beer – because they’re driving. They take a look at the menu which runs to steaks, a traditional roast of the day, fish and chips, schnitzels and a couple of pastas. Everything except the roast is accompanied by a mound of assorted salads: coleslaw, potato, curried pasta, mixed green leaves and tomatoes topped by a slice of tinned beetroot form the list.

The darkened poolroom, just off the public bar is a shrine to football clubs past. The walls are packed with photos of the Wycheproof team, and the Narraport team then the two of them post their merger in 1964. Proud sun-kissed farmers’ faces smile back in sepia, in black and white and then in colour.

I wonder how many of these men work the land nowadays. How many have been forced off it. How many will throw in the towel when the impact of the drought really hits.

Adorning another wall is an aerial photo of the North Central Football League Grand Final. It was held at Wycheproof on September 22nd 1979. Cars encircle the ground and the crowd is four or five deep all around. I ask Colin about the big events in town these days.

“Wycheproof Cup Day beats the old King of the Mountain,” he recalls.

The King of the Mountain ran from 1978 to 1988 until things got out of hand. The idea was that blokes would race from Centenary Park at the southern end of town up Mount Wycheproof carrying a sack of wheat. The whole town would then retire to the pub and have a good session. In 1978, the Royal Mail served the beer in plastic cups and removed the furniture – just in case. In 1988 they did the same, but every single pane of glass in the place got smashed anyway.

“Cup Day ten years ago they kept serving meals till eleven. It was 4am before they got them all out.”

“What about nowadays?”

“Still busy. And there’s the Lawn Tennis comp in March.”

“Do tourists bring in a lot of money?”

Colin pauses.

I order the schnitzel, putting my twelve bucks into the economy, and stop at the bar for a while

“There’s open air pictures in the summer. And occasionally they run a tourist train through town.” Wycheproof’s wide main street has a train line running down the middle of it to take grain from the Wimmera’s normally productive fields down to Geelong and Melbourne. But the steam powered tourist train only runs in the winter because of the risk of grassfire.

Colin sets about taking meal orders from the blokes bound for Ballarat. They’re on beer now, “bugger the coppers,” they chorus and laugh heartily.

If the farming community is having trouble sustaining the town’s income then tourist income like ours can help fill the gap.

Colin does some sums again, “I guess 30 to 35 percent of (pub) trade is ‘off road’ but it’s hard to qualify though. It’s a significant income for the town.”

The Wimmera produces 690,000 tonnes of wheat a year equating to roughly $150 million. The current drought is expected to cut the wheat yield in half and batter individual farmers’ incomes. Opposed to this loss there’s about fifteen travellers having lunch this Sunday – which is “about average” according to Colin – so there’s a hell of gap to make up.

I order the schnitzel, putting my twelve bucks into the economy, and stop at the bar for a while.

Later that afternoon I visit Charlton Weir on the outskirts of town. Listening for birdsong I watch the slow-flowing Avoca build up behind the weir. Overhead, the sky is filled with Corellas and Crows, Galahs and fast-flying Swallows. The weir was opened in 1984 after the last drought. It’s designed to hold water in the Avoca before it’s released downstream as required.

A new four wheel drive pulls up. The driver notices the binoculars around my neck and introduces himself as the local Department of Natural Resources and Environment officer, Geoff ‘Plugger’ Winsall. Geoff sits in the cab of the vehicle; his ginger hair mostly covered by a blue Shimano fishing cap. He talks knowledgably about the local bird life and looks absolutely buggered. Sunday, his day off, has been spent on the trail of a Peregrine Falcon’s nest rumoured to be in the area.

I tell him about the previous afternoon when, sitting at a picnic table in the Rotary Park by a bend in the Avoca, I’d noticed a group of kids catching wild ducklings in amongst the reeds. Geoff nods and digs for more information.

“Kid’s up to no good. Nothin’ for ‘em to do,” he says sadly.

He adds, “Those wild ducks’d be lucky to last a day. Hopefully their parents – if they had any brains – made ‘em release ‘em.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a few around who don’t have many brains,” he continues wearily as he climbs out of the cab. After half an hour of talking about bird watching, fishing and introduced weeds talk turns to the drought. Geoff has a story to tell.

He shows me where, a week and a half before, someone had pulled out the heavy Red Gum planks that retain the meagre water in this part of the Avoca.

“Bloody silly thing to do. All’s gunna happen is the water’ll evaporate downstream. The water authority want it kept here,” he gestured to the wide river behind me, “for when it gets really bad.”

“So it’s not bad now?”

“It’s a bad year,” he pauses, measuring his words, “But it’ll get worse.”

Geoff shows me how he dropped the planks back into position to stem the flow of the river.

“I reckon I know who done it,” he adds casting an eye downstream. Geoff suspects a group of farmers decided they’d had enough of the lack of water and took it upon themselves to let the river flow. The only problem being that the banks of the Avoca are so parched downstream that the water seeped into them when it was released and didn’t reach the irrigation channels. Up here, behind the weir, the water level is slowly rising again as a respectable supply of water. Across the Wimmera, storages are down to 11 per cent of capacity and places like Lake Buloke covering 5,500 hectares have been empty for six years. The body of water behind us is worth protecting.

“When it gets to there,” Geoff says pointing at the watermark from the week and a half before, “I’ll take out the (top) planks and they can have the rest.”

Just then, a local bloke arrives with his two daughters and his fat Labrador.

“G’day Plugger. G’day,” he nods in my direction as he eyes me suspiciously.

“G’day,” we reply.

The three of us yarn for a while about the water flow and the health of the river. We talk about the incident with the planks and the little bit of rain that fell uselessly the night before. The local rounds up his kids and the dog and walks along the bank back towards Charlton. He turns to us and says, “Who’d a thought two year ago we’d be fightin’ ‘bout water?”

Geoff smiles, “That’s drought for ya.”

– 2002