A Life of Drought

‘This is the last year.’ My Pa says the same thing every year, pulling on his cracked old work boots and getting ready for another day running his small farm on the outskirts of Dubbo, NSW. Even at 80 years old, he hasn’t given up the family tradition of being a fruit farmer, not even after our family fruit farm in Bourke, which he and my dad built one grapevine and orange tree at a time, was lost to drought back in 2007.

Drought. It’s a common enough word in Australia; one of the many extremes our country relentlessly throws at us every decade or so. At present, the eldest millennials have lived through up to four different droughts, ranging in length, severity, and location. Even now, living outside the bounds of country Australia, it’s easy to see the drought on the news, or in articles, discussing the decline or the efforts made on behalf of those living within rural areas. But to live through drought, day in day out, witnessing the destruction, the sorrow and even the hope that holds people together, is an entirely different thing. To see the town where you were born once again making news, with a father of four breaking down on radio about the fact his home is dying. To be a millennial from the Outback – Bourke born and bred – forever changed by drought.

In late 2008, not even two years after losing our farm, my family moved to Dubbo and started settling into our 25 acres of land, establishing a miniature version of the property I’d grown up on. We were an anomaly in the area; while our neighbours had sheep, horses and hay filling their paddocks, we graded ours back and covered them with tarp lined rows, ready for planting that spring. Gone were the days of having thousands of acres of grapes, citrus and melons, but after living in the outskirts of Sydney for almost two years, it was a joy to live somewhere that felt halfway home. Mum had the foundations of a garden to work with, while my dad built an office and a shed to figure out what he’d be instead of a farmer. And after some serious renovations, my grandparents are living in a small cottage close enough to hear their phone ring, just as they had since I was born, always ready to pop by for a cup of tea and a chat, and gift fruit to any visitors who step through their door.

This is the world I return to each university holiday, fleeing the rush of Melbourne and my often claustrophobic apartment in a twelve-hour trip via train and bus, watching the land expand out until I can see the horizon again. But also witnessing as it grows steadily drier the further north I travel, putting real meaning to the words sunburnt country.

At this time of year you can see the way the land changes, where different rivers and environments play a hand in that area’s survival. From Melbourne to Albury it’s mostly green, the trainline missing the parts of eastern Victoria that have felt the impact of our three-year drought. After Wagga, the hills are covered in endless fields of canola, the vibrant yellow flowers in full bloom. I leave the train at Cootamundra, trading it for a winding four-hour bus drive through land that is steadily leeched of colour the further we get into the central west.

It’s a sight that evokes sadness, witnessing these changes and knowing the hardships they signal. My feelings are mixed though, because no matter how bad it looks, there’s always that sense of returning home. The greens become muted, the soil gets gradually redder, and flattens out the further west we drive into NSW. This is the Australia I know and love, even more so after spending five years living in the city. It’s a land of extremes, beauty existing even in the drought and harshness.

I’m no stranger to drought. Nor is any Australian really – we’ve all witnessed or been touched by it in some way or another. I was five when the 2000s drought began in earnest, becoming what would be known as the Millennium drought, and lasting until 2010. Much like our current struggles, the 2000s drought severely impacted Australia’s southeast and west, and in particular the Murray-Darling basin, which feeds Australia’s largest agricultural region. And living on a fruit farm just off the Darling river in Bourke, a small town in northern NSW, all I knew was drought. The river was often low, and after a handful of years of drought the water allowances given to farmers was less than half what my dad needed to keep the irrigation functioning.

Despite the hardships, it was an amazing place to grow up. As kids we rejoiced when the Plastic dam was low, because it meant we had a longer waterslide. Every Christmas, the whole Mansell clan would come and stay for weeks, the older kids conscripted to help with the summer harvest, and in our spare time racing four-wheel motor bikes and go-carts through the endless fields of grapes, oranges, mandarins and countless others. I knew how to drive a forklift by the time I was nine, and a tractor by eleven. I could tell if a rockmelon had been picked too soon, and that despite the inconvenience, seeded watermelons will always beat seedless for flavour. And here’s a mind-blowing one for you, that even Healthy Harold didn’t tell us millennials: pumpkins are actually a fruit. They grow from a flower, look it up.

I was almost twelve when I first realised that the realities of drought, or even its existence wasn’t necessarily common knowledge. It was 2007, and what began as a ‘two-week holiday’ turned into almost two years living in outer Sydney. The move was like entering an entirely different world, living on the junction of two tidal rivers that made the one that I’d grown up swimming in look like a creek. In the combined years 5-6 class of my new school, I listened as a guest science teacher taught our class about the effects of drought and climate change. Sitting there, I felt aged compared to those strange eleven-year-olds, matured a thousandfold by my own experiences. Existing in the sticky humidity of the Hawkesbury region, so cut off from the Murray-Darling basin, they hadn’t even known there was a drought.

These days, having lived in Melbourne for five years, even I sometimes forget that we’re living in a country waging a relentless battle against its own environment. We are an island, surrounded by three different oceans, and yet once again we are experiencing a crippling drought. Protected by the unpredictable weather of this beautiful city, the only constant reminder I’ve felt is the increased price on milk at Woolworths; up by 10c to support dairy farmers, the words ‘drought relief’ printed across the front of the bottle, just to make sure no one kicks up a stink.

But every few months I take my twelve-hour trip through the looking glass, journeying into the flipside of Australian life. To a place where impending rainclouds are met with excitement, only to be followed by disappointment when the land only receives 10 mil. But it’s also a place where you can smell the rain coming, mixing with red earth in a beautifully unique way, and you can see the storm clouds rolling over the flat horizon in all their glorious beauty.

It is the journey back to Melbourne that I always find jarring. In the space of a day I travel from a town where level four water restrictions are soon to be enforced, where conversations are about farmers losing the few lambs they have left to dust storms, and which lawn varieties will survive the summer. To a city where conversations about the weather are all about its changeability, and where, walking down a tree-lined street, I have to stop and wait because a woman is hosing down her concrete driveway, the water running down into the gutter and across the road. My immediate reaction to this sight is shock, that deep-seated instinct to not waste water rising up, until reason sets in. I’ve crossed the polarising line of Australia, to a place where water is not a scarce commodity. Where showers can be longer than four minutes and washing machines don’t have hoses attached to transport the used water outside to keep the grass alive.

My experience of drought is one that many in Australia share, and yet it is also one of the few; Australia’s rural population is vastly outnumbered by its urban, and the former often goes underrepresented. When considering the millennial generation, we don’t automatically think of those who don’t live in cities or large urban areas. Or that those who have moved from the country, for employment, studies or simply for more options, are the people they are because of their backgrounds. I lost the only home I had ever known just as I moved into my teenage years, but I’m lucky enough to remember the good times, and how we survived the bad. And no matter how far I travel from my country roots, they’ve forever shaped me.

My Pa has slowed down in recent years, planting only enough for him to handle with a little outside help when necessary. He and Gran enjoy being able to go to the local farmers’ market each fortnight, and to be able to load up my brother’s car every time he visits from Sydney with watermelons and rockmelons for his in-laws. So every year Pa repeats his mantra; ‘this is the last year’. Even when a tendon rips in his foot after a lifetime of walking over uneven ground, he plants again. ‘This is the last year’.

There’s resilience to it, that refusal to give up in the face of a relentless adversity, or even having the strength to move on. Australia has a long history of extremes; of drought, flooding and fires, all of which have brought communities to their knees. Our current drought, after only three years and the entirety of NSW being declared in drought late last year, is already considered to rank alongside the Millennium drought, with similar high temperatures. As a generation and country at large, we have witnessed, if not experienced, these hardships. And it’s because of this that we shouldn’t forget, or allow the normality of drought to become a distant thought as we move on with our lives, safe within the city side of Australian life.

Whether it’s taking a moment to think about the people that grow your produce, going out of your way to buy it from a farmers’ market to support the farmers directly, or perhaps even donating to one of the many drought relief charities, there’s always something we can do.

Image by Suzanne Mansell. Used with permission.

Amelia Mansell is a Masters student at the University of Melbourne, but a country kid at heart. Despite living in Melbourne for five years, she has yet to brave driving in city traffic.

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