(C) Copyright 1970 Robert Gordon Delahoy
The three hundred acres of wheat were a green bloom on the sand. It was a
sight to hold your eyes as you dreamed of the gold of harvest when that whole
area would ripple with each breeze, the heads, full with grain, bowing to each
vagrant kiss of the air.
We could already see in our minds eye the teams moving into the crop to start the long days of harvest, but then reality would cloud the dream, and we would turn our eyes upwards to the hard brightness of the cloudless sky.
The country was dry, and we needed rain.
Each morning broke crisp and beautiful, beckoning us into the new day. The clatter of a pail down by the cow bail, banging of tins in the feeders in the stable, and the anticipation of the breakfast cooking in the warm kitchen heightened by the sweet smell of a newly awakened earth.
But then the winds would come in from the west. Hot, dry, whipping up the sand that cut at the wheat shoots, and burnt the sweetness from the day.
And as the weeks passed we watched the green carpet of the wheat thin and become patchy, and our faces became drawn, and we spent more and more time looking towards the horizons for the rain clouds that did not come.
Just the whirley-winds gorged with dust in great pillars to the sky, and in the evening the vast wedges of the birds flying south.
And then one day, from the virgin scrub to the north of our farm, came hundreds of mallee hens making for our dam.
"Ah well," sighed George. "That tells a story."
The wild fowl were so weak that many stuck fast in the mud around the edge of the water, and it became a daily chore to walk down to the dam after their arrival and free the ones which were too weak to free themselves.
If the native birds of the area could not survive in their natural state, it did not promise well for us, and it was only in the evenings, gathered around the mallee root fire, that we were able to relax at all, keeping our minds from the harsh reality by reading or talking.
But then, when it was time for bed, somehow you always went out across the verandah and stood in the sand and looked upwards. And each time you hoped the myriad ice points of the stars would lose their brightness and be swallowed in a miracle of rain clouds.
Bill shook his head slowly and turned back to the verandah. "Maybe it'll rain tomorrow."
One day Harry came back from Speed with the mail and groceries, shouting that England and France were at war with Germany. "Here Mother. It's in the paper. Read it out to us."
As she read I tried to visualise what it would mean to us. England and France were more part of our school history books than a reality, and their wars something of the past. Noble conflicts of knights in armour.
"Won't last long you know," Bill said. "Germany can't fight England and France together."
George seem distracted. "I suppose we're in it too, if England is."
At that moment we had no comprehension of the four bloody years, and the millions of lives, the Great War would plunder from the world.
And here at home we had our personal conflict with nature as the months passed by. September, and still no rain, the wheat shoots surviving the abrasive sand, withering in the harsh dry, ground.
Grass for the horses was almost exhausted, and we were feeding them on cocky-chaff and mollasses. Then one day Wally came in from the back paddock to say one of the mares was down on her back with her legs in the air.
"Looks like she's dying George."
George sighed and climbed to his feet. "Come on Bill, we better have a look."
There was a hopelessness about the situation that had slowed our movements, and even our conversation. Money almost gone. No income in sight.
"We'll have to do .." Mother shrugged. "Something."
Just after they had left for the back paddock our neighbour on the south boundary, old Charlie McDougall, rode up, and we told him about the horse.
"Struth!" he said, "She's got the sand! It's them dry tufts of grass they fossick. Come up by the roots and they swallow them, sand and all. Packs up in their guts. We'll have to drench them. Got a plank?"
"About ten foot long and ten inches wide."
"Well, get it into the buggy. Quick."
Down the back paddock we found George and Bill trying to roll the mare, Bell, over onto her feet.
"Look out!" Charlie called. "Don't roll her over yet." He took the plank from the buggy and laid it across Bell's belly. "Now, you get on one end George, and you on the other Bill, and see- saw."
"What the hell's that going to do?" George asked.
"Come on. Don't muck around. We've got to loosen the sand."
Bill and George shrugged and climbed onto the plank, and George pushed off from the ground. "Feel like a bloody school girl."
But after about ten minutes of see-sawing Bell suddenly stopped groaning, and Charlie waved them away. "That's enough. She'll get up now."
George looked at him a moment, then climbed off and pulled the plank away, watching in surprise as Bell rolled over, pushed out her front legs, and heaved to her feet.
"Well, blow me .."
"Hey!" Rupe called, riding up. "Nugget's down now! He's back over the sand hill."
"Right'o," said old Charlie. "Same treatment for Nugget. Bob, you lead Bell back to the stable, and make her trot. Got to keep the sand moving. We'll fix Nugget."
When both of the horses were back at the stable Charlie showed us how to drench them. Throwing a rope up over a rafter, he tied one end to Bell's halter, and with the other pulled her head up and back.
"Hang onto this rope, and one of you pull her tongue out and hold it."
"Why?" Rupe asked.
Charlie paused and looked at him. "Because," he said slowly. "I don't want me bloody hand taken off." And, taking a long-necked bottle of drench, poured the contents down Bell's throat. "You'll have to drench them all you know. And if you don't keep them out of the paddocks they'll die on you.
"Hell," said George. Chaff had risen to £17.10.0 a ton, and even at that price was hard to get. "Ah well, I suppose we'll think of something."
"Just have to," Bill said. "Haven't got any choice."
After dinner that evening we held a family conference around the fire. The wind was blowing in from the west, a howling gale of biting cold, sand hissing against the iron of the walls and roof. And every now and then a peculiar howl would vibrate through the air.
Mother said it was a banshee, and to me it was like a voice crying out in despair from the wilderness, as though the very elements had risen up like the wrath of the gods, hell bent on destroying even the little tufts of dry grass that somehow continued to exist.
The air inside the house itself was filled with a fine, choking dust, and you could watch the fine coating forming on the furniture and floor.
Somehow it made you feel afraid, and you wondered if the whole country was going to become one vast desert.
"Perhaps Emma and Rudie could help us?" Mother suggested. "They won't be suffering like this with irrigation, and we may be able to find agistment for the horses there. At least they'd survive."
"Got to do something, Bill agreed. "Can't just sit here and watch them die."
George turned his head as the banshee wail came from the roof. "How about you go up and see them mum? We better get onto it right away."
"Alright. I'll go on Monday."
Harry drove her into Speed to catch the midnight train to Mildura, and Bill and Harry went in on Friday night and met her when she came back.
It was good news. If we took the horses and wagons to Merbein we could get work carting five-foot firewood for the Merbein pumping station, which was on the banks of the Murray River.
When Mother had finished telling us George sat back in his chair with a sight of relief. "That's settled then. We better get right onto it while the horses are still in good condition."
Harry stood up and poured another cup of tea all around, while we got down to discussing the route.
From Speed we would go onto Ouyen. A rough track, but better than we would encounter from there on. The next seventy two miles to Mildura was overland, virgin mallee country where we would have to make our own road along the side of the railway line across the sand hills.
"There's no reason we can't start early next week," Mother said. "You'll never believe how green the country is up there."
The next day we prepared the wagons and checked over the harness. On one we put two five hundred gallon square iron tanks, as we would have to carry our own water for the track from Ouyen to Hattah, a distance of twenty one miles. Early the following week we set out, the two cows tied behind one wagon, Chester and Snowy behind the other.
Harry had wanted Mother to go up by train, but she insisted on making the trip with us in the wagons.
The nine miles into Speed was without incident, and four miles further on at Tempy, we made camp for the night. The horses were tired, and their lazy snuffling in the feed bags, the stamp of a large heavy foot in the quiet of the night, brought a feeling of contentment, and sleep came easily.
Next morning the sun rose, a ball of fire in the east, and while George, Bill and Harry yoked up the teams, Rupe and I helped Mother prepare the breakfast; a hearty meal before we were away on the track again.
Our next stop was at a place called Nunga, just an unattended railway siding, with a little iron shed to mark it. And of course Rupe wanted to investigate, so the two of us left the camp and walked over.
"Wonder what these are for?" he pondered, looking at the red flag in the iron cylinder, and the kerosene lamp with the red glass.
"It's to stop the train, Harry said, coming across after us. "If it's daytime you hold up the red flag, and if it's night you light the lamp and wave it to signal the driver you want the train to stop."
"Jolly good idea," Rupe acknowledged. "Do you have to get a ticket?"
"Yes," said Harry, "on the train. The conductor gives you one and you pay him."
"What if you've got no money?"
Harry shrugged. "I don't know."
But Rupe was interested. "Why don't you know?"
"Because," shouted Harry. "I've never tried it! Now don't ask any more stupid damn questions!"
Rupe turned away, undaunted, and took the red flag from the cylinder and gave it a trivial wave.
"Look," said Harry threateningly. "Put that damn thing away and come on back to the camp!"
"Okay," said Rupe. "race y'!"
That night there was not the same contentment as we sat around the fire. The excitement of the first night on the track had worn off, and we were beginning to realise that, for the time at least, we were homeless.
"Just like a lot of gypsies," Bill said. "Just the sky and the open road to call home."
"Aw, cheer up," George said. "Good seasons'll come again. As long as we look after the horses we'll be able to go back on the farm when the time's right."
But with the windswept dry earth and sand around us, it seemed more of a dream than a reality, and we yoked up the teams again next morning under a harsh cloudless sky.
We made Ouyen before midday, and, filling the water tanks, continued north, crossing one sand hill after another, each larger and higher than the one before, and more difficult to haul wagons over. Finally, just before sunset, we made camp on top of one, with a view across country of miles; vast distances of whipstick mallee.
The horses were thirsty after the long haul, and drank water as fast as we could bucket it into the water trough we carried, and it was a relief when they had finally drunk their fill and we were able to sit down by the wagon and eat the evening meal, then relax around the glowing coals of the fire for a yarn before we turned in.
The next morning, just before we reached Hattah, the biggest sand hill any of us had ever seen rose in our path.
George, driving the leading wagon, stopped and walked back to Bill.
"Reckon we better hitch your team on the front Bill. Bit much for eight."
They unyoked the team from Bill's wagon and hitched them in front of George's horses.
"Right'o!" George shouted, and standing the team up sent them forward into the collars, the wagon rolling forward and up and over the hill.
"Pull anything," Bill said proudly, driving the double team back and hitching them ahead of the two shafters remaining in his wagon.
"Right'o!" he called, and standing them up like a veteran put them at the hill.
Leaning forward those long-legged Clydesdales dug their toes into the soft sand, and with a whoop from Bill set the wagon rolling and hauled it up and over the hill.
It was as though that old man sand hill was tall enough and broad enough to hold the drought winds back on its own, for after that the country gradually flattened out, and the sand hills were behind us.
At the Hattah railway siding where the steam engines took on water, the ganger in charge let us fill our tanks from the overhead tank, a nice quick job that saved us having to bucket it up. Moving on we camped just south of Nowingi, and next day passed by the Nowingi railway siding.
The country was becoming heavier, and the trees bigger. Belah and pines replaced the whipstick mallee of the sand country; a kinder land ahead, the desert behind.
That night we camped at Carwarp, and towards evening of the sixth day we reached the outskirts of the Mildura irrigation country.
It was an incredible sight to us after the drought stricken Mallee. Water, cold and fresh, flowing in the irrigation channels, and lush, succulent grass heavy along the banks.
Before us stretched miles of vineyards, broken here and there by the citrus groves of oranges and lemons.
We had truly reached the promised land.
As we sat around the campfire that night, Mother read a passage from the bible, and said a prayer of thanks for our safe deliverance.
"Mum." Rupe's forehead creased in thought. "You thanked the Lord for our getting through the desert, but y'know, I reckon if it wasn't for our big draughts we'd still be stuck out there in those sand hills.
Mother smiled at him. "Yes, but it was the Lord who gave us those big draught horses."
Rupe rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. "Yes. I never thought of that."
Out along the banks of the channels the dim shadows of our magnificent Clydesdales moved slowly, the horses gorging themselves on the lush grass, a fitting reward for their long desert haul.
The next day we arrived at Emm and Rudie's fruit block at Merbein, and set up camp near the big water channel running beside their property.
"Ah well," said George. "A couple of days off to loosen up, and we better look for that work."
We were fortunate, and as Mother had suggested, secured a contract to cart five-foot firewood to the pumping station with the two teams. Bill, George, Harry and Wally did the work, and hard as it was, it did mean money coming in and we could afford feed to keep the Clydesdales in trim.
The cows we left tethered out along the channels, and they soon lost their drought-caved sides, and filled out and became heavy with the lush feed.
But with no-one to care for the farm at Speed our problems were not all solved, and Mother and Harry went back and found Geeba Singh, an Indian hawker, who agreed to look after it for us.
Geeba had two horses and a wagonette, and as the drought had all but stopped his normal sales, he wanted somewhere to stay until it was over.
Fortunately our homestead dam had plenty of water, and did not dry out all through the drought, so Geeba had a place to stay over, and we were relieved of the worry of the farm.
But there was a bigger worry, concerning the whole world of the Allies, for Germany seemed very strong and showed no signs of defeat.
Our Government was calling for men to enlist, and Australia's youth enlisted in their thousands, and three Divisions from Australia seemed quite probable.
The war became more personal to Rupe and I when we enrolled at the Merbein State School, made up of as tough a group of children as you could find. With Emma being married to a German, Australian born though he was, Rupe and I found ourselves the butt of their taunts.
It came to a head one day when the school bully taunted me beyond my endurance, and the Irish in me could take it no longer. It was a bloody fight while it lasted, but when it finished, although I could barely stand, he could not get up off the ground.
Mother was horrified by my black eyes, cuts and bruises, but young Rupe was delighted. At least it meant the taunts were less frequent, and we were able to find our place among the other children and settle down to enjoy the pleasures of our new home.
It was a beautiful part of Australia and the Murray River in which to stay out the long dry spell of the drought, and life at Merbein became very pleasant. We made the most of the cool waters of the river for swimming down at the pumping station and at the bottom of the winery, which was built on high cliffs above the river.
Below the winery, just about opposite the Merbein race course, the Murray River had dried up and we could walk across its bed into New South Wales without wetting our feet.
It was quite strange to stand on the border between the two States and look almost a mile down the bed of the river and not see water, and we often wondered if it had ever happened before the white men came in long ago. We wondered if the black man had ever witnessed such a sight, and how it would have seemed to him.
Perhaps it had become a part of the legend? Some song-story of a great drying up of the waters throughout the land.
The water in the hole near the pumping station for the irrigation channels was beginning to show signs of salt; the fruit growers becoming concerned that it would damage their vines and citrus trees. They called a meeting, and demands were made of the State Government for something to be done. Unless some quick action was taken they risked severe consequences.
It was one day after school that Rupe and I first saw the men digging soil from the banks of the Murray with horse drawn drays and scoops.
"Jove," said Rupe, "there's a lot of 'em. Wonder what they're doing Bob?"
"Looks like they're trying to dam it."
A small trickle of water had started to come down from the upper reaches, and it had been decided to hold this back with an earthen embankment.
It was completed with a spillway set in the centre to carry away excess water, should the level ever build up towards the top of the dam, and over the next few weeks, as the trickle increased in volume, it did begin to rise up the earthen wall.
Mr Bill Hamilton, the foreman in charge of the job, spent his time walking from side to side across the dam, a shovel on his shoulder and a pleased expression on his face. He would keep stopping to look at the growing volume of water, and shake his head in pleasure as much as to say: "I've taken control of this river."
The dam was his pride and joy, and the water kept on coming, and the level kept on creeping upwards, until one day it began to trickle through the spillway, and then to run in quite a stream.
Bill grudged every drop he could not hold, and would stand looking at the flow over the spillway as though it were a personal insult.
One day after school when Rupe and I were at the dam fishing for bream, and old Bill was walking across the embankment, shovel on shoulder, just about to cross the spillway, there was a sharp crack!
"Jove!" Rupe exclaimed, jerking his head up.
Out on the dam wall Bill said something stronger, but before he could get the shovel from his shoulder the spillway exploded up from the bottom, did a complete somersault, and went crashing and splintering down into the riverbed below.
"Hel ..l!" old Bill roared above the sudden thunder of water, and came galloping back across the wall of the dam as the river gouged at the earth behind him.
"Y' old bugger!" he roared, scrambling to safety and turning to shake his fist. But Old Man Murray just laughed at him, and heaving up on each side of the breach gave a mighty shove, and with a sound like thunder the wall gave way.
The Great Border River was flowing again.
Before we left to go home the dam was only a memory, and the water old Bill had tended so carefully behind his earthen fence was halfway to South Australia and Lake Alexandrina.
We left old Bill standing there on the bank shaking his head sadly, for to him it was no temporary dam, burst and swept away. He had lost a part of his life.
It would be a good time yet before man could lock the lower reaches of the Murray.
The increasing trickle coming down the river did not signal the end of the drought, but when February 1915 came around Mother decided it was time to return to the farm and put the crop in.
The State Government had passed a bill to assist farmers, and would supply seed, superphosphate, chaff for horses used in seeding, and £14 a month sustenance for three months whilst cropping. While the Federal Government had guaranteed the farmers at least 25/- a three bushel bag for all that was grown.
It was going to be a risk, but we decided to take it, and we left Merbein and made the long haul back into the sand country of the Mallee.
Chapter 2 | Contents | Chapter 4