In the 2000’s Australia experienced it’s worst drought in recorded history.
As people living on the land, our lives revolve around the weather. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. Rain is what we talk about all the time. We need rain, We don’t want more rain, it rained too heavy, the rain is too late, the rain is too early. It’s all about rain.
For our cities times of drought mean garden water restrictions, restricting people filling swimming pools, encouraging people to have shorter showers, etc etc. Out bush though, drought means alot more than not being able to water the petunias on the front verge.
I think collectively as rural folk, we don’t talk enough about how drought (or floods) affects us. We talk about our crop losses, we talk about our stock losses, but we don’t talk about how it has affected us as people….because it’s hard.
The next two Outback Wife stories are brave. They share their own personal experiences of what it is to live on the land through Australia’s worst drought and have it broken by the worst flooding of the Gascoyne River in recorded history.
If you’re in Australia and after reading the story feel you would like to help other farmer’s currently going through drought, you can. Large parts of Western Queensland and New South Wales are still in the grip of a horrible drought. Buy A Bale is a charity that trucks feed to drought-stricken farmers and also provides pre-paid credit cards to families in these areas to help them keep food on the table and keep money flowing into our little rural towns.
It often feels that on any given year there is drought in some part of our beautiful country.
Before reading on, I want to share that only two weeks ago I was up in the Gascoyne with my ladies. It was amazing seeing the change in landscape. On my January visit, the cattle were sparse, the landscape devoid of much green. This last trip though, having had rain, the cattle were happily frolicking in mobs on the roads and around muddy waterholes roadside, with patches of green throughout the landscape. They’re having a good year this year.
Our next Outback Wife is Genni and I’m in awe of her strength. She is the first Outback Wife to have her hand portrait include the hand of her husband. This was important to her. Together they have weathered the sort of tough times, that as farmers and graziers, we pray we never have to experience. They have come through it, together.
I am so thankful for meeting Genni. She’s lovely in every way. Her family is everything to her and to hear her speak, well you just know, she loves her land and her cattle deeply. She’s got that red dirt running through her veins and there’s nowhere else she’d rather be.
I’m honoured to introduce you to Genni.
“I come from Carnarvon. I was born there. When I was ten we moved up to the Pilbara and mum moved from station to station. Mum did contract fencing. We lived at Nullagine for a while and I went to school there. I went backwards and forwards between Nullagine and Carnarvon a coupla times.
I dropped out after year 10. All I wanted to do was play polocross. I did for a little while, not for long. A year or two. When I was 18 I went out to Weedarrah Station as a cook. I couldn’t cook to save myself. I didn’t even know how long to boil potatoes. The poor fella I was cooking for. I learnt on the job.
That’s when I met him. Well, he was someone I knew before, same social circle, but I was unaware when I went bush that he lived next-door to where I was going to work.
About 18 months later we were married. I was just shy of 20 when we got married in Carnarvon on a really hot day in January. The sweat was rolling down my ribs.
We moved out here then and lived in a little cottage, mud brick. For about a year. He had his mustering endorsement so he went off contract mustering in his plane. I went with him sometimes, living out of a suitcase, having children along the way. We managed a couple of properties at one point.
He’d been away mustering and I was staying with my mum. I was waiting to have our third child. He rang from over east and told me (heavily pregnant) to take the car to the dealership because he’d traded it on a Cessna 172. So we were carless.
So, July 1987, we bought our own sheep station and moved with three children. It was 380kms from anywhere. Without a car. The people that sold it to us left us an old car with two bucket seats, so our not-so-little family of five got around in that. A couple of kids would stand in the middle and the baby would be under my feet. No proper car…but we had a plane.
I used to worry so much. Him being up in the plane mustering. He actually did an aerobatics course once. It’s so dangerous. I’m a lot more relaxed about it now. Probably because my son’s just got his helicopter license for mustering so I have him to worry about now.
People always think you get lonely, but you don’t have time to get lonely. He still used to go off contract mustering leaving me with the kids and around 38,000 sheep. I had people to help. Eventually it was heartbreaking, as prices for wool and lamb plummeted and the effects of the wild dogs. We sold all our sheep bar the stragglers in 99. And built up our cattle stock; Brahmans.
The population really dropped in the 90s and early 2000s when people changed from sheep to cattle. There used to be shearing teams, just a whole lot of people. The Junction was always having cricket matches. They had enough for a team back then. They’d have a shearer’s team and a station hands team. Everyone would come down and watch. There was more community spirit back then. Everyone gets a bit insulated these days. Over the years we’ve always enjoyed the local gymkhanas, and back when the kids were young, we took them to riding school. Three of the kids ride horses.
We’ve had so many droughts. I hate it. It’s terrible. It really, really just gets you so down, it’s depressing. Doing a mill run and just knowing you’ll find stock that can’t get up. Knowing you have to put them down. We had that back in the sheep days too.
The last drought, before the flood, was the worst. In those ten years before the flood we never reached our yearly average rain. It was dry. It was terribly dry. That’s when the dingos had a field day, with the cattle so weak.
We bought this place during the tail-end of the drought. It had a lot of dry feed and not many stock. It was a lifesaver for the cattle we sent here (about 1,000 cows and calves).
It was pretty dry over that ten-year period. We’d just get enough rain to see us through but we were hand-feeding pellets and hay, which is very costly.
We’d moved back here in December 2010. The flood came a week later. It washed the mud brick hut away that we’d lived in all those years ago
Our house flooded by a metre. We left the house when the river was 8m high and moved to the shearing shed and slept in there. 5am the next morning the water was up to the board in the shearing shed, so we had to move again to higher ground. We slept out on the edge of the sand hill for two nights before we could get back to the house. It was devastating. The roads were all cut and washed. Everyone round was isolated. We didn’t have phone for two months after. We slept on the lawn in a tent for two months while we worked to make the house livable.
I didn’t realize at the time how tough it was. You get up and do what you have to each day to right the place. I don’t think it hits till later. That flood was never ever seen before. Ever. If you lived on the river: you were in trouble. We get everyone’s water here where we are, all the run off. All the collection goes passed our door and that time it came right in…through the door and the windows.
We got green feed after it though. That’s something. Looking at photos before; it was dead, just dead…then after, it was green everywhere. It broke the drought big time.
It’s heartbreaking, but I think the Queensland floods at the same time were even more devastating with the loss of life. In the weeks after the flood the only communication we had was listening to the radio. The SES flew food into us by helicopter. We had so much donated, it was amazing. Infact the Uniting Church did an amazing gather up of stuff and the Lord Mayors Appeal. All sorts of groups. We had so much donated; couch, chairs, washing machine, fridges, sheets, beds and blankets.
Thinking about that drought back then. I just don’t think I could cope with it. I don’t know what I would do. I just don’t think I could cope with it again. It tears your heart out going round having to shoot cattle. You feel absoloutely useless all for want of a little rain.
We had bushfires the year after too. There was so much feed. Bushfires from lightning strikes. Burnt a lot of country. At that stage it felt like one thing after another.
The year after that, they dropped the export ban. That ban pushed us into receivership. We had to sell off two thirds of our land. We came out of it well considering. We held onto our original home, where we spent that first time after we got married.
We were still in receivership; our equity just plummeted with that export ban. The domestic market was overwhelmed with cattle that couldn’t be exported. He was away mustering and the plane burnt to the ground doing a hot start. I don’t know what really happened, but it caught fire and burnt to the ground. He got out with his headset.
I remember that was my tipping point. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I remember trying to ring the kids to tell them what had happened, but no one was answering. That moment. It was the straw. It was the first time I cried through it all.
You have to be resilient up here. Some people can handle it. Some people just can’t. It’s in the make up of people. The sort of resilience you need up here isn’t really something you can learn…I think it’s just in you if you’ve got it.
At muster I’m the chuck wagon now. I take the food and water bottles out and hang round back. I help in the yards. I must still love it. Three of the kids are in the industry. One stands ready to take over the station when we retire down the track. I think the fourth may come back to it eventually.
This country responds so well to the tiniest of rains. We’re always looking to the sky. When it rains there’s feed on the ground and water in the river and fat cattle laying around the windmills. It’s then that you realise why you do what you do and there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.
We’re quite comfortable with each other now after 34 years of marriage. That receivership really put a strain on our marriage but we came out of it stronger. I wouldn’t go back there for the life of me. We don’t fight anymore. It’s not worth it. I would love to renovate the homestead and fix up some of the station infrastructure. I think once I renovate the house I’ll never want to leave.
When I’m really old and have to retire, I think I want to be near water. To look out my window and see water after a whole life of yearning for itlooking at that red dirt and the dry river.”
GENNI ROBINSON, 53
‘Doorawarrah Station’, Western Australia