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Published: February 6th 2020
I’ve been coming to this particular remote corner of New South Wales for over ten years, and I don’t think I’ve ever really given it the blog-space it deserves. And so, please meet Fowler’s Gap, the Arid Zone Research Station run by Sydney’s University of New South Wales. 100,000 acres of not very much at all, and I love it.
To someone living most of the year on a cosy overcrowded little island, the prospect of flying for almost three hours and still not leaving the state in which you started is a little mind-blowing. Such is the flight from Sydney to Broken Hill, the self-proclaimed gateway to the Australian Outback. From there, the station is another 110 km up the road. I joke back home that running out of milk here necessitates a three-hour round trip, and even that timeframe has only been possible in the last few years when the last couple of stretches of the road into town were finally surfaced. Mobile phone reception here is negligible, as it is from about 10 km north of town, and broadband only very slowly improving. A couple of years’ ago, I talked to the IT department of the large
US bank at which I was then seconded about accessing the bank’s systems so that I could work from here, already knowing from experience that the usual log-in method was painfully slow, and trying to download documents or click on embedded links invariably crashed my computer. “Tell your friend to get better broadband,” was the unimaginative response from New York. Nowadays the broadband is good enough to watch Netflix, but I still can’t access my occasional-firm’s systems, not that, I have to admit, being technologically incapable of working here is something over which I lose any sleep.
To someone living in the maelstrom of London, the prospect of being surrounded by an awful lot of nature – views to the year-after-next from the top of the ranges that dot the property, fluctuating numbers and species of animals and birds – and very, very few people can be daunting. I posted some kangaroo photos on Facebook one year, and got the comment back from one such London-based friend, “But where are all the people?” Even a bush-toughened Africa-based tour guide and a friend whose life plan is to kayak vast stretches of the Australian coast on his own have asked
me how I cope with the emptiness. Yet it’s actually one of many reasons I love it here. I can go for days without seeing or speaking to anyone else, not least because I’m usually here in the hotter months, outside peak research season.
“But what do you actually DO out there?” is something I’ve been asked more than once. First up, I read prodigiously, devouring so many books that I decided this year to bring with me some of the weightier (at least in terms of content) tomes lurking on the shelves of my to-read bookcase as those poor shelves are now overflowing. More virtuously, I catch up on work-related know-how, and any outstanding blogs and travel-related admin. Occasionally, I get roped into station activities, and have happily helped out on projects relating to kangaroos, feral cats, small mammals and echidnas, as well as participating in student and staff parties (not exactly a hardship). One memorable Australia Day, we got together for the mandatory barbecue late in the afternoon as the mercury had topped 40C (105F) that day, and played cricket with the station manager’s kids, watched over by the latest collection of young orphan kangaroos: you don’t
get a much more “Australian” experience than that! I’ll also do sporadic re-supply runs into Broken Hill, and pick up or drop off students and researchers, and I keep my “detail” eye in by proofreading the occasional paper, report or thesis chapter. But most of all, this is my switch-off and recuperation time, replenishing batteries worn a little thin by my hectic London and Edinburgh work and social lives, and wherever my most recent travels have taken me. If I can’t actually have the nine-lives quota of a cat, I’m doing my best to live several at once, and here is where I catch up with myself.
But I have it easy, I know. I drift in and out of Fowlers Gap during my annual escape-the-British-winter sojourns in Australia; I don’t have to live here. And it is particularly brutal at the moment, in the midst of what an increasing number of the cognoscenti are calling the worst drought on record in Australia. (With records only going back 130 years or so in this part of the country, that may not be saying very much, but it’s no less painful for those battling it in the here and now.)
I’ve been here when the views are green, pasture for the resident sheep, kangaroo and goat populations abundant, grass so long in the middle of the tracks that you have to check the front of the vehicle periodically for seeds and detritus, and the dams are filled to overflowing. Ducks and geese appear, pot-loads of yabbies are caught for the station barbecue, and scientists start talking about researching fish. In a downpour, the usually-dry creeks become almost instant torrents, and, here on the homestead, we’re cut off from the main road; oftentimes the road into town is closed as well because of the number of creeks that gush across the road. Rare water flow means there’s little point bridging the dozen or so creeks between here and Broken Hill; marooning communities like ours for a few days is the infinitely cheaper option.
But now I’m here for the third consecutive year of a very different Fowlers Gap. A range of colours that Dulux might label “Terracotta Chip”, “Show Business” and, appositely, in more ways than one, “Red Terra”. Green is a luxury only afforded to those trees still surviving in the dry creek beds, and to the station
manager’s lovingly manicured front lawn. Indoors, there’s a constant battle against the dust. However good the insulation of the accommodation – and it isn’t – not much can withstand the Outback’s dust. It doesn’t even need an apocalyptic-looking dust storm, though we’ve had those earlier this season; any wind from the west or north, blowing over achingly dry land before it reaches us, brings more.
I’ve been here when the flat country is almost alive with kangaroos, the hillsides dotted with groups of feral goats, the sheep plump and woolly, the prevalence of rabbits raising talk of reintroducing controls, and even the occasional fox and feral cat looking in good shape. This year we came back to the station after a month’s break to find one dead euro (a type of small kangaroo) outside the house; last year, there were three. I’d commented wryly to folks back east that I didn’t think there would enough animals left for there to be any dead waiting for us this time. I walked over to the Twin Tanks lookout last night – maybe a 90 minute round trip if you stop to enjoy the views and come back along the creek bed
– and the only kangaroo I saw was close to the house; more likely one of the hand-reared orphans gone temporarily AWOL from its cosy gig at the farm manager’s house where, along with several dozen others, it is fed and watered regularly. The enclosure in the homestead into which these orphans are “soft” released when mature probably now houses as many kangaroos and emus as are wild across the whole property. As you walk around, there are occasional waves of the sickening smell of decay, the only positive that can be dredged out of this being that more animals have lasted until now than I’d expected. White bones are all that’s left of those that didn’t make it this long.
This is the raw reality of drought. The average annual rainfall here is approximately 230 mm, yet the sum total of the last three years’ rain barely reached 75% of this annual figure, having been, respectively, 84 mm, 48 mm and 42 mm. The station’s most recent quarterly report is stark: “There is now no grazing and only a little browse remains. Saltbush and other shrubs have been reduced to old growth stems and river red gums have
Sturt desert peas
the treat that awaits us when the rain next comes
started to die in the riverbeds. All dams are now empty.” And that was over four months’ ago; only 1.6 mm of rain has fallen since.
Those with an optimistic frame of mind say phlegmatically, “Each day without rain is one day closer to the day it rains,” although I fear this adage may be wearing thin. But I keep going back to the wonderful Australian classic, “‘We'll all be rooned,’ said Hanrahan”, an ode to the weather grumbles of every farmer.
“‘We'll all be rooned,’ said Hanrahan in accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began one frosty Sunday morn.
The congregation stood about coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock, and crops, and drought as it had done for years.
‘It's looking crook,’ said Daniel Croke; ‘Bedad, it's cruke, me lad,
For never since the banks went broke has seasons been so bad.’”
Of course, it then rains, but our hero is still worried: “‘We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan, "If this rain doesn't stop.’” Sure enough, the rain does stop, the grass grows, and another concern emerges:
“‘There'll be bush-fires for sure, me man, there will, without a doubt;
be rooned,’ said Hanrahan, ‘Before the year is out.’”
Brutal as this is, it is part and parcel of the Australian Outback.
And the rains will come.
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