I nearly died today. Apparently I’m overreacting, but I’m standing by my claim.
Late this afternoon I headed out to a property called Khyber Downs – one of the farms worst affected by the drought. It was so dry the dirt had turned into grey dust.
I’d made the trip out there to try and track down two of our NRMA Patrols, who I’d heard were helping farmer Peter fix tractors, motorbikes, trikes, utes, your name it. I could see their NRMA Patrol van disco-balling in the sun well before I spotted any sign of life.
Within about five minutes of being there, this young kid, probably about 17 years old, came flying in on a dirt bike. Before I knew what was happening, my sun-safe, wide brimmed hat had been ripped off, I was thrown on the back of the bike… and we were off! I’m a self-proclaimed thrill-seeker, but let me tell you – I screamed like a little girl.
We tore through a farm gate at what I’m sure was quite literally a million miles an hour. The kid seemed to get a kick out of hearing me scream blue murder, and decided to speed up every time my squeal reached new heights. I had visions of my feet getting tangled in the back wheel, both of us sliding out of control and farmers discovering our bloody remains many months later. I’m growing rather fond of this place, but it’s still not exactly where I imagined spending my last day on earth.
By the time we got back I almost felt drunk with shock. I’d gone from politely resting my hands on the kid’s shoulders, to clinging to his waist with my face pressed into his back. I at least hope he enjoyed it.
I was harbouring some serious resentment towards him, until I heard his story. Farmer Peter had basically adopted him, put him up and given him some farm work to get him out of home. His parents were constantly ‘blueing’, and it wasn’t the right place for a boy to grow up. Back in Sydney, that’d be a big deal, but around here it’s just want they do, they look out for each other. It’s special – like community spirit is their life-force; the only thing feeding the town in lieu of rain. I’m still working on forgiving the kid… I’m getting there.
Earlier in the day – well before the trauma of my near death experience – a group of us headed out to a big, beautiful property, sitting on about 36,000 acres, for a hay drop. Farmers from all over the area descended on the station to collect their allocated seven bales of hay courtesy of Buy a Bale and thanks to the generous donations of NRMA Members and staff.
After loading up their trucks, we all headed up to the homestead for a cup of tea, a corn beef sandwich, and a haircut. As you do. One of our Member volunteers Richard is a barber, so he was onsite to give everyone who wanted one a trim.
As we were all standing around, chatting and watching the farmers’ transformations, I got to know station owner, farmer Doug. I liked him instantly. He’s a beast of a man – in height, in width and in eyebrows – with the most devious smile. I could tell he had some good stories up his sleeve. We spoke about everything from kids and the weather, to wives and brazilians. It was very funny.
After an hour or two, it was time to head off, so I ducked inside to say goodbye to my new friend. I found him in the study, busy with paperwork. I launched in and gave him a massive hug. He just stood there, with his arms by his side – and not out of manly awkwardness, something else was up. I asked him if he was ok, but you could tell he wasn’t.
A few years back, Doug had a breakdown. The stress of living at the whim of the land had been too much, and he couldn’t cope. He now manages the stress with medication, but I’d caught him at a vulnerable moment. Doug explained that he was just worried. This was the worst, most severe drought on record in about 150 years. Bills to pay, mouths to feed, and no income for three years takes its toll. And most of all, Doug was worried about his stock – whether to keep pumping in money to keep them alive when there’s nothing to eat and no sign that there will be any day soon. It was a dilemma I couldn’t imagine being faced with, and there was nothing I could say.
Before I went on this trip, when people would ask me where I was going, I’d generally say something like, ‘to help drought-stricken farmers doing it tough’. But since being here, I’ve realised this isn’t tough, it’s not a game – it’s beyond that. It’s gut-wrenching, it’s hurting this beautiful community, and it’s ripping people apart. Yet they get on with it, they put on a brave face, they welcome you into their homes, and they smile. If you don’t laugh you cry, right?
Could you live on the land? Why do you think people live out in such difficult conditions?