by John Longhurst
The thick red dust billowed out behind him, and like a train on a dirt railway line, he continued driving along the ever straight track. Saltbush, bluebush and copper burr on either side of him provided minimal relief from the monotony that multiplied onto the mulga vastness.
In time, the Namatjira red dirt gave way to the fine, grey, baby powder dust marking the border of channel country. He focused on his driving now, as the recent rains conspired with the dust now pooled in deep wheel ruts in an attempt to wrench control of his steering wheel. Here the vegetation seemed cleverer, with lignum, couch and nardoo enjoying the recent showers and surviving with expectation of more.
A lone coolabah tree, seduced by the regular flooding of years long gone, caught his attention and he pulled over to catch a quiet moment before hitting Tilpa.
The tree stood defiant in a landscape that squinted the eyes, its trunk old and gnarled but mothering muscular branches that fanned out to a web of fragile twigs. Leaves were scarce this far from the river, he thought, and it would have to be a jolly bloody swagman that would camp here for shade.
He slipped back into the driver’s seat and pointlessly flicked the blinkers. He hadn’t passed a car for the last hour and he fixed his eyes on the straight road and continued the automated drive with the deep corrugations in the wide dirt road stifling any sense of relaxation.
As tree line of the Darling River came into focus and he subconsciously accelerated. The flood plain carpeted to the horizon with only the odd docile cow or scrawny goat breaking up the monotony.
At the bridge crossing, the coolabah, red gums and blackbox trees, tall and powerful now, kept the river as their hostage on both banks and the water moved like a slow brown medicine pulsing life like the superior vena cava into the scrub. The tapping and meddling of this main vein by competing agricultural surgeons now dictated all around him and he sighed at the results. The raising of a levy bank, here and there, to sate the thirst of cotton farms when the river spanned out in flood, appeared innocent enough at eye level, perhaps even innovative. It was easy to argue the water was better used here, than wasting its way to the ocean and, anyhow, land ownership was so intertwined with water access, it was more a case of use it or lose it to the ambitious further south.
He thought about the view from above. The one levee bank multiplied into thousands, creating a legal spider’s web that trapped the river, and sickened and dribbled any flow, that made it through the maze. Sure, bird life could adapt and thrive on new incidental wetlands but the fixed ecosystems further south, could hardly up and move, and were left struggling like limbs denied adequate blood from the heart.
He had a rye chuckle as he thought about the recent bushfires and how they trained the nation’s eyes on pending disaster; immediacy of a crisis dictating action.
Geez, he thought, having a drink at the pub was like joining a very long wake for the Darling River.
He sighed again, packaged away his depression, and prepared himself for some ‘How ya going?’ conversations. He didn’t worry about the blinker for the right turn into the dust bowl in front of the pub and lined his out of step blue car up against the military line of dirt splattered white utes.
The bar attendant raised her eyes at his green ginger wine order, but he joined the throng, now gathered around a fire pit, at the front of the pub.
Some shuffling to accommodate him. The worn boots, dusty attire and calloused hands equaled the work the weather had exacted on their faces.
Under his regulation Akubra, the eyes of the middle aged bloke next to him slowly oscillated from the blue car to his glass of green ginger wine.
The bloke took a fair swig from his beer.
‘Where you from, mate?’
He sipped the wine.
‘Other side of the river’.
The bloke paused for some time and slightly huffed.
‘Ah..... inside country eh?.... that figures.’
'Inside county’ refers to the land east of the Darling River. Apparently an old/local view is that those living east of the river are a bit soft/protected. JL.