T Dimboola: outback town for better, for worse

By Erin O'Dwyer 28 May 2009
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THE DRY RIVERBED THAT that borders Riverside, Denis Elliott’s “host” farm, is sandy beneath our feet. It’s littered with driftwood and mussel shells. A bilious-green waterhole supports a few die-hard European carp. A family of wood ducks parades among exposed tree roots. “Water is only two-thirds of a river,” says farmer-turned-tourist operator Denis. “The big trees,… View Article

THE DRY RIVERBED THAT that borders Riverside, Denis Elliott’s “host” farm, is sandy beneath our feet. It’s littered with driftwood and mussel shells. A bilious-green waterhole supports a few die-hard European carp. A family of wood ducks parades among exposed tree roots.

“Water is only two-thirds of a river,” says farmer-turned-tourist operator Denis. “The big trees, the banks and all the nature…that makes up the rest. And while there are still some waterholes, it’s still bringing in the birds.”

The Wimmera River is the longest landlocked river in Victoria. It rises in Mount Cole State Forest, 30 km east of Ararat, and more than 200 km downstream cuts its swathe through Dimboola, and then drains into Lake Hindmarsh, Victoria’s largest freshwater lake. Currently the lake’s dry; the river too. At Riverside, the Wimmera in full flow is 100 m wide by 13 deep.

“It’s quite an expanse of water when it’s level,” says Denis’s wife, Cheryl.

“A lot of people don’t realise the river is so close [to Dimboola] if they haven’t been before. But if they come for the desert, then the river doesn’t matter.”

Everyone in Dimboola has a picture of the good times. The Wimmera flowing; kids fishing off jetties, their dogs in tow; rowing boats gliding through the morning mist. The river has been dry for four years. For the past three, the 122nd Dimboola Regatta has been cancelled. But this is Dimboola and nobody is counting.

Desert, river and town are Dimboola’s Holy Trinity. The town itself, called Nine Creeks until it was surveyed in 1862, seems dry and desperate at first glance. It’s cut in half by the railway, then in half again by the Wimmera River. But the main drag, Lloyd Street – named after businessman William Lloyd, who, along with Mathew Ternan, established the town with a store and a hotel in 1859 – supports a bustling little community. It’s lined with a row of grand two-storey shopfronts and fancy iron awnings.

There’s one butcher, one baker, one takeaway-cum-cafe. And in the side streets, crammed neat little workers’ cottages are testament to a railway heritage. By the river is the parched-yellow sports precinct – football oval, grass tennis courts, bowling club and swimming pool. The only pub is the Victoria Hotel, busy by mid-morning each day. The grand 1930s Dimboola Hotel burned down in 2003. Its charcoal shell still stands on the corner of Lloyd and Lochiel streets, waiting for someone with enough money to rebuild.

Bordering the town to the west is the river, its deserted campsites and fishing spots still in the leafy shade of river red gums. Further west is the Little Desert, 1320 sq. km of flowering heath plains, yellow gum woodlands and sandy swamps all the way to the SA border. It’s a lively place – home to 220 species of bird and 57 varieties of orchid – but one where survival depends on a little rain and a lot of resilience.

Dimboola’s charm

The same is true of Dimboola, population 1864, located 300km from Melbourne in Victoria’s semi-arid north-west. Its fortunate geography – halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide – has made it an enduring changeover hub for train crews. About 55 drivers still live in the town, including six new local trainees. These days they move more freight than grain, harvests of which – wheat and barley, mainly – have been halved by a decade of poor winter rainfall. Dimboola’s twin concrete silos, 36m tall and dominating the town’s flat horizon, lie empty. The town is desiccated, too. As the river dried up and the desert crept ever closer, lawns died and fruit trees withered.

Gracious Federation homes lost their river frontage and front yards became as unkempt as an old man’s whiskers.

“It’s a paradise, or it was before this 10-year drought hit,” says Denis, watching Cheryl thumb through an album of past weddings and parties celebrated on the once lush, green river banks. “Absolute paradise.”

Drought is no stranger here in the Wimmera district. Flat as far as the eye can see is the region frozen in Sidney Nolan’s mythic paintings vast yellow wheat fields, shimmering horizons and grey-brown gums melting in the sun. The landscape is still exactly as Nolan painted it as a young soldier stationed here during World War II.

His flat plains and abstract figures might have been confronting for his time, but the oil-on-canvas portrayals are vividly realistic – from looming silos to train drivers dwarfed by big, blue-black skies.

On a Friday afternoon in early summer, stout silos and windmills are the only landmarks. A wheat harvester sprays the horizon with haze and a wedge-tailed eagle hovers overhead.

The aridity is beyond belief, but this parched-earth exterior is the price of admission to Dimboola. Similar to Nolan’s Wimmera, there’s no lack of humanity. And, as with the Little Desert, which bursts forth with flowers each spring, Dimboola is full of life.

Government neglect

TWO YEARS AGA, Melbourne’s The Age newspaper ran a front-page story heralding the death of 40 Victorian towns. Dimboola made the list, scoring ‘well’ on the 25 key indicators including joblessness, poor health, housing stress and low education. At the time, the report’s project manager, Father Peter Norden, of the Jesuit and Catholic Social Services, made a plea for government intervention. Inaction would lead to dire consequences, he warned.

“If you don’t tackle this in a concerted way now, these communities will become out of reach of mainstream government programs,” he said. “They could become permanently untouchable.”

(click for gallery)It’s an admirable sentiment but one that means little in Dimboola. Here, people have given up waiting for help and are helping themselves. The town’s kerbside gardens are being single-handedly planted by a volunteer, Jan Ballard (pictured), who can be seen most days, pushing wheelbarrow-loads of agapanthus around and watering with a bucket.

“When I first started, I used to get into trouble from the mayor,” Jan says. “But it just sort of snowballed, and now I don’t get into trouble anymore.”

When it comes to water, folks are doing their own thing, too. The $688 million Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline Project – due for completion in 2010 – will bring water from the Grampians catchment to 36 western Victoria towns, but Wimmera locals are one step ahead, sinking bores on their own properties, then charging their neighbours $1 per tank-load to tap them.

It’s this optimistic, look-to-the-future attitude that sets Dimboola apart. It has suffered the same double whammy of drought and economic downturn as many other struggling rural towns, but the same sentiment echoes in every conversation. “The town will survive,” says Dale Conway, as he surveys an old black-and-white photograph of the river in flood, “especially when we get some water in the river.”

Dale, a youthful, retired history teacher, is president of the Dimboola and District Historical Society. It’s a fitting irony that the society is the most progressive group in town. Its website has downloadable oral history audio files and its research room, in the restored courthouse building on Lloyd Street, has both microfilm and microfiche (microfilmed transparency) readers. Its newsletter is sent to 170 members throughout Australia and a handful go to Europe and Britain, too.

“Our brains are working overtime with all the ideas we have,” says society secretary, Evelyn King. “We want something done with the old National Bank down on the corner, we want the pub fixed up… and we want the old garage converted into something with good food.”

The society hasn’t always been this vibrant. Some 12 years ago there were only a few ageing members and it was almost certain to fold. Dale, Evelyn and her husband, Raymond – all in their 50s – stepped in to stop the collection moving to Nhill. “As a historian you don’t want to see things that belong to the town disappearing,” Dale says.

But history is only half of the society’s work. Evelyn has an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything that runs through, or goes on in, town each week. “Ninety-six trains,” she says, flicking through her records. “And 88 clubs. That’s lots of meetings in town each week.”

One of these is the rowing club. It meets monthly, despite the drought, and opens its riverside bar every Friday night to raise funds. “We don’t talk much rowing,” says the club’s vice-president, John Nichols.

In February, the club began planning this year’s regatta. The annual event has drawn more than 2000 people in the past, and John hopes the 122nd might at last be held this year. Each cancelled year means another big financial loss for the town. “In 1967 the river was dry, then the next year they ran a regatta,” John says. “The river will flow again. It’s just a matter of when.”

The love of a small town

MARY CLARKE is dressed in a faded black T-shirt and tracksuit pants as she comes careering down Lochiel Street on her bicycle. There’s still something of the Melbourne artist about her – wild curly hair, rounded vowels and a love of good coffee – but she has lost all love for the big smoke. “I was so over being stuck in Melbourne and being on the rent cycle,” says Mary, a book designer. “I was paying $400 [a week] for a studio apartment. It was a beautiful place, but it was the final straw. I just wanted to get away from all that pretentiousness.”

Once upon a time, Mary had planned to marry in Dimboola. She was from Melbourne and her partner was from Adelaide. They couldn’t resist getting hitched halfway, in a town made famous by Jack Hibberd’s 1969 play about a dysfunctional wedding, Dimboola. The marriage was called off at the last minute, but years later, as a single mother of two boys, Mary was yearning for a quieter, more authentic existence.

“It struck me one day. I said, ‘What about Dimboola?’” recalls Mary, 48. “Oscar [her youngest son] and I jumped in the car and came here and went, ‘Yeah this is good.’ It happened very quickly.”

Two years on, she’s married to Ken, 53, a local builder and grandfather of seven, who quoted on the renovations to Mary’s Dimboola home. Now they jointly own the house – a riverfront Federation – plus an empty shopfront on Lloyd Street. Ken is building a commercial kitchen there; Mary is collecting old Fowlers Vacola preserving jars. She plans to make preserves from local fruit and wholesale her wares in Melbourne. It’s an ambitious plan, but Mary isn’t concerned. Her only hurdle, she says, is water.

New blood like Mary is a big relief in a town that’s ageing fast. Dimboola has an older-than-average population – 46, compared to the Victorian average of 37. One in three Dimboolans is older than 55 and 77 residents are older than 85. At Allambi, the community-owned aged-care facility, there are seven octogenarians and five nonagenarians. “An elderly people’s home is very important in a town like Dimboola,” says Norma Elsom, 73, a retired nurse who runs Allambi’s management committee. “Myself and the treasurer, who is 70, joke that we’re rapidly becoming part of the problem.”

Today at Allambi, 93-year-old Pearl Stephan is visiting her former neighbour, Dorrie Myer, 92. It’s Saturday afternoon and the talk is of old times.

“I grew up on a farm about 15 miles out of town and I married and I went onto a farm again,” says Pearl, a short, wiry woman with a quick grin and a faster wit, who gets around town on a purple motorised scooter. “I did what you do on a farm: you feed the pigs, you feed the chooks, you milk the cows, you make the butter…”

“Did you do all that?” asks Anne Bothe, incredulously. The immaculately groomed farmer’s wife is visiting her 95-year-old French-born mother, Marguerite Mouglalis.

“Yes,” says Pearl matter-of-factly. “Years ago the wife kept the farm going.”

It’s a different story for Anne, a former executive assistant with Club Med, who lived in Sydney and travelled the world before she met Dimboola farmer Michael Bothe. They married 15 years ago and she happily traded in her jet-set life, but not exactly for that of a farmer’s wife. She works full-time in Horsham, 30 km south-east of Dimboola, and serves on the board of Bendigo Bank. Her husband works off-farm too – on the Wimmera-Mallee Pipeline Project – in between sowing and harvesting his 833 ha wheat and barley farm.

“Just to generate some income,” Anne explains. “He wasn’t prepared to sit at home and watch everything fall by the wayside. I’m always in awe of the farming community because they just keep going. I sometimes say to my husband, ‘When do we say enough’s enough?’”

Not yet. Grain yields might have halved, but the 2008 harvest was enough to cover costs, and to put a little aside. “It doesn’t allow for much forward planning,” Anne says.  “But you never want to sell your property in a bad year, so people stay put. We haven’t had a good year for a while. We’re all hoping for that one better year.”

The Dimboola play- helps the show go on

A DECADE AGA, a small group of Dimboola locals, concerned about the town’s decline, decided they wanted to do more than put their trust in hope. The play’s the thing, they said, and began rounding up locals to put on Jack Hibberd’s play. A decade on, the same group of teachers, nurses and train drivers has performed Dimboola more than 70 times, raising $750,000 for the town’s struggling cultural and sporting clubs.

In November, when Dimboola celebrates its 150th anniversary, the play will be performed three times. It’s always a riotous occasion, with the audience playing the part of wedding guests. As The Age’s critic, Leonard Radic, once said: “One is never quite sure where the script leaves off and improvisation begins.”

Only two people have made every performance – wardrobe mistress Jenny Downs and her husband, retired RAAF officer Mike Downs. He plays the part of the drunken Irish priest. Not because he likes a drink, mind, but because he was the only one who could do a decent Irish accent.

“I’ve only ever been challenged once,” says Mike. “There was an Irishman in the audience and he asked which part of Ireland I was from. I had to think quick and I said Waterford, where the crystal is from. He said: ‘No you’re not. That’s not a Waterford accent.’” Mike roars with laughter. “It was one of the funniest moments we’ve ever had.”

I’m in town for the 72nd performance, in the assembly hall of the Dimboola Memorial Secondary College, which is typical of earlier incarnations. The $50 admission price includes a three-course meal, with drinks at bar prices. There’s a rowdy table of ‘wedding guests’ from Sydney and another from Melbourne, all dressed up in their 1970s best. Staff from Dimboola Golf Club are serving prawn cocktails and asparagus vol-au-vents. The wedding party actors are relishing their roles.

“It’s awful,” cries the bride, Maureen ‘Reen’ Delaney, in her broadest country  accent. “No worries,” says her husband, Morrie McAdam.

Just before dessert – pavlova – is served, Norelle Huf, a farmer’s wife in a huge black hat and high heels tiptoes over and whispers in my ear. “Times are really tough,” she says, “but life is really good.”

Source: Australian Geographic April – June 2009