Believing in Bourke:iconic outback town

By Amanda Burdon 4 June 2009
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Poet Henry Lawson said that to know Bourke is to know Australia. The outback town remains a barometer of Aussie life.

SO MANY DIGNITARIES HAVE visited the north-western NSW outpost of Bourke that locals are now wondering when the Pope will touch down. The late Mother Teresa, Queen Elizabeth II, prime ministers, governors-general and government ministers have all jetted in, so surely Benedict II will be next. Hope springs eternal for the town’s four Catholic nuns, who float between their childcare centre, Nazareth, and hostel, Bethlehem. But faith is often tested on the Darling.

Although it’s earned a place in folklore as a raw frontier, populated by characters lifted straight from Henry Lawson verse, Bourke remains a touchstone for some of Australia’s most vexing issues. Rarely a day goes by without shire mayor Wayne O’Mally fielding an inquiry from a politician or journalist seeking insights into the ravages of drought or rural decline, complex indigenous affairs (almost 30 per cent of the shire residents are Aboriginal) or the latest developments in the Murray-Darling Basin water debate. And the town’s crime statistics routinely attract national attention.

But still the visitors keep coming – 100,000 made pilgrimages to the “back of Bourke” in 2007. Many tour the desolate cemetery where larrikin eye-surgeon Fred Hollows was laid to rest beneath a coolibah, seek a wedge-tailed eagle’s view from atop Mt Oxley plateau or trawl the riverbanks for reminders of a paddle-steamer past. They’re drawn by that elusive essence of Australia said to reside in the back country, which distinguished historian and journalist C.E.W. Bean called the “second Australia”. He concluded, after a 1909 tour, that the western district was the preserve of “standards of pluck, hardiness, unaffectedness, loyalty, truthfulness, hospitality, on which the rest of Australia consciously forms its ideal”.

If Lawson was right, and this town holds up a mirror to Australia, then it is a mirror with two faces. For Bourke in 2008 is endearing yet uneasy, confronting yet comforting. Modern-day Lawson, Andrew Hull, admits that to outsiders the town can appear “a lonely and isolated place, full of questions and contradictions” but it’s where he and countless others have found contentment and mateship of the kind Lawson documented, where people don’t give a bugger about rank and renown. His words ring true one mid-week afternoon  when a chatty former shearer’s cook, a dishevelled teacher, an Aboriginal man and a suited blow-in make up the relaxed scene at the Port of Bourke Hotel.

Publican Lachie Ford says that barely an eyebrow was raised when millionaire politician and former Federal Environment and Water Minister Malcolm Turnbull breasted the same bar months earlier.

“I knew who he was, but I don’t think the blokes either side of him did,” carrot-topped Lachie recalls. “Government ministers don’t mean anything to them; he was just someone else having a beer. People are friendly and life is easy in Bourke. It’s a place where you’ll never sit alone at the bar.”

Bourke’s outlook improving

The sky is a vast paddock of woolly clouds – an unruly mob driven in from the north-east. It’s December and hundreds of pickers should be moving through grapevines and citrus groves on the flanks of the Darling while others chip weeds out of cotton rows in blistering summer heat. Instead, the fruit-packing sheds are silent, the cotton gins idle, the town parched of people. The river that runs deep with stories of riverboats and rogues, gun shearers and legendary strikes barely whispers as it trickles over Bourke’s weir.

Explorer Charles Sturt’s arrival at the “noble river” in 1829 proved a catalyst not only for the development of huge pastoral runs but also the township, riverboat trade and railhead that serviced them. The settlement planted on the floodplain in 1862 thrived. These glory days can be recalled through a fine collection of historic buildings, including the furthest inland maritime court in Australia and pubs (now mostly dry) that beseech from almost every corner. Both the no-nonsense commercial hub and its outlying residential streets, strung with neat, shaded houses, are protected from periodic flooding by a kidney-shaped levee completed in the 1990s. The only inundation these days is that provided by the sprinklers that tirelessly maintain Bourke’s green lawns and parks – a far cry from the surrounding red-soil plains sprinkled with muted green saltbush scrub and gidgee.

Wool and cattle production on those plains continue to be vital to the local economy but in recent years Bourke has become increasingly – some say precariously – dependent on 18,000 ha of irrigated crops (mostly cotton, table grapes, citrus and other fruits) along an unregulated stretch of the Darling. Water cutbacks resulting from one of the worst droughts on record and the Murray-Darling Basin Ministerial Council’s cap on irrigation extractions have hit Bourke hard. Its largest irrigated horticulture business – Back of Bourke Fruits – is in receivership and the district’s cotton pioneers, the Buster family, have put their Darling Farms up for sale. The irrigation-related industry that the council says injected some $70 million and 700 jobs into the local economy in 2000 is virtually desiccated.

In the five years to 2006 the shire’s population shrank by almost 20 per cent to 2941. While similar contractions have occurred elsewhere, Bourke’s remoteness has made it particularly vulnerable. A report commissioned in 2006 by the Department of State and Regional Development found that the deteriorating economic situation in Bourke was reflected in “sharply higher crime figures, increased family separation, outmigration, reduced sponsorship of education and sport, increased mental health issues, increased drug and alcohol abuse”. “Everyone out here expects drought and plans for it, but this one has gone on for so long that it has truly tested the resources of our people,” Wayne says.

At the front line are financial counsellor Sharon Knight and drought support worker Lyn Leigo. “Farmers have lost about 70 per cent of their income during the drought, their equity has been eroded and they’ve used up their savings,” Sharon says. “Many are barely meeting their operational costs. It has created all sorts of emotional, physical and mental problems but they just keep pulling their belts in tighter and tighter.”

“In the bad times you see incredible stoicism,” Lyn says. Sharon adds that there’s a sense of everyone being in it together, of dry humour prevailing and camaraderie, if anything, being enhanced. “The people, like the grasses, are resilient and responsive. During the dry times they’ve bunkered down in order to cope. But they’ve also continued to adjust, diversify and make better use of the resources they have.”

One example of such diversification is the nursery the Busters developed seven years ago to propagate their own citrus seedlings. It has grown into a 250,000-tree complex that now sells mostly citrus and almonds throughout Australia. One of the few local agricultural enterprises still employing locals, the nursery has enabled Darling Farms to keep the dream alive, but only just.

Family patriarch Jack Buster believes the 1995 cuts to water allocations, designed to curtail extractions until a full audit and ecological assessment can be carried out, have put Bourke and its irrigators “unmercifully out to dry”. His son Dan is more pragmatic. “We had been looking to maintain our profitability using less water, considering higher-value crops, even before our entitlements were reduced,” he says. “The jojoba are easy to grow and can survive long periods without water. We thought we could always maintain enough water in our four storage dams for them and the oranges, but we haven’t been able to put water in those storages for three years. We will go from a farm growing 8000 acres [3240 ha] of summer irrigated crops annually [predominantly cotton, sorghum, peanuts] to 3000 acres [1215 ha] if we’re lucky.”

Dan says many of the small irrigators will go under and the bigger ones will have to buy up other water licences to continue. “I had a vision that our farm was robust and diverse enough. We backed ourselves and we had a go. It’s sad, but we have made a lot of money out of cotton; we’ve raised our kids out here in an excellent community. It was a place where people could dream a dream and there was sufficient space to make that dream a reality.”

Dan’s dynamic wife Jenny, who markets a range of jojoba cosmetics she perfected on the kitchen stove, has no regrets. When everything started coming apart at the seams, she found fellowship in her weekly quilting group. “The community has a big heart out here,” she says. “That’s why people come, why they stay and why they leave crying. It’s the sense of belonging. Through thick and thin we are there for each other.”

Fellow quilter Margie Oldfield believes the weekly gathering has possibly even saved taxpayers money. “There are a lot less people out here in the west and your social world shrinks,” she said. “I’m sure our group has saved the government a lot of money by keeping us out of the madhouse.”

Sponge-roll chef extraordinaire Margie Mitchell doesn’t know how long her husband Wally, a current shire councillor, can continue bulldozing scrub to provide feed and hand-feeding cotton seed to their 3000 breeding sheep at Louth. “We’re in a better position than most. We own our place and we don’t have school bills to pay. But we’re in our 60s and Wally is working all the time. He’s a fourth-generation farmer and my family came here in 1853. We’ll never retire and go somewhere else.” Until conditions improve, Margie and Wally – and others just like them – will look to that healthy flock of clouds in the sky and keep hoping.


Tracker Frank Williams’ legacy

In the official portrait of the Bourke police station’s serving officers, circa 1900, esteemed tracker Frank Williams sits expressionless in the front row. Having survived a massacre of his people on the Warrego River as a child, he was raised by his grandmother on traditional lands at Mt Gunderbooka, 60 km south of Bourke, and schooled in the ways of his Ngemba people. When Frank started tracking for Bourke police in the late 1890s he’d found himself at a crossroad. To keep his job, the man who many believe was the State’s first Aboriginal policeman had to renounce, at least publicly, his proud heritage. He was discouraged from further contact with his family, and his children were only permitted to attend school if they didn’t mix with other Aboriginal kids.

“My mother told me that Frank’s mob would come and visit him in the night and she’d hear strange voices speaking the lingo, but she and the other kids were always hunted away,” says Frank’s grandson Mick, now Bourke’s only Aboriginal police officer. “His sacrifices meant that me and my siblings were not brought up on the mission at Brewarrina, which made us as a family. My mother grew up in a house my grandfather owned – highly unusual for the time – and that gave her a sense of belonging. He drilled into the family the need to assimilate; he didn’t want to turn them against white people. He had to do what he did but it must have broken his heart.

“I used to wonder why my family lived at one end of town and Aboriginal people at the other end. [About 20 families live on the western fringe of town at the reserve known as the Alice Edwards Village.] I had relatively fair skin and so people didn’t see me as black or white. We couldn’t play with the white kids and were discouraged from playing with the black kids. I grew up with that identity crisis.”

But it’s the grandfather he never met that Mick credits with calibrating his moral compass. “My grandfather inspired me to join the police force and to work within my community, but mine is a difficult position; I’m constantly stepping between the Aboriginal, white and police worlds,” Mick says. He joined the force in 1985 and recalls an era when Bourke’s hotels and streets were a “bloodbath” – when people drank until they fell over and some streets were “a war zone”. He’s felt the wrath of his own people during a full-blown street riot in November 1997. “But this is my country; I’m a Ngemba man. I have the opportunity to work with our three Aboriginal liaison officers, to monitor crime trends and come up with effective strategies for combating issues like alcohol abuse and domestic violence. I also want to help address the lack of employment and other health problems.

“I’m proud to be the grandson of Tracker Williams. He taught us that you have to draw a line in the sand, to not keep hate in your heart and to move on with your life. Through his actions he showed me that the divide could be bridged.”

Bourke locals: The will to endure

The untrammelled indigo skies that plummet into the seemingly endless plains of NSW’s western district have long beckoned the brave, the entrepreneurial, the foolhardy. As Andrew Hull says, the region attracts “either those who are prepared for adventure or those running away from something”, the idealistic and unrealistic in pursuit of romance.

But there’s nothing romantic about 40˚C summers, dust storms, rabbit plagues, woody weed infestations, salinity or drought. Bourke has weathered many natural and man-made disasters during its boom-or-bust history, enduring the loss of its bustling river trade, railway and meatworks, agricultural recessions of the 1970s and the collapse of the wool floor-price scheme in the early 1990s. This latest dry spell, coupled with the decline in irrigation, has translated into business losses of 40-60 per cent, forcing some to call it quits. Others are defying the odds.

Cotton was booming in 2000 when 32-year-old civil engineer Sam Maroulis inherited the business Darling Fertilisers, which was established by his grandfather. “Bourke was a thriving community, all on the back of cotton, and it was an exciting industry to be in,” recalls Sam. Then drought and the introduction of genetically modified cotton effectively cut his business by 85 per cent. “So in 2002, with the emergence of horticulture in Bourke, I started selling irrigation products,” says the father of three. “Then the drought really set in, permanent plantings began to suffer and the business fell in a heap. Our staff of 13 fell to 1.5. So I then looked to areas where the drought was not so pronounced and opened a little store in Narromine. Then the drought crept east. I was taking one step forward and two back.”

Diversifying away from Bourke and agriculture has been Sam’s business strategy in the intervening years. His regional team, now numbering 25, is focusing on small-scale civil engineering works and, back home, he’s proudly overseeing the construction of the long-awaited Back O’ Bourke (tourist and interpretive) Centre (see AG 77). “Bourke’s a resilient place; fortunes are made and lost here,” he says. “I owe a lot to Bourke. It gave me my start and it’s the support of my loyal customers that has allowed me to diversify.”

Les Walsh, managing partner of stock and station agents Landmark Walsh Hughes, is another who has abiding faith in Bourke’s future. “I feel confident that current weather patterns [especially recent rains] are shaping up as a good forerunner to the drought breaking,” Les says.

Surprisingly, property values in the western division have doubled since the onset of the drought, mainly due to improved commodity prices and historically low interest rates. “The drought has enabled people to demonstrate how versatile and resilient this country is,” Les says. “Apart from running Merinos and beef cattle, people are fencing for goats, and dual-purpose and exotic meat-sheep breeds have come into their own. We’ve proven that our land can support a mix of enterprises for less outlay.

“The vast majority of pastoralists and their properties will come out of the drought well. Better crops, techniques and water efficiencies will see existing irrigation maintained but there’s not likely to be any more development. When you consider the severity and duration of the drought, the local economy is still in remarkably good shape.”
Outback spirit

The first Missionaries of Charity nuns arrived in Bourke by bus in the early 1970s, each carrying a small enamel bucket containing just a spare habit and shoes and a thin rolled mattress. They have been coming and going ever since, from all corners of the globe. “Before us, nobody was taking care of the Aboriginal people; there was nothing for them,” remembers Sister Fidelis, who along with sisters Guadalupe, Rosen and Margritta make up the current cloister. “Mother Teresa herself walked past the [town’s designated Aboriginal] reserve in 1969 and decided that something needed to be done.” Between teaching scripture, providing childcare for Aboriginal families, visiting the sick and elderly around town, and running a hostel/hospice for homeless Aboriginal men, the divine sisters have many earthly demands.

“It’s not our way to publicise our work,” cherubic Sister Fidelis adds, shyly. “People appreciate that we are here; Aboriginal people love and respect us, calling us ‘my sisters’, and we are welcome wherever we go. We never run out of money, although we get no government support, money from the diocese or the parish.”

Similarly, the Cornerstone Christian Community, which set up its international headquarters in Bourke 30 years ago, believed that the land would provide, spiritually and financially. Sometimes as many as 40 young Christians studied practical theology while working – largely for Darling Farms – to help pay their way. Historian Paul Roe, who helped found the community and remains Cornerstone’s assistant national director, says that coming to Bourke expanded his horizons. “Bourke shaped me and Cornerstone profoundly; the heat, the dryness, the insects break you down and then this place rebuilds you,” he says. So Cornerstone’s decision to leave Bourke for Dubbo in 2005, in part because jobs dried up, was taken reluctantly. “Bourke is still inspiring people and it’s possible for a new generation to find meaning here.”


Gundabooka National Park: Stone country

“This is my camp,” says big Phil Sullivan, proudly sweeping a thick arm across a plain sprouting fresh new growth in the aftermath of fire. “This land owns me.” Against the backdrop of impressive Mt Gunderbooka – a crumpled sandstone outcrop rising hundreds of metres above the mulga and box scrub – even this bear of a man is rendered small.

An Aboriginal Heritage Conservation Officer with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Phil is a regular and passionate visitor to 89,289 ha Gundabooka National Park, the home of his Ngemba or stone country people, as well as the Barkindji mob. He eagerly points out wild apples, hardwoods used to craft tools and weapons, quinine trees and oven sites on the sandy bed of Mulareenya Creek but also the impacts of grazing that continued until four pastoral leases were acquired and the park gazetted in 1995-96. “There’s a great willingness to learn and understand our culture when people come out here,” he says.

Many visitors are drawn to the stone country that provided food, water, shelter, ceremony sites and surfaces for yapa – paintings in pipeclay and ochre. The park’s main rock-art gallery graphically illustrates creation stories, hunted animals and even the Brewarrina fish traps. Phil is delighted that the park is being managed in close consultation with its traditional owners, so that its spiritual values can be safeguarded. “The true value is in the things we can’t see,” he says.

He could be describing Bourke itself; a town in which 21 different Aboriginal language groups and non-indigenous people from all walks of life are represented. A town with high numbers of young Aboriginal mums and demands for a children’s refuge, with a successful indigenous radio station and language centre working to preserve traditional tongues. A town that supports art and music alongside boozy Saturday afternoon cricket and the Country Women’s Association.

“In Bourke there’s a sense of ownership of the camp, from both black and white,” Phil says. “Lots of beautiful ingredients go into making this cake called Bourke; the many different people give it a special taste. Even through hard times people still honour and respect this town.

“We have our differences – it’s always a challenge to see with your heart – but the reason we are all still here is because we have faith in Bourke and faith in each other. There’s a growing feeling that we need to leave the past behind. That’s why I urge people to come to Bourke – to learn about Australia today.”
Cleansing rain

It’s been raining in the west recently. Not drought-breaking rains but decent falls nonetheless, the likes of which haven’t been seen for ages. Shrivelled annuals wear new, vibrant green hairdos and anglers report good catches below the weir. Irrigation pumps have roared to life. Prayers have been answered. Bourke is flush with farmers; they’re somehow walking a little taller, contemplating planting, maybe even buying in some sheep. Another chapter in Bourke’s tumultuous history begins.

Source: Australian Geographic (Apr – Jun 2008)