Sunday, May 12, 2013

Everything I know about rain…

Lemme tell you everything I know about rain…

I grew up in a country Victorian town where shop assistants made small talk about the weather and everyone went around saying how lovely the days were before adding, “but I really do hope it rains… for the farmers.”

“Oh yes, they need it,” came the standard reply, which I soon parroted too, despite not really having a clue whether it was seeding time or harvest time or whether the farmers really did actually need it to rain at that exact moment. The perception was that they always needed it, because of that other faceless, more nasty, identity everyone talked about, “The Drought.”

Thinking back, I can’t actually pinpoint what years of my childhood would have been considered drought years. Although we had cousins with cropping properties not all that far out of town, my day to day existence revolved around in-town happenings and I can’t seem to differentiate between the years when it rained and the years when it didn’t. That is, aside from the memory that we used to be keen water skiers, spending weeks camping and skiing at the local lakes during summer, and one year the lakes started to go dry, one by one. And we couldn’t go skiing any more. One winter we visited our favourite lake and saw that “Mr Farmer” had put a crop in… I must have been a young teen, or tween even, but before that I really don’t recall registering that the lake might have even been owned by Mr Farmer or that you could put a crop in a lake!

When I was 15 my family moved to the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, where, ironically, it rains A LOT. But The Drought was definitely still going on then too because people from “the other side of the highway” used to talk about how dry it was over there, out west.

Soon after that I was living in Brisbane for Uni and there was lots of chat about water restrictions and which numbered days we were allowed to water the lawn. It was during this time that the nearby city of Toowoomba started hitting the headlines. They were fast running out of water and were pursuing plans to use recycled sewage water in their houses – there was lots of scaremongering and I recall the plans were nixed after a referendum, due to people not gelling to the idea of essentially drinking their own reconstituted, purified, excrement. But there was still water coming out of my kitchen and bathroom taps, and flowing down the Brisbane River as I walked to work in South Bank every weekend… so I wasn’t really concerned.

Then I moved to Darwin. There, as a general rule, it’s blissfully sunny and 27 degrees for half the year, and sultry hot, sticky, 33 degrees and raining for the other half. I spent 12 months in Darwin, including a wet season and a Cat 2 cyclone, and was thrilled by the magnetic force of wild wet-season storms and monsoonal evening downpours which could cool off the night like a blissful climatic release.

After Darwin came Townsville, or, as it’s less affectionately known by many North Queenslanders, “Brownsville”… the capital of the Dry Tropics. But still, even in Brownsville the yearly average rainfall can be measured in metres rather than millimetres.

If I list the years of my life by notable moments – things that stick out in my mind about a certain year – then it goes a little something like this: 2003, moved to Queensland; 2005, graduated high school; 2006, moved to Brisbane for Uni; 2007, moved to Darwin; 2008, met ST, and moved to Townsville; 2010, graduated Uni and got my first full time journo gig; 2011, moved to Burragan; 2013, got married.

Conversely, if I were to ask ST to list the years of his life, he could tell me exactly which years were drought at his parent’s property, and which years were heaven sent with the liquid of the Gods. He could tell me which years the Sandy Creek ran (a once a decade occurrence), and which years the dust storms were so fierce the sheep yards disappeared beneath a sandhill. Which years it was kinder to shoot sheep than watch them starve, and which years the roo, rabbit, and snake numbers sky-rocketed with an abundance of fresh feed.

I interviewed enough “cockies” during my first 12 months at Burragan (while I was still working full-time as an online rural reporter) to know they can list the dates of drought and flood better than if they were their own children’s birthdays. Even those of an age when memories fail to recall what they ate for breakfast can tell you which years The Drought broke.

Sometime between the years of 2008 and 2011 ST and I drove from Townsville to visit his parents for a week or so on the property. While I was “on holiday” – reading books and drinking champagne in the garden - ST was put to work as his parents relished the extra set of capable hands to help put new tanks and troughs in. Meanwhile, ST’s Mum and I were feeding hay to the cattle every morning. And one day we pulled two stuck goats from a dry dam.

We moved to Burragan at the start of a brilliant season. There’d been significant rainfall during the summer - before we arrived at the very start of March - and the dams were full, grass was long, wildlife was plentiful, and the sheep were plump and happy. It wasn’t until I saw the countryside like this, green and lively, that I had a little epiphany and realised my previous experience of ST’s mum and dad’s place had been during The Drought… I’d kind of just been thinking “cattle eat hay, that’s what they do, so we have to feed them”… Well, no. I was wrong. Cattle eat grass – when it has rained and there’s enough grass for them to eat – usually they can feed themselves.

Burragan is in an 11inch annual rainfall band; that’s just less than the length of a 30cm ruler. That mightn’t sound like much (and it’s not) but we’re in the same boat as more than 50% of the continent… and most of the time that boat’s in the shed, out of use. Any cockie will tell you that if you get the annual average that’s a good year, any more and it’s exceptional.

Lemme tell you everything I know about rain at Burragan…

A ground tank (or dam) doesn’t just catch whatever rain falls within the space of the hole in the ground that is the tank/dam. I can hear the farmers laughing at me, but yes, this is what I believed happened. Again, I was wrong. There are actually “drains” which are like shallow little channels built all around the tank to collect the rain run-off from around the paddock and channel the water all the way downhill to the “catch tank”. The catch tank is a shallow little dam right beside the big dam which obviously, as the name suggests, catches all the water. There’s then a “fluming” – very, very large pipe – which runs through the bank of the tanks, draining all the water from the catch tank into the big tank. Magic, isn’t it? (Yeah, yeah, I’m the idiot who never knew all this. Laugh it off folks.)

Lemme tell you everything I know about tanks…

At Burragan we don’t have any working bores (that’s where groundwater is pumped up to the surface for use), and due to disrepair following from the previous owner we also have very few poly tanks and troughs, so all of our sheep and cattle drink straight from the ground tanks. Some of them hold water better than others… some of them go dry far too quickly.

Water won’t run into a ground tank every time it rains. Of course, it depends how well set up and maintained your drains, catch tank, and fluming are, and also the soil type surrounding the tank… but at Burragan we’d probably need a good heavy 35 to 50mm (1-and-a-bit to 2 inches) in one rain event to run water into most of the tanks.

Also, (farming folks, please politely restrain your laughter) I was unaware that the high water level of a ground tank is NOT the top of the bank… Apparently it’s the top of the fluming, which is often MUCH lower than the top of the bank. So why is the bank so high then? Good question. I’ve voiced that one myself and got laughed at so let me save you the same embarrassment by sharing the secret with you here. All that dirt that makes up the bank is what is taken out of the hole that is the tank. And every time the tank is cleaned out (which can only happen when it’s dry), then dirt gets piled up on the bank and the bank gets higher! Magic, isn’t it?

Lemme tell you everything I know about water…

Having taps that have water come out of them is quite the awesome privilege. Because sometimes I turn the tap on and no water comes out, or sometimes the water stops soon after I’ve turned the tap on – this is usually when I’m halfway through shampooing my hair in the shower, or when my hands are covered in meat juice while preparing dinner.

This requires a trip the House Tank – about a three minute quad bike ride away – with the jerry can of petrol to start the pump, which fills the Overhead Tank at the house, which gravity feeds water into the taps in our kitchen, bathroom, toilet, laundry and yard. Magic, isn’t it?

A lot of the time House Tanks are fenced off from livestock to keep them cleaner but ours isn’t , meaning the sheep and cattle call all drink, defecate and die (ok, that’s a bit overboard but I couldn’t resist the allure of a possible alliteration!) in there as well. But truthfully our dam water is exceptionally clean and clear… you could drink it, if you were desperate, but instead we drink rain water.

Which brings me back to everything I know about rain…

On the last day of February last year it started raining at Burragan and didn’t stop for seven days and seven nights… I’ve since referred to this time as “The Big Rain” when we received 8.5inches of rain in one week. That’s more than three quarters of our annual average! Some friends just 100km south received more than 20inches and watched their wool shed, shearer’s quarters and house go under. This was once-in-a-lifetime stuff…

ST, his parents, and I had just finished cementing the base of our intended-to-be snake-proof fence all around the perimeter of the house. Yes, essentially we’d built a dam wall with ourselves on the inside! Braving the elements ST and I spent hours trudging through the mud, digging trenches across the yard, underneath the cement fence base, trying to drain the water away from the house.

You might have heard me mention previously that the Burragan house is in the middle of an old “dry” swamp… that week the swamp certainly wasn’t dry and I was monitoring the rising water level daily, wondering when I should start suggesting it might be time for ST to consider servicing the motor of the tinnie.

Rob Dog plays in the then full swamp beside the house

When the downpours eased ST and I would don our gumboots, wading through the water to check out the levels on all the nearby ground tanks. With what looked like rivers of water barrelling down the slopes around the house paddock, the tanks were all filling quickly, as were our gumboots when the heavy showers would start again before we made it back to the house. Low lying areas became makeshift dams of their own, with water pooling around the outside of dams, old creek beds and clay pans for months. One spot where there are four dams in a row flooded into one massive lake which became known as "The Big Water" - even the old windmill on its bank was underwater. It was an amazing, instant transformation, with the sudden deafening chorus of frogs of a night time and bird life and insects of a day time.

On the seventh day, when the sun came out, we could honestly hear the angels singing and a string quartet accompaniment. But since then they've obviously cracked the shits, shut up shop, and gone to sing on some other street corner.

Although we’ve had a few showers since then to keep the grass from completely dying out, we’ve now not had any rain run-off into tanks since The Big Rain… That's, ohhh… 14.5 months. Too many dams are now empty, with sheep and cattle getting bogged in the ones that aren’t quite. A quick look at the rain record tells me we’ve had 61mm for the year so far (and unfortunately I can’t locate last year’s record.)…but for January to May that’s about half of what we “should” be according to the last 134 years of recorded averages from the Bureau of Meteorology. There are people worse off - heaps of them. But honestly, now would be the perfect time for that 8.5 inches to become twice-in-a-lifetime rain…

In Dubbo last month during the usual trip to Town the Woolworths cashier was chatting to me about how lovely the Autumn weather was. Spending so little time in shops these days I'm no longer accustomed to making small talk, and it was a blast from the past when she added the line, “but I really do hope it rains… for the farmers.”

I smiled and replied, “I am a farmer. I hope it rains too.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sitting Pretty... in the idiot's corner.

I’ve had a reader request from someone (OK it’s from ST… he does like to read my blogs when he gets a chance, just to make sure I’m not giving away any of his secrets)… following on from my previous blog, “How not to muster a paddock.”

When ST heard the last title his first words were, “Is it about that time you tried to muster Pretties Paddock?”… “Umm, no,” I replied surprised, “But that WOULD have been a good idea.”

“You should do that one next,” he said.

And so here we are… That time I tried to muster Pretties… Oh sweet Lord, I’d tried to block it from memory…

It must have been shearing time six months ago, so around September last year, because I was on the quad bike which is still considered a relatively “new” addition to Burragan. ST and I had discussed the game plan the night previous as we prepared to muster Pretties Paddock. The plan, as usual, was for ST to head out an hour or so before me and gather the majority of the sheep together before calling me on the UHF. I was then to ride out and help put the mob into the small set of yards out there in the paddock. Due to it being a rather long way from the wool shed yard, we were going to rest them in the smaller Pretties yards first and walk them the rest of the way in the evening.

Now this was all making sense to me, though it did seem just ever so sliiiightly odd that we’d be resting the sheep in the yards in Pretties seeing as the yards were closer to the back of the paddock than to the end towards the wool shed. But you know, I’m no expert at this stuff and ST’s been doing it since birth, so I wasn’t about to question him.

Next morning - mustering day - smoko time nears and I’m still waiting for that call on the UHF. Bugger it, I thought, I’ll just start heading out there and call him on the way to see where he wants me. So off I go, fuel up the quad, check the tyres, and head off up the hill, past the wool shed and into the bottom end of Pretties.

It was a warm day for the beginning of spring so I hadn’t worn a jumper. As I straddled the uneven tyre tracks of the water run road through Pretties I was beginning to wish I had donned another layer. The cold, rushing air was quickly infiltrating my skin and a dark cloud was suddenly, and quickly, manifesting on the south western horizon.

Strangely I was starting to see the odd sheep scattered around Pretties as I zoomed up the road. Jeeze, he’s done a shit job of mustering this end, I thought, Wonder if I should start pushing these ones up to the yards? Surely if he was going to the north end yards he’d have done this end of the paddock already.

I tried calling ST on the bike’s UHF but got no reply. I kept riding.

The closer I got to the Pretties ground tanks and the vicinity of the yards the more sheep I saw, just leisurely picking their way through burrs and grass as if I was little more than a fly buzzing by. These sheep we relaxed and disinterested. These were definitely not sheep in the middle of being mustered.

I tried for ST on the radio again, several times, with only silence to answer. This was interesting… verrrrrry interesting.

The wind was picking up, blowing the threatening southerly storm cloud rapidly closer and heightening my panic at the same time. Why wasn’t ST answering the radio? I turned my bike off to see if I could hear the hum of ST’s Suzuki in the distance. All I could hear was the storm blowing in.

My mind was racing. Sure, his radio could be on the wrong channel by accident, but HE was due to call ME, so you’d think he would have checked it by now and realised, right? Maybe he’s had an accident? None of the sheep are mustered! There’re no sheep in the yards what-so-ever. My heart was starting to thump heavily at all the possibilities crashed loudly into my thoughts, riding in on the furious gusts of the approaching thunderstorm. He’s had an accident, I determined. So, let’s think straight here… there were no bike tacks on the road up through Pretties so he’d obviously come through Lyn’s Paddock. I’ll ride in that direction, I thought, and see if I can pick up any tracks criss-crossing the road through to Lyn’s.

Heavy rain droplets started to fall, stinging my cheeks as I pressed the throttle down harder. And I thought, How bloody typical is this? My fiancĂ© is missing in the middle of 70,000 acres, probably crushed beneath his bike, and no one knows except me, and the only rain to pass through here in months has decided to come right now, while I’m riding around blind, squinting my eyelashes together in an attempt to see through the bloody water haze and hoping to just magically spot a bright yellow motorbike somewhere nearby, and I’m likely to die of hypothermia trying to find him just because I forgot to wear a stupid friking jumper!

As my frustration and terror grew, so did the storm. I slowed down on the road to Lyn’s keeping an eye out for tracks or anything out of the ordinary, when suddenly the radio began crackling. It could just be the moisture in the air from the storm, I thought, but a gut feeling forced me to stop.

“Is that you ST?” I answered.

And the radio crackled back.

“I can’t hear you! I’m near the Pretties tank, can you come to me?” I talked into the hand piece.

Crackle, crackle, it replied.

Ohhh shit. Oh shit, shit, shit. I thought. This is bad. He can’t even talk. He’s severed his spine! Ohhh God, how am I going to find him?

I still hadn’t come across any tracks… So he obviously hasn’t even made it to Pretties this morning… he’s somewhere along the road in Lyn’s. He’s hit a roo on his bike going too fast along the road and come off at speed… Oh God, Oh God…

“Are you ok? Can you press the UHF button in twice for yes, and once for no?"

No response.

I pressed the throttle down hard and made a b-line to the gate into Lyn’s.

The UHF crackled again, more clearly this time… or as clear as crackle can be. Crackle, crackle, crackle… “Are you there Bess?” I heard ST’s voice come through distantly between the crackle.

“Yes! Oh my God! Where are you?” I yelled down the line in relief.

“Where are you?” he questioned back, ignoring me.

“I’m just at the gate going into Lyn’s from Pretties. Where are you? Are you OK? Tell me where you are and I’ll come to you.”

“What!?” came his incredulous response, “What the hell are you doing there?”

“I’m looking for you! Where are you? Are you over at the yards? There’s sheep everywhere down the bottom end, do you want me to go back and start pushing them up?”

“I’m at the house.” Oh GOD! I thought, he’s had to make his way all the way back to the house, with broken limbs, to call the flying doctor and I’m not there!

“Why are you at the house? What happened to mustering Pretties? ARE. YOU. OK!?” I yelled.

“Of course I’m OK! What are you doing in Pretties?”

“Why are you back at the house already? There’s sheep EVERYWHERE!”

“Of course there’s bloody sheep everywhere. We weren’t mustering Pretties…” He said.

“What do you mean we weren’t mustering Pretties? I’m out here, now, waiting for you, ready to muster!”

“We were mustering Candy’s. And I’ve finished already so I’m back at the house wondering where the hell you are!”

Ohhhh. Mmmyyyyy. Godddddd,
I thought.

“Ohhhh. Mmmyyyyy. Godddddd,” I said. “So you’re OK?” I questioned a bit more quietly this time.

“Yes I’m OK! Are you OK?” his voice was getting louder and angrier…

“Yep, fine. Just cold and wet. I’ll see you back at the house soon.”

I rode home fast, bracing myself against the needle-like rain and slowly feeling my panic turn to relief, before exploding over me in a massive, big, heap of embarrassment. I started giggling hysterically for a little bit as I pushed the throttle down again, deliriously embracing the cold wind and the power of the dark clouds hanging overhead.

As I neared the house the rain stopped. ST was standing on the front lawn with a cup of coffee in hand. I was readying myself for the likely onslaught of how-could-you-have-buggered-that-up-so-royally anger, but instead, as I rode past the front yard with a little apologetic smile on my face, ST doubled over in laughter, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Just five paddocks and 30 kilometres in the wrong direction Bess,” he teased as I swung the yard gate closed behind me and ripped off the top layer of my soaking shirts.

“Where’s my coffee?” I grinned.