In September 2016 I was invited to give music and song performances at the 1000 Voices Festival held at Bourke, in western NSW. Bourke is an isolated town in a shire the size of Denmark with a total population 0f somewhere about 3000 and on the boundary between the zones of (relatively) reliable rainfall where grazing and some cropping under irrigation are still viable (the latter in good seasons) and the arid zone. The iconic Darling River, part of the country’s largest river system and once the highway for a bustling riverboat trade, still pervades the character and life of this resilient and warm-hearted town. As one of the artists in residence on a poet’s trek that retraced the footsteps of Lawson and Ogilvie during the festival, I thought I’d better contribute something original, so I penned this simple tale during a dinner camp. For the non-Australian, Hughie is the bloke who brings the rain – especially violent downpours. In the latter years of the twentieth century he also assumed the mantle of a surfing god.
One man’s creek is another man’s Barwon
You see a lot of rivers as you wander here and there —
I reckon in my travels I’ve seen a decent share —
But one feller’s “mighty river”, is another codger’s creek;
Try to tell him different, and he’ll argue for a week.
The south-west’s Avon River would be sneered at in the east;
And the Torrens? Strike me purple, it’s a weird sort of beast.
More mud than flamin’ water, like a claypan upside down;
And there’s another one just like it, runs through Melbourne town.
I lived in Old Kentucky, of Stephen Foster fame —
Though the beggar never went there, he just liked to use its name —
And if I said “the river” when I spoke of Cedar Creek;
It kept the boys in Stamping Ground laughin’ for a week.
To get to little Stamping Ground, you have to go across,
The South Branch of the Elkhorn Creek, where the buff’lo used to cross;
More water than the Murray — though nowhere near as long,
And wider, too, in places, with a flow that’s awful strong.
A 46-inch annual rainfall, keeps her flowing well,
And it’ll up and drown you, easy, when the summer storms give hell;
For what them durned hillbillies call a “summer shower”,
Is the edge of a tornado, and a foot of rain an hour.
But still, it’s just “a crik” to them, though it seemed much more to me,
The blow-in from the Old Brown Land, a place they’ll never see.
But like us old-time Aussies, those hill-folk love a yarn;
They love to hear what life is like on someone else’s farm.
And so we’d pass the evenin’s, swopping tales—all mostly true,
Though sometimes lightly seasoned with a little lie or two;
They loved to hear my stories, of a country that, to them,
Seemed strange—well weird really— and far beyond their ken.
One night as I recall it, a memory slipped out,
Of the Darling down at Wentworth, in the middle of a drought.
I told ‘em how that mighty stream, was down to three foot wide;
How the carp were wriggling up the banks, to pull grass from off the side.
I tried to tell them how, the mighty river gums,
Seemed to hunch their shoulders, as drought he country numbs;
And push their roots down deeper, into the drying mud,
To wait the Darling’s blessing, as she brings another flood.
“And,” I began — here I paused as all good yarners should,
To ratchet up the tension, make the telling of it good—
Here I ask indulgence, I should have taken time,
To do a little extra and fix that bloody awful rhyme…
“And,” I said, and drew a breath, adding drama to my tale,
“When the mighty Darling River floods, she’d drown a bloody whale!”
“Thar h’aint be whales in rivers,” the local cynic scoffed;
“He’s a-paintin’ pitchers, cuz you cain’t read, hush your mouth, Clem Goff.”
Rescued for the moment, I went on to tell them how,
The rains would always come at last – “Like it’s doing here right now”.
And then that sluggish river that they might call a creek,
Spreads out to cover acres by the million in a week.
Down she comes majestic like, a relentless, sliding flow,
Ignoring bends and channels, spreading as she goes.
The TV news might tell us that the “country is in strife”;
In strife Aunt Fanny’s bed socks! The country’s come to life!
The livestock will get fat again, the wildflowers bloom;
There’s money for improvements and for an extra room.
The outback wife will smile again, her old man not so gruff;
For when that river’s banking, things never seem so tough.
It was Dorothea Mackellar said they “could not understand”,
Our love for what outsiders see as barren, sunburned land;
Perhaps because they never wait, they never stick it out,
To see that Aussie miracle, the breaking of a drought.
They never know the joy that’s felt along the Darling side,
When Hughie smiles upon us and sends the swift brown tide.
When life’s transformed and the world’s turned bright, all in a single week,
As the mighty Darling River proves, she isn’t just a creek.