Rural and remote Australia is synonymous with idyllic landscapes and knockabout characters, but both suffer under the influence of drought. As rain continues to elude many parts of the country, drought-affected communities are rolling out the welcome mat.
There’s a gentleman from Brim, a small town in rural Victoria, who stands a mighty 30 metres tall. And he also stands as a symbol of resilience as his community continues to battle the harsh Australian drought. His name? It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find out.
The large-scale portrait was completed on the town’s decommissioned grain silos in 2016 and although the names of the four featured characters were withheld at first, it’s not difficult to identify a face among a population of fewer than 200 people.
Yet the anonymity seems apt. With his head bowed, eyes closed and, it seems, the weight of natural disaster on his shoulders, this farmer could be any number of Brim locals struggling without rain.
How tourism helps drought-stricken regions
The work of Brisbane artist Guido van Helten, the mural was the first on what is now the Silo Art Trail, an al fresco gallery linking Brim with neighbouring towns – Lascelles, Patchewollock, Rosebery, Rupanyup and Sheep Hills – in the Wimmera Mallee.
The 200-kilometre stretch, starting about 300 kilometres north-west of Melbourne in Rupanyup, has stimulated visitor interest in an area previously unsung. The tourist surge has been a positive for both business and morale in the area, and the boost is felt most acutely during times of drought. Incidentally, the region has become a perfect case study for drought-driven tourism.
Rainfall deficiencies persist across eastern Australia, parts of Central Australia, some areas of Western Australia and much of New South Wales. Drought is a recurring theme in this sunburnt country and there are always communities in need of support.
How you can help drought affected communities
While schemes such as Buy a Bale and Parma for a Farmer are aimed at providing tangible support, many are calling for a face-to-face solution; they’re inviting visitors to see the drought for themselves, and spend a few tourism dollars along the way.
“The whole community feels the ripple effect of the drought,” explains Brim local Colleen McPherson. “It’s not just farmers in these small communities, it’s everyone, and that’s why we’re so fortunate to have the Silo Art Trail.
“People [who visit] ask ‘What can we do to help?’ Well, exactly what you just did. You’ve come in, you’ve bought lunch, you’ve bought a coffee, you’ve spoken to one of the locals and said ‘How’s it going?’ That there is everything you can do to help.
“It seems so simple, but for a man who’s been stuck out in the paddock for the last three weeks, trying to find feed here and there or driven up and back, up and back, up and back just to fill one header box, coming to town and having people show genuine empathy and concern for what he’s going through would send him back out to work in a completely different frame of mind.”
With her husband, Chris, McPherson owns and runs Brim’s general store, which is also the local CRT (Combined Rural Traders) and, following a recent relocation, a cafe. Although the store is a one-stop-shop for myriad rural and day-to-day needs, McPherson says it’s the capacity to provide refreshments to passing tourists that is currently paying the bills.
“It’s a bit of risk management for us so when we do come through very hard years like this year, we’ve got something else that’s helping us keep the business ticking over,” McPherson explains. “We might sell one bag of dog food through the rural store, then have a random bus load turn up for lunch and that’s what has paid everyone’s wages for the day.
“The majority of the small businesses that I know in the area have tweaked a little bit just to find a way to cater for the tourists coming in.”
Connect with the community
A couple of borders north, almost 60 per cent of Queensland is in drought and some shires have gone without rain since 2013. Peter Whip, a cattle producer and rural business consultant from Longreach in Central West Queensland, is living in the thick of it.
He says although rural folk tend to be a resilient bunch, a show of support from outside the community goes a long way – a lesson Whip learnt when a family of strangers from Warwick, more than 1000 kilometres from Longreach, knocked on his front door. “They could have rocked up [and] said, ‘Here’s a box of food, see you later,’ [but] it was like they actually cared about our story,” Whip recalls. “They cared to see what the land was doing. It was a bit humbling, for sure. I was sort of a bit teary… but just to come and connect with the community, I mean, I don’t think you can beat that.”
With the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders Museum among Longreach’s numerous attractions, the outback hub doesn’t face a tough sell when it comes to tourist appeal, drought or not. But a visit to Longreach puts you within reach of many drought-affected communities and all have something to offer.
Visit the Muttaburrasaurus – a statue, of course, commemorating the famous fossil discovery in tiny Muttaburra; see the heritage-listed Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine; enjoy the undeniable charm of Jericho; delve into the rich history of Tambo, the Central West’s oldest town; and don’t miss Winton, home of Waltzing Matilda and the Boulder Opal, as well as the Tattersalls Hotel where you’ll enjoy the “best steak you’ve ever had”. That’s a Peter Whip Guarantee.
Reasons to visit rural Australia
Selena Gomersell has spent plenty of time in this area through her role as CEO of Outback Futures, a not-for-profit organisation providing mental health support to rural and remote Queenslanders. The Brisbane-based psychologist says you can’t make a wrong turn. “Hop in the car on a Friday afternoon after school and travel as far as you can,” she says. “Fill up five times instead of leaving it until your tank is empty. There are so many little towns that are just wonderful to be part of.
“Until you’ve done it, you have no idea of the character, the history and the heritage in these small towns.”
And then there’s the space: the vast open landscape that encourages life to slow down, a result many are hoping to achieve when planning a holiday. Darren Stafford, who abandoned city living for a quieter life in Coonabarabran 25 years ago, says there is no room for noise among the endless natural beauty of his home town.
“[Coonabarabran is] not an event; it’s just ordinary people and natural beauty,” he says. “It’s not glitzy and it’s not showy. It’s not pretentious. It’s almost like a dark sky. It’s there and it’s quite beautiful if you can take the time to appreciate it.”
About that dark sky: Coonabarabran is famous for it. Home to the Siding Spring Observatory, Coonabarabran is considered the stargazing capital of Australia and nearby Warrumbungle National Park is the only certified Dark Sky Park in the country.
“Most people have never seen the galaxy and it’s quite majestic,” says Stafford, a self-confessed astronomy “geek”. “It’s quite an experience as a human to get a sense of your place in the galaxy just by looking at it.”
While the night sky is a constant, in town the pace has slowed considerably thanks to confronting drought conditions. Bruce Henley, who owns the local rural supply store, says farmers don’t have time to visit between feeding stock and waiting for rain. “We’re so closely linked. It hurts because people stay at home,” he says.
Drought on the coast
The pain is shared around the country. Almost 1500 kilometres away, Jasmin Piggott has expressed similar concerns for her home town of Cowell. The picturesque coastal region on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, about halfway between Port Augusta and Port Lincoln, has been one of the state’s worst hit towns with widespread crop failures.
As she watched her community suffer late last year, Piggott delivered a passionate plea via social media: “Come for a drive, show your kids what no rain looks like, stay for the weekend, shop at our local shop, have a meal at our local food places, have a beer at the pub and speak to the local people, buy a raffle [ticket] … support us as people.”
The Facebook message created plenty of traction and Piggott has since landed the role of Wellbeing Coordinator with Franklin Harbour District Council, an appointment she suspects was inspired, at least in part, by her post.
The five-hour drive from Adelaide to Cowell is an incredible contrast of earthy outback landscapes and sparkling coastline. In Cowell, sheltered waters create ideal fishing conditions (although some locals aren’t too keen to share such delicious information) and local oysters are also renowned.
If time is on your side, the entire Eyre Peninsula is peppered with attractions – not surprising given it’s the size of a small country. On an extensive list there’s the adventure and beauty of Lincoln National Park; quaint Coffin Bay, where the oyster is king; Baird Bay’s famous sea lion colony; and Ceduna, gateway to the Nullarbor Plain. Proving Mother Nature can be fickle, only pockets of the Peninsula are experiencing the current drought while other regions are doing well. Piggott says the discrepancy isn’t always recognised.
“Only an hour away … they’re having the best year they’ve had,” she says. “It changes so dramatically … and even within Eyre Peninsula, some people still probably don’t understand what we’re going through.”
Simple ways to lend a hand
On the flip side, even those experiencing the drought are keeping an eye out for those on drier land. Such is the country way. Back in the Wimmera Mallee, Minyip couple Geoff and Gale Crisp forewent a planned holiday last year and instead drove to NSW to offer support to those “a lot worse off”. On the way out of town, the couple swung by Brim’s general store where dog food, water, clothes, boots and, according to McPherson, “anything we could shove into every nook and cranny” was loaded onto the trailer – all donated.
The Crisps covered thousands of kilometres, following the trail created piece by piece through conversations with strangers, all suggesting others who could use help and rarely accepting it for themselves. Taking in towns such as Hay, Lake Cargelligo, Dubbo, Nyngan, Warren, Gilgandra and Walgett, the journey was more than just a generous gesture, it was aesthetically beautiful.
“To see the appreciation on people’s faces – it’s one of the best things you could do,” says Geoff. “And we enjoyed ourselves. We enjoy lookin’ around the country. We’d do it again tomorrow.”