Day 1: Jindera – Lockhart: The Drought

Saturday January 4, 2014, 63 miles (101 km) – Total so far: 63 miles (101 km)

Some call it “The Big Dry”. Others call it “The Millenium Drought”. From 1998-2010, the areas I will ride through on this tour experienced what is considered the worst drought since the beginning of settlement.

In a normal summer, the land in these parts is brown. The cured grass and the stubble of the harvested winter crops give the landscape a rather lifeless look. So it is hard to describe just how lifeless, wilted and dry such a place might look after more than a decade of drought. 

Typical day 1 scene: gently rolling hills of harvested grain. They mainly grow canola, wheat, oats and alfalfa out this way.

For me, a non-farmer, the trees are the greatest visual indicator. During the drought, the eucalypt leaves were dull, insect-bitten and often in various states of die-back. The leaves hung there almost lifeless. Now, new clumps of leaves stand turgid and almost glossy. The new growth fills in the die-back, and there is a visual vibrancy up there in the branches.

Google Streetview provides some good contrasts. Camera shots taken in 2008 show the misery and malaise of the vegetation; shots taken in 2010 show green and growth. Until I started planning this route using Streetview, I’d forgotten just how sad the landscape had looked.

The Big Dry had far-reaching consequences, too numerous to describe here. However, one consequence was an alarming rise in suicide rates among farmers. Rural Australia has one of the highest suicide rates among western, industrialised nations – higher than the US, Britain and Canada. It’s a tough, old land – hard to make a living from. Suicide rates escalated further during the drought.

In response to the escalating suicide rates and economic hardship experienced by residents in their shire (for US folks, this is like a county), Lockhart Shire Council developed the Spirit of the Land Festival and the National Farm Art Sculpture Awards. Farmers were encouraged to create pieces of art from recycled farm materials and natural elements.

Today, we will spend most of our day pedalling through the dry and gently rolling fields of the Lockhart Shire. We’ll end our day in the town itself.

Farm art sculpture at the Lockhart Spirit of the Land Festival in 2010.
Another farm art sculpture that is now on display in Lockhart.
More farm art. The emu and kangaroo are Australia’s national emblems and can be found in the insignia on all federal government documents. Look closely, the kangaroo body is a car body. The emu feathers are made from tin sheet metal.

My memories of the drought will play in my head all day as I ride these rural roads. My first trip to Australia was in 1998; I moved here in 2001. For the first 12 years of my life here, drought is all I ever knew. So today, I spend some time thinking about how my perceptions of this land would be different had I spent my first decade here experiencing average temperatures and average rainfall.

As usual, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) are wrong about the windspeed. They usually get the direction correct, but are not quite so good with speed. After 4.5 months of really accurate NWS wind forecasts during my most recent ride in America, I keep forgetting BOM speeds aren’t quite so reliable. Today, the wind is not light and southerly as forecast. It is a moderate west southwesterly that will increase all day until there are 55 kilometre gusts well into the overnight hours. Because it’s not a headwind though, I’m happy to go with the flow, so-to-speak.

Morning tea break out of the wind and sun in the ticket booth at Walbundrie Showground and Oval. You could easily camp here (plenty of good spots with shade) and the bathrooms are spacious and clean (you could even sleep on the wide changing bench in the bathrooms if needed in poor weather).

One thing was quickly apparent this morning, as I pedalled the first 20 kilometres on a route I ride a few times a week: auto drivers give me heaps more room when I’m fully-loaded. Normally, they scrape by pretty close and fast on these narrow roads. Today, they are giving me more than a metre of passing room. I feel like the panniers have just blessed me with some sort of “zone of safety”. Good stuff.

After a morning tea break of ooey, gooey American-style brownies, I commence forth on a more main road. There really isn’t much traffic, and the drivers are still giving me heaps of room. I push along through the fields of harvested grain, climbing the gentle hills and cruising down through the lower basins. I’m in the transition zone between the hills of the Southwest Slopes and the plains of the Riverina. There’s enough topography to make things interesting, but it’s low enough to impart a massive sense of space.

Dotted across the landscape are these big grain silos which used to all be connected by rail.
Afternoon tea break at mile 40. The wind is pretty ferocious at this point. It is from the WSW so is mainly a crosswind. It does, however, give me a little quartering push at times.

We roll into town around 3pm. There is not much happening. I’m too late for a pub lunch (usually served 12-2pm) but too early for dinner (usually served 6-9pm). The cafes all shut at 2pm. So I go take a nap in the shade in the park for awhile. Then I go grab a cheap (only $5 !!!), plain burger from the roadhouse. The burger is quite satisfactory. I love that “plain” in Australia means you still get lettuce, tomato and choice of sauce for no extra cost.

Lockhart markets itself as the verandah town. This photo was taken as we left town the next morning. Not much is happening early on a Sunday.

I wander down to the caravan park. There is no one around, but the shower block is unlocked. I make my own site in a shaded spot far away from any electrical hook-ups and designate it the “unpowered” area. I settle down to relax in the shade and wind, accompanied by the sound and smell of a huge colony of fruit bats hanging out in a tree on the opposite bank of the creek. No one ever comes around to collect money, so I crawl in the tent at dusk and sleep the deep sleep that follows a good day on the road.

Lockhart Caravan Park. No one ever came around to collect money. The shower block is new but not clean. Only two other people, plus a huge and stinky colony of fruit bats, are camping here tonight.

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