28 April, 2010

Bourke Show Visit - Travel Log

Thursday 22nd April,2010
After discovering the BMW had a flat battery, I finally set off from St Ives at 12 midday and drove straight to Dubbo. Only took 4.5 hours with one stop for a McDonald's hamburger in Mudgee.

The Dubbo visit was focussed on the Clyde alumni. I stayed with former Toorale and Pier Pier Managers, David and Robin Englert, in their very comfortable home. A nicer couple you would not find. They both have lived in the bush all of their lives and have four grown up sons. They have great values and understand how the corporate pastoral scene operates. Robin's father was a Station Manager and David (a solicitor's son from West Wyalong), was a long time employee of the old Scottish Australia Company (SACO). He and I first met in the back bar of Bourke's "Fitz's Hotel" (Fitzgeralds Post Office Hotel) in 1960. I was 19 at the time and a very junior employee of Dalgety, David was a jackeroo (or Overseer) on Moombidary Station over the Queensland border, west of Hungerford. I often say that that bar is where I learned to drink!

David was the first Station Manger recruited by Clyde after Swire's took over from Dudley Dunn in 1988 and he and Robin played a big part in establishing the Company's caring culture in those important formative years. They were great mentors for young staff and also had considerable success with recruitment, including Tony and Michelle McManus who later managed Toorale.

We had dinner at the new Chinese Restaurant within the Macquarie Club, with former Clyde staff the Englerts, Tony and Michelle McManus (Wingadee and Toorale until its tragic sale to the Government in 2008)and Bob and Fran Ellis (Merrimba). The Ellis' had a long connection with our family thru' our respective fathers. Both worked for the old AML&F Company and Dad was Bob's father's best man in 1943, only six years before Dad's premature death from Hodgkins Disease. A very enjoyable evening.

Friday 23rd April
Drove to Bourke via Coonamble and Walgett. Ever since Sydney the country looks quite magnificent with a huge body of summer grasses.Clyde are not encouraging visitors as they enter the sensitive selling period, so I did not call on any of the Coonamble Stations, but I did have a good look at the wonderful Wingadee, which is traversed extensively by public roads! As you would expect it is in peak condition. I was particularly impressed with how well the Bambatsi panic has finally established itself in Lower Bullock and the Nursery Paddocks in the Castlereagh River flood country. Three wet summers have helped. It is notoriously hard to establish, but great once it gets a go on. On the negative side, the regrowth of dogwood in the country we cleared in Rheeces Paddock is alarming.

The country gets even greener and lusher as you approach Brewarrina. There has clearly been a push to lift presentation of the Brewarrina township. Some smart new signage as you approach and the town was better presented than I have seen it for some years.

I called on Murray and Skye Bragg who are now managing Beemery Station for the new owners-the Nugent family now of Glen Innes, but formerly of Tambo. Murray and Skye have moved to the Yambacoona (Beemery add-on) homestead, as for reasons unknown, the Beemery homestead, cattle yards, main shearing shed and quarters have all been located on the Beemery Cotton Farm which was subdivided from the rest of the Station, as Clyde wished to retain it! Why this was done goodness only knows as the whole Beemery Station homestead complex was established to service a sheep station not an irrigation operation, which has its infrastructure, including housing, closer to the developed fields. In any event the Nugents are lucky to have the services of the Braggs and they have got off to a wonderful start with a spectacularly good season,a full complement of livestock, rumoured to have been bought very cheaply from Clyde. The Beemery flock of some 12,000 Egelabra blood classed ewes is a wonderful asset in the current sheep price boom. I recall with some sadness how excited the then Clyde management were when we were able to purchase Beemery from the Russell family (Logan Downs Pastoral Co.) in 1994. It is recognised as one of Bourke's very best grazing properties and had extensive water licenses.

The  Beemery Cotton Farm, which Clyde have retained, is undoubtedly the best cotton development on the Barwon/Darling with the great benefit of deep storages and great soils. It took eight years to get the approvals (for the water storages-the irrigation licenses were already in place) from the NSW Government and I have often attributed my very grey hair to the frustrations of dealing with dark green bureaucrats over the Beemery development. These bureaucrats made an art form of the saying that "delay is the most insidious form of denial". The whole matter is worthy of a book in its own right. Whilst it was going on I read Tony Grey's book on the Jabiluka uranium mine. It was good therapy, as it made me realise that I was not the first person to endure the delights of dealing with those who think they know better than their political masters and wish to  block those who want to create wealth, pay tax and generate economic activity to the great benefit of all concerned. There were times when I felt these resistors of progress should have been tried for treason!

I arrived in Bourke in time for a drink with Richard Turner, former Clyde GM -Pastoral, and dinner with Geoff and Anne Wise at the Port of Bourke Hotel. Very familiar territory as this pub was until about two years ago owned by Clyde.

Geoff Wise, a veterinarian by training, is the General Manager of the Bourke Shire, having previously been the Regional Director of the Department of Land and Water Conservation and the Western Lands Commissioner. He was a valuable member of the Darling Matilda Way Sustainable Region Advisory Committee which I chaired. How lucky Bourke is to have this high calibre couple as enthusiastic residents.

Also present at the Hotel were most of the stud breeders offering rams at tomorrow's sale. I have often noted that Bourke's merino ram sale, run in conjunction with the Show, is one of the few sales you can go to where the breeders from the three dominant medium and strong wool stud breeding areas are represented-the Macquarie Valley,the Riverina and South Australia. It was not an early night.

Saturday 24th April
The crowd at the Bourke Show was below expectations, although I still saw lots of people I knew. The local grazing fraternity are a fine group who relate well to each other and I much enjoy their company. Les Walsh from Landmark (formerly Dalgety) who I have known for 47 years and who was a key player in Clyde operations, as our local agent, hosted a dinner at the "Pub" that evening.
Not entirely by accident I met Tim Lee from ABC Landline (Victoria) who was keen to do a TV interview for running on a future Landline programme. Tim proved a most interesting and intelligent companion and he joined Les,Nick Wadlow (my friend Rob Ashby's son-in-law from Old Ashrose in S.A.)and a friend of his Craig, for a most enjoyable dinner.

Sunday 25th April
Following all of the recent rain, particularly in south-western Queensland there is a huge amount of water coursing down the western rivers and I was keen to have a look at this from the air.
We had arranged a flight in a high wing light aircraft for today, so I was alarmed to hear some showers of rain on the roof overnight.The day dawned showery and overcast and prospects did not look good. We had some misgivings embarking on this venture on what was Anzac Day. At 5:45AM Les Walsh and I attended a small moving Dawn Service at the Bourke War Memorial in Central Park. I recalled that in the small rotunda at this same park the Queen and Prince Phillip were officially welcomed to Bourke a few years ago.

Our pilot and the aircraft owner was to be John Oldfield from Belalie Station a man in his mid-seventies who knows the back country very well from the air, and the aforementioned Les Walsh, who has been in Bourke for some 40 years and knows the country very well at ground level.

After nearly giving it away, the weather looked better to the south-west so we decided to change our proposed route and go for a fly down the Warrego on Toorale and then decide whether it was worth going on. The three of us finally took off about 10:00 AM and headed for Boera Dam on Toorale. The dam was still spilling to the south west, the pipes were open and the left bank bywash was running. The banks which stop the spilled water from running back to the river have been over-topped in several places and there was plenty of water running back into the river.

I felt quite sick at seeing all of the improvements we had made to this great property falling in to disrepair. The new cattle yards,new shearing shed,three new houses,lots of ponding, all of the laser levelled fields and cotton farm roads and channels-all looking sad and neglected.The whole episode is a tragedy with the current flood demonstrating the main feature of this Station. I just hate waste from every perspective and  I don't think the Clyde management had any real understanding of what enormous waste was involved in selling Toorale to the Government to become a National Park.

The Homestead Dam is seriously breached and I understand there is no intention of carrying out repairs to this or the over-topped banks.Ross' Billabong has been running from the Darling and this water has met with the Warrego mainstream water creating a huge lake. Henry Lawson wrote a very colourful piece of prose describing Ross' Billabong and how it sometimes runs from the Darling to the Warrego and sometimes from the Warrego to the Darling. We also flew over the old shearing shed where Lawson worked as a "rouse-about" in 1892
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The Warrego is carrying a big stream to the Darling at the main junction.Downstream on Talowla the Little Warrego is also carrying a stream of the spilled water which over flowed at Boera. For a full description of how the system works click here.

From Toorale we flew down the Darling to Louth and decided to abandon our plans to go all the way to Wilcannia to view the Paroo/Darling junction/s, but rather to fly due west over the Paroo/Cuttaburra water and then follow the Paroo upstream to Wanaaring.

As we flew down the Darling on Anzac Day I recalled that our famous war historian C.E.W. Bean, who did so much to create the Anzac tradition, also immortalised the Darling River in Australian history with his newspaper reports for the Sydney Morning Herald in 1909 which later formed two books-'On the Wool Track' and the 'The Dreadnought of the Darling'. The "Dreadnought" was the "Jandra" a modern replica of which plies the Darling weir pool to this day.His exposure to the Australians of the Darling  did much to form his views on their characteristics and the  reasons they made such good soldiers and this was carried in to his writings of their deeds from Gallipoli. The modern day leading political journalist Michelle Grattan has written a modern version of the first book-'Back on the Wool Track' to which I was able to make a small contribution and in which Toorale features.

The Paroo/Cuttaburra water was not as spectacular as I imagined it would be, and we flew right across it from east to west, flying over the Tongo homestead and Tongo Lake before heading north. In this area the water spreads widely into lots of "flood runners" and lakes.I think the main body had gone through, but I doubt that it will make a big contribution to the Darling. From Wanaaring we flew north/west over Peter Hughes Thurloo Downs homestead and then due west over Delalah Downs old house into the Bulloo Overflow country.This was one of the most spectacular things I have seen.Literally hundreds of thousands of acres covered in shallow water.Delalah Downs has an area of some 660,000 acres of which one third can be inundated from Bulloo water. Along with Thurloo Downs, Peter Hughes has 1.3mil acres, making him the biggest landholder in N.S.W. Gail and I have know him since he and his late wife Janet were good friends when we were first married and living at Nyngan in 1966. The Bulloo Overflow looked as I imagine Lake Eyre to look, with a distinct difference that it is not salty and it is beautiful soft soil which will explode with growth as the water dries back.We  flew in a wide turn over almost continuous water until we struck the Queensland/NSW border before heading east along the border fence. This is BIG country and even in an aircraft it seems to tale a long time. We flew over Hamilton Gate, Merintu, and Moombidary, crossed the now much smaller Paroo below Hungerford and south west to the Cuttaburra Basin, another famous water body. The Cuttaburra Creek comes out of the Warrego just below the Cunnamulla weir and these days carries much more water than the Warrego. The basin is a huge area of land north of Yantabulla which is wonderful cattle fattening country and a notable bird breeding area.

From here we headed back to Bourke over Ford's Bridge, the flight having taken just on four and a half hours.
I count myself very fortunate to have flown with two such knowledgeable companions which meant that this trip lived right up to my high expectations. Between them John and Les identified every single homestead we flew over.

Tim Lee wanted to do a TV interview with me for Landline, this morning, but postponed it because of the poor light in the overcast weather. However, it was now a bright afternoon and we proceeded with this interview in the garden at the Riverside Motel. This Motel is of a very high standard in a group of historic buildings and is beautifully presented amidst a magnificent garden. It is a great asset for Bourke and a great credit to the owners John and Sipha Hickson.

One of the issues discussed in the TV interview was the recent unheralded action by the NSW Goverment to lower the 'cap' on annual water extractions from the Barwon/Darling by a further 17% from 173 gigalitres to 143 gigs. This follows the cut of entitlements a few years ago of 67% from 523gigs. This action is truly outrageous given the "rubbery" nature of the figures and the agreement with the NSW Government that the 173 figure was an interim minimum and would be revised upwards when the figures were firmed up as a result of the review of the model they were using. A committee was established to carry out this review and for some reason it has never completed its work. I was asked to attend a meeting of the Mungindi/Menindee Advisory Council at Walgett tomorrow to agree a course of action by the irrigators and concerned local citizens.

Following a much needed 'nap' I had a most enjoyable dinner with Les and Frances Walsh in the "Dalgety White House" (now their very comfortable home), where I have been many times before. One of the nice things about getting older is all of the past experiences shared with long term friends, and the bond this provides and enrichment it gives to good conversation. A most enjoyable evening and as usual great tucker from a gifted cook (Frances).

Monday 26th.April
I gave former Mayor and long term friend Wayne O'Mally a lift across to Walgett and we shared much information on a two hour drive. It reminded me of the old agency adage-if you want to get to know a client better-take him on a trip somewhere.

The meeting at Walgett was very well conducted by Chairman Ian Cole and was attended by the State and Federal M.P.s Kevin Humphries and Mark Coulton. Geoff Wise briefed the meeting on the extraordinary method used by the State Government, the Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA) and the Independent Audit Group (IAG) to calculate the applicable 'cap' on irrigation extractions in each year. I wont try to explain it, because it is incomprehensible! It was always my understanding, and I was involved in all of the negotiations leading up to the signing of an MOU, which established the 173 gig figure as the interim minimum, that the model was to be used to establish the 'cap' and extractions would be simply the actual measured extractions. It now seems that somehow or other what the extractions should be in any particular year is also a modelled number and it is in comparison with this modelled number that the claim is made that the Barwon/Darling is exceeding'cap'. Frankly, I don't understand it, nor did anyone else present. I made a brief comment which covered four points:-

  • We were dealing with  whether the 'cap' should be somewhere between 143 and 250 gigs.(when river heights were sufficient for any pumping at all), from a river which had an average annual flow past Bourke of 2500 gigs.Whatever figure was finally agreed, that did not seem an excessive impost in seeking a reasonable balance between  environmental and socio-economic objectives.
  • The only basis for what the 'cap' should be was the wretched NSW model, which was admitted to be very "rubbery" and this was used by the three parties ie NSW Government,MDBA and the IAG
  • The 173gig figure was always intended as an interim number whilst the model was being validated/corrected and was also to be the minimum. The MOU clearly states that the final figure would be in the range of 173 to 250 gigs
  • There was an agreement that in philosophical terms, that at the various forums (particularly MDBA and COAG) the NSW Government would ,with irrigator support,strongly seek the maximum defensible 'cap' compared with the dark green attitude of wanting a low figure. They need to take a leaf out of the Queensland Government approach.
I was nominated to a Committee to meet with the Minister to discuss the matter at an early date, in spite of my protests that I no longer had any formal representational base.

Here is a link to all the photos I took on this trip.
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