I was an honorary member of the Gilgandra RSL for a few days. Why? I was, along with my much-esteemed old friend and colleague R D Walshe, a visiting speaker at an in-service series at Gilgandra High School in the mid to late 70s dealing with “new” approaches to HSC English. I also took the opportunity to visit the parents of a young woman with whom I had been briefly associated in Wollongong who hailed from Gilgandra. They had a typical property – sheep and wheat — out of town. It was a good couple of days.
Like so many country towns, Gil has had its problems so far this century:
Gilgandra. A country town 70 kilometres north of Dubbo on the banks of the Castlereagh River. It is the centre of an area that has been drought-declared since the winter of 2002. Always abbreviated to “Gil” by its people, it is a neat, friendly town, where the standard greeting is “G’day, how are you going? Do you think it’ll rain?”
The main street, Miller Street, is thriving and it still has banks and doctors — it is the loss of these that rips the heart out of country towns. There are good schools, and a new hospital nearing completion.
Gil has a good spiritual life too, with most of the Christian denominations having churches in the town. Every Tuesday morning an ecumenical prayer meeting is held in the Uniting Church hall to pray for the town and district. The Uniting Church has had no-one in settlement since the middle of 2000, so I went to Gil for three months to help with the preaching and to do pastoral visiting.
The drought is a great concern for Gil. The talk is always of rain: “They had 17 points in Mendooran last night.” “My daughter rang from Narromine — it’s raining there. Do you think it will get this far?”
When I first went there in early May the farmers were anxiously debating whether to sow their crops, a debate which grew more urgent as the deadline for sowing came, and still no rain. Many sowed anyway, only to see their crops sprout and turn yellow and eventually become fodder for the stock. The retired people, especially those who have moved into town from the farms, watch the sky and wonder what the future holds.
Shirley Mudford is one of their number: farmer’s daughter, farmer’s widow. Shirley has five sons and several grandsons, all on the land. She is greatly concerned for them, praying that they will have the physical, mental and spiritual strength to cope with this latest crisis. She took me to visit a property owned by her son Noel, to see the shearing. I went with Noel to feed the sheep, necessary because there was almost no feed left in the paddocks.
As we drove into the paddock, sheep seemed to come from everywhere. There were hundreds of them, all intent on following the ute with the big yellow hopper on the back. This released a trickle of grain as Noel drove along; and soon the mob had spread out into a long line, eating as fast as they could. It was lambing time. If the ewes know that they can’t feed their lambs they will walk away and leave the lambs after they are born. On their farm, Philip and Julie Ward are bottle-feeding 25 of these abandoned babies. For the first month of their lives, these poddy-lambs must be fed four times a day — a hundred bottles a day for four or five weeks! Philip’s hands are big enough to hold two bottles in each. Julie holds a bottle in each hand, and one between her knees but by the time they are finished it is nearly time to start again and the rest of the farm work and house work has to be fitted in around this.
When Philip has no-one to feed the cattle he puts the four-wheel drive truck into low range so that it just creeps along, then he stands on the back tossing the fodder off.
Recently the Ward’s oldest and best working dog was stolen. She was found three weeks later, dead, floating in the dam near the house. This may seem only a minor incident, but the loss of a good working dog in such circumstances is hard to bear and adds to the burden of the drought. [Story linked to image above.]
Some more scenes:
Interesting bit of local history linked to the last image.