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Sunday / May 26.
HomemitwocentsA Bushie at Heart

A Bushie at Heart

The drought has broken. Farmers can get back to farming instead of water divining and soon they’ll be buying more pairs of sunglasses, contact lenses and expensive frames… the country is, once again, a great place for optometrists to be.

I’m a country boy, and despite my 30 plus years in the big smoke of Sydney town I still consider myself a ‘bushie’. When I travel overseas and people ask “where do you come from?” which generally means which city, my stock standard reply is “I live in Sydney, but I come from Wagga Wagga”. This is generally followed by looks of astonishment or a hearty guffaw but I don’t understand why they think ‘Wagga Wagga’ is a funny name. The Wiradjuri tribe certainly doesn’t think so and the fact that Wagga Wagga is on the Murrumbidgee River just past Gumly Gumly, before you get to Kapooka – if you haven’t taken the wrong turn to Narrandera – should not be taken lightly.

Anyhow, I love the Australian ‘bush’ – the outback starts a few more hundred kilometres on.

Tough Times

The cow cockies and wheat farmers of rural Australia have had a tough time for more than a decade with drought so widespread that rivers were drying and even the Murray Darling was not reaching the ocean. At one point 99 per cent of NSW was officially declared drought stricken. I’m not sure where the other one per cent was?

Farmers’ blood, sweat and tears as well as their crops feed the big cities, something that the teeming, swarming, demanding urban millions often forget as they complain about traffic jams, salary caps, flat surf and theatre prices

I often drive the 450kms from the eastern suburbs of Sydney down the Hume Highway to the capital of the Riverina. Once you leave the watered fairways of Moore Park Golf Club and get onto the M5, the city is left behind in less than an hour. Out past the satellite city of Campbelltown even the southern highlands look parched. The countryside has been worse than brown, deader than grey, for so many years.

The prize merino slopes around Goulburn and Yass are dotted with hay and silage, brown remnants on a lifeless background. The dams have been dry, or muddy at best. The populus of Goulburn had been limited to one minute showers as the local dam was down to its murky last dregs. Water carting was common practice, the taps had run dry. As you traverse the kilometre long Sheahan Bridge across the upper Murrumbidgee at Gundagai the waters below barely covered the old gold pannings.

By the time you hit the turnoff onto the Sturt Highway just north of Tarcutta for the final 30kms, the south west slopes revealed a wrinkled and naked skin. A trillion gallons of moisturiser may not have rejuvenated this multi-lined hag. The drive which used to reinvigorate me after a tough university term, a long summer on the nation’s cricket fields or the smog and rush of the city, became a journey of darkening mood. Depression was killing 40 to 50 farmers a year nation-wide as the lack of rain drove them broke, bankrupt and beyond desperate.

Vital Rural Communities

Many city folk think cornflakes and cakes come for the supermarket. Farmers’ blood, sweat and tears as well as their crops feed the big cities, something that the teeming, swarming, demanding urban millions often forget as they complain about traffic jams, salary caps, flat surf and theatre prices.

The thought of subsidising the rural folk does not sit well with the slickers, but life in this wide brown land is not an even or equal affair. Country towns have to run campaigns to get medical professionals to live and raise families in wonderful environments. Optometrists are not excluded from this misalignment. Rural NSW has some large, thriving, safe and eminently liveable towns, cities even, by Australian standards, yet the new graduates prefer the bright lights and excitement of the city and the attraction of suburban practice.

I feel almost sorry for them, missing out on the hospitality and simplicity of country life. I was born and raised in the country and could not imagine a healthier start – they do have electricity and the internet outside metropolitan centres … and when the National Broadband Network hits, it’ll be just like living in the city.

The Cycle Has Turned

Anyhow, enough of the doom and gloom because the cycle has turned and it hardly seems to stop raining. The land of flooding plains is now with us (except for south west Western Australia which is suffering very badly through historical drought).

I drove home for my dear old Mum’s 88th birthday last month – she has seen a few droughts and floods in her day – and have never seen the countryside so lush, verdant, think of an adjective, so dam eye pleasingly bonza! The hills were alive with flourishing crops, the Riverina Bluebell (aka Patterson’s Curse, a noxious weed with beautiful purple flowers) was covering the hillsides – a sight I had not seen for a decade. The dams were overflowing and the mighty Murrumbidgee was flowing where the blue gums were growing along the road to Gundagai. The Murray and Murrumbidgee were flooding for the first time since 1974.

No one was complaining.

Where the enormous Hume Weir catchment was down to a catastrophic five per cent as recently as 12 months ago, waters now lap the high wall and are about to overflow. If the locusts don’t eat everything first, the farmers will reap record crops. The argument over water allocations seems moot, for now at least. And guess what city slickers… food prices will decline at your local suburban supermarket, green grocer and butcher.

It takes four and a half hours these days for the Wagga trek and I have never felt as comforted, as serene, as flushingly pleased with life, because of the rains. Green beats grey or brown or dust any day of the week. The thought of farmers actually farming instead of water divining or praying has to make you smile. These farmers and their families will now be buying more pairs of sunglasses, more contact lenses, more expensive frames and have time to read… which means they’ll buy more presbyopic prescriptions.

Life is looking up for optometrists in rural Australia. Get out there.