Drought v. Rain [12 February 1885]

[Editor: An article outlining some of the problems faced by country people in times of drought. Published in The South Australian Register, 12 February 1885.]

Drought V. Rain.

[By Paroo.]

We have all seen the gladdening telegrams in the papers day after day for the last fortnight conveying the welcome news of an almost universal and heavy rainfall in the interior, such as “Alice Springs, 4 inches;” “Parallana, 10 inches;’” “Thargomindah, 6 inches; “Wilcannia, 8 inches;” “Paroo running 30 feet deep,” and similar telegrams from other places telling of creeks all running bankers, and lakes and dams all full ; but only those who have experienced drought in the bush can understand what such a rainfall means to dwellers in the country so benefited.

Longfellow, writing of “Rain in summer,” says :—

In the country on every side,
Where, far and wide,
Like a leopard’s tawny and spotted hide
Stretches the plain;
To the dry grass and the drier grain
How welcome is the rain !

and the Psalmist’s poetic ascription to Jehovah, the rain-giver, is familiar to most of us:— “Thou visitest the earth and waterest it. Thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water; . . . Thy paths drop fatness; they drop upon the pastures of the wilderness, and the little hills rejoice on every side.”

But no dwellers in such moist and temperate climes as those of Europe and America could adequately express the joy of the inhabitants of a dry and desert land on the breaking up of a long and weary time of drought. To do so would need the pen of a Lindsay Gordon, as of one who had felt the burning sun on tropical inland sandy plains; who had experienced himself the miseries, physical and mental, which accompany drought; who had seen his wretched sheep and cattle pine and die; and who, to crown all, perhaps, had received a peremptory request from his banker to reduce immediately his overdraft by one-half, or have the run upon which he had spent so much in money, labour, and anxiety, taken from him.

When we understand that such rains as these of late mean to all within the favoured zone at least one year’s abundance of grass and water, to many two years’, and to some even three years’ supply, we can then in a measure comprehend how a struggling squatter, fighting with troubles such as I have described, should feel as if a long-enduring and heavy incubus were instantaneously lifted from off his breast.

I well remember (living in Riverina at the time) the break-up of the drought of 1865, when in January, 1866, copious rains fell over a large portion of South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland. In those times no runs in the Riverina district were fenced, all the sheep were shepherded, and but very little had been done in the way of water supply and conservation. Consequently grazing was, except occasionally in winter, necessarily restricted to the country within three or four miles of the natural waters.

Under this state of things, however, there was much more work for men, horses, and bullocks than is now necessary, for there were sheepyards to make and repair, huts to build, and a continual conveyance of water and rations to shepherds, besides a good deal of extra labour at lambing time, and all other work incidental to a sheep station. Every shepherd had to be seen twice a week, and his sheep counted every fortnight, and to perform all this work with horses and bullocks more than half-starved was not only cruelly hard on the cattle, but very unpleasant and dispositing to the “human.” And they, too, had to put up with poor fare as well as their beasts.

Would you, O pampered citizen, have considered old ewe mutton (dressed weight of fatless carcass, say 24 lb.), with bread made from wormy flour, and tea, as constituting even moderately high fare, and as being not somewhat monotonous, for occasionally only were these constituents of a repast supplemented by some boiled rice or a tin of jam.

Then there were other trifling disabilities tending to prevent perfect contentment, such as two or three sorts of savage and well-armed mosquitoes, severe sandy blight in one’s eyes for weeks together, and sometimes water quite soupy with the excreta of waterfowl and sheep.

But when, after many months’ endurance of these désagrémens, the longed-for rain came, they would soon be forgotten or ignored in joyous anticipation of the altered state of affairs soon to result from an abundance of feed and water. Then would be seen every claypan full of water, and in many places lagoons three or four feet in depth, and myriads of wildfowl where a few days before had been but parched sand or black crumbling clay, gaping with huge cracks.

As soon as ever the boggy ground was fit to ride over all hands would be busily engaged making new bush yards miles back from the old waters, and where the sheep would be at once in fresh feed, for in those times most runs were comparatively lightly stocked, and there was generally, even in time of drought, plenty of salt and other bush out of reach from the old and permanent waters. The sheep shifted, there was time to rest on one’s oars and watch the grass growing visibly from day to day, and the stock all rapidly improving, and both at a rate almost incredible to other than eye witnesses.

These gratifying processes are now going on over many thousand square miles of country, which but a fortnight ago were mourning and languishing, and we dwellers in these more southern regions may well join in the jubilation which the fortunate recipients of Nature’s bounties must feel, and none the less so because our interest in her favours is only indirect.

The South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA), Thursday 12 February 1885, page 6

Editor’s notes:
désagrémens = (French) things that create a dislike [see: The Scholar’s Reference Book: Containing a Dictionary of English Synonymes, Greek and Latin Proper Names, Men of Learning and Genius, with a Variety of Other Useful Matter, Henry Perkins, Philadelphia, 1836, page 214

[Editor: The original text has been separated into paragraphs.]

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