Down on the farm

10 to 11 September 2019

Trilby Station, Louth, New South Wales

Diversifying into tourism is something many of Australia’s farmers seem to have done to make some money in the hard times. Trilby Station, halfway down the Darling between Bourke and Wilcannia, is one of them. As well as self catering accommodation in the old shearers bunkhouse they offer the chance to camp right down on the banks of the Darling River and that was just too good an opportunity for us to miss.

Arriving in the mid afternoon after bumping down the unsealed road from Bourke we picked one of the isolated camp spots on the edge of the river bank. There was very little water in the river and facilities were basic. We had a nearby drop toilet which had no door and so a great view of the bush and any grazing kangaroos!

Although there were other campers spread out along the river it felt like we were completely alone. That is except for the thousands of flies. We had been warned about the flies in the outback but this was our first encounter. As well as liking to hang out on Stefan’s back, they aim directly for your eyes, nose and ears to feed on the proteins. With nothing to protect ourselves from their persistence we retreated into the tent behind the fly screens for the rest of the afternoon!

Thankfully as soon as the sun went down the flies went to sleep and we ventured out to light a fire and cook our dinner unpestered.

After another pretty cold night in tent we woke to find the flies also awake again so we decided to spend the day exploring the station by car. Trilby Station is owned by Gary and Sue Murray. Gary was born and brought up there, taking over from his parents in the 1980s. In fact 5 generations of Murrays have farmed there since coming over from Ireland in 1860. The vast sheep station covers 320,000 acres or 500 square miles. So big that it is a 90km drive from the homestead to the woolshed in the west of the property and 69km to their son’s property in the north. Little wonder one of their main methods of transport is a plane.

The Murray’s farm merino sheep for their wool but times have been tough for the sheep farmers of the centre of Australia. In 2018 they had 17,000 sheep. Now they only have 10,000. In 2010 7384 lambs were born but by 2014 that number had reduced to 5200, a combination of drought and dingoes to blame for the reduction. In times of no drought the sheep need only 10 acres of land each on which to graze. In drought they need 32 acres each and until a good rainfall in May 2019 Gary and Sue were having to buy in feed for the sheep because the land was so dry.

We took one of the self drive Mud Map Tours Gary and Sue had prepared to see some of the station and learn more about its history. 320,000 acres means a lot of fencing and one of our first stops was a couple of abandoned cars left by two fencers who had worked on the property in the 50s and 60s. A little further on we found an old double decker bus which they had lived on but also in which, apparently, they would take children on rides during gathering in the nearby town of Louth.

Abandoned vehicles and equipment were everywhere. We guess being so far from anywhere and space not being at a premium when something breaks down it just stays where it was.

We visited the old homestead where Gary had lived with his parents. He and his brother as well as their Grandfather had slept on the veranda. His parents had a more comfortable bedroom inside.

Everything had been left just as though the family had just gone out for the day.

A bale of merino wool is worth about $1200 a bale which is the wool from 32 sheep so keeping them safe is very important. In the shearers’ bunkhouse we found Ernie the dingo. He had been found on the property and was responsible for killing a number of sheep. He also mated with one of the sheepdogs creating a litter of half Kelpie, half dingo puppies that where by all accounts useless as sheep dogs! When he was finally shot the family decided to have him stuffed.

The tours also took us to an area of the station which had previously been owned by a neighbouring farm and where there were examples of early farm machinery operated by steam engines. Some of it had come from England and all of it had been brought up the river by paddle steamer. We just couldn’t fathom the logistics of ordering a steam engine from the other side of world for delivery by ship and then steamer in the late 1800s. The whole process must have taken months if not years.

We drove about 90km that day all around the station and we didn’t see a single sheep! It is no wonder that the family’s four children were all riding motorbikes from the age of 3 to help with mustering the sheep. The oldest Will was apparently driving a car by the age of 7 and driving and servicing heavy machinery by the age of 10. I figured that if they could drive by that age it was about time I dusted off my 25 year old, very rusty driving skills for a bit of a practice off the public road. Stefan even got out to take these photos he was so confident in my ability and Tick was very easy to drive albeit quite slowly!

Looking at the river from our campspot we couldn’t help but wonder what the future of farms like these is. Gary and Sue have diversified into other income generating activities to keep going. They get a good income from the feral goats which wander onto the station and are exported to the Middle East and they also get an income from a carbon project which encourages farmers not to cut down trees on their land. When we visited it was so dry that it was hard to imagine that when the river floods much of the station is underwater. The homestead has been cut off for up to 12 weeks whilst the flood waters subside.

But we were really grateful that they had opened up their farm to tourists. It gave us a real insight into the lives of Australia’s sheep farmers, the isolation, self-reliance and hardships at the mercy of their environment. We wish them well as they weather the cycles of drought and flood.

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