Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Day 19 - Head Winds and Shearing Sheds

After a wild night of blustery winds which shook our little home on wheels and rain which tapped on the roof but wasn't allowed in, we woke to puddles and sticky ground. The wind had dropped to a fresh 30 pr so km/h and the sun was dancing off Bundidgerry Creek not long after it peaked over the horizon and checked it was okay to get out of bed.

It was one of those mornings when you do everything in a tight sequence to minimise the time spent away from the warmth inside the van. Other days you might cut and fill, remember you hadn't done this or that but not today. When a lazy wind blows at sunrise, you dwell over that first hot tea and put things in an order that will keep you snug.

We left the campsite with mud caked on boot soles and tyres and made the short trip into Narandera looking for fuel and a hardware store. Pleased that I could find a local nails and screws guy open at 7:45am, I bought the fixers I needed to repair the lid latch screws I had bent out of shape brushing a Red Gum on the way into last night's campsite. Fuel was expensive at the Shell and made more so by the discovery it was ten cents cheaper at the Caltex on the departure end of town!

Having reviewed the weather forecast, I had predicted a bad day for fuel consumption. Yesterday, we rolled along at an average of 12.2 litres per hundred and for long sections of the flat road from Bungonia, consumption was as low as 11.7. Not today, as we headed, for the most part, into the teeth of a souwester. It was a struggle for most of he day, until the last fifty or so kilometres, when the Sturt Highway turns toward the north in the run to Balranald. By the time we took on more fuel from the taciturn and sentence avoidant fuel attendant a few kms short of town, the Forester had average 15.6 for its day's work, having sat for a substantial part of the day at mid sixteens.

Sue had her first drive towing the Cruiser, cutting my load  for the day by about a hundred kilometres.

After detouring into Yanga National Park for lunch in the picnic area beside the Murrumbidgee, we decided to change plans and stay the night just around a bend in the river instead of pressing on to Mildura. Frankly, I was sick of battling the wind and the attraction of the best part of a sunny afternoon, sheltered from the wind in a new place, was convincing.

Having unhitched in a delightful spot beside the river - clear of the notorious swaying arms of the Red Gums above but still within metres of the bank - we left for Yanga Woolshed.

Yanda Woolshed
Yanga was once a large sheep station, wholly contained in the lower Lachlan/Murrumbidgee wetlands. IThe woolshed is on a pat of Yanga which was originally an out station called Mamanga, one of many pastoral properties owned by William Charles Wentworth, the famed poet, adventurer, pastoralist, barrister and an early and vigorous proponent of the new colony of New South Wales becoming independent of mother England. Wentworth was the bastard son of convict Catherine Crowley and the distinguished surgeon, Dr D'arcy Wentworth and is famed among his many other achievements for being the first across the Blue Mountains to open up pastoral land with Lawson and Blaxland and for the properties he owned. Vaucluse House, one of Sydney's finest private homes in the fledgling days of the colony, was  a testament to the influence his endeavour and ambition gave him and part of the legend of Australian egalitarianism.

However, this influence was supported by his wealth, gained primarily for the fifteen rural properties he owned. They furnished the much sought after Australian Merino wool to an England hungry for the finest textiles.

Established in the 1830's, Yanga Station, as it was to become known, has 170 kilometres of river frontage, a factor that influenced the location of its giant woolshed beside the Murrumbidgee River. Bales of wool were transported by steamer for markets in the Melbourne. Shearing was timed for September/October when the river was at its highest, making both loading and transport easiest. At full capacity, the shed could hold 3000 sheep meaning that once shearing started, days were seldom lost to rain and wet wool. Up to forty shearers could work the shed at any one time and a record 5000 sheep were once shorn in a day.

Sue watching installed iPad screen
The main shed is more than a hundred years old and was used for the last time in 2005 and the national park was declared in 2009' making Yango one of NSW most recent parks. It's not the original shed on the site, the first burning down before this behemoth was built. Today, it stands as a history of the sheep industry, not just from long into the past but right up to the present day, with changes over time apparent from the different buildings on the site. The characters who worked these boards are evident in the structures left standing but emphasised in the clever use of unobtrusive iPads placed at various points about the shed which show dramatised accounts of the men and their relationships with each other and their families.

Between the shed and the river stand a tall, wide girthed Red Gum, known as the blade tree. In the days of blade hand shears, when the final day had been rung on a contract, the shearers would go out to the tree and have a contest to see who could throw their shears the highest and have them wedge into the bark. A blade remains there still, rusted and now part or the growing tree which gradually engulfs it.

The old shearers' quarters are still there, the mud brick walls crumbling back to earth around the external wooden struts and long bolts intended to hold them in place. Little wonder after all these years ago when the bricks were a combination of aggregate and river mud, baked in the sun until set. The rooms are stark places, furnished by each shearers unique but few possessions and are littered today with disused mowers and mattresses and Singer sewing machines in their further role as storage rooms. Farmers find it hard to throw anything away.

An old meat locker has no roof left, but the original chopping block - a Red Gum stump - remains behind the fly mesh.

The signage, both official and anecdotal, tells the stories of the men of Yanga in their own way and as it's only visitors on this Riverina afternoon, back announced by ravens and magpies, "their ghosts may been heard".

We returned to our campsite and settled in for the sunset, just as a mob of wild goats passed by. Kangaroos had moved from our path on the red dirt road which is impassable after rain, a warning prominent on several information boards and on park literature. There can be few places more pleasant than the banks of a big inland river at sunset. Unlike coastal rivers with their blue/green hues and fast flows escaping quickly to the sea, here muddy brown water rolls past, deceptively masking currents and snags just as deadly as the marine life which haunts their coastal cousins. A cormorant sat drying between dives on a fallen tree which ran down the steep sided bank, disappearing among eddies and mini whirlpools. The wind of earlier was gone, banished by the calm of a chilly evening.

Under the Southern Cross
we stand
Later, I sneaked out to photograph the Southern Cross, high in sky, but reflected perfectly in the now still surface of the Murrumbidgee.

Men wrote romantically of such places in poems we still revere. They intended for city dwellers to understand life among the sweat and hard work of the places that bank rolled a nation from it's infancy right up until the end of the 1960's, when the bankers became more important than the men who built them.

Tonight, as I sit beside this old river, I re-read the stories Henry and Banjo told, backlit from technology we could not have imagined ourselves just a few years ago. It's little wonder they, with their pens and ink are so far removed. In moments, however, murmurs whisper in my ear, in my heart and I can hear the click of the shears and smell of the lanolin and the taste of the sweat.

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