For several decades, Bourke (and most towns far around) have been protected from flooding waters by giant levee banks. Like comforting blankets, these raised banks track the river through Bourke and sweep around its outskirts. Life-giving flood waters revitalise parched soils and rivers, slowly creep down across the flat lands from the north but no longer inundate the town centres. The waters ixexorably and unyieldingly sweep south at only 100 to 150 kilometres in a week with the floods arrival being able to be predicted weeks in advance, often to a few hours of accuracy.
Long term residents speak in hushed but relaxed tones about times of floods and river heights. Sipping at a beer one steamy December evening, Steve spoke to me confidently in early December “It shouldn’t reach more than 11.5 metres and probably will get to us just after Christmas“. (The flood map to the left showing day/month of peak flood point in each town is from 2010-2011 to give an idea of the slow meandering nature of the flood waters.) There was no cause for panic in the knowledge of the importance of the flood waters goodness despite a likely few days or weeks of isolation from cut roads.
For most of the past decade, there was no talk of floods for most of Australia was in drought. The parched red-soil plains ran bare to the far horizon only sprinkled with warrior gum trees and rugged green saltbush scrub – crops and livestock impossible to maintain, the cotton gins idle, the fruit-pickers eerily silent, the endless crooked fencelines guarding empty lands. The stories of drought are much harsher, the hardship of no rain more palpable, the stoic nature of the people tested to extreme, the pall of near despair apparent in rural towns all around.
Yet even the first few sprinkles of rain springs life into the thirsty soils, verdant new growth thrusting from the ochre grounds, life and vigour returns to the population.
Famed Australian poet Henry Lawson said “to know Bourke is to know Australia“. This iconic Australian outback town is a barometer of Aussie life and a journey that both residents and visitors to Australia should make.