Bob and I stood beside the waterhole, gazing into the water. ‘It’s a beautiful place’, I said. ‘It is, it is’, Bob agreed. After a moment, we started to walk away. I paused to take this photo:
And this one, showing two red stringybark trees, their roots gripping the barren, stony slope above the waterhole, their outer branches dying back in response to the hot, droughty conditions of the last decade:
Bob’s family history is bound to another watery place, Cootamundra, east of Combaning. Before she died in 1971, Bob’s grandmother told him they were descended from ‘the old Cootamundra clan’ of the Wiradjuri people, keepers of the great Gudhamangdhuray swamplands, a place significant culturally and ecologically for its turtle population. In his book The Native Tribes of South-East Australia (first published in 1904), anthropologist Alfred Howitt noted that the ’Kuta-mundra’ group was one of three major ’divisions’ in southern Wiradjuri country. Last year, when I’d started doing some research for The Waterhole Project, I’d asked Bob, in his capacity as a local Wiradjuri elder, to visit Combaning with me, to see the waterhole and meet Peter, a farmer who leases these paddocks high in the catchment of Combaning Creek.
Peter had arrived in his white ute. We shook hands and talked for a while. Bob asked Peter if he’d seen any stones about, any Wiradjuri relics. Peter hadn’t, but he offered to show us some traces of the old Combaning pastoral station. Bob hopped into the cabin with Peter, and I climbed onto the back of the ute. We shot across the dry paddock. Dusty forms raised by the autumn wind drifted alongside us.
Peter stopped the ute and we inspected a jumbled array of weathered timber fence posts, wire and netting:
We talked further about farming conditions in recent times. Crops were ‘falling over’ before harvest, Peter said, failing in the heat and unusual dryness. He was managing to only just cover his costs. Peter leases and owns about 1200 hectares in these parts. He has farmed 125 hectares at Combaning for the last thirteen years. As the land steadily dried and the farming business became tougher, Peter had decided to lease country further west, closer to Temora, where land is cheaper and production is, unfortunately, even less reliable.
Before leaving, we had a look at this footbridge over Combaning Creek:
Until about 1970, a weatherboard, one teacher school operated here at Combaning, beside a travelling stock reserve adjacent to the homestead site, and the bridge allowed kids passage when the creek was running high. Peter had seen floodwaters rising a metre above the bridge. As we said goodbye, he mentioned with a smile the coming rain front, forecast to deliver overnight more than forty millimetres to these dry paddocks. We wished him luck.
Today, before publishing this post, I rang Peter to see how the season had ended at Combaning. He said he’d been fortunate. Combaning had caught a few storms, unlike other areas he leases and owns. The Combaning wheat crops had yielded an average of two tons per hectare, up on the previous year. If Combaning had enjoyed what Peter calls a ‘normal’ season, these paddocks would’ve produced five tons of grain per hectare. And while his tonnage was up, wheat prices had dropped, so he hadn’t quite managed to break even. ‘But that’s the farming game’, Peter said.