Combaning Creek weaves northwards through paddocks before terminating at Narraburra Creek, about 13 kilometres as the crow flies from the Combaning homestead waterhole. Narraburra Creek joins the Bland (also known as Yeo Yeo Creek), at Morangarell. The Bland continues a northerly path, eventually disappearing into Lake Cowal, in wetter times one of the most lively wetlands of the Lachlan River valley. The Wiradjuri name for Lake Cowal, recalled Dame Mary Gilmore, ‘could be translated almost as “the garden of Eden” it was such a place of singing birds and flowers.’ As an elderly woman she remembered ‘the flowers like a carpet, the wading and swimming birds in thousands, the bittern booming in the night’ (‘Old Hand’s Tale Pleases Writer’, Forbes Advocate, 19 July 1955).
When I visited Lake Cowal in July last year, a farmer told me that it had been dry since the onset of summer in 2000. He said that this was longest period the lake had been empty of water in living memory. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, four commercial fishermen worked full time at Lake Cowal, taking four to six tons of golden perch, yellow belly and yabbies each week.
I camped on the edge of the lake, and took this photo as the sun rose over the dry bed, warming the winter air:
Later that morning I took this photo of Mount Wamboyne standing proudly beyond the lake, framed by river red gums and their fallen branches:
The current dryness of Lake Cowal and its waterways contrasts with other historical accounts. Sara Hawkins, born in 1862 on Curraburrama station, on the Bland Creek upstream from Lake Cowal, remembered this country as wet and prolific:
‘Emus and Kangaroos were numerous and there were plenty of wild fowl and fish. Blacks would come to the homestead with fish strung on green rushes and ask for food and tobacco in exchange. They were rather numerous then, and wore possum rugs and blankets pinned round them with wooden pins. They carried their war weapons and always had a number of dogs.’ (‘Early Memories of Mrs. S. K. Hawkins, of Curraburrama’, in Pink Hats on Gentle Ladies, family history notes compiled in 1974 by Vida Clift, and transcribed from the Young Chronicle, 4 November 1932.)
And in November 1872, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a fish catch on Geraldra station, on the Bland (or Yeo Yeo) Creek upstream from Morangarell. A servant had brought to the homestead ‘upwards of ninety fish of all sorts and sizes, which had been captured in the Yeo Yeo Creek, without the aid of net or line, but simply with the hands.’ The same article explained that sometime later, a man and his wife had caught, with a line, 483 fish in the Yeo Yeo Creek on Geraldra. Some fish weighed 8 pounds (over 3.5 kilograms).
Further upstream, on the Stockingbingal run, pastoralist Alexander Mackay built a sturdy dam wall across the Yeo Yeo Creek. Water banked up for three kilometres. ‘I know that, when I was a boy’, remembered Alexander’s son Kenneth, ‘it was full of fresh-water cod, and that the blacks used to catch them by mudding the water’ (Sydney Mail, 3 January 1923, p. 9).
Standing above the dry bed and remaining waterholes of the Bland Creek today, amid cropping and pasture paddocks, it’s hard to imagine how this intermittent waterway could have produced so much fish. I took this photo of the Bland Creek near Morangarell, in the spring of 2001, before the droughty years really took hold:
Just last week, in Crookwell, a town high on the eastern fringe of the Lachlan River catchment, people gathered to discuss the causes of dramatic declines in native fish populations, and to learn about efforts being made to restore native fish habitat and numbers. The Lachlan Catchment Management Authority ran the two day event.
At the start of day one, after finding a seat inside the Crookwell Services Club, we were invited outside. In the laneway, Uncle Vince Bulger welcomed us to Wiradjuri country. He said how significant it was that we’d come together to find ways to restore our inland rivers and fish numbers. Vince then launched the proceedings with a Wiradjuri smoking ceremony:
Back inside the Club, Vince talked about his boyhood experiences along the creek beside the Aboriginal reserve at Brungle. He expressed concern for townsfolk on the lower Lachlan, where water supplies have dried up. We should provide for these communities, Vince asserted, by extracting underground water, or pumping from the Murrumbidgee. Never should a person have to pay for water, Vince argued. Water is present to give people life. People are part of these land and river systems, Vince seemed to be saying, bound by relationships of reciprocity.
Will Trueman, a keen fisherman and native fish historian, provided an overview of his extensive research into the causes and patterns of native fish decline along the Lachlan. Causes were many and interrelated: the burial of habitat by sand entering waterways via soil erosion in grazing and cropping paddocks, ash from bushfires stripping oxygen from creek and river waters, the construction of weirs and dams, the arrival of redfin and carp, drought and climate change. He read aloud accounts from the late nineteenth century of the abundance of golden perch, Macquarie perch, yellow belly, trout cod and Murray cod in the Lachlan River and its tributaries. One description of Macquarie perch, a medium sized fish with dark scales, turning rivers black as they migrated in their thousands, evoked a particularly vivid image.
In the yard outside the Services Club, scientists from the Narrandera Fisheries Centre had set up their portable aquarium. In the tank swam this Macquarie perch, caught a few years ago in the Abercrombie River:
I talked with acquatic ecologist Dale McNeil about the processes that entice fish to swim beyond river channels during floods, to repopulate off channel water bodies like Lake Cowal. Dale spoke of Murray cod, a particularly large and long lived fish, holding memories of watery places beyond the rivers. There were old cod in the Lachlan and in the deep waterholes of Bundaburra Creek, he explained, that would still remember the rich waters of Lake Cowal, and how to reach them in floodtime. His comments made me think of Paul Sinclair’s accounts in his book The Murray: a River and its People (2001, p. 124) of the ‘skin maps’ of Murray cod. Some old fishermen, Sinclair tells, believe that skin or bladder markings on the fish record the exact place where a particular Murray cod was born or caught, an accurate chart showing individual trees, rock shapes and river banks.
On the second day, we visited a number of sites along the upper reaches of the Lachlan River. Here, officers from the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority are working with landholders to restore Macquarie perch habitat and populations. River banks are fenced to exclude livestock, and planted to local species. Snags are returned to the channel. At the last site we visited, on ‘Moorlands’, a property owned by Vince and Janet Heffernan, we walked along a fenced stretch of the Lachlan. Vince talked about the deep fishing holes where, in the 1970s, if you wanted a fish for breakfast, a catch was assured. Later, sands washed from gullies upstream destroyed the waterholes.
But now, as the photo below shows, common reed is colonising the sand slugs, its rhizomes firmly creeping through material delivered by water erosion, by a long history of disturbance in the upper Lachlan valley. Common reed was once common along the Lachlan. Cattle relish it. Here the new fence allows its return. Flowing water is pushed aside by the dense reed growth and the sand it holds. Shallow pools form. Native fish return.