We are going for a day trip through the rolling desert landscape to Menindee just over 100 kilometres south-east of Broken Hill
Menindee is a tiny outback settlement which is famous for two things: it was the last place where the Burke and Wills expedition stayed before heading north into the unchartered outback and the Menindee Lakes are an inland wonderland and a vital source of water for the surrounding citrus orchards and vegetable farms. Menindee is also surrounded by some 20 lakes which exist in an inhospitable desert environment.
It is very dry and not much feed for the sheep they are tinted the colour of the red dust and blend in to the surrounding landscape. They stare, vacant eyed, at me as I stop for a photo. Suddenly a blur and a shimmy of feathers as an emu bursts from the bushes. I almost didn’t get this photo as he took off at speed. We had been told/warned about an invasion of emus and kangaroos as they were starving in the bush and coming into the towns. But we only saw 2 emus and a couple of live kangaroos during the whole week we are in the area.As we get closer to Menindee I spot this sign, it is at the start of a narrow side road…How intriguing, it conjures images of Hollywood glamour – movie stars, rock stars, billboards, boutiques. It has the welcome sign out. So let’s go explore. A couple of kilometres along the road we come to a row of houses. This first house is not Hollywood but pure Aussie larrikin. Look at all the paraphernalia that has been lovingly collected. We drive on with a smile on our faces. Then I see a man pottering about in his garden with his cat sitting in the shade watching. I stop to ask where the road goes. What a story Frank has to tell…
He has owned his house for over 20 years, first as a weekend, holiday home, then when he retired he moved here permanently and he loves the place. It was a paradise, an oasis in the middle of the desert, where, for decades, people from the hot, dusty mining city of Broken Hill have flocked to live the dream. The families frolicked in the water that lapped at the bottom of the gardens lush and green with plants, even growing vegetables. There was plenty of water for irrigation. Everyone owned boats, fishing was abundant, water skiing was popular. The air rang with the happy laughter of children. Groups gathered for the evening BBQ. cooking the fish they had caught. Sipping wine and beer and watching the sunset over the lake with views stretching almost to the horizon. Life was idyllic.
That was then. Now things are very different.
Many of the 120 homes along the shore line are now empty, abandoned, up for sale. The tinnies sit outside, slowly deteriorating. The gardens are dust bowls. Families no longer come here because Lake Menindee dried up in 2002 and has been empty ever since
Drought has seen Sunset Strip occasionally lose its water views before but never for this long. Sunset Strippers don’t blame their predicament solely on drought or climate change – they blame the irrigated cotton industry that has been allowed to develop in recent decades on the Darling and its tributaries.
The name that comes to everyone’s lips is Cubbie Station, the massive Queensland cotton farm that has been given government leases to take and store 537,000 megalitres of water from the upper reaches of the Darling River, almost as much as Lake Menindee used to hold.
This is how it used to look when the lake held water (photo from NSW/Broken Hill tourism brochure)
We drive back along the road leaving this sad, almost abandoned settlement waiting for rain, hoping that the lake will once more become a water wonderland.
Turning east at the end of the road we drive the few remaining kilometres to Menindee.
To be continued…