This is Wilcannia. Before it was a COVID hotspot.

Wilcannia, murray darling, darling river, south west nsw, outback nsw

Kites circle over Wilcannia, soaring on the thermals in a cobalt sky. “They’re wookas,” explains a young boy. “They’re looking for food.” He’s a Barkandji, a river person, seven years old, and a little shy. As a male resident of Wilcannia, according to a shocking old statistic, his life expectancy is 37 years. But on this sunny day, the shadow over his future is nowhere in sight. One hopes the gap has closed somewhat since that awful number came to light in the late noughties. It’s the day before the footy grand final is to be held in Broken Hill, a two-hour drive away, and well before the Delta variant arrives in Wilcannia. Two Wilcannia teams – the Boomerangs and the Parntu Warriors – will square off. The Central School is running a fundraiser. For $5 the kids will paint your car in your rugby league team’s colours. There’s a carnival atmosphere as these bright and bubbly kids get busy with their paintbrushes. Out on the oval, green now because water is again flowing in the river, the Boomerangs get a final pep talk from the coach. There’s optimism in the air but it hasn’t always been that way. We’re in Wilcannia as part of journey to listen to the people living along the banks of the Darling River as part of a four-part podcast special called Forgotten River. Listen to the full story on our podcast. In this remote, largely Indigenous town of 750 in the far west of NSW, optimism blows in and out like the weather, in and out with the flows in the river. It has done so since the place, then known to Europeans as Mount Murchison, was chosen for a town in 1863. At the community radio station, Brendon Adams proudly shows off the Tony Staley Community Broadcasters award the station won for its efforts getting water to the Barkandji community when the river ran dry in 2017. Donated water – pallets of 10-litre containers – were trucked into Wilcannia and distributed by the radio station staff. “We had to do that for two years when there was no water at all in this community,” he says. The water returned in 2020 but the fear it will stop flowing again is never far away. The town has always bet its fortunes on the river. Back in the 1890s, before the Federation drought, it was the third busiest port in NSW, a town of 3000 people and 13 pubs. Wilcannia was known as the “Queen City of the West”. Faded and dusty now, its 19th century promise is still evident in the grand sandstone buildings which line its street. Many are neglected now. Boarded up ghosts of a long gone prosperity. The centre-lift bridge which spans the Darling speaks to a time when 90 steamers ferried in supplies and collected wool from as far away as Bourke for markets downstream. The wharf that serviced the steamers collapsed years ago, a victim of neglect. Were it closer to the centre of money and power, were it of any electoral significance, Wilcannia would more likely get the attention it deserves. It ought to be a jewel in the crown of the national heritage estate. Instead, it drifts in and out of the national consciousness for all the wrong reasons: violence, despair, ill health and neglect. Largely it’s out of sight and out of mind. Down on the riverbank, at the very spot the video for the Wilcannia Mob’s joyful Downriver hip-hop song was filmed two decades ago, Adams is joined by his friend, Rob Clayton. There’s little joy now, just seething anger. “There’s theft,” spits Adams. “Water theft.” He’s talking about people upstream who have been caught extracting more water from the river system than they’re entitled to and the more than two trillion litres water that went “missing” from the Murray-Darling Basin between 2012 and 2019. “The government, they go and fine them a few hundred thousand dollars. That’s like pocket change to them. There’s no compensation, there’s no justice for this community, for the loss, the damages, the psychological impact that it does on our community, our young people.” That loss is not just spiritual, Clayton explains. “This river used to be our main food supply. It takes us two hours to get to Broken Hill and we do our shopping fortnightly. So within that fortnight sometimes we run out of meat. If we run out of meat that’s okay, we’ll go down the river, catch five fish.” That reassurance – that the Barka will always be there for them – has grown hollow in recent years. And even as the water has returned, the fish it carries downstream can no longer be relied upon for sustenance. “We were catching a couple but then because we had that mice plague some people have found mice in the fish so that sort of put a stop to it.” The range of species has also suffered. “We used to have different fish, we used to have catfish, we used to have black bream, we used to have cod, we can barely get that anymore.” Clayton fears his two young children will not be able to rely upon the Barka as a source of food and recreation as he did growing up on its banks. “I’ve always wanted my kids to know that if I’m ever struggling and can’t get over to Broken Hill, can’t get a feed, my father told me I could still get something because this river would still be there for us, no matter what. “But because of cotton farmers it’s sort of stripped that privilege away from us.” When the flood comes, a rarity now, it not only recharges the river and the billabongs but also the Barka tradition, culture and knowledge. Adams, who is not Barkandji but is married to one, explains. “When that water does come down, like when we had the last flood, our elders were the most active. They went, ‘Let’s go out camping’. “My son got to have time with his grandfather, just to start learning. They went out emu egg hunting. But now the grandfather just sits at home.” The water in the river has receded but Adams predicts that in four months’ time, the level will drop again as more is extracted upstream to quench the thirst of the cotton crops. “So our practice is dying. It’s a slow genocide. The world has to understand this,” he says, pointing to the river behind him, “is very important to us to live every single day, continue our identity, continue our culture but also just to survive. That’s what makes it worse for us.” Read more: Meet Rachel, the woman fighting for our outback’s lifeblood That lack of water certainty is particularly hard on Wilcannia’s young people, says Clayton. “Young people think they’ve got to move to better themselves. There’s no river, there’s nothing to do, the town is dying.” When that option is not available, too many turn to drugs, alcohol and self harm. Adams tells us about the recent loss of another young man, in his 20s. “Without [the river] all they’re doing is walking down the street. They’ve got nowhere to go, they’ve got nothing to do. This is where the psychological trauma comes from, the pain of the grief and loss, the depression.” Add to that scant employment prospects, overcrowded housing and a sense of being invisible in a remote corner of an uncaring country. Back on the football field, Uncle Owen Whyman has wrapped up coaching the Boomerangs. Talk turns to politics and water. “Wilcannia has always been ignored,” he says. “It’s time someone got up and made a noise and get the government’s attention, saying enough is enough.” He says the health of the river is intrinsically linked to the mental wellbeing of Wilcannia. “When the water went down, the people was down. They were sad. You could feel in the atmosphere, you could feel it walking around the town. Everyone feels it here,” he says, hand on his heart. He has a message for Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “Don’t sell us out. We’re Australians, we’re Aussies. Sorry wasn’t enough. And now you’re going to take away our water. Our animals have been dying, our fish have been dying. Our people have been getting sick. Our farmers are struggling. More from the Forgotten River team: “Just wake up, Scott. Have a look in the backyard of your own country and see the destruction that’s going on.” Whyman has formed the Indigenous Party to try to get the plight of the Barka/Darling on to the national radar. Having stood as independent unsuccessfully at federal and state levels, he thinks his chances of drawing attention to what should be a national issue will be better with a party and has amassed enough signatures necessary for registration. “I think the land, the country, needs a voice. And I think the best people to bring that voice forward are the Indigenous people.” For now, the only voices to be heard are the children happily painting the cars, watched as always by the ever-present kites circling in their sky above. Listen to the full story on our podcast. Search Forgotten River on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred app. You can also click here, or use the web player in this article.

/images/transform/v1/crop/frm/rJkJNFPcdBkDQKqtkgHSjA/7dac5be1-a9b2-4a26-b350-0abff19453be.jpg/r0_254_5000_3079_w1200_h678_fmax.jpg

FORGOTTEN RIVER

This is Wilcannia. Before it was a COVID hotspot.

/images/transform/v1/crop/frm/rJkJNFPcdBkDQKqtkgHSjA/7dac5be1-a9b2-4a26-b350-0abff19453be.jpg/r0_254_5000_3079_w1200_h678_fmax.jpg

Wilcannia is on the national radar now, but the fate of the river which sustains it has faded from view.

Wilcannia, murray darling, darling river, south west nsw, outback nsw

2021-09-20T06:00:00+10:00

https://players.brightcove.net/3879528182001/default_default/index.html?videoId=6273233036001

https://players.brightcove.net/3879528182001/default_default/index.html?videoId=6273233036001

Meet the people of Wilcannia

Kites circle over Wilcannia, soaring on the thermals in a cobalt sky. “They’re wookas,” explains a young boy. “They’re looking for food.”

He’s a Barkandji, a river person, seven years old, and a little shy. As a male resident of Wilcannia, according to a shocking old statistic, his life expectancy is 37 years. But on this sunny day, the shadow over his future is nowhere in sight. One hopes the gap has closed somewhat since that awful number came to light in the late noughties.

Barkandji youngsters face an uncertain future in Wilcannia. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

It’s the day before the footy grand final is to be held in Broken Hill, a two-hour drive away, and well before the Delta variant arrives in Wilcannia.

Two Wilcannia teams – the Boomerangs and the Parntu Warriors – will square off. The Central School is running a fundraiser. For $5 the kids will paint your car in your rugby league team’s colours. There’s a carnival atmosphere as these bright and bubbly kids get busy with their paintbrushes.

Out on the oval, green now because water is again flowing in the river, the Boomerangs get a final pep talk from the coach. There’s optimism in the air but it hasn’t always been that way.

We’re in Wilcannia as part of journey to listen to the people living along the banks of the Darling River as part of a four-part podcast special called Forgotten River.

Listen to the full story on our podcast.

In this remote, largely Indigenous town of 750 in the far west of NSW, optimism blows in and out like the weather, in and out with the flows in the river. It has done so since the place, then known to Europeans as Mount Murchison, was chosen for a town in 1863.

At the community radio station, Brendon Adams proudly shows off the Tony Staley Community Broadcasters award the station won for its efforts getting water to the Barkandji community when the river ran dry in 2017.

Donated water – pallets of 10-litre containers – were trucked into Wilcannia and distributed by the radio station staff.

“We had to do that for two years when there was no water at all in this community,” he says.

Brendon Adams broadcasts from the Wilcannia community radio station. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The water returned in 2020 but the fear it will stop flowing again is never far away.

The town has always bet its fortunes on the river. Back in the 1890s, before the Federation drought, it was the third busiest port in NSW, a town of 3000 people and 13 pubs. Wilcannia was known as the “Queen City of the West”.

Faded and dusty now, its 19th century promise is still evident in the grand sandstone buildings which line its street. Many are neglected now. Boarded up ghosts of a long gone prosperity.

The centre-lift bridge which spans the Darling speaks to a time when 90 steamers ferried in supplies and collected wool from as far away as Bourke for markets downstream. The wharf that serviced the steamers collapsed years ago, a victim of neglect.

There’s hope for this heritage building which will be repurposed as a Barkandji cultural centre. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Were it closer to the centre of money and power, were it of any electoral significance, Wilcannia would more likely get the attention it deserves. It ought to be a jewel in the crown of the national heritage estate. Instead, it drifts in and out of the national consciousness for all the wrong reasons: violence, despair, ill health and neglect. Largely it’s out of sight and out of mind.

Down on the riverbank, at the very spot the video for the Wilcannia Mob’s joyful Downriver hip-hop song was filmed two decades ago, Adams is joined by his friend, Rob Clayton. There’s little joy now, just seething anger.

Rob Clayton and Brendon Adams on the banks of the Barka/Darling River at Wilcannia. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos.

“There’s theft,” spits Adams. “Water theft.”

He’s talking about people upstream who have been caught extracting more water from the river system than they’re entitled to and the more than two trillion litres water that went “missing” from the Murray-Darling Basin between 2012 and 2019.

“The government, they go and fine them a few hundred thousand dollars. That’s like pocket change to them. There’s no compensation, there’s no justice for this community, for the loss, the damages, the psychological impact that it does on our community, our young people.”

That loss is not just spiritual, Clayton explains.

“This river used to be our main food supply. It takes us two hours to get to Broken Hill and we do our shopping fortnightly. So within that fortnight sometimes we run out of meat. If we run out of meat that’s okay, we’ll go down the river, catch five fish.”

That reassurance – that the Barka will always be there for them – has grown hollow in recent years. And even as the water has returned, the fish it carries downstream can no longer be relied upon for sustenance.

+15

“We were catching a couple but then because we had that mice plague some people have found mice in the fish so that sort of put a stop to it.”

The range of species has also suffered.

“We used to have different fish, we used to have catfish, we used to have black bream, we used to have cod, we can barely get that anymore.”

Clayton fears his two young children will not be able to rely upon the Barka as a source of food and recreation as he did growing up on its banks.

“I’ve always wanted my kids to know that if I’m ever struggling and can’t get over to Broken Hill, can’t get a feed, my father told me I could still get something because this river would still be there for us, no matter what.

A clear message on a Wilcannia mural. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

“But because of cotton farmers it’s sort of stripped that privilege away from us.”

When the flood comes, a rarity now, it not only recharges the river and the billabongs but also the Barka tradition, culture and knowledge.

Adams, who is not Barkandji but is married to one, explains.

“When that water does come down, like when we had the last flood, our elders were the most active. They went, ‘Let’s go out camping’.

“My son got to have time with his grandfather, just to start learning. They went out emu egg hunting. But now the grandfather just sits at home.”

The only supermarket in Wilcannia. Because of high prices locals shop in Broken Hill and fish and hunt to supplement their diet. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

The water in the river has receded but Adams predicts that in four months’ time, the level will drop again as more is extracted upstream to quench the thirst of the cotton crops.

“So our practice is dying. It’s a slow genocide. The world has to understand this,” he says, pointing to the river behind him, “is very important to us to live every single day, continue our identity, continue our culture but also just to survive. That’s what makes it worse for us.”

That lack of water certainty is particularly hard on Wilcannia’s young people, says Clayton.

“Young people think they’ve got to move to better themselves. There’s no river, there’s nothing to do, the town is dying.” When that option is not available, too many turn to drugs, alcohol and self harm. Adams tells us about the recent loss of another young man, in his 20s.

“Without [the river] all they’re doing is walking down the street. They’ve got nowhere to go, they’ve got nothing to do. This is where the psychological trauma comes from, the pain of the grief and loss, the depression.” Add to that scant employment prospects, overcrowded housing and a sense of being invisible in a remote corner of an uncaring country.

Uncle Owen Whyman believes a political party is the only way to put Wilcannia’s issues on the national radar. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Back on the football field, Uncle Owen Whyman has wrapped up coaching the Boomerangs. Talk turns to politics and water.

“Wilcannia has always been ignored,” he says.

“It’s time someone got up and made a noise and get the government’s attention, saying enough is enough.”

He says the health of the river is intrinsically linked to the mental wellbeing of Wilcannia.

“When the water went down, the people was down. They were sad. You could feel in the atmosphere, you could feel it walking around the town. Everyone feels it here,” he says, hand on his heart.

He has a message for Prime Minister Scott Morrison: “Don’t sell us out. We’re Australians, we’re Aussies. Sorry wasn’t enough. And now you’re going to take away our water. Our animals have been dying, our fish have been dying. Our people have been getting sick. Our farmers are struggling.

More from the Forgotten River team:

“Just wake up, Scott. Have a look in the backyard of your own country and see the destruction that’s going on.”

Whyman has formed the Indigenous Party to try to get the plight of the Barka/Darling on to the national radar. Having stood as independent unsuccessfully at federal and state levels, he thinks his chances of drawing attention to what should be a national issue will be better with a party and has amassed enough signatures necessary for registration.

“I think the land, the country, needs a voice. And I think the best people to bring that voice forward are the Indigenous people.”

For now, the only voices to be heard are the children happily painting the cars, watched as always by the ever-present kites circling in their sky above.

Listen to the full story on our podcast. Search Forgotten River on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred app. You can also click here, or use the web player in this article.

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