Three storytellers, one ute, 3500km: Behind the Forgotten River journey

darling river, outback nsw, forgotten river podcast, murray-darling, australian travel

The call came at 7 o’clock on a Friday evening. ACM’s editorial head honchos had read an ambitious pitch from Voice of Real Australia podcaster Tom Melville and were pumped. The idea: to follow the course of the Darling and hear from the people who were fighting for its future. Here was an opportunity to tell an important national story in a completely different way. To bust out of the silos of print, audio and video and bring them all together. To put three storytellers – Tom and I joined by The Canberra Times photographer Dion Georgopoulos – into the company ute and send them on a 3500-kilometre odyssey. Were we keen?, they asked. Hell yes, we said. The planning for the Forgotten River four-part series began. An inveterate explorer, Tom mapped out the route and made contact with people we hoped to speak to. Because of the distances involved we had to be sure our itinerary matched their busy schedules. He’d been out to this remote patch of ground last year. It was on this trip the story seed was planted. He had a couple of other ideas, too. Listen to the full story on our podcast. Profiles of an outback postie and a couple of young opal miners in White Cliffs, not on the Darling itself but woven into its story nonetheless. Several video-conferences later, the ute packed with gear, including a jerrycan of diesel, recovery tracks and the obligatory shovel, and we were ready to roll. We were to produce a series of podcasts, print and online features and videos. We were to work as a crew. We were all mindful of the COVID cloud threatening on the eastern seaboard. Greater Sydney had just gone into lockdown in a bid to stop the Delta variant making its way into the regions. We set out ahead of the storm and managed to outrun it all the way. More from the Forgotten River team: Like many Australians confined to their own backyard – more often than not, to their own states – we rediscovered the road trip. The route took us from Canberra through Cootamundra, Griffith, across the Hay Plain, to Balranald and Wentworth. Just outside Yass, we were pulled over by an eagle-eyed Highway Patrol officer, who noticed our company vehicle was registered to a Sydney address. We explained we were not from Sydney and the purpose of our trip and were sent on our way. It was the first taste of being on the run from COVID. Hay Plain offered us the first glimpse of industrialised agriculture as we passed vast mechanical irrigators, giant water storage dams, and endless canola fields. Photographer Dion, who had never ventured so far west, was unsettled by the scale and monotony of it all. At Balranald, we stopped and spoke to Rob Barrett, owner of a takeaway and service station. He told us how COVID had sent the travellers packing and ground business in the town to a standstill. It was to become a recurring theme. The first glimpse of the Darling came at Wentworth, where the river joins the mighty Murray. A paddle steamer moored below the bridge over the Darling spoke of a past long gone. After an epic drive we were finally on the edge of the outback, which made itself apparent just a few kilometres out of town on the road to Pooncarie. A tiny town with a population of 45, Pooncarie had suffered the twin disasters of a dry river in 2019 and the current COVID crisis. Publican Josh Sheard told us how the travellers stopped coming when the river dried out in 2019, came back en masse when it began flowing again in 2020, and vanished in July this year when the COVID crunch came. There was no disaster relief for Josh because to qualify he had to show a substantial loss on his earnings from 2019. Read more about the Forgotten River: That was the dry river year, so his earnings were rock bottom. There was no loss to show. As a crew we quickly had to work out how to record sound and video without tripping over each other. Non-verbal cues – a raised eyebrow here, a shrug there – alerted us to when the microphone crept into shot or when the next question should come and from whom. We learned to give Tom that extra few minutes to record an “atmos” track, ambient sound that would enrich his podcasts. We helped Dion with his lighting rig. Travelling on dirt roads in the outback puts you at the mercy of the weather. If it rains even slightly, the grey clay roads are closed and for good reason. They become skating rinks. As squalls of rain blew in the further west we went, we steeled ourselves to the possibility of having to reroute, adding hundreds of kilometres to the trip. But the weather gods were merciful – the “roads” closed momentarily then reopened in line with our schedule. Although gazetted, these “roads”, to our bituminised eyes at least, were often little more than tracks. But they always led somewhere fascinating. One such place was the Tilpa pub. Its walls are covered in the signatures of visitors who’ve passed through, including one Ivan Milat. We spent the evening there, warmed by a fire pit and entertained by a group of high-spirited locals. Over the course of eight days, as we immersed ourselves in the story, we also fell in love with the outback, its ever changing colour, its big skies and far horizons, its goats and its emus. And, most importantly, its people. Warm, laconic, sometimes cheeky, always open – they had taken us into their world so we could bring their world to the rest of Australia. 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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FORGOTTEN RIVER

Three storytellers, one ute, 3500km: Behind the Forgotten River journey

/images/transform/v1/crop/frm/rJkJNFPcdBkDQKqtkgHSjA/485fa144-600a-4d0f-a02e-f6015511e2d8.jpg/r0_210_2359_1543_w1200_h678_fmax.jpg

Our journey to the Darling to find the voices of the Forgotten River.

darling river, outback nsw, forgotten river podcast, murray-darling, australian travel

2021-09-29T05:00:00+10:00

https://players.brightcove.net/3879528182001/default_default/index.html?videoId=6273984966001

https://players.brightcove.net/3879528182001/default_default/index.html?videoId=6273984966001

The call came at 7 o’clock on a Friday evening.

ACM’s editorial head honchos had read an ambitious pitch from Voice of Real Australia podcaster Tom Melville and were pumped.

The idea: to follow the course of the Darling and hear from the people who were fighting for its future.

Here was an opportunity to tell an important national story in a completely different way. To bust out of the silos of print, audio and video and bring them all together.

To put three storytellers – Tom and I joined by The Canberra Times photographer Dion Georgopoulos – into the company ute and send them on a 3500-kilometre odyssey.

Were we keen?, they asked. Hell yes, we said. The planning for the Forgotten River four-part series began.

An inveterate explorer, Tom mapped out the route and made contact with people we hoped to speak to. Because of the distances involved we had to be sure our itinerary matched their busy schedules.

He’d been out to this remote patch of ground last year. It was on this trip the story seed was planted. He had a couple of other ideas, too.

Listen to the full story on our podcast.

The long and never winding road to Tilpa. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Profiles of an outback postie and a couple of young opal miners in White Cliffs, not on the Darling itself but woven into its story nonetheless.

Several video-conferences later, the ute packed with gear, including a jerrycan of diesel, recovery tracks and the obligatory shovel, and we were ready to roll.

We were to produce a series of podcasts, print and online features and videos. We were to work as a crew.

We were all mindful of the COVID cloud threatening on the eastern seaboard.

Greater Sydney had just gone into lockdown in a bid to stop the Delta variant making its way into the regions.

We set out ahead of the storm and managed to outrun it all the way.

Journalists John Hanscombe, left, and Tom Melville talk to Josh Sheard at the pub in Pooncarie. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

More from the Forgotten River team:

Like many Australians confined to their own backyard – more often than not, to their own states – we rediscovered the road trip.

The route took us from Canberra through Cootamundra, Griffith, across the Hay Plain, to Balranald and Wentworth.

Just outside Yass, we were pulled over by an eagle-eyed Highway Patrol officer, who noticed our company vehicle was registered to a Sydney address.

We explained we were not from Sydney and the purpose of our trip and were sent on our way.

It was the first taste of being on the run from COVID.

Takeaway owner Rob Barrett in Balranald talks about the COVID crunch on his business. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Hay Plain offered us the first glimpse of industrialised agriculture as we passed vast mechanical irrigators, giant water storage dams, and endless canola fields.

Photographer Dion, who had never ventured so far west, was unsettled by the scale and monotony of it all.

At Balranald, we stopped and spoke to Rob Barrett, owner of a takeaway and service station.

He told us how COVID had sent the travellers packing and ground business in the town to a standstill. It was to become a recurring theme.

The first glimpse of the Darling came at Wentworth, where the river joins the mighty Murray.

A paddle steamer moored below the bridge over the Darling spoke of a past long gone.

After an epic drive we were finally on the edge of the outback, which made itself apparent just a few kilometres out of town on the road to Pooncarie.

+7

A tiny town with a population of 45, Pooncarie had suffered the twin disasters of a dry river in 2019 and the current COVID crisis.

Publican Josh Sheard told us how the travellers stopped coming when the river dried out in 2019, came back en masse when it began flowing again in 2020, and vanished in July this year when the COVID crunch came.

There was no disaster relief for Josh because to qualify he had to show a substantial loss on his earnings from 2019.

Read more about the Forgotten River:

That was the dry river year, so his earnings were rock bottom. There was no loss to show.

As a crew we quickly had to work out how to record sound and video without tripping over each other.

Non-verbal cues – a raised eyebrow here, a shrug there – alerted us to when the microphone crept into shot or when the next question should come and from whom.

Dion Georgopoulos photographs Brendan Cullen at Kars Station near Menindee. Picture: John Hanscombe

We learned to give Tom that extra few minutes to record an “atmos” track, ambient sound that would enrich his podcasts. We helped Dion with his lighting rig.

Travelling on dirt roads in the outback puts you at the mercy of the weather. If it rains even slightly, the grey clay roads are closed and for good reason. They become skating rinks.

As squalls of rain blew in the further west we went, we steeled ourselves to the possibility of having to reroute, adding hundreds of kilometres to the trip.

But the weather gods were merciful – the “roads” closed momentarily then reopened in line with our schedule.

Although gazetted, these “roads”, to our bituminised eyes at least, were often little more than tracks. But they always led somewhere fascinating.

One such place was the Tilpa pub. Its walls are covered in the signatures of visitors who’ve passed through, including one Ivan Milat.

Locals have a yarn by the fire outside the Tilpa pub. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

We spent the evening there, warmed by a fire pit and entertained by a group of high-spirited locals.

Over the course of eight days, as we immersed ourselves in the story, we also fell in love with the outback, its ever changing colour, its big skies and far horizons, its goats and its emus.

And, most importantly, its people.

Warm, laconic, sometimes cheeky, always open – they had taken us into their world so we could bring their world to the rest of Australia.

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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