Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Darling Downs (a very long post)

Apologies for the length of this post. Blame it on Holden: I was waiting for the car to be serviced, so I had time to write.

Living on the coast, it’s easy to forget that Australia is primarily a land of grazing. There’s farming around here – we see the results of it in the farm markets that occur every weekend – but the crops are mainly ones that require lushness and abundant rainfall. Pineapples, mangos, macadamia nuts, bananas, avocados... they’re all grown on the rolling land known as the Sunshine Coast Hinterland. The flat land between the hills and along the coastal plains farther north is sugar cane country, where an enormous proportion of the world’s sugar supply is grown.
But when most of us foreigners think of Australian agriculture, these aren’t the first images that come to mind. We see great expanses of flat, dry land being picked over by hardy sheep and skinny cows, and graziers who use helicopters and motorcycles as well as horses to patrol farms the size of European countries. We picture the Outback.
We’ve talked about wanting to see that side of Australia – perhaps doing a farmstay vacation, which would allow us to spend a few days living on a real, working farm. Then we heard about the Jondaryan Woolshed.
It’s located on the Darling Downs, an enormous agricultural district that begins about 150 kms west of Brisbane and extends for hundreds of kilometres inland. It’s been farmed since the 1840s, when graziers from New South Wales discovered the productive plains. It’s not the Outback, but it’s certainly a lot closer to it than the Sunshine Coast is.
A cluster of 50 or so houses beside the Warrego Highway, Jondaryan is completely unremarkable – a gas station, a pub, a one-time general store that is now home to a Thai massage practitioner (“Medical school graduate. Hospital accreditation in Thailand” according to the sign). The only thing that sets it apart from any of a hundred other villages on the Darling Downs is the Jondaryan Woolshed.
The Woolshed was once part of a large farm, or station as they’re known, some three hundred thousand acres in its heyday. By outback standards that’s not really all that big – a mere 11 kilometres square – but it still seems big enough to me. Since it was primarily a sheep station, the people who owned and ran Jondaryan Station needed a place where the sheep could be sheared once a year. So in the 1860s, they built one of the biggest woolsheds in Queensland. A woolshed is a big barn with numerous access points so sheep can be quickly herded in to the shearers and herded out again. It’s quite an operation, with a number of specialized tasks to ensure everything flows quickly and smoothly. The last thing the grazier wants is to see his skilled – and highly paid – shearers wasting time chasing sheep or picking up wool. With stations for 52 shearers, and a steam plant that powered the clippers, the Jondaryan woolshed could shear 5,000 sheep a day.
Eventually the station lands were broken up and sold to other farmers, and the woolshed was no longer needed. Rather than tear it down, though, it was turned into an agricultural museum. Other buildings were brought in, and an impressive collection of farm machinery was put together. It’s open year-round, but once a year, for two weeks, all the machinery is fired up and the old skills are celebrated for a heritage festival. We decided to go out there and see it.
During most of the year visitors can sleep in the woolshed, but during the festival those bunks are reserved for the volunteers, so we booked a motel room in Toowoomba, about 35 minutes to the east. Perched on a mountain range that marks the eastern edge of the Darling Downs, Toowoomba is a surprisingly lovely town of about 90,000 people. It’s the biggest inland city in Queensland, a place that looks like it has always been moderately prosperous. The downtown has an enormous number of beautiful old buildings, including an art deco movie theatre. The good people of Toowoomba have a great affection for plants, and most streets are lined with mature, well-tended trees. There are some terrific gardens which are kept well-watered despite an ongoing drought (the town apparently has a supply of well water which is used to water the flowers). We didn’t manage to get to the large Japanese garden, but we did enjoy the Scented Garden, which was built in consultation with the association for the blind.
When you leave Toowoomba and head onto the Darling Downs, you immediately see the difference in water conditions. The Downs are dry, dry, dry – a monochromatic landscape of grey and brown, broken by olive green trees. There is obviously water here, though: some fields have been irrigated, and glow a vibrant green. Driving down the highway, with an irrigated field to the left and a grey dustbowl to the right, is a bit like watching both parts of the Wizard of Oz at the same time, with Kansas on one side of the road and the Emerald City on the other.
Out at Jondaryan, we watched a display of shearing (using both old-fashioned hand clippers and the more “modern” steam-powered ones), and went to a farm animal petting area. Isaiah and Charlotte tried their hand at whip cracking, and we sampled damper (camp bread cooked on coals, very much like bannock). But the highlight came when we stopped to watch the steam-driven well drilling machine. It seemed pretty straightforward – a steam engine pulled up a weighted cutter, then pounded it down into the ground – and I made some innocuous comment about finding water to the man operating it.
In response, he put the machine in neutral, grabbed a jar and a couple of pieces of wire, and walked over to join us.
“Geren dyo finning wader?” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Dis yeer woya n finning wader. J’ever seenem dun?” A thick occer accent coupled with a minor speech impediment left me scrambling to understand each word. I got the gist, which was more than Sharon could do – I recognized the bemused look on her face, and knew I’d have to translate.
I assumed he was going to show us how he used the wires as divining rods to find water. I was only partly right. He opened the jar and pulled out a blue chalk crayon, rubbed it on the wire and dropped it on the ground.
“Dis yeer woya n go bik wadever tuch’n last.” He held the bent wire in his hand and walked past the chalk crayon. As he did, the wire turned gently and hovered over the crayon. He grinned triumphantly.
Next he rubbed a pulled a scrap of rope from the jar, rubbed it on the wire and dropped it on the ground. Again he walked around the paddock, showing us how the wire would turn to find the rope.
“Dis yeer woya n finning people too. Yeer, you touch ‘n.” He held the wire out to Isaiah, who figured out that he was supposed to touch the end of the wire. Our guide then walked past him, showing us how the wire turned to point at Isaiah.
“Nah yew touch ‘n,” he said to Ana, who touched the wire. This time the wire turned to point at her when he walked past, apparently having lost interest in Isaiah.
“Remarkable,” I said politely. I was a bit afraid to point out that it looked to us as though he was just turning his hand to make the wire point where he wanted it to. After all, I reasoned, if this man really thought an old coat hanger could remember whatever had touched it last, there was no saying what he might do if his beliefs were challenged. The only safe thing was to play along.
The next demonstration was to show us how he could find water. This required a thinner, more flexible piece of wire. Holding it in his hand, he explained that it could tell him how far down he needed to drill to hit water. He raised and lowered his hand gently, allowing the wire to bounce. Each bounce, he said, meant one foot. I wondered why a supernatural phenomenon would work in feet rather than leagues, metres, cubits or chains, but decided not to ask. Silently we stood there, watching politely as he bounced the wire up and down a couple of dozen times. “Ah,” we said appreciately as the bouncing stopped and he offered up another meaningful grin. The wire waved slowly back and forth, which he said meant there was a stream there with another one below it. He bounced the wire a few more times, noting that the two streams were quite close together.
The grand finale was to give each of us a turn with the wires. One by one we walked across the paddock, a wire held in our hand. Nothing happened until our guide reached out and took our hand in his. Then, the wire would turn to one side or the other, matching the direction of the wire he held in his other hand. “Oi’s got static lectristy, n’it gos inna yews,” he explained. It felt to us as though he was just turning our hands to make the wire spin, but we said nothing.
After we’d each had a turn, we thanked our guide and made our retreat across the paddock. Nobody said a word as we headed toward the woolshed to see the shearing demonstration. Looking back, I could see him watching us depart, a big grin on his face.
It occurred to me that this could all have been an elaborate practical joke, the Aussie bloke trying to convince the dumb tourists that you could find wire or chalk with a piece of wire. Perhaps we would be the subject of a yarn told over damper and billy tea in the woolshed that night. Then again, he may have felt he’d just done his bit to advance international scientific knowledge. Regardless, it had certainly been a remarkable and unexpected addition to our day.

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