By Mike Bowers, Gordon WeissApril 5, 2012
A small abattoir on the fringe of Australia’s outback is a window on modern rural life.
Drive west from Sydney, and you'll leave the cool fringe of the coast. Over the forested ridge of mountains known as the Great Dividing Range, you strike the blond reaches of the vast western plains food bowl. Beyond, through the postcard towns of Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo, winding roads are gradually beaten straight by the hammer of the sun and the anvil of the earth. The rich terrain and flat fields peter out. The distance between towns and villages lengthens, and the eye searches for the next settlement along the route forged through desert. The road puckers until it's the eye of a needle on the point of a shimmering horizon, and dips slightly and rises through scrub and blankets of ruddy earth on either side. Each corrugation proves how easy it is for the spill of floodwaters that occasionally crosshatches this country to cut off towns for weeks at a time.
Almost 600 kilometres northwest of Sydney, Nyngan is poised on the edge of the true outback. The story goes that at each town, if you ask, "Is this the outback?" a local will point you westwards, handing you on to the next town, the traveller never quite reaching the outback even though it seems to swallow you, until you face the cool of the Indian Ocean at the continent's far western edge. Perhaps not reaching the Outback is what gives people hope to go on. The Outback is where the myths of two Australias meet like a head-on collision on one of these lonely straight roads: that of Aboriginal Australia - antique, mystical and alive, breathing between rock and roo, as vast as the blue sky that blots out the galaxy from edge to edge of as far as one can see, and as intimate as the dust that gathers on boot leather - and European Australia, a toughened myth scrawled and stamped on the earth by the ugly rigging of abattoir and wheat mill, rusting tin-sheet hovels (now antique themselves), the gouging of earth, the planting of cotton where once only salt-bush and scrub could grow. This is Henry Lawson country, once criss-crossed by the 'Ghan' camel trains led by Australia's first Muslim workers, where mobs of sheep moved like clouds across the red land.
Nyngan is a small town of about 2,500 people, sitting somewhere on a flat horizon, watered by the ribbon of the Bogan River. In 1990 the town was inundated by massive floods that scrubbed the topography almost clean of man-made structures. When sandbagged levees failed, townspeople mustered on the railway platform, from where they were spirited to safety by army and news helicopters. The waters rose, then fell, wiping out $50 million of property.
Floods have come again to this part of Australia, waterlogging other towns but leaving Nyngan alone this time. The henna-red country between Nyngan and Bourke, 200 kilometres further outback, is now a wetland pasture of soft grasses sitting in ponds of silver water, with flocks of waterfowl rising like confetti explosions, and kites wheeling in great numbers. The Murray-Darling river system which connects the monsoonal north of Australia with the Great Australian Bight on the southern edge, and which once fed an unbroken patchwork of inland Aboriginal tribes along thousands of kilometers, has burst its banks. It might have swept away the Nyngan-Bourke arm of the western railway, had that not been destroyed already in 1989, closing one of the last great railway routes of the great southern continent.