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Struggle and care in the outback

6 May 2016

Struggle and care in the outback

One of the eeriest experiences in the middle of the prolonged drought was that all birdsong stopped, says Rachel. Except for the crows. Tragically, their cawing was almost always an indicator that sheep, or native animals nearby, were dead or dying.

Despite five to six years of drought, Rachel and her husband James believe they are “much luckier” than many in the area.

Neighbours and childhood friends before becoming a couple their 40s, Rachel and James run Merino sheep on 22,000 acres in north-west NSW. The closest towns are Walgett, Lightning Ridge and Brewarrina, but the nearest centre is still 80 kilometres away.

Rachel says: “James is a sixth-generation farmer in the area and I am a second. Our properties are quite established, so that helps enormously. But other people in the area have come in and had to borrow to buy the farm, or equipment, and many are absolutely on the bones of their bottoms! We do hear of suicides around here quite a bit from the drought, and a lot of marriage break-ups – really awful things!”

Carting their limited water daily to different parts of the property, Rachel says: “We saw a lot of death and animals were getting bogged (which would often die and contaminate water) in the mud around dams. It was my job, because James had so much else to do, to drive around to every dam and pull out sheep and ‘roos. We’d do everything we could to save the sheep.

“It is a really awful, awful thing to see your stock die and people often don’t realise that you put a lot of work into them."

While it has not completely broken them, as it has others, Rachel says: “Drought has definitely put a heavy strain on us. We had and have to be very careful with our power and spending so we could keep on feeding and it got quite extreme.”

But the drought was only the beginning of the challenges they were to face.

Your donation to the Red Shield Appeal can help Australians, like Rachel, who are in need. Donate now.

Early in the year, the family homestead burnt to the ground. (They farm two family farms side-by-side and James’ childhood home on the second property burned to the ground). Not long later, James toppled from three tiers of hay bales from the back of the truck, seriously injuring himself.

And then, one day, Rachel got a call from her doctor she will never forget. She was informed that she had breast cancer. Medical tests, specialists and surgery dominated the next period of her life.

Rachel says of her frequent visits to hospital: “It is just under 400km (and partly dirt road) one way, so you often have to stay overnight and that’s when the bills start racking up. You’d have to stay in motels or caravan parks – and Dubbo has a lot of events and festivals and so often the accommodation gets very expensive.”

In the middle of all these setbacks, however, was a ray of hope. It came in the form of a Salvation Army couple – Ron and Margaret Kenyon of Nambour Corps – who Rachel saw driving up the road to her property.

The Kenyons were part of a group of Salvo volunteers distributing rural aid and performing a chaplaincy service.

Rachel says: “I didn’t ask for any type of help, they just turned up unannounced, but oh my goodness it was encouraging. We sat down and I just thought, ‘goodness, these are just such lovely people’. It made me feel that we’re not lost, that we’re not forgotten. It felt after years of drought that the media and government had lost interest – and that everybody was ignoring our communities.

“And things were getting worse and worse. So Margaret and Ron (and the donations from people we had never met) made us feel that we were important. And they not only did that for us, but so many others.

“They also asked about our mental health, in a way that didn’t seem intrusive – it just seemed very natural and very positive. They are absolutely wonderful people and not in the slightest bit judgmental.

“They just said, ‘tell us about your life – tell us what’s been happening and also who else locally might need some support’. So we were able to tell them about farmers that were in much more strife than us. They gave us some IGA vouchers and also some general Salvos (eftpos) vouchers and I was so thankful and really very humbled.

“I couldn’t believe they had come all this way to help lighten the load.”

Recently, the area experienced some rain and the grass is again growing. It is yet to be seen if it was a drought-breaker. But whatever happens, the process of rebuilding stock, crops and farms will take years for many in the area. Rachel thinks she is cancer-free, too, but has not had the final all-clear.

Rachel says: “I now feel very close to Margaret. We talk on the phone from time to time and she is a lot of support and a lovely lady. I have a strong faith and also know she is praying for me. I always say to Margaret ‘I’ll never forget what you’ve done’ and as soon as we are back on our feet, it’s all going back to them to help other people. That’s just the right thing to do! What the Salvos do – and did for us – is just a wonderful, wonderful thing!

By Naomi Singlehurst

Your donation to the Red Shield Appeal can help Australians, like Rachel, who are in need. Donate now.

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