They look back at me, these opulent rams, their pale blunt faces and curling horns embedded in outrageous excesses of wool. Long dead now, once they were the pride of this place. Now they stare out of black and white photos, with faux-painted backgrounds, commemorating past victories at agricultural shows. The only things that decorate this cavernous, slightly creepy ‘breezeway’ – the large hollow heart of the building.
Lined with dark timber-veneer panelling, flyscreen doors at each end, and 10 or so closed brown doors along the sides that hide more empty rooms. Piles of dead moths lie still beneath doorways. An old metal windmill shrieks and groans as it spins in the hot north wind outside. The same wind buffets the surrounding sprawl of half-ruined buildings: ram sheds, shearer’s quarters, shearing shed, wool sheds, overseers’ cottage, rabbiter’s hut…
Inside, the air is close and warm. The old homestead seems to be holding its breath, hiding its disappointment. Dreaming of past glories. Once a place of such gleaming optimism, such macho pride – how could it be slowly fading back into the sand? Paint peeling, boards cracking, stumps sinking, possums in the boarded-up fireplaces, and a rabbit – of all creatures – setting up home under the front porch?
It’s a post-traumatic house. Like a war veteran, it does not talk. But it is steeped in past violence: the wiping out of indigenous people; the blasting of the landscape with axes, sheep, rabbits, foxes, weeds, and whatever else the white people could find. But perhaps I am most unsettled by something else.
It’s the death of dreams. This abandoned homestead lies quiet, but screams of human mortality.
This is Oolambeyan – once a sheep station, now a National Park – in the vast Riverine plain of southwestern New South Wales. I recently travelled down from Queensland to this place, with the lovely Ray, to work on a new project. For a week of searing summer heat (daytime temperatures over 40 degrees C) we stayed in the servant’s section of the spacious homestead (the rest lies empty).
We were grateful for the air-conditioning, and fascinated by the local history – natural or otherwise. Ray was less bothered by the house than me, and even completed a neat little watercolour sketch of its front, complete with wide shady verandah. We would emerge onto this verandah, at intervals during the day, to have a short break from our work, and would be engulfed by the relentless, hot, hair-dryer wind. At dawn and dusk we’d make use of the slightly cooler conditions to make forays into the surrounding plains to check out the locals.
The homestead is now a haven for wildlife. Greg, the ever-busy field officer, has had instructions to keep the garden tended. The prize-winning roses are mostly gone now, but the lawn is green and well-trimmed – by a dozen or so kangaroos that graze there quietly at night (assisted by the resident rabbit under the house). Water sprinklers bring in the birds, and fairy-wrens, choughs, and groups of mistletoebirds enjoyed continuous, refreshing bathing parties while we were there.
The choughs had made their mud nest high in the sugar gums that once lined the tennis court. Emus wandered across the disused cricket pitch. Red-capped robins were active in the tamarisk trees, with whitefaces, and yellow- and chestnut-rumped thornbills. A couple of lace monitors cruised around the other buildings.
Clearing and sheep grazing has transformed this landscape, but curiously, this is why the National Park is here. Oolambeyan National Park protects a large expanse of Riverina Grassland, which provides important habitat for many plant and animal species. But before European settlement this place was thought to be mostly myall woodlands, with old man saltbush in the understorey. The grasslands took over only after the myalls were cut down, and the saltbush was devoured by sheep and rabbits. And now, this place is a vital part of efforts to save a critically endangered bird that haunts these fields.
But I’ll tell you more about that in another post. Or maybe in a future colouring book…
And the moral of this story? Some dreams may die, but life goes on. Tiny birds bathe in rainbow showers of water droplets. Baby kangaroos frisk about at dusk. And good people keep striving to nurture what we have left.