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.
I love your writing it really make me feel I was walking the dusty homestead and feeling the heat.
Thankyou Carol! And I enjoyed your recent account of hedge-laying. I wonder if hedges will ever take off in Australia? Cheers, Paula
Thanks for the very evocative writing Paula. Like Carol, it made me feel like I was there. Have you ever watched that show on TV “Who’s been living in my house?”. That homestead sounds like a perfect candidate with its ghosts and echoes of (better) times past.
We were fortunate to be left a copy of the very detailed Conservation Plan which has been prepared for the built heritage of Oolambeyan NP, which includes extensive details about who had built the house and the various companies who ran the property over nearly 100 years. Fascinating reading! And lots of fodder for a TV show or novel… Just waiting to be written. Thanks for reading and commenting .
Wonderfully descriptive Paula. I enjoyed reading not only the imagery of the homestead but also your response to it.
I recently read Tim Winton’s latest book “Island Home – A Landscape Memoir”. You may have already read it but if you haven’t, I think you would enjoy it very much.
Thanks Gail, I really appeciate your compliments! I haven’t read Tim Winton’s latest – but will be sure to check it out. Cheers, Paula
Thank you for taking me back in time to when I lived on a sheep property with an old homestead and shearing shed way out “Back o’ Bourke.” You’ve captured similar feelings I’ve experienced when wandering through these old places. While I am thinking about the families and workers who lived there and their laughter and tears – the dreams they must have had, I also marvel at how nature survives and reclaims the area. Your pictures and words describe this beautifully. Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Hey Jane, thanks for reading and commenting. I wonder how many of these old homesteads are crumbling now? It certainly sounds like there are more old buildings on National Parks estate in NSW than can ever be even partly restored, given their current budget. One really gets the feeling that the heyday of certain kinds of agriculture in Australia is well and truly past, and grand structures like these won’t be restored or rebuilt – maybe ever. Interesting that a lot of our Australian ‘culture’ harks back to such archetypes, when the industries that built them were actually quite fleeting, and today many Australians have little or no connection to that way of life. Cheers, Paula
Great post – very powerful rendering of the feel of this place. How fascinating to speculate on the ways what might be called a degraded or transformed landscape can become precious in their own right as habitat. I’m sure amongst ecologists this idea is quite familiar but I think the average person has a more more ‘static’ understanding of what is a “wild” or “endangered” habitat. Tim Low’s book The New Nature made me question this idea, but your post is a great illustration. Beautiful photos too!
Hey thanks Nicole, for reading, and for the kind feedback. Yes I think many people only have a fuzzy appreciation of habitat. Or they might vaguely think that if a particular patch of habitat is trashed, the critters can just ‘go somewhere else’, not realising that other patches of habitat might already be at capacity, or there might not be anymore of that habitat, or it is too far away… (Mind you, if people don’t understand, or have compassion for, how and why human refugees move, then what chance is there for other species?!) The word ‘balance’ has also been overused in regards to nature (and also politics!). There is really no such thing, just constantly shifting populations, species, vegetation communities… There is no possibility now of regaining a ‘pre-European’ condition for Australian nature. So – as you probably already understand – when it comes to managing a area, we need to ask ourselves – what do we want to conserve (or restore)? And how do we get there?
Hi Paula, Lovely piece, and I think it is important to record our crumbling heritage. You may like to know, however, that the “fleeting nature” of certain types of agriculture do still exist and thrive today…in our case a mere 160 years and counting. Agriculture still plays a vital role in the Australian economy and an even more vital role in stewardship of our valuable ecological systems. As you rightly pointed out…government budgets cannot effectively manage huge tracts of land….most farmers take on their role of conservation very seriously and therefore are vital in ensuring the future of much of our biodiversity. Just look at the Landcare statistics. Do keep up your storytelling..your writing is lovely…perhaps consider that that old farming homestead, like ours today, was filled with laughter, love and life…and then perhaps it will not haunt you so.
Hi Deb, thanks for your kind feedback about my writing – I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s also great to hear from farmers like yourself who recognise and enact their vital role as environmental stewards every day (and probably a lot more seriously and effectively than many – most? – urban people). However, when I travel around our country and observe it’s ecological health, I can only conclude that the quality of the ‘environmental stewardship’ role varies hugely from farmer to farmer, and region to region. But I suspect it’s farmers like you who are best placed to convince the less engaged landholders to become better land managers (not some shiny-bum from the city like me!). Thanks so much for reading and commenting, cheers, Paula