Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Is this really the worst drought on record?

  • 02 April 2007

When in September 1892, the editor of the Bulletin, F.H. Archibald, gave Henry Lawson £5 and a rail ticket to Bourke, what neither of them bargained on was that Lawson would arrive in Bourke in the middle of the worst drought in living memory.

Perhaps every drought, once it really grips hard, is 'the worst'. Lawson’s mother, Louisa, had walked off their selection a decade earlier after the third successive year of drought defeated her. In that same year, 1883, Lawson’s great literary contemporary, Joseph Furphy, his health and business ruined by the drought, went back to Shepparton where he worked in his brother John’s foundry, and set about writing one of the great classics of Australian literature, Such is Life.

But the drought Lawson encountered when he stepped off the train was 'the worst' anyone had heard of or experienced or knew about and it appalled him. He wrote to his aunt, Emma Brookes, of "the horror" of life in the drought-blasted outback where "men tramp and beg and live like dogs". Nevertheless Archibald’s strategy worked: from Lawson’s five fraught, ghastly months in the far west of New South Wales came some of the greatest stories in our literature, collected in the two series of While The Billy Boils.

Seventy-three years after Lawson gratefully set his "broken boots" on Sydney pavements – it began to rain the day he left! – I arrived in Bourke during, as the locals somberly assured me, the 'worst drought' since the 1890s. The sheep were on the long paddock, dust powdered up from the tracks and 'roly-pollies' bounded along the roads in the hot wind. People were consumed by drought: they talked about it constantly; they broke off in mid-sentence to scan the washed-out blue of the sky; women looked tired and grim; men kicked at the crumbled earth about their boots and squinted into the futile distance, baffled, helpless.

Statisticians of weather can have a shot at telling us where this drought stands in the pantheon of arid disasters. Is this the 'worst drought' in a thousand years, as Mike Rann is said to have claimed? Who knows?

But recently I flew from Melbourne to Adelaide and, contrary to my usual policy, which is to get an aisle seat – because quite often you see nothing but cloud from the window and clambering over other passengers to get to the toilet is