The drought that dried up Australia's Outback

It is difficult to comprehend the scale of Anna Creek. The farm covers an area larger than Wales, which provides ample space for its 16,500 cows to roam. But it is soon to close - brought to its knees by the severity of Australia's drought

Kathy Marks
Thursday 12 June 2008 00:00

The sunbaked plains of Anna Creek, the world's biggest cattle station, spread seemingly to infinity beneath a gigantic sky. The property, which squats on an area larger than Wales, takes five hours to drive across. The 16,500 cows that normally live there occupy half a square mile of land apiece.

But even that generous grazing allocation is not sufficient at present, with Australia crippled by its worst drought in a century. Anna Creek, tucked away in a remote corner of South Australia, is the latest casualty. The station is being destocked, and next month will close indefinitely – at least, until it rains.

It is only the third time in Anna Creek's history that cows have been cleared from the property, which was founded by Sir Sidney Kidman, known as the "Cattle King", in the late 19th century. Quite simply, there is nothing for them to eat. "We are taking everything off the place and closing it down because it's just too dry," said Randall Crozier, the station manager.

Already the herd is down to 1,500 head, with the remainder sent for slaughter or moved to other properties run by S Kidman & Co, the pastoral company still owned by Sir Sidney's descendants. Anna Creek's staff of 20 has been cut back to eight.

While some parts of Australia, particularly the eastern cities, have received much-needed downpours in recent months, many rural areas remain parched and desperate for rain. The agricultural industry is suffering badly, with wheat, rice and cattle farmers stretched to the limit. The drought is also affecting the wine industry, with production slashed and prices pushed up.

Last month was the driest May since records began in 1990, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology says the country will need several years of above average rain to recover. The Murray-Darling Basin, the nation's food bowl, where two great rivers meet, has just had its driest autumn on record.

The news that Anna Creek is suspending operations from next month shocked Australians because of the station's fame and the place that it occupies in the country's farming history. It was one of a string of properties established across the continent by Kidman, who became Australia's best-known pastoral landowner.

Nowadays the family company is one of the nation's biggest beef producers. Ironically, one of Kidman's aims was to drought-proof his business, ensuring that his cattle always had access to enough feed and water. Mr Crozier described the latest turn of events as "dramatic", telling the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "We've battled on now for quite a while with the climatic changes we've had, although it's been a very dry run for them. You can't say it doesn't affect you, because it does, no doubt about that. Although you've got to keep going. Yesterday was yesterday, tomorrow's another one."

In better times, the cows at Anna Creek supply prime Angus beef to Japanese dinner tables. But Mr Crozier said it would be irresponsible to leave the cattle roaming the land. "You start doing damage to the environment, and our cattle, and we're not in that game," he said.

The station, on the edge of the Simpson Desert, consists of 9,266 square miles of arid red pasture. It is so massive that mustering cattle requires motorbikes and helicopters. A mailman based in Coober Pedy, an opal mining town to the south, delivers post to the station twice a week.

Anna Creek was carved out by the pioneers who settled Australia's unforgiving interior in the 19th century. It includes a lake with the longest name in the world – Lake Cadibarrawirracanna, or "Cadi" for short. Rolf Harris once sang of the lake, which is bordered by mulga trees and fed by a creek that is said to be saltier than the Dead Sea.

The southern limit of the station is delineated by the "Dog Fence", which is twice the length of the Great Wall of China and was built to keep dingoes out of sheep-farming country. To the north is William Creek, which claims to be the smallest town in Australia, with a population of 10. The town consists of a few weatherboard houses, a dusty nine-hole golf course, a portable cabin used as a Royal Flying Doctor Service clinic, and a fibrous cement and corrugated iron pub that is the only watering hole for 100 miles.

The pub, an Outback legend, was built in 1887 to quench the thirst of the hard men who drove the bullock teams and camel trains. Today's locals are cattle hands from neighbouring stations, including Anna Creek, some of whom arrive by light plane. William Creek has its own airstrip, and pilots taxi right to the front door of the pub before parking their planes beside it.

But the depressed state of the farming industry has created an acute labour shortage, with many workers seeking better wages and prospects elsewhere. Owners are leaving the land, too – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 10,636 families gave up farming between the drought years of 2001 and 2006.

The Kidman empire has vacancies at nearly all of its 14 stations, which swallow up 46,332 square miles of land across three states and the Northern Territory. In normal times, the company runs 200,000 cattle, exporting grass-fed beef to Japan, the US and south-east Asia. Currently it is advertising for station hands, pilots, bore runners, mechanics, loader drivers and stockmen.

Sir Sidney, who was born in South Australia, left home at 13 to work as a sheep drover. He went into business with his brother, droving and trading cattle and horses. Among other things, he later pioneered the first Australian frozen beef and mutton exports.

In Sir Sidney's time, he recruited drivers of horse-drawn carriages in London to be stockmen on his properties.

One spin-off of the contemporary situation has been the entry of record numbers of women into the agricultural workforce. Two thirds of people who applyfor jobs with S Kidman & Co are women. Mr Crozier, the Anna Creek manager, described it as a welcome development. "The hormones are not playing up with them, and they [the women] are more gentle and steadier with cattle, and look after the machinery and motorbikes and stuff... generally much better than the fellas," he told ABC.

Sarah Amy, 25, a female station hand, said: "It's a really good environment, it's active, it's fun. You learn lots and lots of things that you're never going to forget. So why wouldn't you do it, really?"

Some recruits may experience a culture shock. The station is a vast expanse of red gibber plains, sprinkled with grey saltbush and spiky spinifex trees, and roamed by kangaroos and emus. Wide claypans and hills of soft, chalky zebra stone break the monotony.

There is a homestead, and an old schoolhouse which catered for the children of station staff in the days when Anna Creek was a sizeable community. Nowadays they are taught by a governess. The highlight of the calendar in this part of the world is the annual William Creek races, when crowds descend on the tiny Outback town. Not far away is Lake Eyre, the immense saltpan where the late Sir Donald Campbell set a world land speed record in 1964. In William Creek, old rocket parts are displayed, for the town was part of the Woomera test range used by the British in the 1950s.

South of Anna Creek is a scorched landscape of rocks and fossilised shells, known as the Moon Plains, which was once covered by an inland sea. The area was used to film some of the Mad Max movies and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Despite the gloomy prospects for the property, caused by rainfall so low it could be measured in drops, S Kidman & Co's chief executive, Greg Campbell, remains determinedly upbeat.

"No drought goes on for ever," he said. "I mean, we'll live through this one and life will return. We are not so disappointed with circumstances that we are considering bailing out of a property like Anna Creek.

"It's a got a long history in the company. And it's in a drought- prone part of Australia. It's a big, vast, arid landscape. And at times it's highly productive, and it will have its productive times again."

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