OUTBACK CITY EXPRESS

There's a giving spirit in Queensland that would be worth millions if it could be bottled.

We seem so distracted by gadgets that we forget about courtesy. That is, until tragedy strikes. Seemingly insurmountable adversity appears to be enough for us to put down our smart phones and lend a hand.

Tammy Gale from the Matilda Country Tourist Park in Winton in Central West Queensland has just that spirit. Not tied to any official charity, she's the one doing the heavy lifting, transporting goods to properties in rural Queensland where farmers then forward to others in need. "There's a lot of people from the city that give and I'm just trying to help get it across to the people in need," Tammy says humbly.

While the distances are vast and the conditions tough, one of the unexpected difficulties for Tammy is getting families to accept gifts. "People out here are very proud and it takes a certain sort of person to live out here in the bush because it's not just the drought, it's living out in the isolation. And they don't like asking for help; you've just got to dump it on 'em, you know, like 'here, this is for you'. They're very humble and they wouldn't put their hand up," Tammy explains.

Having grown up in the Western Downs, Tammy lived and worked in Brisbane for 20 years before returning to the outback to open a caravan park and afford her kids a lifestyle they won't find in the city. "I don't have to drive them down to the main street, they can walk down; everyone knows who they are. It's a very tight community here, very friendly," Tammy says proudly.

John Whitehead owns a cattle station near the tiny outback town of Corfield, 85 kms north of Winton. When asked about the advantages of living in the outback, he laughs saying it's difficult to find any at the moment. After some thought he remembers how social the area is. "It's small enough to have everyone involved in everything, with the race club and sports club. It's a good place to bring up kids. They learn practical common sense stuff. They probably put themselves in a little bit of danger but they learn what danger is. They learn to drive a car - my 6 year old drives my Toyota on her own. They learn about animals because they've gotta look after the horses and dogs and chooks and so on. They learn how nature works, that you can have a pet and then it's dead the next day and that's life, you know."

But the rural lifestyle has its obvious downsides. The drought is approaching its third year and farmers are not just struggling, but barely scraping by - or worse. With little to no crop yield, some families are forced to feed on cattle they would otherwise sell. When they're lucky enough to put the cattle to market they're burdened by falling cattle prices while living expenses, particularly power prices, continue to skyrocket. This equation is unsustainable and many farmers are approaching their limit while others have passed it and taken matters into their own hands.

Tammy runs a business and is aware of the flow-on effects for local economies. "The farmers haven't got grass to fatten the cattle to sell so that money doesn't get spent or go around. It affects everyone, not just the farmers." However, that giving spirit is also shown by local businesses who offer struggling families discounted goods and services. "They can still get things fixed, they can still buy food, they can still survive."

With up to 5000 head of cattle in a good year, John is now down to 600, having been forced to sell early. Things are ok now while there is income from those sales, but restocking and rearing over the next couple of years is where the real problem lies. "We'll go at least 12 months without any income probably because you'll buy in all these cattle and it takes about 12 months to turn them over," John reveals. "I don't know a business in Australia that would be able to go 12 months to two years without an income. It's gonna be pretty tough."

The success or otherwise of Australian farming depends a lot on the government of the day. The ban on live exports to Indonesia hit the cattle industry hard. Surplus cattle caused the market price to plummet. "Then it got dry up north and they were just shooting thousands of cattle up there because they couldn't live export them," John said. The seemingly positive outcome for animal activists created a tragic irony. "They banned it because of the cruelty to animals and the cruelty they put on the properties up there was unbelievable. There would've been heaps of cows that would've just died because people couldn't be bothered going and out shooting them. They nearly single handedly wrecked the North Queensland beef industry."

Christine McLean owns Abbieglassie Station 100 kms south of Mitchell grazing cattle and sheep, and shares the difficulties. "This drought has been going on since the floods really, so nature has thrown everything at us," she laughs. "While we were still cleaning up from the floods we had all these frosts and we couldn't truck cattle out because the roads were all still cut. Then there were bushfires and the cattle prices dropped so we had no choice but to feed." Down from 34 dams with water to just two, Christine is looking on the bright side: "We've been - at great expense - able to clean the dams, one of which hasn't been dry for 40 years. So when they do all get filled we'll have a lot of clean water without any dead animals in them." She spoke of one family further north who have already been carting water for two years.

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOFers) have provided valuable labour on Christine's property shovelling cotton seed, running poly pipe, fencing off dams, and so on. Rotary, Care Outreach, even the local church have all pitched in and helped. She suggested one way people can assist is by providing drought resistant plants. "A lot of our gardens are dead, the lawns are dead. Once it does rain there'll be hardy little shrubs for us to plant to get our gardens going and support us as an encouragement."

The Pine Rivers YWCA is a small social group but is also making a difference, choosing to help directly by sending non-perishables and cash to rural Queensland properties. "Each year we just look to see who we can help," said Program Organiser, Gloria Gould. "I really would like to help people from the bush because they really don't get much recognition. It's as if they're almost invisible."

When asked about donations, John focuses on the bigger picture saying support needs to come from banks and the government who can affect greater change. "They pretty much need the banks to sit on their hands and support the people they think are viable. There's no point turfing one lot off and the next fella comes on and the same happens to him. You may as well have left the first fella on and supported him," he said.

Government rebates and incentives have helped but John suggests they be made available during the good seasons so they can be properly utilised during the bad. "People don't have the money and time to do it in a drought. Whereas if they did it in the good years people would hook in and do it, then come the drought there wouldn't be the problem of stock having no water and dams drying up."

"At the end of the day, the government have got to decide if they want to have a grazing industry because people just can't go on like it is."

Christine is grateful for all the support they have been getting. "We're all just waiting for rain. As my husband said, this is the only drought that hasn't broken, so it'll break one day," she says with a smile.

That giving spirit is out there in Queensland and the time to show it is now.

DROUGHT DECLARATIONS

As at 16th October 2014, there are 44 entire local governement areas and three part local government areas drought declared under State processes, with the recent addition of shires to the drought declared list on 1st August 2014. Also as at 16th October 2014, there are 64 current Individually Droughted Property (IDP) declarations in an additional eight local government areas. (Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry).

For further information on concerning the impact of drought on landscapes refer to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection: www.ehp.qld.gov.au.

For information on how to assist contact NEALE STUART, Voice of the Outback & Roving Reporter, 0428 790 657.