day trip to Mantung

I made a day  trip into the South Australian mallee along the Karoonda Highway on Tuesday. Elders Weather website said that  there would be rain,  cloud and sunshine on that day–conditions that are  more congenial for my style of photography than the blues skies and sunshine that was forecast  for the next 5 days including Easter.   The dryland region along the  Karoonda Highway  was new territory for me,  as I’d only been as far as  the small Karoonda township previously. This is  girl  in a suitcase territory.

I made it as far as Wanbi on the highway in the northern Mallee region where I had lunch before turning back. This region is of  corporate farming,  dryland grazing and cropping and it is sparsely populated as the economies of scale had forced smaller landholders out of business.  I found the small towns along  the highway—-Wynarka, Borrika,  Sandlewood, Halidon, Mindarie and Wanbi—to be much more impoverished and deserted than the  hamlets/towns on the Mallee Highway in Victoria.  People had left these hamlets in South Australia,  rather than continuing  to make a life for themselves they were in along the Mallee Highway in Victoria.

Decline, rather than prosperity, development and progress,  was the  characteristics of the Mallee  region along the Karoonda Highway. Some of the towns were ruins because people who  didn’t have a lot of land, can’t  survive on the land. So ends the rural yeoman ideal with its vision of asserting dominance over nature to build  an agrarian society of  independent  and morally superior,  white yeoman citizenry living on their own family farms.

 On my return trip  back along the Karoonda Highway to Encounter Bay I made a side trip east  in a triangle from Mindarie  to Galga and Mantung and back to Mindarie  in the northern Murray Mallee region. I  wanted to reconnect with a photo trip that I made in the 1980s via Mannum and Swan Reach on the River Murray.  Several  of the archival black and white photos that I made whilst staying  at Mantung  that are  on my film gallery.  They form the beginnings of my contribution to the Mallee Routes project, which includes a digital gallery.

It was important  for me to reconnect with this personal history as my memories of this part of the South Australia Mallee was that it was quite dry,  harsh, and reliant on the extraction  of salty ground water from deep limestone groundwater aquifers.  I only had time to quickly walk around the hamlet on this occasion. I wanted to see what was there,   so that I could return when I was camping  with Gilbert Roe at  Loxton in the last week of April.  

I was surprised that I hadn’t  photographed the old water tower when I was there in the 1980s.  I presume that this old water tower was a part of  the railway  infrastructure  that was built to underpin the development of the rural areas of South Australia in the early 20th century. I noticed that the railway  line at Mantung, which was part of  the Waikerie-Karoonda  railway  line,  had been pulled  up.  The railway line at this silo at Wanbi is now covered with vegetation.

This report indicates that the  two Mallee railway lines  (ie., one from Karoonda to Loxton and the other  from Talem Bend to Pinnaro), were originally originally constructed in 1906, and closed in 2015. They  are bulk single commodity lines,  are light rail and ballast with low speed limits and only used for  the collection of bulk grain. They were not constructed to the standards required for the bulk commodity task,  and are too old and costly to maintain and justify upgrading. Combined with the fact that the lines are single product dependent lines and costly to maintain, the current grain volumes are also too small and declining and the grain seasons too variable.

I found this part of the mallee bleak and depressing: towns like Galga and Wanbi were basically deserted,  with only the odd person living there. Many of the buildings in the hamlets  on this region were ruins as  were the sports fields.  They had withered and died.  That rural decline meant the  loss of social capital that accompanied the drop in farm community population. Small businesses and locally-based government and community services have dried up since the 1990s.  With fewer families to serve, government services were cut back or moved to larger service centres, while small businesses struggled to remain profitable.

I kept on thinking that this was a past that few would remember. The  rural future does not look promising for the fabric of local communities and family  life,  with the decline in rainfall,  increases in daily mean temperatures,  more heatwaves, more droughts  and greater pressure on ground water resources. Battling, risk taking,   surviving on very little,  and hoping for better years is no longer enough.

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