FAVOURITES – 19 November 2009 – The thing about rural Australia that most of its inhabitants don’t really understand is that it is so big. Travelling by road from, say, Adelaide to Sydney, is a sobering trip. Hours can pass before one sees another person. Beyond the cities, and only hundreds of metres from rivers, there is a lot of ‘the other’. Compared to the lush vine-filled valleys around Adelaide, to see that most of the state is almost uninhabited, and slowly becoming more uninhabitable, is shocking. There are a lot of things adults and children can learn about this country by a good road trip.

To understand that, in some cases, lake systems have been evaporating for 17,000 years encourages one to question the premise of man-made climate change. The landscape at the edge of the desert is changing regardless, slowly, inexorably, into something even more inhospitable than it was when European settlers first hobbled into it. The desert plains of northern South Australia and Western Queensland are big enough for all the sceptics and all the believers alike. One suspects that if the Coalition was relocated to Broken Hill for a week, consensus on Emissions Trading would be achieved fairly quickly.

To follow the Murray River from Goolwa to the Victorian border is an honour; it is a famous river, the artery that built a nation of wool and agricultural suppliers. It fed much of Victoria and South Australia for a century, literally and economically. Below the locks it is very low, but its water levels are apparently a little more hopeful in recent years. Above the first lock, there is at least some water lapping around the base of the high massive historic Victorian piers. Discarded rail lines and vast industrial structures remain testimony to the quantity of goods shipped daily up and down the river.

But to follow the Darling River is more traumatic. Only hours from where it meets the Murray at Wentworth, one reaches Lake Menindee (which has no signs of a lake above ground but which is managed so as to supply Broken Hill). Here the Darling is but a trickle of fetid water.

The river gums, so famously tolerant of, and adaptive to, drought and flood for millenia, are all dead or dying, poisoned by salinity. The greed and/or opportunism of the irrigators of north west NSW and Queensland is as palpable as the odour of the starved river.

Abstract quantities become so real in such a landscape. The scale of damage done by sheep is not really quantifiable until one is told that each kilo of wool or meat produced caused the permanent loss of a kilo of native vegetation. Kinchega Station (now owned by the government and run by the NPWS) has a magnificent shearing shed, built in 1875, at a time when the station ran 75,000 sheep.

Before the station reverted to National Park, more than 6 million sheep were sheared in the shed – a lot of fleece. Equally, the shed itself, like its neighbour at the former Mungo Station, is an enormous structure, built using nearly the entire tall timber stock on the one million acre station.

Details about waste and power supply and water are palpable . At Lake Mungo, one stays in tin shearing quarters, built around a courtyard against the howling winds. There are some simple showers and bathing facilities, a communal kitchen, the place powered by rooftop solar panels. It is freezing, but no one would ever think of turning on the heating units, or wasting light beyond what is necessary at night to eat and retire.

At Broken Hill, the green oasis around the town (with welcoming parks for car-bored children to play in) is a great surprise. Such verdant landscaping seems an excessive use of water, but it plays a critical role in comfort levels by breaking the dust storms that cover the city regularly.

In Sydney or Melbourne, when space is at a premium and has such a high commercial value, buildings are replaced at cyclical intervals. But in Broken Hill (laid out on a magnificent grid) and also in smaller towns, the history of built form is laid out for all to see. If a building is redundant, one simply builds something else somewhere else, abandoning the former. This means that all sorts of follies and whimsies and beauties exist, a reminder that other times are perhaps no less important than one’s own.

Adjacent White Cliffs has some astounding sights that teach us a lot. The new sealed road into the area from Wilcannia is littered with roo and wombat carcasses every 100m. The occupants of the town all come from elsewhere, chasing the dream of a big opal find, and have poured a lifetime of effort into an unbearably hot place (summers are 40-48 degrees). The publican Grahame has been a shearer, then a shearing contractor, then a butcher. Now, as well as running the pub he’s owned for 34 years with his wife Maxina, he does aerial musters and flies tourists around, is an SES controller, a fireman, the deputy mayor and the town’s undertaker. The pair’s resourcefulness is astounding.

The locals live underground in dug-outs, with huge sheets of corrugated iron set-out as collectors for when the rain comes (usually once every few years). The ground cools their houses, and allows small oases. Sometimes they dig a donut hole courtyard into the middle of their hillock, and dig houses, cafés, pigsties, gardens into the edges of the central courtyard

Next to the famous cricket ground (where Tiger O’Reilly came from; his dad was the local headmaster) is a paddock full of experimental solar collectors. This system of parabolidal dishes, each faced with 2000 mirrors, track the sun, and create 25kw of power. They were an early experiment in the 1980s, and as the town was not connected to the grid till 1993, this served much of the town for a time.

The Barrier Highway back to Dubbo is desolate, until the vegetation returns as one drives towards the thriving town of Cobar. Suddenly the “otherworldliness” is gone, and the extremes of climate, the traumas of the river system, become again remote concepts in our urban lives, to be argued with by those who have opinions based not on experience, but on polemic.

Genevieve Lilley is director of Genevieve Lilley Architects, which was founded in London in 1999 and reopened in Sydney in 2005 after Genevieve returned to Australia from the UK/US.