Gascoyne Stories

The following three stories were created to illustrate the original condition, changed condition and potential renewal of the Gascoyne catchment, told through the eyes of the people on the land at the time. The first story is from an indigenous perspective prior to European settlement. The second is told at the time of the recent floods, and the third well into the future. Each story is in three segments – the catchment headwaters, Gascoyne Junction and river mouth.

The stories are designed to be evocative of the conditions at the time. It is recognised that there may be inaccuracies of perception and understanding by the author who is very happy to be corrected.

Story 1 – Prior to European settlement – Land Nurturing


Still, foreboding, air heavy, expectant; birds quiet. He hurried, he knew the breakaway, 3 sides protected, an overhang. He gathered his clan; come quickly. A big drop, another. Roar of gale far-off coming. Huddled together, covered in skins, warm, protected; safe. Dark early, stillness. Roar, crescendos; water seeping, not sleeping; children cradled.

Morning still, rocks pouring, streams gurgling. He grinning, water plenty; she smiling, ground soft digging. Dancing, jumping, clear streams wandering, debris piling, water spreading, sinking……………….. Bulbs emerging, fungi pushing, frogs croaking, bilby digging.

Gascoyne Junction

Shh shh hush. They had seen the blackness, flashes, dark, foreboding. They knew, time to go. Rain. Flood coming. Leave richness of river bed, holes dug for water. Find higher ground. Prepare camp. Watching. Animals, birds expectant. Water creeping, tumbling, stopping, exploring. A time of plenty coming. Watching, water rushing, debris trapping, food abounding, fire burning, hair of drowned animals singeing.

River mouth

Excited messenger, water coming, be ready. It had been hot, dry, hungry. Smiles plenty getting ready.

Water coming, tumbling, swirling, seeping; sticks, logs. Snakes wriggling, Yongas floating, fire burning. Sand washing, ocean roaring, time for fishing.

Story 2 – 2010 flood – Water taking


Radio listening, neighbours calling. Still, foreboding; dogs in, horses yarded, plane tied down. Windows shut, blinds drawn. Big drop, another. Wind ripping, house shaking, tin rattling, family huddled, tree crashing, window breaking. Rushing out, torch seeping, wind blasting, water pouring. Roof shearing; retreating, shivering, children screaming.

Still, mud, creek roaring, land flooding, yards-horses gone. No where to go. Power plant gone, fridge warming, children crying.

Gascoyne Junction

Waiting, TV watching. Foreboding, stock moving, panic growing. Roaring tearing, smashing, crashing, banks tearing, trees bending, breaking, ripping, cows sweeping, water rising, exploring. Window reaching, crashing tearing. People dispairing, crying, escaping, watching transfixed.

Brown torrent subsiding, depositing, mud clinging, quiet. People gone. Stumps standing.

River mouth

Sandbags filling, desperation spreading, brown torrent sucking, grabbing, tearing. People crying, livelihoods disappearing. Sea accepting, brown taint spreading, despositing. Fish dying, dolphins escaping, sea grass gasping molluscs choking.

Governments reacting, assessing, helping, digging, spreading soil for the next flood to take away. Angst, anger, blame, levees please. Compensation please, responsibility who?

Story 3 –Land renewing


They knew it was coming, cyclone tracking down the coast; where would it come inland? They had been watching this land in the headwaters recovering. They had mapped the land; they knew where it was healthy. They had carefully rested areas from grazing for recovery, making the most of plenty, careful watching, moving stock before the land was stressed.

They knew the nic points in the landscape were important and had been able to protect some of these with judicious works to hold back the waters, to let the waters spread out to water the land. Their focus was nurturing the best quality country. Managing the waters to control the goats and reduce kangaroos.

Dark horizon, radar showing trajectory. Were they in the pathway? Thunder, rattling, huge rain depression looming. Excited, scared, roof drumming – would fifteen years work hold up?

Morning looking, air refreshing. Waiting, exploring, water pouring, flooding. Pleased at accumulating debris spreading waters. Other points cutting, churning further down then accumulating, spreading. Landscape drinking.

Gascoyne Junction

The people at the Junction had been waiting for this event, expectant, fearful, It had been years since a big one that took out the homestead. This was a biggy. But they had worked together – an amazing grazing cooperative that had the health of the catchment as its goal and worked together to manage the cattle. And they had remembered their cultural heritage, Aboriginal and white fella. It was a land of healing, of new adventures, people coming to give back.

They waited. Water rushing, tumbling, debris floating, water rising. Banks nearly topping. People watching, trembling, levels falling.

Celebration up and down the catchment. The land was renewing, holding the waters. More work to do, years more nurturing, community celebrating, WA rejoicing.

River mouth

Vege growers happy, banan growers smiling, fear gone for now. Aquifer filling, melons ripening.

A message

These stories were created to show the catchment responding to natural events at different times. The Aboriginal people lived in harmony with their systems knowing that big events fill the land with water and abundance for years to come as the water is absorbed into the landscape. The systems we have since created are torn asunder by these natural events. The third story describes one possibility for a whole of catchment approach to gaining a living from this fragile land.

What changed in the landscape to mean that heavy rain from similar events 150 years apart has such different consequences? The land and its vegetation had adapted to grazing that moved following rain and if there was little water moved on or shut down their breeding. Man and dingo kept populations in check. The people too responded to the systems perhaps moving about in times of plenty and retreating to river systems and waters buried in sands in the long dries. The big events bringing danger but also celebration.

We created permanent waters, relentless grazing eating out the preferred plants, exposing the ground to washing. The richest parts of the landscape most vulnerable. The water then cutting into the landscape, lowering basement levels. The water rushing from the land instead of being absorbed. The top soil gone. The catchment, like a roof sheeting off the water, creating huge floods.

Can we achieve renewal of these landscapes? What would we need to do? How long might it take?

Rod Safstrom, October 2011