White Cliffs in Days Past
White Cliffs Opal Fields NSW: Recollections: Introduction
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Chapter 1. White Cliffs: Early days. Bernie Kokot
There’s many a chapter that can be written on White Cliffs NSW and it was with interest I came across Rex's website asking for photos and stories from past travellers. My first hearing about this little “outback” town was in 1964 when a young chap with whom I worked in West Footscray Victoria, made regular trips in his then FJ Holden to “The Cliffs” to catch snakes, both as a hobby and to supply snake serum to laboratories for the production of anti-venoms. . His name is Brian “Snakey” Barnett who owns and operates “The Herp Shop” in Melbourne and for decades has been Australia’s leading authority on snakes. We still communicate on occasions. My first visit to White Cliffs was in 1975 with 15 following visits, the last being 8 years ago.
It was certainly pioneering in those mid 1970’s when travelling the old 96 kilometres of red sandy track...but often slushy red mud from Wilcannia. I mostly travelled alone, everything compacted in my 1973 VW Beetle which today is still my same car...and as reliable as ever with One Million plus kilometres under that car’s wheels have taken me all around Australia in pursuit of my outback photography.
My name is Bernie Kokot, and just turned 70. I have been living in Howlong NSW on The Murray River now for 16 years. As a senior freelance journalist and photographer, I write for a well regarded Fishing Magazine, and on other topical land and water related issues.
Bernie and Zac WC
The following is the first “chapter” of my personal adventures to White Cliffs, and of the characters I have met, which truly outlines the warmth, hospitality and intrigue of that charismatic Far New South Wales opal town. I still keep up-to-date on the town’s progress on the web, and through an old friend, Trevor Hearn who lives on Smith’s Hill at White Cliffs.
My first trip in late 1975 was very memorable as some six month earlier the Darling and Paroo Rivers were in flood [ just a little under the level of the preceding 1974 major flood].
It was a fascination sight to have seen that “inland sea” where the water stretched over some one hundred kilometres from Wilcannia towards Cobar. The causeways over the Talyawalka Creek were still then just a little above the surrounding flood plain but I made it to Wilcannia for hamburger at the Shell servo. I don’t think the young aboriginal kids there had then ever seen a Volkswagen Beetle as they clamoured around, peering inside and under the VW Bug, some piccaninnies asking if they could have a ride and a few youths asking to see the engine. They got quite a surprise when I lifted the front bonnet (boot) and there was no engine there. I explained that the car ran on batteries just like their toys. Most of them believed me! The turn off to White Cliffs just out of Wilcannia was a very welcome sight after my 960 kilometres of blacktop from my then home in Sydney. The VW just loved that red sand track. To view the surrounding and then still verdant countryside with those old wind twisted Mulgas, a scattering of Leopard barks, the bluebush, kangaroos, emus and soaring eagles really was a photographers dream. The greatest highlight when closer to White Cliffs was to see the shimmering mirage of those white cliffs and I realised the fascination of this part of the outback. I was hooked, and promised myself that White Cliffs would see us return many more times.
Chapter 2. White Cliffs: Early days. Bernie Kokot.
Widespread flooding in the channel country of northern New South Wales from general records has in the past been a cyclic event of around every seven years. It can cause concern for some but a boon for cattle and sheep station owners to replenish water supply in their dams, inland lakes, rivers and creeks. The rejuvenation of new vegetation and resultant increase in wild life and fishes is solely reliant on these flood events in this region where the average annual rainfall is 250 mm (10 inches). I have had opportunity to timely fly over these areas in those early years. A couple of my photos are attached. One can then perhaps understand the joy and sentiment expressed in the late and great iconic Australian song writer of God sent rain, Slim Dusty in his lyrics “... Send her now down ‘Huey’ you beauty...” Despite the inconvenience heavy rain brings it’s rare that you will hear a Cocky (Aussie farmer) rarely complain. For the residents of White Cliffs, rain fills their water tanks and re-generates their home gardens.
There are of course other extremes in extended periods of dry. My photo herein (donated by a white Cliffs resident) of the dust storm about to roll over White Cliffs town is indicative of the vagaries and weather phenomenon’s that occur in this outback region. One great spectacle I saw on an early 1970’s visit was when a “willy-willy” passed through the then rudimentary camping ground in White Cliffs town. It was an old style “marquee” type tent that those campers had not bothered to peg down. It got sucked up in the rapidly passing willy-willy vortex...about 150 feet ( 50 metres} high in the sky and only a few minutes later, the contents of the absent campers clothing including under pants, and other “frillies”, came to land some half kilometre elsewhere on the opal field. That folks is a true story!
(attach photos as “Bunker Ck. flood, 1975” and “The Paroo east of White Cliffs” and “Dust storm White Cliffs: circa 1970”)
Chapter 3. White Cliffs: Early days. Bernie Kokot
My photos, in this continuation of earlier day’s travels to White Cliffs are self explanatory.
Floods of the magnitude as depicted in my aerial photo just do not occur to the same extent these days. At that time, I recall well that a bare half inch of rain made the road impassable, but if you wanted to give it a go to either get into White Cliffs ...or leave...decisions had to be made quickly. In those years, there was no penalty to take the chance, but not long thereafter the Wilcannia Shire, to deter vehicles from chopping up the road, would put up “Road Closed” signs with potential fine of $100 ‘per wheel’ imposed for breaching the regulation. I always wondered how they would police that since their Council vehicles and inspector would hardly be able to get through the mud to give infringers an on the spot cket!
The “bogged truck” photo is reminiscent of the days prior to the electricity grid to White Cliffs where power to dugouts and the town’s commercial businesses was fuel powered “back-yard” generators. Many of the resident’s dwellings even used rudimentary “windmill” type towers, with a simple automotive 12 Volt generator and wind vane propeller on the shaft blade to put power into a bank of 12 V car batteries to provide basic domestic lighting. Many then still ran the old type fridges with a kerosene burner underneath as source for the evaporative cooling coil. The lucky few then may have has a fridge that worked on LPG. The same wind power principle was use by some to rotate a drum that served as a washing machine. All your clothes however still had that red dust tinge. Clean water even then was a rarity with rain tank water a precious commodity.
There was no such thing as “Bulk Ice” in take-away bags them days. I vividly recall one year when the annual event was the White Cliffs New Years “Ball” in the town’s Community Hall. It was still about 40 degrees C that night. There were only a handful of us that had ice in our Esky’s to keep our beer moderately cool... and that was with great thanks to publican Graeme Wellings who prior had given us two plastic. Margarine sized containers of ice. The pub then still ran the big diesel generator out in the pubs backyard.
With the experimental solar station later commissioned, some twelve facilities were hooked up to that grid, with limited Kilowatt hours allocation to those premises. With this new technology, one then was able to watch TV. I am not sure of the exact date of that communication which allowed then White Cliffs residents to understand what else was happening in the World outside of their sphere of activity!
Chapter 4. White Cliffs: Early days. Bernie Kokot
Sudden storm that developed figuratively speaking, “out of the blue” were common. One of the alternative routes to White Cliffs was, and still is the Wilcannia to Wanaaring Road, then a dog-leg left turn to White Cliffs. Flash flooding of creeks can be very rapid, the Wannara no exception.
Things aren’t as bad as they look in the photo of the VW Beetle with the engine lid up. And that’s not a ripped off exhaust pipe either! I always travelled prepared with a “bull bag”...an inflatable canvas / bladder you place under the car and via that long tube, you connect to the exhaust tail pipe to inflate and raise the car. It was 42 degrees that late afternoon so after a fair bit of sweat... and a fair few bottles of beer, I gave it away and camped overnight.
Early that Christmas morning the boys from “Polpah” Station were going into town (they said for Christmas Day Mass!) and with a little assistance from their Suzuki I reached White Cliffs not long thereafter.
The photo here is of a youthful White Cliffs publican Graeme “Whisky” Wellings and Richie Gilby and similarly Richie and Bill Gilby with a fine Merino sheep wool from their “Mulga Valley” property. Dates of these pics are some years apart.
White Cliffs; Chapter 5 Bernie Kokot
Every visit to White Cliffs always provided a change of scenery regardless of the time of year. It really is unique Corner Country where some of the most interesting weather formations develop. A memorable example is the photo of the town’s “cricket pitch’ after a good drop of rain in summer. It not very often one sees such a beautifully manicured turf. I always chuckle whenever I view this photo with that cloud over the cricket stumps. It sort of reminds me of a cricket umpire standing behind the wicket with finger pointing upwards and calling “You’re Out”! It may be purely coincidental for that cloud to be hovering above the White Cliffs Hotel. That may be due to the hot air generated in the pub with fanciful stories being told. I will admit that on many occasions I was a regular contributor!
In contrast to a year of good rainfall, periods of continuing drought change the landscape dramatically. My aerial photo over Smith’s Hill illustrates the other extreme where the countryside, in Aussie parlance, becomes “as dry as a Dingo’s Donger”.
White Cliffs; Chapter 6 Bernie Kokot page
Scattered along the many outback roads leading to White Cliffs, some of the remnants of outback life were clearly visible in my travels of the 1970’s. The ingenuity of using what the land had to offer in prior days of the 1900’s is quite apparent in the structure of a meat house or cool room. They were intentionally built off the ground for air circulation, fly-wire screened and outer frame work covered in any available foliage, probably salt bush or Mulga tree branches to provide a canopy of shade. The owner’s dogs would be chained in the cool under that structure to ward off feral dingos, wild cats, goannas, scavenging eagles and crows from helping themselves to a free feed of culled meat hanging inside.
The photo of the tin clad dwelling is / was some 20 kilometres west of White Cliffs near an early day’s opal field / outback station called Gemfield. Hard soil inside was excavated to a depth of about a metre below ground level. Two opposing solid earth bed bunks, insulted from surface soil heat, were cut in that pick and shovel excavation. It has been said this structure was a Cobb and Co stop off rest point from Milparinka to White Cliffs in the early days.
Cobb and Co.
My scenic photo of now rarely seen “twin post and rail” fences was taken at Coona Coona Lake along the Wilcannia to Wanaaring road in a year after prior rains had filled that otherwise shallow clay-pan depression. All these three photos illustrate the durability of Native Pine, resilient to white ants and weathering. That timber would have been carted from some hundred plus kilometres away.
Coona Coona fence