It appears like a mirage, some cruel trick of the light. Water as far as the eye can see. At first sight, brimming Menindee Lake arrests the senses. Shock is followed by awe.
In the setting winter sun, it glows gold. Cameras come out to catch the impossible. An inland sea where just months earlier there was parched red dirt and the bones of animals taken by drought.
The magic of Menindee Lake in flood is best taken by slow reveal: the long drive from Canberra - the bush capital cleft by an artificial lake - through the comfortable prosperity of the southern tablelands, the well-mannered, well-watered orderliness of the Riverina, and the awful monotony of the Hay Plain, made interesting only by its brooding, cinematic sky. The gradual drying, reddening landscape.
Then water, water everywhere and its implied abundance.
The road trip gives perspective, a sense of scale and distance and remoteness, all crucial elements in the story of the Darling River, or the Forgotten River. If the decision-makers only spent the time to make the journey, to immerse themselves in the story, says Menindee resident Graeme McCrabb, they might just understand it a little better.
"The key is to sell the region, sell it to politicians, get them to understand and stay the night," he says. "They fly in at 9 o'clock in the morning at Broken Hill for a 10 o'clock appointment. Then they're trying to get back to Broken Hill by four o'clock for that flight."
It's a similar story with the water management bureaucrats, the river activist says.
"They have a meeting, probably get belted up by the locals who are a bit more au fait and a bit more articulate because of the fish kills. They go to the pub and have dinner and they go to their motel and head off the next day. They're not getting out and experiencing why people are here."
In December 2018 and January 2019, McCrabb found himself at the centre of the fish kills story. His property backs onto the Darling just south of Menindee township. He was one of the first people to alert the rest of the country and the world to the unfolding environmental catastrophe as millions of fish, iconic Murray cod among them, met a cruel end in a dead river.
"The first one happened over two or three days. There were reports of cod dying upstream, so we went up and counted the cod and the perch. It was just shocking to see the golden perch that were dead amongst that."
We had lunch with the Premier that day and said if you don't change the rules, the fish are going to die. There will be another fish kill with the rules we have got.- Terry Smith
He has vivid memories of fish dying in the river in their thousands and the frenzied efforts to save at least some of them. As the fish came to the surface to try to get oxygen, they were attacked by opportunistic birds.
Then came the politicians.
"I think we had 18 politicians in those six weeks with the state election coming up," McCrabb says. Menindee became the focus of concern for the Lower Darling as it became apparent the lake system and the river that fed it, and fed from it, was in dire straits. Things have quietened now, with water flowing through the Darling once more and the lakes approaching capacity after heavy rain in the headwaters in Queensland.
But out here, where people are well used to the capricious nature of flood and drought and the rapacious demands on the whole complex river system, there's an abiding fear further catastrophe will come again.
Geoff Looney is one of them. He's been intimately immersed in water since moving to Menindee, 120 kilometres south-east of Broken Hill, 46 years ago.
"In the late 1970s, I met a bloke called Pelican Jack McGrath. They called him Pelican Jack because where there was pelicans, he was fishing. Where old Jack was, there was always fish. He taught me everything I know about fishing. He taught me things people never find out about fishing. He could read the river, he could do everything."
After Pelican Jack moved to Queensland, Looney became a fishing guide, taking visitors out on Menindee Lake. When they began asking him to identify its birds, he developed what would become a lifelong passion. He began recording and photographing the birdlife he encountered.
Then came the Millennium Drought, and the lakes were drained to recharge the Murray River downstream in 2003.
"I had nowhere to put a boat. There was no water left in the lakes."
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Looney had been taking 400 people a year out on the lakes. He was even in a finalist in the NSW Tourism Awards.
"This was the big one. If you can imagine me in a tuxedo and never been in an aeroplane before and flying to Sydney to the convention centre."
A series of shallow lakes, the largest of which is Menindee, the system was altered by the NSW government in 1968 to act largely as a water source for Broken Hill and as storage for the Lower Darling and Murray River downstream. An agreement struck with South Australia means that once Menindee Lake reaches 640 gigalitres, that state can draw on it.
In 2018, a pipeline from Wentworth, where the Darling meets the Murray, was constructed, its purpose to pump water up to Broken Hill 270 kilometres away and secure that city's supply.
Looney has watched the frequency of the lake system being drained for downstream use increase while inflows have decreased because of extraction and diversion of floodplain water upstream in the northern Murray-Darling catchment.
In 2016, the lakes began to fill again. But it was short-lived. "The water arrived in August of 2016. By January 2017, they were being drained again. Menindee Lake filled and drained again in four months," Looney says.
With nothing left in the lakes to maintain the Lower Darling and low rainfall and water extractions upstream keeping them empty, there was nothing for the river. The shallow pools became shallower. In parts, the river became dust. Then the fish died.
As the lakes have filled again, Looney has noticed some of the birds he used to see have not returned.
"A lot of birds of all different species haven't arrived, black shouldered kites, which we used to see regularly here, I haven't seen them. Wedge-tailed eagles are even quite scarce around here at the moment, which is unusual because they're a dry land bird. A lot of other falcons, brown falcons, peregrine falcons - how long it's going to take for them to come back I don't know. It all depends how long these lakes are left with water."
Some years ago, Looney and his then business partner Todd Murphy coined the term Kakadu of the South to describe Menindee Lake when full. When the lake is empty, it's anything but.
"I was downriver before Menindee Lake filled and I couldn't find a bird to photograph in two hours downriver - couldn't find a bird, Menindee Lakes filled, within a week I was finding 10 or 12 species."
The way he sees it, the original intent of the 2007 Water Act - framed to meet Australia's international environmental treaty obligations - has been corrupted. Rules have been twisted to favour powerful cotton growers upstream and irrigators downstream at the expense of the environment.
"One or two hundred people shouldn't control the water. Now the water is a commodity," he says.
The animals the lakes and river sustain are critical for the Barkandji people, the people of the river (Barka), for physical as well as spiritual sustenance.
Cheryl Blore, who runs a small team of Barkandji rangers out of Menindee, explains: "The river is our lifeblood. Without that river, that water running, we need that fresh flow to keep the river running. That's where we get most of our food sources from - the fish, yabbies, and then you've got the emus and kangaroos and all the bush tucker stuff."
There's a strong cultural connection to the fish which breed in the Menindee lake system before finding their way out into the Darling. There's even a Barkandji dialect - Parntu - named after the fish.
"Naturally and spiritually, they're our life, those fish that are in the river. With the lakes going dry all the time they disappear."
Blore has been passed the baton from her elders, who have fought for their section of river for years. While kangaroos and emus have returned, as well as the bush tucker plants that grow on or near the riverbanks, the fight is far from over.
"We've got to keep fighting the fight to keep that water, to keep it down the river. Without that water you don't have anything really."
Along the Lower Darling, there's a unity of purpose between the First Nations people and the Europeans whose lives and livelihoods also depend on a healthy river system.
Terry Smith is, quite literally, a poster boy fifth-generation pastoralist, whose rugged good looks put him on the cover of a 2017 R.M. Williams catalogue. The owner of Scarsdale station northwest of Menindee, he's also a fierce advocate for a more balanced approach to the management of water in the Murray-Darling Basin and a better water deal for the Lower Darling.
"From my perspective it's just treated as a financial resource and a basin irrigation drain. It's about getting as much water out of it in Queensland or NSW or wherever as you can for your state to grow a crop out of. The state makes revenue out of the taxes that produces, which I guess is how capitalism works," he says.
The environmental needs of the river system should be part of the equation.
"If there's a reasonable level of security around water for the environment that underpins everything else and underpins the community. If you've got those base flows secure for the river then everything else thrives rather than having all the water at one end of the river and at the other and nothing in the middle."
When the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian visited Menindee in December 2020 to release into the Darling fingerlings bred in Narrandera to replace those lost to the fish kill, she was told things had to change.
"We had lunch with the Premier that day and said if you don't change the rules, the fish are going to die. There will be another fish kill with the rules we have got."
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Smith welcomes the alignment of First Nations and broader community interests when it comes to saving the Lower Darling: "I think it's fantastic. It's bridged part of the gap. And certainly my understanding of Indigenous history is a lot better now than it was before".
The hope is an understanding of the plight of the Darling takes root in the broader Australian community, so electoral muscle can be brought to bear, just as it was to save the Franklin in Tasmania in the 1980s.
Until the recent Delta outbreak brought the shutters down, COVID has helped by closing international borders and encouraging more city folk out into the far corner of the backyard to gaze in wonder at the full lakes and the flowing Darling.