Water has returned to the Macquarie Marshes after years of drought and devastating fire.

Story + Photos Mandy McKeesick

In 1874, the special correspondent for the Australian Town and Country Journal reported from the celebrated reed beds of the Macquarie Marshes in north-western NSW. “For nearly two miles my ride was a succession of jumps and plunges in and out of cowells, lagoons and waterholes. Every few minutes we would enter a narrow channel or channel-like pass guarded by huge reeds over which we could not see, even when standing in our stirrups. These narrow watercourses … were, in places, very deep and extremely boggy. My horse, unused to the work, had some desperate struggling to get through. Plunge, plunge we went, out of one difficulty into another.”

Fast forward nearly 150 years and, superficially, it seems not a lot has changed. To bring in the house cow for milking on The Mole Station, between Carinda and Warren, 15-year-old Jet Hall is on her horse, sploshing through water and reeds mere metres from her front gate. Jet is part of the fifth generation of Halls to make their livelihood in the Macquarie Marshes. In the early days, The Mole was a recognised name in wool growing. Today, Jet’s parents Garry and Leanne run 780 Te Mania Angus cows and calves across 6400ha, relying on the wetlands’ common reed, water couch and marsh millet for summer fattening.

In 2019, neither the cattle nor the birdlife of the marshes was fat. Three years of brutal drought were exacerbated, in October of that year, when lightning strikes ignited fires. “Four thousand hectares of the core reed bed of the marshes burnt,” Garry says. “Fires are not unusual, but this was different because there was no water under the reeds – no water for them to recover. Only time will tell the true extent of the damage.”

As the marshes suffered, so did the Halls. “Our whole world felt like it was caving in by the end of 2019,” Leanne says. “We were on an edge. The bills kept coming in, we felt we couldn’t afford Christmas and Jet was in hospital. I left her side and went to the local cafe and someone had paid forward a coffee. It was the most precious thing. It made me realise how good life can be.”

The rains came in February 2020 and, combined with some flooding from upstream and environmental water released from Burrendong Dam in the spring, nature bounced back in abundance. Today, the Macquarie Marshes are a palette of deep greens, blue-shadowed waters and towering reeds. Thousands of waterbirds call, and it is a logistical challenge to avoid millions of blood-sucking mosquitos at dawn and dusk. To the inexperienced eye, the marshes have recovered.

“The marshes cover 200,000ha and I’d estimate about 10% is wet and has started the long journey to recovery,” Garry says. “We get a little bit of water and the country responds well, but in my lifetime I’ve noticed it get progressively drier. It used to be wet most of the time with occasional dry periods, and now it is dry most of the time, with occasional wet periods. Our expectations become smaller every year.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #135

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2021