The government is controversially buying Bourke’s historic Toorale Station in an attempt to return water to the ailing Darling River.

Story By Robert Milliken

It’s a perfect spring day as Tony and Michelle McManus drive across bumpy dirt tracks towards the Darling River on sprawling Toorale station, south-west of Bourke, NSW. Their youngest son, Michael, is appointed “volunteer” to open and close gates connecting some of the property’s 70-or-so paddocks. Just back from the river a crumbling corrugated-iron shearing shed looms into sight. Pointing to this icon of outback history, Tony says: “That’s where Henry Lawson worked during his trek out here more than 100 years ago.” The McManus family knows Toorale better than most. They, too, have been part of its history since arriving here in 1991 to manage the property for Clyde Agriculture, a subsidiary of John Swire and Sons of England. Now, yet another era in the Toorale story is about to unfold. In September, the Federal and New South Wales governments announced they were buying the station for almost $24 million. The Federal Government will take over its water entitlements, about 14 billion litres a year, and return them to the Darling River. This is the biggest purchase so far – and one of the most controversial – in Canberra’s plan to buy back water entitlements from irrigators in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland to re-stock the depleted Murray-Darling Basin, Australia’s biggest river system. For its part, the State Government will turn the station’s 91,000 hectares into a national park, adding to the Bourke region’s two national parks and two nature reserves already run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS). Toorale’s pastoral era began with the hardy European pioneers who ventured west of the Darling in the 1850s. Now, as the McManuses drive around the station preparing for its final shearing season in late October, signs are already there of that era drawing to a close. The sale’s settlement date is December 23. By then, the property’s 30,000 sheep, 1200 cattle, irrigation machinery and all other equipment to do with running stock and farming crops will be sold. The last wheat crop, one of the best ever this season, will be harvested. On the ground near the modern shearing shed, built just 15 years ago, bits and pieces are already laid out for the clearing sale on December 6.

This story excerpt is from Issue #62

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2009