The Castlereagh River strings together a handful of hard-working farming towns across the central west of New South Wales, whose fortunes are inextricably tied to its own.

Story By Ian Glover

Central western New South Wales’ Castlereagh is one of Australia’s iconic rivers, just as much a part of Australian folklore as the Diamantina, Burdekin or Barcoo. Rising in the soft Pilliga sandstone in the lower reaches of the Warrumbungles, it first heads east then curves back to form an immense sickle shape, turning to the west to merge with the Macquarie before it blends with the waters of the Barwon, eventually becoming part of the Murray-Darling river system.
Like all rivers, the Castlereagh means different things to the people who live along its banks. When it’s flowing well, the Castlereagh brings delight to the children of Coonabarabran as they frolic in the water. But not today – heavy rains in the ’Bungles mean that the causeway over the road to the saleyards is seething, the swollen creek racing east, a massive pressure wave constantly cycling at the base of the concrete as the brown, foam-flecked water bites back on itself. Even fair-dinkum four-wheel-drive owners are taking one look and turning around.
To pastoralist Scott Pickette, roughly three kilometres of river frontage further downstream means something far less frivolous than the chance of a swim – permanent water for his herds of Poll Hereford and Angus cattle. He’s standing in a wet paddock. Three-year-old daughter ‘Tildy’ (Matilda) twines around his legs like a blonde-crowned vine; four-year-old Sam is blowing the horn in the ’Cruiser ute – an asthmatic wheeze that sounds as though the Toyota battery’s going flat. Waiting for a truckload of cattle from the saleyards at Narrabri, Scott anxiously looks at his watch every few minutes; it’s spitting again. Finally, there’s the sound of a prime mover going down through the gears, a hiss of air brakes, and driver Trent Ellison gets out to inspect the condition of the paddock. He decides to chance it, drives in and positions the Western Star to reverse to the holding yards. It bogs down, just metres from the race. Nothing for it but to have the cattle jump down from the trailer. “I have a ramp, but don’t use it because the cattle are inclined to jump off the sides,” he says. “They can break legs because they’re not jumping straight – this is much safer.”
Some are ‘traders’, cattle Scott will fatten up on oats then sell to Cargills for export; and others are breeders. “I can carry 200 breed cows and their progeny here on “Ulamambri” (750 hectares) and about 90 trading steers,” he says. “It’s good country, ranging from loam to heavy red soil, and having permanent water makes things just that more reliable.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #70

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2010