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Living in a dying town: The outback community that refuses to quit

By Micaela Hambrett and Donal Sheil, Friday February 8, 2019 - 20:17 EDT
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Many houses in Ivanhoe have been abandoned as people leave town. - ABC

Like many outback towns, Ivanhoe, in far-west New South Wales, is on its knees.

Abandoned by rail links, the town lies at the end of the bitumen on the way to Wilcannia, surrounded by parched, marginal grazing land.

As the land becomes less profitable, its people drift away, leaving boarded up homes and businesses.

But a hardy few remain, wedded to the soil their forebears lie in, and committed to the town's survival.

Meet the people battling to keep the outback community alive.

The postmaster

On a Saturday night in Ivanhoe, the Christmas raffle is on at the RSL.

Four customers sit in the cavernous building that used to pack out with weddings and wakes when it was built in the 1960s.

One of them is former mayor and current postmaster Ray Longfellow, who sits straight-backed on a bar stool but is visibly exhausted.

"When I first came here … Friday, Saturday, Sundays, it was virtually packed. That's all gone," Mr Longfellow said.



"We're struggling like most other businesses in the bush. It hasn't been helped by the drought but the decline in population is the main thing."

He moved to Ivanhoe "the best part of" 34 years ago to work on local properties, back when the town was a bustling pastoral centre with a rail link.

But in 1991 the railway closed and Ivanhoe has shrunk before his eyes.

Today the population is about 200 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics or 100 according to locals.

Mr Longfellow cited the factors behind the decline: stations needing fewer employees, drought, and limited employment for young people.

There are other reasons, he said, like farmers switching to Dorper sheep for meat rather than wool to mitigate shearing expenses.

"We used to have four contractors operating out of this community for shearing teams, and now there's none," he said.



Mr Longfellow said keeping the RSL going was critical to the town's future.

"It's so important in the sense that it is community-owned.

"It's not a commercial enterprise, it's the hub of the community and it's owned by the community."

But he said it was on a knife edge.

"We were on the verge of going under virtually 18 months ago, that looked very, very grim."

Mr Longfellow said the RSL had become emblematic of the township, a bricks-and-mortar representation of Ivanhoe society, and its viability was important psychologically.

"It's the freedom, its the camaraderie that you make with friends around the bush. I think the survival of the bush people is paramount, it is something that is bred into the town … that's why they're not giving up with the club."

The shopkeeper

Wendy Aves busily restocks the pie warmer in Ivanhoe's only shop.

It's a sweltering Sunday, but demand for hot meat pies is constant.

"I've been trying to save the club, I've been doing a few raffles," Ms Aves said cheerfully.



Ms Aves' caravan park and petrol station sit on the Cobb Highway at the entrance to town.

From her counter seat, framed by belts of batteries, tins, a pyramid of packaged pound cakes and seasonal fruit, it is as though Ms Aves stands sentinel at the gates of Ivanhoe.

As the only shop in town, there are few who pass through without a visit, allowing Ms Aves an opportunity to expertly extract a customer's life story from them before their petrol tank is full.

"You get all sorts, it's good," she said.

"I love having them, talking to them and that — you get a lot of good stories."



Born and bred in Ivanhoe, Ms Aves said she did not know anything else, and the town's retail had been her life.

"I finished [high school] on the Friday and I started at the supermarket on the Monday," she said.

"I worked there for 36 and a half years, then I bought this [caravan park and petrol station]."



"We used to have a baker and a butcher," she said.

"We had a Commonwealth Bank here that closed down, then the supermarket's closed, the coffee shop's closed — it's a bit sad really, isn't it?"

In a town where a sealed road is a recent luxury, the addition of white lines to the Cobb Highway outside her shop has her beaming.

"They've done a really good job at brightening the whole town up, it's a credit to them," she said, of the road workers who applied the paint.

"If they get the [other] road going [sealed], that might bring a few around. They say it will but I don't know. You've just got to wait and see I suppose."



The flying doctor

On Mondays, Ivanhoe anticipates the arrival of its flying medic, Erik Jenssen.

At 8:00am, the shadow of the little Beechcraft King Air flickers over rooftops before touching down on the edge of town.

The neat, demountable hospital is already lined with people, waiting patiently in the cool.

The crew has come from its base in Broken Hill.



Dr Jenssen, from Melbourne, is hooked on what he describes as the "real medicine" he sees in the bush.

He said the limited time for consultations, and "bushie stoicism", had shaped his clinical approach.

"You come out bush and you see some very under-serviced areas.

"Patients who, if they came to see me in Melbourne, I'd probably get them hooked in with one, two, three different specialists and maybe get them admitted [to hospital].

"Whereas out here, you see them in the clinic and they say, 'Nah, if you can't fix me here and now, I'll just let it go'. So, it's often having to use your clinical nose out here more than just referring to different specialists."



The Royal Flying Doctor Service visits Ivanhoe on Mondays and Fridays.

Dr Jenssen said his two days in Ivanhoe were frantic but enjoyable.

"There's probably not enough of a call for a medico to be here full-time, but it would make life a lot easier for the patients and the staff here at the Ivanhoe health service," he said.

"If you don't have the doctors out here, families aren't going to come out and towns aren't going to survive."

Grazier's wife

Kim Huntley lives 65 kilometres out of town on her family's station.

"I worry all the time, especially with little kids," she said.

Thirty-one weeks into a high-risk pregnancy, she attends the clinic each Monday and Friday.



"I got food poisoning probably three weeks ago now and I was really sick," she said.

"They looked after me, the nurses in here. I was on a drip twice … the doctor called constantly and just kept an eye on me.

"They were going to send a plane but we luckily didn't need it."

Mrs Huntley's obstetrician is in Albury, meaning her weekly scans are an 11-hour round trip.

She will shortly relocate there in anticipation of the birth.

"It's hard to leave home and being on the land I'll have to go away with the kids, and my husband will have to stay out here and look after the farm," Mrs Huntley said.

"I don't have any family or friends over in Albury."

With typical outback pluck, Mrs Huntley said the threat of a medical emergency was simply something to be managed.

"You just face them when they come. It's always in the back of your mind, but it doesn't stop me living here," she said.



The administrator

Edward Highnam staffs the Multi Service Outlet on Ivanhoe's main street.

Its mid-century interiors are clean and well preserved; even the signage on the red-dusted plate glass is original.

The interior is chilled to 20 degrees Celsius: 20 degrees cooler than it is outside.

Mr Highnam, the Central Darling Shire's administration officer for Ivanhoe, said he often felt overwhelmed in his job, despite the town's small size.

The average age of residents means the services he manages, such as Meals on Wheels, Centrelink assistance, aged care referrals and weekly medical transport, are in high demand.

To unwind, he watches the shire's rich wildlife.



"I'm fascinated by its natural features, primarily; its birds, its animals," he said.

"Depending on whether it's dry or wet you can end up with water birds like pelicans getting out this far — we've had black swans."



But as an amateur ecologist in marginal country, Mr Highnam said he often felt defeated.

Classified as grassland country, the town's desert-fringe location keeps the land in near-perpetual drought.

Feral pigs, goats and rabbits thrive in the gruelling conditions.

An almost accidental goat-meat trade has emerged.

"The goat trade does create a situation where it definitely pays to keep the goats here when we should be getting rid of them," Mr Highnam said.

"In these very dry periods like now, farmers need them.

"So you have to try to balance the ecological side of it with the economic side of it — usually the economic side wins the argument."



Tourists used to flow through the town, en route to the unique inland lake system at Menindee.

But like parts of the Darling River, tourism has dried up.

"[Someone] who lives in town actually went out to Menindee and he was shocked because he couldn't hear anything," Mr Highnam said.

"It was almost as if everything was dead. There were no kookaburras, no mopokes, not a sound.

"When the drought broke [in 2011] the lakes were full, then they just went empty, quicker than they filled up. It's maddening really," he said.



Mr Highnam described the town as stubborn: the flipside, perhaps, to the grit required to survive out here.

"Every time you think the town's going to die, it just doesn't," he said.

"On numerous occasions people have gone, 'Oh this town's got about five years left' and it just sort of … I don't know … It's still here.

"I know what keeps me out here: my house, my hobby — as long as I have a home here, I'm not going anywhere."

It's a sentiment shared by other locals including Ms Aves.

"I'm happy here, I love it. Mum and Dad and Nan and Pop are all out at the cemetery. I'll probably end up out there with them."



While you're here… are you feeling curious?


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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