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Louth Races attract thousands but it's a bittersweet pilgrimage as the drought bites

Olivia Ralph, Sunday August 11, 2019 - 13:54 EST
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The Louth Races in outback New South Wales attract thousands of people every year. - ABC

On the eastern side of the Darling River in outback New South Wales — literally the 'back o' Bourke' — you'll find a town with a tiny population that inflates to the thousands one race weekend every August.

Louth, home to 43 people, has traversed a similar path to other towns 'beyond the black stump'.

Once a bastion of Australia's colonial agricultural economy, it is slowly drying up, much like the landscape surrounding it.

"This time last year the kangaroos were just dying … this year we're seeing absolutely no life at all," says Patrick Curtis.

He's a member of the South Louth Angling Club, a group of mates from Bendigo, Victoria, who have travelled to the Louth Races every year for almost four decades.

"The rules are: no women, no TV, no radio, no phone and usually the same clothes for the fortnight," Mr Curtis says.

For the past few years, their annual pilgrimage for a week of shooting, fishing and horseracing has been bittersweet as the drought continues to bite.

"We haven't caught any fish … the river is dead, there's no life. It's just heartbreaking."

Louth is the home of Dunlop Station where the first mechanised sheep shearing is said to have occurred.

The town once boasted bakeries, butchers, hotels, a general store, Chinese garden and at least one factory.

Today, the lone reed of economic activity is Shindy's Inn; part pub, part cafe, it's the proverbial, and literal, centre of town.

By lunchtime Friday, the beer was flowing, the crowds were building and communities surrounding Louth were making their way to town — as it's not only Louth that marks the race meeting on the calendar.

It's the biggest fundraiser of the year for the Cobar Camels rugby team and the Parkes Car Club who run the bar and food at the races respectively.

"There's no way we could do it without the support of those groups — we're all volunteers doing it to see a positive impact on the local economy," Alex Murray says.

"And you see such a diverse range of people come to Louth. You can be standing at the bar as if you're dressed to go to Randwick, next to a bloke in a pair of footy shorts and a pair of thongs."

It's the people that have brought Doug Carroll back to the races for the past 60 years.

At 94, Carroll is the oldest bookmaker in the world, a title soon to be made official with an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

"I'm not going to retire until I'm done with what I'm doing," Mr Carroll says.

"[Louth] is the best country meet anywhere … I love the ups and downs, I love meeting people, it keeps my head moving."

But it's not just the people putting smiles on faces.

Gavin McKenna bought a 1990-model Suzuki caravan just before Easter this year with a plan to kit it out and drive it to Louth.

"I did it just to make everyone laugh, make everyone smile and it's doing everything I wanted it to," he says.

"Money isn't everything and maybe putting a smile on people's faces is going to help … I hope."


© ABC 2019

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