As the floodgates to Lake Menindee opened last month, sending water blasting onto the enormous expanse of dry dirt, a historic transformation began — not only for the landscape but for the people.
More than half a decade of drought and the trauma of mass fish kills have tested the small community of Menindee, about 100 kilometres south-east of Broken Hill.
In April, for the first time since 2016, the NSW government had enough floodwaters to release from Lake Pamamaroo to Lake Menindee.
With water comes wildlife, and with wildlife comes an influx of tourists.
Menindee’s shops, cafes, hotels, caravan parks and the local pub and supermarket are brimming with them.
Menindee resident Graeme Mccrabb said the number of people coming in was “just staggering”.
“The brightness around the town and the optimism — the underlying optimism — it’s definitely come with water,” Mr Mccrabb said.
Local publican Karen Gasmere said her staff were struggling to keep up with demand.
“Extremely, extremely, extremely busy,” she said.
“We’re crying out for staff … with the influx of people. We can’t keep up. [Staff] are getting worn out on their shifts, and there’s no let-up.
‘Garden of Eden’
Huge quantities of water have been travelling downstream since major floods hit Queensland and New South Wales in January.
Up to 1,000 gigalitres of water — roughly twice the amount in Sydney Harbour — are forecast to reach the Menindee Lakes system this year.
Menindee River Lady boat tours operator Rob Gregory said river levels, upstream of the main weir, had risen by about 3 metres and that birds and plant life were beginning to flourish in response.
“It’s not rolling along, it’s flying along here at the minute.”
He said some bird species, including whistling kites, had started to breed and that bees had been out pollinating black box eucalyptus trees.
During the last major water event in the area in 2016, pelicans returned to Menindee in their thousands.
“Last time in ‘16, they counted in squadrons up to 7,000 birds … huge numbers out in Menindee,” he said.
“There’s a few here at the moment, a few hundred, but they’ll come, don’t worry, they’ll be here.”
A time of healing
Barkandji River Ranger coordinator Cheryl Blore says the return of the water is a time of spiritual healing for the area’s First Nations people.
“It’s amazing because it’s there to help our people heal — there’s water coming back to our lakes system, and river system and that’s our spiritual healing place,” she said.
“Also with our Aboriginal cultural heritage sites, having that water in there, settling around the lakes system where we have a lot of burials and artifacts … [it is] stabilising them.”
Outback tourism peaks
Mr Gregory and Ms Gasmere said many of their customers were tourists who would be travelling overseas if it weren’t for the pandemic.
“They’re probably all overseas travellers, and having nowhere to go, they just ventured out,” Ms Gasmere said.
“It’s attracted people that never would’ve thought to come outback.
“We had the tourism just steady, but now it’s an influx.”
Mr Gregory said his tour boat business “hasn’t just ramped up, you know, it’s peaked; we’re flat out”.
“We’ve actually experienced a lot of people that have always gone overseas and spent big money and never seen this country out here at all,” he said.