Not Just a River

A few years ago I headed to Bourke to experience the outback of Australia, on assignment to write 10 articles about the Darling River Run. “The Run” is a 730km drive bookended by the townships of Brewarrina in the north, and Wentworth in the south, where the Darling converges with the Murray.

Sadly, my pasty white self did not feel prepared for the heat, nor did I feel confident I could adequately cover the topic. 10 articles about a river? Despite my reservations, I decided to give it a shot. One sweaty six-hour car trip later, the rolling hills and yellow-green pastures transformed abruptly into a brown, flat and dry expanse.

The first thing on my agenda was to talk to an Aboriginal Elder. Meeting at his office, Phil was a big man with a broad, endearing smile. He had come to work on a Sunday especially for our chat, explaining that it was his responsibility to teach people about the river.

He shook my hand and affectionately referred to me as “sister”. I soon discovered he had a laugh that vibrates into every corner of the room.

When I asked what the river means to him, he took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. “Where to start?” he said.  

“It represents life and its cycles, with the droughts and floods, good times and bad, life and death of all the living things within and around it.

“It represents family and belonging. The river sets the boundaries for the different tribes that surround it.

“It represents unity. At the Brewarrina Fish Traps, one of the oldest man-made structures on earth, all the different communities would come to catch fish as they swam upstream.

“It represents diversity. Yellow belly, cod, black bream – even the European carp”, he added, referring to the introduced pest with a laugh.

“When the water rises, they move, and they must move together. Much like life, isn’t it, sister? When the crises come and the water rises, you can’t choose to stay there. And you can’t go back.”

Phil leaned forward to explain that to really experience the river, the trick was to be quiet and just listen. I inadvertently leaned forward with him.

In the following days, travelling to the various “touristy” spots along the river, I took a moment to do just that; to be quiet. With the warm gentle breezes, Coolabah trees and stoic Red River Gums, it was good advice. Although I must admit, the quiet did not last long.

Soon enough, my thoughts wandered back to Phil, and his perspective of the river as an analogy for life. I considered how lucky I was to meet him before I began “The Run”. European Carp that I am, I thought the Darling was just a river. 

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