After a late breakfast, I jump back in car and make for the lake with PJ’s caretaker, Toby Kelly, a 24-year-old who backpacked here from Perth. Like so many of the people you encounter in the bush, he isn’t inclined to let the truth get in the way of a good yarn.
“These miners here, even if they did strike it rich, they wouldn’t know what to do with it,” Kelly says. “There was this one guy here who walked around in the same pair of pants for five years, ate baked beans for breakfast, lunch, and dinner everyday of his life. When he died, we found out he had $700,000 in his bank account.”
It takes us half an hour to reach the ridge and another 30 minutes to get to the edge of Lake Peery, which looks more like an ocean—a churning mass of water that emits ferocious winds from its center and spits baby waves onto foam-flecked beaches. We walk along the shoreline and over a small rise into a sheltered nook where coolibah trees dangle over gently lapping water. I kick off my boots and sun myself on a rock as a flock of ducks flies past in a V formation while wedge-tailed eagles circle ominously overhead. We’re in the middle of the driest continent on earth, but blessed, it seems, with an abundance of water. “When the big rains came, there was no warning,” Kelly recalls. “I was outside barbecuing some steaks and within 15 seconds I was boiling them. The guests ran inside but I didn’t care. I hadn’t washed my hair in a couple of days and it needed a good soaking.”
My next stop is the town of Wilcannia, an hour’s drive to the south. In its 1880s heyday, this was one of the busiest steamboat ports on the Darling River Run, a 740-kilometer trade route upon which New South Wales’ great pastoralists built their wealth and prestige. The magnificent sandstone buildings they constructed along Wilcannia’s waterfront now sit empty, boarded up and in disrepair, though the local council has made an effort to restore the post office.
While fueling up, I grab a copy of the Wilcannia News, which tells me that the Darling River registered 1.27 meters yesterday afternoon after reaching its peak two days beforehand. I catch my first glimpses of the caramel-colored stream as I head out of town along Four Mile Lane, a mind-numbingly straight, unpaved road that runs parallel to the Darling on a dusty plain carpeted with myrtle trees. The road is a chameleon, changing from gray to brown to ocher to blond for 150 kilometers until it deposits me at the Menindee Lakes.