There’s an eerie sense of what’s to come in the quiet, orderly departure of 180 trucks from Darlington Point.
Burrumbuttock Hay Runners creator Brendan Farrell had issued his orders sternly at the local sports club on Wednesday night.
As dawn broke, engines roared to life and the steady procession of big rigs laden with toys, dog food, hay and hope wound its way through the sleepy township ahead of an 800-kilometre haul to Cunnamulla.
The truck is far bumpier than expected but the company is gracious and the air conditioning cold as we make our orderly way towards Cobar.
Tiny pockets of people appear by the roadside; banners proclaim the heroes’ efforts and children wave flags wildly and cheer when the willing truckies honk their horns on the way past.
Alma Park’s Howie Muller, a hay run veteran, explains in almost tour guide-like fashion the ins and outs of the run, its humble history and the motivation for returning year after year.
He recalls that first run – the brain child of “Bumpa” Farrell who rang a few good childhood mates to organise a delivery of hay to Bourke in 2014.
“(Bumpa) just thought something has to be done,” Howie recalls.
“He rang Brett (Lieschke) who rang me and I think we organised 19 trucks that first run.
“They were actually two trucks short so Brett and I returned home, re-loaded and went back.”
Howie, who already feels like a pretty good mate in the close confinement of the cabin, describes the heartbreaking devastation of what that merry band of men encountered.
“Everything was buggered,” he says simply.
“To see kangaroos who couldn’t make it across the road because they were so hungry, well … you know you’re in trouble.
“The cattle were skin and bone – it was pretty ordinary.”
Howie says there wasn’t a dry eye in those trucks that first run.
And he admits there hasn’t been a trip since “that I don’t tear up”.
“Most trips don’t leave your mind,” he says.
“They etch a picture in your mind that doesn’t go away.”
Our thoughts turn to this, the 14th epic journey of hay-laden rigs to outback Australia.
We catch Walbundrie’s Brett Lieschke on a roadside break on the run from Bourke to Cunnamulla.
One of the original three musketeers, this affable character (who plays lawn bowls when he’s not running hay) says seeing is believing when it comes to the effects of this drought.
It’s hot – searingly hot.
Animal carcasses (mainly kangaroos, I’m told) litter the roadside and the landscape is devastatingly bare.
There is an almost eerie emptiness to the vast expanses devoid of stock save for a handful of crows pecking over roadkill, the odd goat and one defeated kangaroo sheltering under a tree.
Howie warns me the worst is yet to come.
Yet we cannot help but marvel at the starkness of the countryside – an almost horrifying beauty.
Brett marvels at the resilience of the people who keep going here.
“With drought in our region, you can still generally manage to salvage something out of it,” he reflects.
“Our country is relatively fool-proof by comparison.”
Howie agrees a trailer load of fodder is “minuscule” compared to what is needed to turn the tide.
“But it’s about so much more than that – these people are so happy to see us; they are so grateful someone else is still interested in their lives,” he insists.
“City people think if you get one lot of rain it fixes things – they are not educated in the way the bush works.”
The selfless volunteers who donate their time and trucks for the hay runs – over and over again – know exactly why they’re doing it.
The reasons cannot be summarised in words but in the very spirit of the Australia Day weekend the country will celebrate on Saturday.