Outside city limits towns sit dotted like sunspots on the aged landscape.
Paint peels from buildings, curling to reveal hardy historic bones. But the future is uncertain.
Once essential stop overs, small farming towns across North East Victoria and the Southern Riverina are struggling.
Bypasses and technology have led to job losses, insulating communities, while drought and the exodus of young people cripples economies.
But despite dire predictions of dwindling, ageing populations, hope pervades.
Jenny Hearn moved to Urana three decades ago and fell in love with the town “in the middle of everything.”
A country woman through-and-through, she has become a champion of Urana’s art and historical society, progress society and the town as a whole.
Mrs Hearn, who wouldn’t give her age other than saying she was “over 75”, is passionate about her town, its people and its future.
She’s seen the town in floods and drought.
She knows the power of neighbourly spirit, especially in hard, dry times.
“I think we’re holding up pretty well, we have a tremendous community and we’re very resilient,” Mrs Hearn said.
But the community is getting older, smaller.
Between the 2006 and 2016 censuses, Urana’s median age increased from 47 to 52 and the town lost 32 residents – about 9 per cent of its population.
Latest data pegs the town’s population at 304 people.
As agricultural technology has advanced, the amount of jobs per farm has diminished and so has the population.
“Families had to move to where work was,” Mrs Hearn said.
“It definitely had an impact on our population... it was tough, tough on businesses and on schools, but I think our businesses are turning around now.”
These days, retirees are flocking to Urana to make the most of the reasonable housing prices.
“I’m a great optimist, I think the town has a great future,” Mrs Hearn said.
“We have a really wonderful hospital, a wonderful medical practice and hopefully with the amount of retirees coming that will boost the requirement at the hospital for staffing.
“That way younger people come to town to work and their families – families are what we need.”
Two hours away, in Finley, the whole town is thirsty.
Dusty. Drought-stricken. Disheartened.
A lack of water allocation in the Murray Darling Basin plan and ongoing drought has left farmers – and the whole community – struggling.
Without a water allocation, the future is bleak, said Berrigan Shire mayor and third-generation Finley resident Matt Hannan.
“Over the past 10 years the Finley community has lost a fair part of its population,” he said.
“We’ve lost 600 jobs over that 10 years.”
As the water has dwindled, so has the town’s vibrancy.
Classrooms are emptying.
Shops are struggling.
The population is ebbing, with no flow.
“Both [Berrigan and Finley] communities are extremely resilient,” Cr Hannan said.
“Once the water is taken from the area and moved… people don’t come into the community. They leave and it’s a flow-on effect.
“With losing all those jobs, our population demographic changed.
“We are one of the older population-based councils in NSW and whilst that demographic has a positive impact in the community, we need the younger community to come through to continue to make sure things operate and to participate in our sports clubs, businesses, service clubs, schools.”
Almost a decade on, Cr Hannan still remembers the impact of the Millennium drought.
A time when farming families encouraged their children to get off the land and find work elsewhere.
He sees it happening again, and this time isn’t sure the young people who leave will return.
Already the seasonal work that draws former Finley children home to make a buck in uni holidays is drying up.
In the decade between the 2006 and 2016 census, Finley township alone lost 8 per cent of its population, a figure that doesn’t encompass population losses on farms outside the township.
From 2054 people, the town population dropped to 1921 in 2011 and 1888 in 2016.
The town needs water, Cr Hannan said.
It’s that simple.
“Our community is extremely resilient and I personally try to be as positive as I can,” he said.
“Berrigan Shire is a great place to live and work and invest, it offers a lot of opportunity for people willing to come to a smaller community – however agriculture is still our biggest business.
“If we don’t have any water it makes things difficult for businesses to operate.
“If wiser heads don’t prevail and we don’t get a fair go, then the future of the area is in question.”
The once-thriving town doesn’t need a leg up, just an even playing field.
The region is a great producer, Cr Hannan said, and contributes to the national economy – when it has water.
“We don’t want any more or any less than anyone else – we just want a fair go,” Cr Hannan said.
“Finley was built on the back of irrigation – for the government not to do anything about the community, about Finley, it’s a grave misjustice.”
Almost two hours east, Jo Kollard pours beers behind the bar of the Round Hill Hotel.
New faces have started to appear among the sea of regulars, she said, estimating six families have moved to the region in the past decade.
“It doesn’t sound huge, but for a little village like this it’s big,” she said.
Keeping small towns alive keeps Australia’s history alive.
“I know a lot of small towns are struggling a lot worse than here in Morven, if it keeps up there’s not going to be any left,” Ms Kollard said.
“You don’t want dying little towns or villages – they’re too important, it’s about history.
“Morven was originally a Cobb & Co changing station, there are a few places like that around here where there’s nothing left anymore, not a single dwelling. Nothing.”
With fewer than 150 people populating Morven, the town doesn’t have much and with drought, business is slowing.
But it has enough and what business they do have they support wholeheartedly.
There might be less in small towns, Ms Kollard said, but there’s more heart and that’s what will keep people coming.
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