If not for the Giant Koala, motorists on the Western Highway near Horsham might not notice the Mallee town of Dadswells Bridge.
With a population of just 210 and little more than an ice-cream shop, café and Indian restaurant, you might be surprised to learn that this is a growing community.
According to the latest census figures, the population of Dadswells Bridge has increased by close to 20 percent in just five years.
“The locals depend on the café,” says Pat Crute, who owns the nearby Giant Koala. “There’s nothing else.”
Rainbow. Manangatang. Chinkapook. Cowangie. Each tiny town in the Mallee has its own struggle to find inventive ways to remain viable.
And it can be a struggle. Mallee towns Hopetoun and Beulah, were recently forced to merge their football clubs. Young people “need to move to chase their dreams”, says Hopetoun president Stephan Hallam. There are less young people around to play football these days.
The loss of 100 of a total 555 people under 24 between the 2006 and 2011 census, has left the Hopetoun football club short of players.
Hallam says the Hopetoun Devils “could not go on” with such a decline. They had no choice but to merge with their once “arch rivals”.
He says they “waved white flags because something is better than nothing”. “One town was not better than the other, we just had to make it work,” Hallam says.
More than 100 kilometers north west of Dadswells Bridge, the arrival of more than 200 Karen Burmese refugees since 2010 to work at a local poultry producer has lifted the local economy of the ageing and declining Nhill.
Hindmarsh Shire CEO Tony Doyle says the growth of Nhill will occur naturally and through local employers. “One in particular is Love-a-Duck,” he says.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2006 9.5% of the Nhill population was born outside of Australia, by 2011 this had risen to 11.6% of a total 2278. Since then even more refugees have settled in Nhill.
However welcome, the arrival of the refugees has been a mixed blessing. Mr Doyle says that Nhill has a housing shortage and some of the Karen community will be moved to neighbouring towns to help share the load.
Monash University journalism lecturer Deb Anderson conducted a six-year study on the Mallee during the millennium drought (1995-2009).
“People took charge of the process of hanging onto their community,” she says. “It came though time and time again that people felt that people down south in Melbourne or in the big cities just didn’t understand what was happening out in rural Australia.”
Despite the struggles in the Mallee, Anderson says she feels “buoyed by their positive spirit”.
She says rural communities “find some of the most novel and inventive ways to cope with problems”.
Anderson mentioned a naked rain dance by women to lift community spirits and the use of Native Garden groups in Manangatang.