Denise Acocks | Environment Victoria

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Denise Acocks: Generations of stories to share

One wet morning in the mid-1930s, 15-year-old Grace Kennedy waded into the swollen floodwaters of the Campaspe River and made for the far bank, holding a long piece of wire in her clenched teeth.

The telephone party line her family shared with their neighbours had snapped, and Grace, a strong swimmer, was on a mission to fix it. Once she’d restored contact with the outside world, she swam back to cheers and applause.

Today, farmer Denise Acocks stands on the riverbank, pointing out the place where this fragment of family history came to pass. Her husband David also has a soft spot for this tale; Grace is his aunt.

“Our family has generations of stories about the river,” says Denise. “It has always been vital to us, and it’s given us a lot of pleasure too.” Family often camp under the huge gum trees; nearby is a deep swimming-hole David’s grandmother swam in as a child, and further down is a bivouac built recently by her great-grandchildren.

Family links with this tranquil place stretch back to the 1870s, when David’s ancestors selected one of the first blocks for sale. The farm now covers 3000 acres, and an adjacent reserve still bears the Kennedy name. Loving a place, Denise believes, means respecting it too. Instead of grazing their land right to the river’s edge, the couple have fenced off large stretches and planted native trees to combat erosion.

“We’ve made slow but steady progress,” she says. The rewards have been well worthwhile. Peregrine Falcons and Wedged-tailed Eagles nest upstream, and one sunny morning, while showing friends around, something flickered in the water: “At first we thought it was a fish,” Denise recalls, “but then two platypus emerged and began playing - jumping logs, twisting, chasing each other. It was magic.”

These nimble creatures are often spotted, which Denise sees as a positive sign: “We don’t believe the state of the river is as dire as many think. We see a lot more care being taken of it, and you won’t find platypus in an unhealthy river.”

Nor does she believe the current drought will spell the end of the Campaspe, which has recovered from severe droughts in the past. “I think the river will be forever changing - it always has.”

Nevertheless, she says, “This drought has had a huge impact on our lives.” In 1962 her parents-in-law started a dairy farm here, which Denise and David took over. But milk production requires huge amounts of water and declining river flows and water availability and increasing cost have obliged the couple to sell their herd. Now, with sons Toby and Ben, they are concentrating on a mix of sheep, cereal crops, oil seeds, hay and silage, and have greatly reduced their water requirements.

“We see a wonderful beauty in this river,” says Denise, “but with our busy work-life, we don’t make enough time to enjoy it.” But that, she hopes, will one day change: she’s already picked out a perfect site to build. “I imagine waking up here every morning, seeing the river out my bedroom window. That’s my dream.”

Story by Meg Mundell, 2007

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