"What's that white stuff on the side of the road?" my eight-year-old son asks. "It looks like snow."
We're driving along the flat, dusty plans near Hay in southern NSW before we stop near a paddock. My son picks up a clump of "snow" and pulls it apart, strand by strand.
For a city boy, there's a fascination in handling fluffy cotton balls caught in the roadside weeds.
I point across to a farm where there are giant bales of cotton bound up in neat rows. My son looks on and asks how does cotton grow? With plenty of water, I reply, and therein lies a story.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, farmers use more than 80 per cent of the Murray-Darling river system to produce a third of Australia's food.
Beyond watering the nation's food bowl, the Murray is a river of leisure and pleasure. Its tourism value was put at $145 million in 2016-2017, according to the ABS.
We stop in Mildura for two nights and during our stay my wife and I take my son down to the Murray to watch the parade of paddle steamers, houseboats and tinnies. Taking in the riverside goings-on at a cafe, we later follow the paddle steamers to a series of weirs and locks that are part of the Murray irrigation scheme.
The locks serve the houseboats and other river craft as well as providing a stable water level. My son watches intently as the water drains out and the boat steams further down the river.
A short drive out of Mildura to Merbein provides spectacular views over giant yellow limestone cliffs, framed by mallee scrub and giant river bends.
Looking past the golden cliffs reveals the drought's impact: a brown, dry, arid inland. The severity of this year's warm winter and low rainfall have ravaged crops in irrigation-dependent communities across northern Victoria and southern NSW.
Crossing into South Australia's Riverland, extensive soil erosion has carved crumbling contours along the banks near the Murray.
Later on in our trip a conversation with the wife of a farmer near Griffith underlines the dilemma for many landholders in the NSW Riverina.
Sarah tells us that the drought has meant selling livestock they could not afford to feed. Other farmers have cut stock numbers by more than half while some have been hand-feeding for two years.
"Many in our area don't plan ahead for the tough times," she admits.
To highlight the point she explains how one farmer has maintained underground silage, or pit silage, for decades to keep ahead of the dry times.
"He went back through the farm's records, dating back to early last century, to track the cycles of drought and to make sure quality feed was kept in storage for the long, dry periods.
"He's got the best cattle in the area and keeps getting top prices. He's staying afloat while most others around here are going to the wall."
On a brighter note Sarah also tells of how younger farmers in the Riverina are seizing new opportunities beyond the farm gate.
In the small town of Barellan, Stuart Whytcross and Brad Woolner have founded a startup producing malted barley and other cereal grains for craft breweries and high-end whisky producers.
The startup, Voyager Craft Malt, supplies 80 brewers and 12 distillers.
"They are two young guys who are thinking outside the box. I think they are showing the way for others and how they need to seize opportunities beyond cattle farming.
"It's inspiring and also shows what can be done even when times are as tough as they are now."
* The writer travelled at his own expense.