WESTERN QUEENSLAND PUB CRAWL
Dulacca Hotel, Dulacca
For many years we have driven past country pubs that sported Free Camping signs. This trip is to check out as many of them as we can!
Heading towards our first stop, we meandered through the very familiar landscape of the central and western Darling Downs. It is difficult to enthuse about country that you have known well all your life. It's a bit like writing a travel blog about your street! Never-the-less, a focus on the historic growth of this area of Australia might give us a bit of a new slant.
It wasn't until the latter years of the 19th Century that southwestern Queensland was settled in any organised way. There was little or no gold to fast-track settlement, so it was the graziers and the farmers who progressively pushed the boundaries of settlement west from Moreton Bay. By the 1870s all this changed with the extension of the railway line west from Ipswich. As the line reached struggling settlements like Dogwood Crossing (now Miles), access to markets and ports on the coast provided a sudden boost for western towns. Then came the First World War. Horses, food, wool and manpower were in demand and the west could provide them all. Just visit any Memorial Park to see the contribution small western towns made to the AIF (Australian Imperial Forces).
So all this brings us today to the 'almost' ghost town of Dulacca. Before the railway, the town didn't exist. In 1879 a settlement grew up around the railway station of the same name. The town's main claim to fame is its role in the eradication of the Prickly Pear pest.
In 1908 civilization, in the form of a hotel, the 'Waterhole on the Hill', came to Dulacca. Unusual amongst western wooden pubs, today's Dulacca Hotel is that original Waterhole. Little is left of the thriving town that Dulacca was in the 1930s and 1940s. Only a hand-full of derelict shops and service stations witness the constant flow of grain and cattle trucks that compete for highway space with gray nomads and mining company vehicles that scarcely slow down as they crest the hill (very small rise actually!) into the town.
All is not lost though, because outside the historic Dulacca Hotel is the magic sign - 'Free Camping'. That's what we're here for! What a deal. Free power, showers, toilets and entertainment in the form of the usual cast of country characters in the bar. The 'been everywhere bikie drifter', the 'shy grinning country farm boy', the 'working primary school kid still in school uniform' and a clutch of fellow travellers, like us, have dropped in for the free night, a few beers and a country counter tea.
Amby Hotel, Amby (Pop 50)
The 90 odd people who live in the hamlet of Amby and surrounds, half way between Roma and Mitchell, must breathe some of the most pure air around. Our close study of the local cemetery, a couple of dusty miles out of town, revealed that the last person buried here was lowered into the prickly earth of western Queensland in 1993. Before that, there were a couple of deaths in the 1980s, one each in the '40s and 50's. The late 1800s were a difficult time with a handful of deaths of octogenarians. Graveyards are such fun!
On our way to the dead centre of Amby, we wandered past the famous (here anyhow) No Horses Golf Club. Don't ask – 'cause nobody seems to know?? What was interesting about the golf club (aside from the name) was the clubhouse. It bore an uncanny resemblance to a Queensland Railways country station circa 1930.
Trains don't stop at Amby any more and probably haven't done so since the station disappeared! Country communities have their own way of doing business.
One has to wonder if we just hit towns like this on the very day that a once in a decade event occurs? Today, the publican was all in a tiz because he was moving in two homeless young women and a small, constantly crying, child. There were mumbles about working for the rent and doing each other favours? Who knows what all this means, but it made for an interesting afternoon 'session' as one of the new 'working residents' attempted to serve at the bar. At least she tried... a bit! We wonder what happened here yesterday? And what will happen tomorrow??
Cattle trucks constantly rumble past our free camping site behind the Amby pub and it's after 10pm. We should have seen it coming. All afternoon, empty trucks headed west. Tonight, they are full of cattle, heading back east. Roma boasts the largest sale yards in Queensland. Sales are held on Tuesday and Thursday. Yesterday, over 5000 head of cattle were traded. If the traffic tonight is any indication, tomorrow's sales will be a bumper!
The “Fox Trap” Cooladdi (pop 4)
This roadhouse became known as the “fox-trap” as the original owner (a Mr Fox) enticed travellers to stay by plying them with alcohol.
Conversation at the bar of the Fox Trap, 90km west of Charleville, was a bit one sided. The four local characters, the silent thin guy, the fat old bloke, the local 'mouth' and his mate were heavily involved in a discussion about the relative merits of several bulls about to gouge and maim punters at the Charleville Show this weekend. Behind the bar, mother and daughter, cut from the same stamp, did their best to keep involved. We sat quietly at an island bar and soaked up the local colour of what is left of the once thriving community of Cooladdi.
“Hard case” was how this stop on our western pub crawl was described to us by an old, but amazingly fit, bike-riding Kiwi we met in Amby last night. How right he was. After almost 100km of scrub, the Fox Trap emerged. “Round the back,” the old girl said. “Round the back” was a cross between a cattleyard, a car wrecker's and a set from Baz's Australia Movie!
After three days on this 'Pub Crawl', it's probably time to list a few of the pubs we have come across on our journey. Dulacca - Dulacca Hotel; Wallumbilla - Federal Hotel; Roma - The Empire, The Club, The Commonwealth, The Grand, The Queens, The School of Arts (not a pub any more); Muckadilla – Muckadilla Hotel; Amby - Amby Hotel; Mitchell - The Court House, The Mitchell, Richards, and the Western; Mungallala - Club Hotel; Morven – Morven Hotel; Charleville - The Railway (Rocks), Corones Hotel, Charleville Hotel, Cattle Camp Hotel; Cooladdi - The Fox Trap.
So back to the roo poachers. Apparently, some sad soul had been 'poaching' our national symbol from the property of the 'local mouth' of Cooladdi. So what did he do about it? He just buried metal spikes on the road into his property and blew all the tyres on the ute of the poacher! Nobody at the bar even blinked!
Never heard of Cooladdi? You probably aren't alone. Like many deserted western towns, it has an interesting history. All that remains today is the famous (locally at least) Fox Trap.
At its height, Cooladdi had a population of almost 300, a post office, school, police station and butcher's shop. Originally called Yarronvale, the town was first settled by railway workers in 1913. The school opened in 1929 with an enrollment of 9. It survived until 1974. A relatively regular water supply kept the town alive through the steam railway era. Steam Locomotives travelling from Quilpie to Charleville took on water here. As diesel locomotives took over western routes the town, like the school, quickly died.
Windorah (Pop 80), Barcoo Shire (Pop 500), Area (Twice the size of Denmark!)
Full Moon Rooster
Following our brush with the 'local characters' in Cooladdi, we hit the sack early in preparation for our long drive to Windorah. Nobody told the pub's rooster about our plans or that a first quarter moon rising ISN'T dawn! 3:45am he started. He doesn't know how close he came! These city folk have killed and dressed many a chook and as the real sunrise drove us from our cozy bed, thoughts of axes and chicken plucking were floating in our heads.
So that's what you get with real western country experiences.
Tonight we are settled in the first official camping grounds of our trip. If we had known, we could have camped 20kms south of Windorah amongst the gums on the banks of Coopers Creek. Never mind - we can find a spot there on our way back from Birdsville.
The almost 400km we travelled today was mostly on single lane roads, where the approach of any vehicle means hitting the rocks or sand on the road verge. When triple Road Trains loom on the horizon, discretion is always the only form of valour possible! The local rules are simple. Just get out of the way!
Last wet season was one of the best in decades, so the country looks its best. Areas where the soil is good look like Ireland. However, clay pans and rocky red plains still retain that western desert look. Birds and other wildlife are everywhere. Brolgas fossick on the swampy areas, emus stroll beside the road and roos regularly bound out of the scrub, even in the late morning.
This afternoon in Windorah's Great Western Hotel we were served by a nice young Canadian backpacker who had started work two days ago. She and her German girl companion travelled this far west simply to get work. She was at a bit of a loss with the bar work – but what an experience!
So much for roughing it! Although our pub stays haven't even rated on the Michelin Guide scale, they have all been great fun, relatively clean and free or extremely cheap. All have had power, toilets and showers. That's all we need. Even here in Windorah, the shire Caravan Park only costs $10 a night.
Birdsville (Pop 150)
Drovers and Derrick Hands
Ringers and Riggers
Roustabouts and Road Gangs
Leaving our van in Windorah, we took to the non-paved western roads for the first time in our trip and travelled the close to 400kms from Windorah to Birdsville, with absolutely nothing in between - well, nothing but ruined and deserted pubs. The ruins of JC's Pub about 80km west of Windorah were a bit of a disappointment - just a few sheets of iron and weathered stumps. 200Kms on, the old Betoota pub was far more interesting. It closed its doors in 1997 and it is fairly well intact.
Leaving our van behind was a good move. The road was easily managed by our Territory, but dragging the van would have been a tedious trip and far more costly in terms of fuel.
Red and yellow sand dunes cut the road for almost the whole trip from Windorah to Birdsville. The further west we went, the bigger they got! Thirty odd kms west of Birdsville, we hit Big Red, a spectacular dune on the edge of the Simpson desert. From here, it's 170kms and 150 dunes to the Northern Territory border. Crossing this first one is all most travellers who venture this far do. We didn't attempt the climb in our low clearance Ford!
Birdsville township has been largely rebuilt over the past few years. All public buildings, with the exception of the old Court House (used once a year - after the Birdsville Races!), are new, built in the functional, generic style of modern western public edifices. There is even a new housing estate on the western side of town that could be on the western outskirts of any east coast city!
There were more than 20 points of interest on the Birdsville Town map and we managed them all in less than an hour (Big Red and the Pub excluded!).
Clearly, tourism is the new life blood of western towns like Birdsville and Windorah. Along with mining, oil and gas exploration and road construction, tourism is the new face of the west. Sadly, Drovers and Ringers are being replaced by Derrick men and Riggers as the new icons of Outback life. Backpackers from all over the world staff the tourist spots.
Pubs were what this trip was supposed to be about and the Birdsville Pub is one of the most famous in Queensland, if not Australia. We, of course, honoured it with our presence. It was packed both nights we visited - with tourists on fly-in tours of the Outback and (more interesting) travellers like us. A couple of old Aboriginal stockmen chatted up the girls at the bar. It almost felt as though they were part of the entertainment? Their grand parents are more than likely buried in the old town cemetery. The Aboriginal section of the cemetery contains some interesting graves, many with birth places listed simply as “Simpson Desert 1889”. Seems they just walked out of the desert. Walked into what? Maybe the old Stockmen at the end of the bar know?
The Toompine Pub is publicised as the “Pub with no town”. There once was a town, complete with two pubs, a police station, school, butcher, store and, of all things, a watchmaker-jeweller (not so surprising, really, in Opal country!). The pub is of special interest to us (aren't they all?). Paul's cousin is married to the son of the 30 year owner of the pub, Fred Houghton. Fred died a few years back and the pub has new owners, but it was interesting to have this distant connection. Camping here is free – with power, showers and toilets. A small group of travellers were rigged up when we arrived and it took us no time to become the recipients of all sorts of advice on the local services.
Places like this have loyal fans who come back year after year for a few days fishing and a quiet drink in this historic 1893 pub.
No pub tonight.
Sadly! The pub here is about a km up the road, so we've chosen to drink by a beautiful spot for the night. Having avoided emus, roos, sheep and cattle, tonight we are camped beside Wallam Creek, near the hamlet of Bollon. Amazingly, it's the first night we have had no power or showers, although there are showers for campers in town. The camp site is just typical western Queensland! Huge old coolibah trees edge the murky-creamy river, lined with campers, some with horses, some cooking on open fires, others with humming generators!
The Cunnamulla Show is on this coming weekend and we suspect a couple of our fellow campers are on their way. One lot have a combined horse float and caravan the length of a B-Double Semi! To add to the rustic scene their four horses are tethered amongst the trees by the river for the night.
News of what the radio calls a ‘Significant Weather Event’ in the south east of the state should have alerted us to a local change as well! This time of the year rain in these parts is extremely rare. Not this time! The edge of the torrential rain that is flooding Southeast Queensland and Northern New South Wales caught up with us during the night. And naturally, the minor tyre repair had been left to the morning! So there we were in the red mud changing a tyre on the van. Never mind. All was well and we headed off to our much awaited stop-over at the famous Nindigully Pub.
As you might have guessed, the rain only intensified during the day. By the time we reached the pub, the camping area was a sea of red slush. Far too boggy to risk an overnight stay..
The second Caravan Park of the trip and the biggest town we have stayed in. Still raining – even though it’s late May!
River bank Texas
Not that Texas!
This small Queensland border town is probably the most ‘caravan traveller friendly’ of our trip. A designated free camping area has been established beside the creek (which was in full flow!), there are special caravan parking areas in town and free hot showers are available in the town’s extremely clean public amenities block. The pub has $8 counter lunches and the breakfast we had at the local café filled us for the day for a total of $7 each (inc coffee and toast!).
Seems the local businesses love the passing trade fuelled by the hoards of ‘grey nomads’ that roam Australia’s highways. The only dissenting voice comes from the proprietor of the local Caravan Park!
And to think we almost by-passed this gem! We had set our sights on the small National Park of Boonoo Boonoo, just outside Tenterfield. About 100kms from the park, we became the victims of the ‘Significant Weather Event!’. Flood waters from the western slopes of the New England Tablelands cut the highway and were rising so fast that waiting the peak out was not an option, so we headed back into Queensland and so discovered the wonders of Texas!
3800kms of western roads lay behind us, some great little pubs, a cast of unforgettable characters and some of the most spectacular desert scenery we have ever seen. Our almost 12 months of campervanning in Europe over the past 20 years has probably helped us to be even more appreciative of the joys of caravan travel in our own country. It is so easy and relaxing! The nagging problems of traffic, getting lost, finding water, disposing of toilet waste and the dozens of other challenges that face us when travelling in Europe are non-existent.
We look forward to longer and more adventurous trips at home – But first off to the USA to drive The Pacific coast, I-80 east to Chicago and Old Route 66 to LA!