LONGREACH, Queensland, Australia – Stoplights do not exist in these parts, but Longreach is justly pleased with its traffic roundabout (rotary). “First one west of the Great Dividing Range, maybe a couple of hundred miles,” says Alan “Banjo” Blunt. “And don’t miss the sign that tells where the Tropic of Capricorn runs through town.”
It’s about the only thing that runs. Pace is slow in the Outback heat. If there is a rat race in Queensland, it’s 800 miles distant in Brisbane, the gleaming, modern capital on the northeast coast. But that doesn’t mean folks aren’t lively, and more welcoming than a waterhole in the neighboring Simpson Desert.
At the moment, Banjo Blunt, nicknamed thusly by locals for his flair in reciting the bushland poetry of Australian favorite, A .B. “Banjo” Paterson, is entertaining at an indoor oasis, the barroom of the Commercial Hotel. As the proprietors, Roly and Anne Gooding, and customers rest their elbows and listen, Blunt, glass in hand, declaims:
” ‘Twas the horse thief, Andy Regan, that was hunted like a dog / By the troopers of the upper Murray side / They had searched in every gully – they had looked in every log / But never sight or track of him they spied.”
What brought that up? Well, thievery had been a conversational topic on his tourist boat, the Yellow Belly, that Blunt pilots through the wilds up and down the Thomson River every evening, grasping the wheel in one hand, a microphone in the other. Alas, not a hand free for a whiskey, but that comes later anyway.
Outback outlaws – bush rangers – are legendary in northwestern Queensland, as in its American counterpart, the Old West. Blunt, a gregarious middle-ager, had been regaling us with tales of the regional black hat hero called Captain Starlight as we passed Cassidy’s Knob in the indigo serenity of dusk, a height also known as Starlight’s Lookout.
Starlight (born Henry Readford) was a brazen cattle duffer (rustler), who used the hill to scout prospective income on the hoof. In 1870, he pulled his biggest herd heist, stealing 1,000 head from a station (ranch) at Mount Cornish. With two accomplices, he drove them about 1,500 dry and rugged miles over the state border and into South Australia, where he peddled his loot. Three years later, the captain was apprehended, tried – and acquitted. The jury was undoubtedly impressed by his improbable feat that trailblazed what became a popular route.
“Far’s I know,” says Blunt, “Banjo Paterson didn’t write anything about Starlight, so the horse thief Regan is the best I can do tonight.” He concludes the recital fittingly in bravura basso with Regan’s funeral:
“So they buried Andy Regan, and they buried him to rights / In the graveyard at the back of Kiley’s Hill / There were five-and-twenty mourners who had five-and-twenty fights /Till the very boldest fighters had their fill.
“There were fifty horses racing from the graveyard to the pub / And their riders flogged each other all the while / And the lashin’s of the liquor! And the lavin’s of the grub! / Oh, poor Andy went to rest in proper style.”
Much applause, then a round on the house from publican Gooding, whose wares include such canned curios as rum and Coke, Jack Daniel’s and Coca-Cola, Jim Beam and Coca-Cola. My Boston pal, Dee Wallace, wouldn’t approve of her friend Jack commingling with anything but water. But keeping him in the icebox in a flip-top can might be handy.
The Commercial’s excellent $ 6 T-bone steak is more to my liking, and Roly says friend Aurelio and I do meet the rigid qualifications of his neatly printed barroom directive: “Dress rules apply.”
“No bare feet or bodies, mate.”
Longreach, a pleasant community of 3,200, gains welcome shade from roofed sidewalks downtown and tall gum trees. The architectural prize goes to the handsome 82-year-old wooden railroad station, white with red roof and green trim. But the older Welcome Home Hotel – a tribute to Boer War veterans – in blue-trimmed white timber is a contender.
“You would have loved our old place,” says Roly, noting a photo of the original Commercial Hotel, built in the same late-19th-century gingerbread style. “We lost it in a fire. I wasn’t there at the time, but luckily Anne and the two kids escaped by jumping from the second story.”
“My back hasn’t been the same since,” she winces.
Their present establishment in this ornithologically-minded town is on Eagle Street near the corner of Duck. “Land bird streets, Robin and Galah, for instance,” she explains, “run north and south. Water birds like Swan and Snipe, east and west.”
Out on Plover are the most compelling reasons to visit: the Stockman’s Hall of Fame & Outback Heritage Centre and, across the street, the Qantas Founders Museum. All over Australia small towns, regardless of seeming insignificance, are extremely conscious and proud of their heritage. This shows in the construction and maintenance of museums, often extraordinary and well out of proportion to population and isolated location.
Extraordinary, indeed, are the Stockman’s and Qantas, done in style and quality that would be appreciated in any city in the world. However, I feel the Stockman’s, alluding to ranchers, is a misleadingly missnamed mouthful. It really is a monument to the pioneering spirit of all those who settled very difficult country, and the aborigines whose land they invaded.
Small quibble. Once entering the portals in the brilliantly-hued facade – a horseshoe tinted in purples and rust dividing two hemi-horseshoes – you could spend hours wandering and gawking, listening and absorbing on several levels. Paintings, photographic displays, antiques, lifelike scenes, audio and visual presentations vividly chronicle human ordeals and triumphs in demanding lives.
A knockout is the Old Drover. A computerized cowboy, he sits beside a bush camp fire while his mates sleep, telling tales with a wink about his cattle-driving days. He probably knew Captain Starlight. When O. D. finishes his spiel, you want to ask this very human dummy for his autograph.
Gripping and absolutely chilling is another tale, told through earphones and priming your imagination. An actress reads the words of a farm wife recounting the stalking of herself and two small children in their kitchen by a huge, poisonous brown snake – and how they survive.
Much less imposing in structure but nonetheless meaningful is the Qantas museum. It is nothing more (or less) than a large iron shed, the first hangar of a rural enterprise started in 1920 by adventurous young Aussies that would become the excellent globe-spanning airline with the odd-looking name. Yes, Qantas has a meaning: Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services.
Launched here to introduce airplanes in the form of scenic rides for trusting and inquisitive inhabitants, Qantas would, in the words of William Hughes, the Australian prime minister at the time, “deliver us from the fetters imposed by our remoteness.”
Soon the early open-cockpit planes, crafted of spruce and plywood, fleshed out with Irish linen, were carrying mail and passengers at a wondrous 70 m.p.h., and putting the country in touch with itself, eventually the world. The hangar became a factory where for a while Quantas built its own planes. “We were the first airline to do that,” says a company man, Wally Mariani.
Some of those daring ancient old planes have been preserved here, along with tools of their construction and the gramophone whose music cheered workmen in the sweltering (pre-air–conditioning) building. Prominent among the souvenirs of another time are important instructions to Outbackers on “How to receive an aeroplane”:
“Build a smoke fire (to aid the pilot with wind direction), and make sure the landing ground is free of stock and other obstructions.”
Banjo Paterson preceded air travel, but his lines from “In The Droving Days” might apply to the experience of low-flying pilots and passengers in the formative years:
“We saw the fleet wild horses pass / And the kangaroos through the Mitchell grass / The emu ran with her frightened brood / All unmolested and unpursued.”