By the weekend, the road to Isisford had reopened, so we decided on Saturday, to drive the 100 kms south to explore the area. The road is a one-lane bitumen road and the shoulders were still quite soft. I’m rather glad the road-trains seemed to be taking the day off on that day as we didn’t encounter any, even though they use this road frequently. Isisford was named after the ford that originally crossed the Barcoo River near the Isis Downs Station.
The river was quite high although at the peak of the recent rain it was flowing one metre over the bridge that now crosses the river. I stood on the bridge for half an hour trying to capture a photo of some birds of prey that were hovering above. My bird enthusiast friend, Peter Latta, identified it for me as a Black Kite.
This town appears to have been in its prime around 1905 to 1910 when the area was heavily stocked with sheep. We had lunch at the pub and had quite a chat to the owner. She told us that at its peak, there were 25 shearing teams operating at Isis Downs and they took 3 months to shear the entire flock of sheep on the station. It seems that cattle are now replacing sheep although the climate in this area is more suitable to the production of wool.
There is not much in the town now other than a couple of pubs, a rather modern looking council building and a few old shops that are remnants of a once thriving town. At the site of significant old old buildings (many now missing) the council had erected a plaque that described what was once on that piece of land. They were very interesting to read and we enjoyed strolling along the street and learning about the town as it used to be. The locals are clearly not impressed with a recent Queensland Government’s decision to amalgamate many smaller shires into larger local government areas. This sign by the river says it all!
The old pub at the bottom end of the street by the river is ‘Clancy’s Overflow’ Hotel. Whilst the poet Banjo Patterson stayed near this town when he wrote the famous poem of the same name, the current owner (a Mr Clancy) is doing a good job of milking the name and reputation to full effect. I read somewhere that the letter that Banjo Paterson actually wrote to Clancy was in his capacity as a solicitor and it was actually a letter of demand.
On the way back to Longreach, we passed the Wellshot Station which was once the largest sheep station in the world. It used to occupy most of the land around Ilfracombe across to near Longreach. The homestead is set back about 500 metres from the road but it looked as though the original house may still be there although a new residence seems to have been constructed nearby. There was very little wildlife along the way, although we nearly ran over a large snake. When I reversed back to get as look at it, all I could see was it its tail disappearing into the grass. I sure wasn’t going to walk over to identify it!
Another large town, Winton, is ‘just up the road’ from Longreach (by local standards) and we drove north to there on Sunday. It’s 175 kms each way from Longreach and took just over 90 minutes to get there on a good two-lane road. Winton is famous as being the place where Banjo Paterson wrote the words to ‘Walting Maltida’ and he gave its first public recital in the North Gregory Hotel in the centre of town. The current building on this site is about the fourth version of a hotel to stand there – four previous ones being destroyed by fire (as was common in outback towns).
It says something about the town’s culture when the two most obvious racks of magazines in the news agency were 4×4 magazines and crossword puzzle books. There have been a number of dinosaur fossils found in the surrounding area but the road to the major visitor centre, eleven kilometres out of town, was still closed. Apparently, the staff were stranded there by floodwaters for seven days and relied on the food in the cafeteria to eat until they could be rescued.
Winton is a typical outback town with streets wide enough to be able to turn a bullock wagon. Many of the houses with big verandas for protection from the sun are somewhat dilapidated and any gardens mostly consist of gravel with a thirsty looking bush here and there. In the windows of the older pubs I could see old fashioned dining rooms set up with white table cloths and an old fashioned bar across the passage way that could be sluiced out with a bucket of water or two. I could smell an odour of both stale beer and greasy fat that had the same smell as when my mother roasted a leg of lamb in the kitchen.
There was a museum of Waltzing Matilda paraphernalia in the main street but it burned down about a year ago. As a major town, Winton does have some other historic places. It has one of the only two remaining open air movie theatres and the Winton Club where the first ever board meeting of Qantas was held. When the company was formed, the local council offered to pay up to 20 pounds as half the cost of the land necessary for a landing field.
The surrounding area is very flat and there is not much of interest along the highway. I guess that is why the water takes so long to drain away after rain. The black soil also makes the unmade roads very slippery. On our way back to Longreach, we were flagged down by two young Irish women who had their car stuck just of the turn off from the highway on a dirt road. They were only about 20 meters along the road but couldn’t get any traction. We couldn’t do much to help since we only had a rental car but I did suggest that they try reversing back onto the highway. It seems that being Irish, they hadn’t thought off this idea and they were able get moving enough to get back onto the bitumen.
On your final evening, we took a tour that included a boat tour on the Thompson River, just out of Longreach, It was followed by dinner with an entertainer who sang a variety of country songs. The Thompson River only runs periodically but there is a 17 kilometre long permanent water hole that provides Longreach with its water supply. The cruise on the river was hardly the most exciting boat ride ever but we enjoyed a nice golden sunset.
The outdoor dinner by a camp fire was fun included the traditional tea and damper.. I’m not a great fan of country music but the entertainer sang a lot of well known songs. His ‘Dad’ Jokes’ were probably about the same standard as my own.