Brisbane, Stanthorpe, Texas, Goondiwindi, St George
I lived much of my life in Queensland but until now, I had never sampled the great “Outback”.
My father worked with the National Bank for many years and the custom used to be that every three or four years, employees were transferred to a new town and another step up the promotion ladder. Before I went to University in Brisbane, I had lived or gone to school in Atherton, Rockhampton, Beaudesert, Dalby, Stanthorpe, Boonah, Brisbane, Ipswich, Goombungee, Texas and Warwick.
While at boarding school in Warwick, there were boys from places with exotic names such as Dirranbandi, Thargomindah and Augathella. For me, these were not even names on a map – they just meant “Out there … somewhere …”
This journey enabled me to dip my toes in the Outback as well as to revisit some of the towns of my childhood and find some of those towns from the world of mysterious geography.
My little road trip ended up totalling over 2,300 km – or about the distance from London to Athens.
Brisbane – Stanthorpe
Heading South West from Brisbane, travellers pass by the delightfully named Mutdapilly Dip Road (1) and soon find themselves winding up the steep and bending road leading to Cunningham’s Gap – a mountain pass leading to what is now the Darling Downs area, discovered by Allan Cunningham in June 1827 – and no doubt by the original inhabitants of this region some millennia earlier.
On the road to the summit I heard a repeated TING or PING noise. I thought it was an indication that something was wrong with the car. There are twenty or thirty indicator lights on the dashboard, but I am not sure what they all represent. I believe one indicates when the ASX (Australian Stock Exchange) falls below 7000 points, and another shows when there is a new scandal with the Kardashians.
However, no lights were gleaming or flashing or throbbing. I wound down the window and the noise continued … and I suddenly realised:
- Aha! Bellbirds!
The bellbird (2) is a “colonial honeyeater” native to South-eastern Australia and their crisp, clear call slices through the air and reminds us why it is so good to be here! There are several well-marked walks in the Main Range National Forest, some with a good view back over the lower plains towards Brisbane.
The first major town along the lush green route is Warwick (population 15,000) and is the place I spent four years at oarding school. Apart from the lovely old sandstone Post Office and Town Hall, there was little I recognised from my time there in the 1960s. Recent floods had damaged many roads and bridges in and around Warwick – with huge trees piled up on the banks of the tiny creeks where farmers had dragged them out of the waterways following the floods.
Stanthorpe (pop 5,000) is about one hour from Warwick, and in autumn is approached through a glorious avenue of trees with drooping leaves turning yellow. I don’t know what the trees were – certainly not poplars, and certainly not sunflowers … as suggested by someone I spoke to at the Stanthorpe Visitors’ Centre. Whatever they are, they made a wonderful entry to the town.
I lived in this little town – then famous only for its apples – for about four years in the late 1950s – and was able to find our former house. I knocked on the door of the neighbouring house to see if the same family – or descendants of it – still lived there, but there was no one home.
I recall gawping in wonder as a child at a car parked outside the Post Office: this elaborate creation, all sweeping wings and fins and chrome and headlamps and taillights – a “Yank tank” as we called them then – was probably a 1950s Chevrolet Impala. Today there is a rather more tasteful flower garden parked in front of the Post office.
For a small town, this place seemed to have quite a good supply of pubs. One I immediately recognised was the Country Club Hotel in Maryland Street – the main street. Just before our family left Stanthorpe, we spent a couple of nights in this hotel. My parents had the left-hand end room on the front and my brothers and I had the second-end room.
For reasons best known to small boys, we had a “fight” with the aerosol mosquito sprays in our room. The air was so thick with pungent chemicals we had to seek refuge on the building’s awning hanging over the front footpath. Mum and Dad were not terribly impressed to find the three of us, in our pyjamas, crouching on the roof.
Another pub – O’Mara’s Hotel – was my home for one night on this journey. This 1910 double-storeyed place replaced an 1873 pub that burned down. It is a grand old place – but with its timber floorboards, its thin tongue-and-groove timber walls and its timber veranda floorboards it is a very noisy place – especially on a brisk Saturday evening when revellers revel until the early hours of the morning.
Spectacular sunsets and flocks of cockatoos squawking in the trees by the small creek that run through this pretty little town give it a more charming feeling than the one I had at half-past one in the morning of my night at O’Mara’s.
Stanthorpe – St George
About 100 km East of Stanthorpe the red soil of the Outback starts – a beautiful rich rusted iron colour lining the sides of the road and stretching off into the distance through trees that grow shorter and scragglier and less dense the further West you travel.
A narrow and twisted road leads SW from Stanthorpe to Texas. I used to love telling people I was going to Texas for the weekend. Not many Queenslanders had ever heard of this tiny town (pop about 800) and could not quite understand why I might be travelling to the USA for such a short time.
My family lived there in the mid-1960s while my father was Manager of the local National Bank. The old War Memorial Hall is still there – and I recall a concert held there featuring old Mrs Lee on her electric organ and local men and women trying to give a gay Parisian feeling to the roughly choreographed pieces under Mrs Lee’s direction.
In those days, Texas was a centre for tobacco production but there did not seem to be any tobacco in the fields when I drove by on the way to Yelarbon – the first place in Queensland to grow tobacco, and now perhaps more widely known for the superb painted silos that jut out above the flat flood plains.
Goin’ ta Gundi
The road leading west to Goondiwindi (pronounced, for some reason, GUN da windy) used to be a single lane with heavy gravel at the edge of the thin strip of asphalt, giving it the nickname “The Crystal Highway” because of the nearly continuous piles of broken windscreen glass beside the road.
These days the road is a dual carriage way and there was no glass in sight. Thirty or so kilometres East of Gundi the roadside displayed kilometres of prickly pear trees, heavily laden with fruit (3). As kids we delighted in eating this fruit: carefully plucking the fruit, rubbing it on the ground to remove the zillions of tiny prickly spines, then plunging our teeth into the rich crimson flesh. After a couple of bites our teeth, tongues, lips and mouths looked like those of a Transylvanian after a night on the prowl.
Goondiwindi (pop 11,000) is a pretty, prosperous-looking inland city that was voted “The Best Regional Town of Queensland” – but I don’t know who voted for it. It is the home of Gunsynd, a famous racehorse from the region that won many major races, and was named Australia’s champion racehorse for the 1971 – 1972 season.
These days his silhouette tops all the flag poles in the main street past the splendid Victoria Hotel. The local racecourse is named Gunsynd Park (I was too early for the 2021 Goondiwindi Picnic Races, which were to be held a week or so after my brief visit), and one of the pubs has a room called the Gunsynd Gaming Bar complete with slot machines, Keno and live television coverage of horse races around Australia.
In addition to the Gunsynd industry, the region grows cotton, oats, barley, sorghum and wheat, and I was told the huge silos are capable of storing 300,000 tonnes of grain.
Prior to this visit, I think I had been to Goondiwindi just once or twice before. The most recent visit was in 1966 when I and several other boys from my boarding school entered a one-act play competition. A couple of masters from the school loaded us into their cars and off we chugged (one of the cars was a very old VW) and on with the play!
I don’t remember the name of the play, but our costumes involved lots of big cloaks, hats with feathers in them and lots of stuck-on fake beards and cardboard swords. I don’t know if we won, got a place or an “Honourable Mention” or if we simply peeled off the beards and chugged back to Warwick.
That was my first encounter with fame and fortune … and the rest, as they say, is history! Oscars, Emmys, Tony Awards, the NY Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Golden Globes, a star or two outside Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles: none of these ever came my way.
On the road again
I think I would rather have seen at least one Oscar – even if it was a WWII plaster model – coming my way, than one of Queensland’s famous “road trains”.
Roadside signs warn motorist about the perils of doing battle with road trains, saying that they may be up to fifty-three metres long – about the distance that Jamaican athlete Usain Bolt covers in four and a half seconds. But for me that sort of time is meaningless. I saw ahead of me a vast blue and white rectangle that I thought was a sign for a major road intersection but as it got closer, I realised it was the cabin of a road train hurtling towards me.
- Passive road sign? Pah! Massive behemoth? Yes!
This vehicle, to use the word rather loosely, was possibly every centimetre of fifty metres long, and even with a combined closing speed of over two hundred kilometres an hour, the thing seemed to take a day and a half to go past me.
Fortunately, I never had to overtake one of these beasts. I doubt that my little red Mazda would have quite had the beans to achieve such a momentous feat any time this century.
Next stop – St George.
A pretty little town of about 3000 people, St George was named by explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell who arrived there on St George’s Day (23 April) in 1846. The air was heavy with the scent of mock orange blossoms and frangipani, and hedges of orange and gold lantana decked the fences of some houses.
Situated on the busy Balonne River, St George is known as Queensland’s Inland Fishing Capital: it seems that every town worth its weight in cotton or sorghum wants to be able to claim fame for something. My little red Mazda motor car (see above) developed something of an inferiority complex in the motel carpark.
It was certainly a case of “Mine is bigger than yours” as my car was dwarfed by huge four-wheel drive pickup trucks heavily laden with fishing rods, camping paraphernalia, LED light bars and spotlights and coffin-sized ridged metal boxes bolted onto rear trays. I don’t know if all this was simply for show, or if the drivers of these cars actually fished in the local river. Lovely walkways stretched for several kilometres along its flood-swollen shores, and ended at the Andrew Nixon bridge with its massive Jack Taylor Weir.
(Aha! Who said “I before E except after C” …? Isn’t that weird …?)
Just out of this town are two other places worth a quick detour – Thallon boasts several painted silos, but I did not like them as much as the ones I had seen earlier at Yelarbon. And the 1846 Nindigully pub is a much-frequented place – perhaps for its isolation – or was it for its infamous 5,5 kg Road Train Burger – an almost obscene amount of food squashed between a couple of bread rolls and topped with a veritable logjam of French fries.
My Caesar salad was quite a timid little thing in comparison – but very tasty, and good to set me up for the next long, long leg of the journey.
- I liked the sound of Mutdapilly Dip Road – but there are many great-sounding names in Australia, drawing mainly from the many First Nations Peoples’ many languages: Boggabilla, Wonglepong, Wagga Wagga, Eromanga, Barringun and so many more. I saw a caravan with a sticker on the rear window that I thought was another town: Bugga Milkin … but on reflection I realised this was just what the driver, a disgruntled dairy farmer, had to say for his past history.
- To hear these beautiful birds: youtube.com/watch?v=_72WGRT0mJw)
- Prickly pear fruit image from Internet
Text and photographs © Christopher Hall April 2021
In my blogs I try to present a snapshot of the places I have discovered during a brief visit. I am not trying to present a detailed picture of the whole city or the whole region or the whole country.
If you enjoyed this story please scroll down to see earlier stories and forward the blog address to your friends: www.hallomega.com
If you would like to receive automatic notification of future postings on this blog please click the FOLLOW button on your screen.
If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight.