Queensland’s outback towns may still be struggling with the impact of drought, but they are now more than ever engaging communities and outsiders in unique events. Tourist attractions like Winton’s Vision Splendid film festival, Birdsville’s Big Red Bash, Boulia’s camel races, an outback golf tournament and the national silo art trail are just a few of the initiatives. Attractions and events are primarily organised by locals (and sponsors) as a way of attracting cash-spending visitors and giving locals some respite from the hard life on the parched land.
Travel writers tend to visit places for a day or two, then write about them as if they’ve lived there for a lifetime. It’s quite a skill and I’ll admit to doing this presumptuous thing in the interests of whetting your appetite for outback travel. Though we spent only 10 days in Western Queensland on this trip, we picked up more than a few pieces of information and inspiration.
For one thing, there’s a kerosene tin hut built in the grounds of Morven’s historical museum. The hut is made from flattened kerosene tins, held together with staples and built over a light timber framework. There are few remaining examples of Australia’s ‘tin towns’, which sprung up on the outskirts of towns and cities during the Great Depression. (Photo by Laurel).
Small western towns like Morven and Bollon need the support of visitors. Local people have less to spend as a result of the ongoing drought. Some have made an attempt to attract and keep visitors, especially the ubiquitous grey nomads. Travellers are important to the rural economy; they spend money in supermarkets, hardware stores, pubs, clubs and petrol stations.
We were horrified to learn that Bollon, a town of 334 people, has lost its last service station. If you don’t happen to see the sign on the highway between St George and Cunnamulla, chances are you might run out of fuel on the 294-km journey.
Even when outback towns do have a service station, there are no guarantees. On the way home we limped into Charleville with six litres of fuel left, after finding that Quilpie’s service station had run out of fuel – drained dry by the convoy of grey nomads and 4WD adventurers heading 625 kms to Birdsville for the Big Red Bash.
The Bash is a three-day outdoor music festival held in mid-July. This year it was headlined by Midnight Oil, the Living End, Richard Clapton and Kasey Chambers. At $539 a ticket, not to mention the cost of driving 1,600 kms (from Brisbane), you’d want to be keen. Last year, the Bash raised more than $100,000 for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. This year, 9,169 people attended, including volunteers, crew, kids, sponsors and vendors.
Meanwhile, the Boulia Camel Races are now scheduled to follow on from the Big Red Bash. If you are already at Birdsville, all you have to do is drive another 200 kms or so to Boulia, a tiny outpost on the edge of the Simpson Desert.
The 1,500m Boulia Camel Cup was won this year by a local camel, Wason. About 5,000 people came to Boulia (pop 230) for the two-day event, which featured heats over short distances before the main race on Sunday. If you are game, there are bookies on hand to take your bets.
The jockeys (who wear protective head gear), sit on small saddle pads behind the camel’s hump. There are no reins – the camels steer themselves down the racetrack (and can be disqualified for running in the opposite direction!)
July is the main month for outback tourism events, as the weather is at its most stable, with mild day temperatures and cool nights. In Charleville, an intrepid team set about cooking the world’s longest damper. At 153 metres, it surpassed a 125m-long damper made by Swedish boy scouts in 2006. The Guinness Book of Records is yet to officially recognise the attempt, but it’s in the oven, as they say. The event, organised by the Charleville Fishing and Restocking Club, involved a large team of volunteers who made the damper and then baked it in a 153m trench filled with hot charcoal.
Hundreds of locals and visitors attended the event, which made news bulletins far and wide. No doubt, that was the whole point. She Who Drives Most Of TheTime once amazed some Belgian backpackers at Carnarvon Gorge. She mixed up a batch of damper (flour, water, herbs and baking powder) in our 12-foot caravan. She then wrapped it in a piece of tin foil (first manufactured in 1910, in case you were wondering), and threw it in the camp fire. The primitive nature of this kind of cooking, the sweet smell of burning wood and campfire camaraderie perhaps convinces us that it tastes better than it does.
Damper is a traditional Australian soda bread, enjoyed in eras past by swagmen, drovers and stockmen. The basic recipe, one could suggest, was derived from bread prepared and baked in the coals of a campfire by Australia’s indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
Small towns in grain-growing districts are increasingly embracing the idea of having artists paint murals on grain silos. The most recent example of this is at Yelarbon, 300 kms south-west of Brisbane. The first stage of the silo art project by artist group Brightsiders was completed in May.
A viewing station is being built so visitors can get off the highway and admire this artwork on the edge of the spinifex desert. The rural scene is titled ‘When the rain comes’. Local sources tell us that 100 visitors a day are stopping in Yelarbon to view the artwork, funded by the Federal Government’s Drought Communities Programme.
If film festivals are your thing, Winton’s Vision Splendid festival in June is quite an experience. Maleny residents Robyn and Norm Dobson spent 10 days at Winton’s Vision Splendid film festival this year. They took a train from Nambour to Longreach and then a coach to Winton – a 24-hour journey.
“We booked a sleeper,” Robyn said. “We couldn’t do that trip sitting in a recliner for 24 hours.”
She observed that a lot of the people in Winton for the festival were grey nomads, strengthening her theory that the survival of small outback towns depend on annual festivals. Films are shown at Winton’s famous open air theatre, with day-time films shown at the (new) Waltzing Matilda Centre.
Robyn and Norm were impressed with the 1949 British-made film, “The Eureka Stockade” starring Chips Rafferty, with a yet-to-be-famous Peter Finch in a minor role. The other highlight of the festival was the now-traditional silent movie feature. This year it was the 1906 film, The History of the Kelly Gang.
Our country town of Maleny had its own tourism event in July – Knitfest (a yarn and fibres art festival). Preparations for this included dressing street trees (and cow sculptures) in knitted garments. This event predictably saw visitor numbers to the town swell.
On the Southern Downs, the Jumpers and Jazz Festival will be winding up this weekend. This Warwick-based festival is a bit like Stanthorpe’s Snowflakes (July 5-7), in that both make a celebration out of being among the coldest places in Queensland.
I guess it could have been easier to do that instead of trekking to Thargomindah. But we did get to see green grass in several areas and most of the creeks we passed had at least a little water in them – not something we’ve seen on our previous outback treks. Ed)