Outback adventures aren’t supposed to be sad or poignant. Today was a litany of highlights on my 4,000 kilometre road trip into the heart of the world’s oldest continent Australia. However, when I discovered an historic site not recorded on any map, my emotions welled as I unavoidably recounted the forgotten events of two centuries ago that ripped the heart out of my family.
The day began nicely by arriving in Augathella on the banks of the Warrego River. It’s site the Qantas airline’s first crash in 1927, and home of Smiley Creevey of the famous 1956 movie. The film’s been screened here every year since then – until the movie theatre closed recently. The town is also home of the world’s most unusually named rugby league team Augathella Meat Ants, and old Terry and his cattle dog Shitfa, whom I met at the Augathella Mens Shed.
Further along the Landsborough Highway is Tambo the oldest town in western Queensland. For a quarter of a century now its produced the world famous Tambo Teddy. Today I adopted its 43,400th bear Lumeah Luther, made by Verna whom I met, and named after a property 80km outside of town. They record the number, owner, and new home, of every bear they create.
The Outback remembers her sons, and Blackall’s favourite is world champion shearer Jack Howe. In just over 7 hours back in 1892, he sheared a world record 321 sheep using hand shears. The mark was broken by a shearer using a mechanical handpiece in 1950. A bronze statue of Jack stands in the main street. Blackall is also the owner of the original Black Stump, beyond which you’re heading into nowhere. It sat on it, and felt strangely lost.
Barcaldine is over 1,000 kilometres west of Brisbane, and is home of the Tree of Knowledge under which the participants of the Great Shearers Strike of 1891 met. Ironically, no one knows who poisoned the tree not so long away. Across the road is the Commercial Hotel that was first built in 1887, burned to the ground in the Great Fire of 1909, rebuilt, burned down in the Great Fire of 1921, and rebuilt again. I sat beside the pub when I enjoyed a famous Barcee meat pie.
Twenty-one miles west of Barcaldine is the site of 21 Mile Bore, which in 1890 was home to the Railway Hotel and a temporary railway head. The place was later renamed Brixton, and a solitary sign still stands there today, unheralded and unseen by those passing on the highway. It’s not a town, or even a location, and doesn’t appear on any map. But I looked for it in the hope of finding the last resting place of my great-great-grandaunt Maggie McNeill. She died in this terribly lonely place in 1890 from the effects of excessive alcohol. She had earlier cared for her sister (my great-great-grandmother) Annie who died a young woman from tuberculosis in 1884. The Heaney girls were born during the famine in Boyle, County Roscommon, Ireland. I’ve visited where Maggie was born, and now also where she died, on the other side of the world in outback remoteness. I’m her only relative to do so in the 127 years since she passed away. The site was today covered by Mitchell grass, marked by a shot gun shell found with my metal detector, and broken bottles and porcelain from 1890 the year of her death – this was the only year the hotel was located there.
Maggie was buried by the publican. Her husband registered her death five months later at Wellshot Station. The following year the hotel was moved 50 miles further west to Ilfracombe where it still stands today.
I left 21 Mile Bore and continued to Winton. It’s the home of Australia’s national song Waltzing Matilda, which was penned there in 1895 by Banjo Paterson. The Winton Outback Festival was on when I visited, and the main street was filled with country entertainment. We went for dinner to the North Gregory Hotel, where Banjo’s song was first performed in public. It’s also where US president Lyndon B Johnson stayed when his plane crashed during the Second World War.
This is the hotel’s 4th iteration, having burned down three times. Out the back I listened to bush poet Gregory North who performed Banjo’s best ballads. I then adjorned to our campsite for the night, in the middle of the Winton race course. Writing this right now, I’m sitting under the Milky Way which is so stunningly visible here in the Outback bereft of light pollution. I can easily see the planets Jupiter and Saturn. I’m fully expecting to be woken by the early morning track work of Winton’s thoroughbreds. That would be perfectly appropriate in the land of Banjo Paterson, and where Maggie rests under the stars of the Southern Cross.