From Mitchell to Charleville, the search begins…
I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.
– Herman Hesse, Demian
The steady hum of the highway on the muddies has become part of the background noise. The road in my rear view mirror, front lit by the sun I’m driving desperately into, is awash in colour, the asphalt a black prism conveyor belt back to home and the coast.
In front of me is an endless straight stretch of highway that seems to reach all the way to the Indian Ocean. It runs in washed out, muted colours to a pinpoint with the setting sun at its apex. Scrubby gums line the road, every few hours they are a bit thinner, and the roos a bit thicker grazing on the long paddock, the rainwater washoff from the road, a deadly combination of weather and highway engineering.
I am hunting a fickle prey: definition. Like the countless interlopers who have scoured the country’s dead heart looking for legendary treasure, I’m looking for the outback. The real one – removed from kitsch signage and glossy brochures. I’m looking for the people that eke a living out of this landscape, which grows more barren by the minute.
I’m looking for the outback that lives within them, the outback that existed long before they came here, before, even, the aboriginals rocked up 50,000 years ago. The land has barely changed in that space of time. The human drama soaks into the surface and evaporates as quickly as desert dew.
Mitchell lies on the Warrego Highway nearly 100km west of Roma. If you ask someone in Miles where the outback lies they will tilt their head west and say, ah…Roma, mate. Ask the same question in Roma and they’ll say Mitchell.
I pushed through the night into Mitchell, making miles between the road trains and dim lights of caravans nestled into roadside stops for the night.
Dawn on Mitchell lights up a town that once was. I’m watching it from the creaking wooden balcony of the Hotel Richards, a throwback to the days when gold could make any man rich, a hotel beyond its prime but holding on in a relatively honest simulacrum of its former glory.
I love staying in these old joints, though – the threat of ghosts in the hallways, the doors and louvre windows with a century of paint on them and the little sink in the room all provide a kind of hotel vérité that’s getting harder and harder to find these days thanks to the unpainted brick highway motels with Spanish names and as much character as Keanu Reeves.
Irene walks into the hotel to say hello, carrying a book she’s written with some of the local aboriginals, a kind of scrapbook on their recent history. I flip it open to a page from the local newspaper dated 1964. It was written a few days after the town bulldozed the humpies the aboriginals had been living in for decades, forcing them into town to assimilate easier. There is always an alternate history, and here on the banks of the Maranoa River, paradise was, yet again, lost.
Railway towns dot the verge like postboxes, blurring past the windows of the truck as you slow down for the zig-zag of the railway crossing, then fading in acceleration. These are remnants, also, of a different time.
The Cobb & Co stage company used to travel this same stretch of road as early as the 1890s. Most of the watering holes from then are long gone – old pubs have a habit of burning down from candles and bad debts.
Mungallala retains its hotel, a squat little building discernable only by the name of the hotel printed in large green letters on the corrugated roof.
Inside the place is never empty – the walls covered in signatures and paraphernalia, including a photo of a radish that has been hanging in a plastic bag on the wall for at least three years. I signed my name on the wall, had a pot of XXXX with a handle and jumped back into the saddle, next stop, Morven Hotel.
Morven sits at the crossroads of the Landsborough and Warrego highways, funneling traffic from the west of Qld into two lanes, yet the local pub is as sparse as a waiting room. Drinking ice-cold beer doesn’t require decoration on the walls, or much else depending upon your level of sophistication, but the Morven Hotel is a shell of its former existence. And so the road rolled on, into what was once the matron of the outback, Charleville.
I feel at home in Charleville. For whatever reason, it feels like a town that is happy with itself, that understands its identity and feels comfortable in its own skin. Charleville is a real outback town, but with a dignity most lack. The Hotel Corones probably has a lot to do with that. Designed to be the biggest, most ostentatious hotel in the region, it stretches over an entire block, its verandah running the entire length.
It took five years to complete building this titanic pub, with accouterments including what was, at the time, the longest bar in the southern hemisphere. The Cosmos Centre just out of town is worth a visit too, with lots of information about the night sky, and the visibility out here is some of the best in the country thanks to the dry weather. Go on, learn something – it only hurts at first.
My mate Pearso lives in Charleville too and he always makes it a warm visit. I checked the yabby pots with his kids, but all we found was one cherabin, or freshwater prawn. The drought has wide-reaching effects, decimating fish stocks, local wildlife and livestock. Further west, the roos are literally dropping dead in the desert.
The next morning we headed down to see the local footy matches between the kids from Augathella and the Charleville locals. These semi-fierce competitions are the glue that binds these outback communities.
Families chat around the outside of the field about weather, schools, and the inevitable conclusion to the day at the Hotel Corones later, after the seniors beat each other into a pulp. These days help create a collective consciousness to the outback, a stable medium for community to develop.
As I pull out of Charleville, I stare back into the shaking mirrors. This is the real outback, for sure. It’s the place I was looking for, the people I was looking for. But now it was time to head deeper, further into the interior of the continent. It can only get stranger, more beautiful from here.
MORVEN is located in the Shire of Murweh in southwest Queensland. The town is located on the Warrego Highway, approximately 90km to the east of Charleville and 665km west of Brisbane. Morven is located close by to the Tregole National Park.
CHARLEVILLE is the largest town in southwest Queensland’s Shire of Murweh, and is located approximately 685km west of Brisbane. The town is situated on the banks of the Warrego River and is accessed via the Warrego Highway, which terminates at the town.
Europeans first explored the area where present-day Charleville stands in 1847, and a hotel was established there in 1865. The town quickly grew up around the hotel to service the region.
THE CORONES HOTEL is located at 33 Wills Street, Charleville, and opened its doors back in 1929, after being built on the existing site of the Normal Hotel. This is an establishment worthy of the name of an outback pub, and is home to a huge bar that at one time was said to be the largest in the southern hemisphere. The hotel is also home to a spacious beer garden, serves up some fantastic counter meals and offers guests a choice of comfortable and affordable accommodation.
For more information visit www.hotelcorones.com.au