Outback: where is Longreach?
So, Longreach then. What does the name conjure up? Weather maps, the Stockman's Hall of Fame, Qantas, a long way west, Akubra hats and other cowboy clobber? Maybe you've never heard of it.
Longreach isn't where I thought it was. It isn't up Mount Isa way, but 650 kilometres to the southeast. It isn't in northern Queensland; it's due west of Rockhampton, on the Tropic of Capricorn. It may be nearly 1200 kilometres from Brisbane but it's fewer than 700 kilometres from the sea. The name derives from the long reach of the Thomson River. In 2010, millions of locusts invaded the town – more than there'd been for decades, according to locals – following two good wet seasons.
After where we'd been, Longreach seemed huge: its population is around 3000-4000, massive by Outback standards. There are several sizeable motels, peopled by large numbers of workers, not just grey nomads and tourists. There were extensive beautification works ongoing along Eagle Street, the main drag. Many road trains trundle along the Landsborough Highway which more or less cuts the town in two. All in all, much more bustle than we'd seen for a while.
When you plan a trip, you can only do so much research beforehand; talk to so many people; then ultimately you have to choose where to go and what to do based on no direct experience. Inevitably, you'll later wish you had an extra day here; or fewer days there. I'd say Longreach was in the latter category. Having been in the middle of nowhere for days, we didn't fancy the usual kind of tourist stuff with lots of other people: museums, stagecoach rides, river cruises with dinner, helicopter rides, yee-har Outback shows. The Stockman's Hall of Fame was the exception.
We spent our first morning mooching along Eagle Street. Some shops look old-established, but aren't; others are genuinely of a bygone era; many fulfil a need for Outback paraphernalia.
Then it was time to get out of town, to Lily Lagoon, a 15-minute drive on the Winton (Landsborough Highway) and Muttaburra roads. It's a temporary waterhole created by the Thomson River system after good rains. It obviously wasn't the lily season, although I did find one still in flower. Some claim this lily is only found here. The Lagoon is an important refuge for birds, and I've never seen so many Cormorants congregating. There were also Darters, Egrets, Ducks and – not on the water – White-plumed Honeyeaters. Unfortunately cattle were trampling the shoreline: do they get everywhere?
On the way back to to town, Longreach Saleyards caught my eye. This is cattle country – and there were lots of patterns. Sheep are also big business in the region, and, increasingly, tourism.
The Thomson River was a little disappointing after others in the region. Apex Park turned out to be a huge overcrowded caravan park, so I looked in the other direction. A normally skittish White-necked Heron stayed remarkably poised as we walked past him over the footbridge.
The railway reached Longreach in 1892. Outback train stations seem to have become my latest obsession. Trains pass through Longreach only every few days, but when I turned up to photograph the station, I was told there was one due in 15 minutes. So I sat on the platform and waited like a passenger. But it wasn't a passenger train. At least the wagons were covered.
It was a beautiful evening. We ate in our motel restaurant, which was surprisingly good.
Next up was the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre – to give it its full name. The building's design is empathetic with its well-presented content, the history and culture of rural life in Australia. Outside stands The Ringer (stockman or cowboy) with the inscription: 'He loved every minute it brought him, This beautiful outback so fine'.
Inside there are five themed galleries that describe the geological formation of the Australian continent to its first inhabitants and explorers; the pioneers who followed the explorers, and the first pastoralists; the struggle of settlers on difficult land in a harsh climate; the development of townships and all aspects of outback life, including the valuable roles of Aborigines and women; and a detailed insight into stockmen at work and at play. Exhibits are punctuated with stories of famous characters, homesteads and companies; accounts of unsung heroes whose experiences and effort typified their era; audiovisual presentations; reconstructions of settlers' cottages, bullock wagons, homestead kitchens and a flying doctor plane; and thousands of artefacts, photographs and artistic interpretations of a much-celebrated way of life.
We could have spent a lot longer. I wish two things: that there was more light on the exhibits. I found myself peering at info panels in half light, but maybe it's supposed to make you feel as if you're back in time. Of greater disappointment, however, was the absence from the bookshop of a weighty tome including all the information and images we'd been engrossed in for four hours. There used to be one, we were told.
That evening we returned to the Stockman's Museum site, to the Cattlemen's Bar and Grill for supper, largely for one reason – so I could eat damper. Damper is traditional bush tucker, bread made from flour and water, and cooked in the ashes of the camp fire. It was an explorer's staple food among meagre rations. When expeditions stretched into years, it was often the only food. It's supposed to be hearty and, in photographs from way back when, it's always round and dense-looking. Mine was round but there the similarity ended. On cutting, it was light and insubstantial, full of air and holes and wouldn't slice; what we'd call a cob back home; an overgrown bread roll, basically. What a disappointment; good job the rest of the food was good. There was a yee-har show if you wanted to combine it with dinner in a deal. We didn't.
The following morning we were off at first light to our final destination of the trip, Carnarvon Gorge National Park. We had arrived in Longreach in the dark, so I made sure I snapped the welcome sign as we headed east on the Landsborough Highway.
In Longreach all the streets are named after birds: those running east to west are for the most part named after water birds; and north-south after land birds. This was a bit perplexing at times. Hundreds of noisy Little Corellas were congregated in Galah Street.
Other favourite photos of Longreach – which grew on me after a couple of days – included these.
The only good Cane Toad is a squashed one, I imagine they say in the Outback.