June 06, 2014

Beast of the Plains

Words and photos by Carlisle Rogers

Queensland’s Outback is a mechanic for men’s souls.

Things change when you head west. We know this instinctively. The cowboy riding into the sunset is not an accident of Hollywood, a silver-screen coincidence. They ride into the west because they’ve lived another day. One journeys to the frontier for nothing more than freedom, and freedom is always hard won. The silhouette of the saddle clomping off into red is a kind of unconscious symbol for the warrior’s journey to Valhalla - the cowboy is free, and alive, for now, until the sun rises again tomorrow.
But that isn’t the only thing that happens when you embark out into the ubiquitous, necessary scrub of the Australian interior. The people around you change. At first it’s almost imperceptible. Someone at a roadhouse stops to ask you if you’d like another cup of coffee. A man wearing dress pants and an old western shirt with mother of pearl buttons comes out to fill up your car and washes your window while you poke around in the old store, where stock still remains on the formica shelves from the 1950s.
As you move deeper into the outback your own misanthropy begins to slough away, like your worries, and your deadlines and everything else that we’ve built up around ourselves like urban scabs to help deal with the subtle nightmare that most of us endure in the day to day.
Maybe it is because that never existed for the people out here in the big sky country. Maybe it’s just the big sky - I sometimes ponder whether there is some physical explanation for what seems like a metaphysical phenomenon: that perhaps the human eye, evolved on the plains of Africa to hunt prey, and to avoid being hunted by the primeval big cat, needs to focus on the long distance of a razor flat horizon; that when it does not, we feel as trapped as that big cat would in a cage.
After all, if the eyes are the windows to the soul, surely the soul is looking out. And what could be more evil than the stifling closeness of a city skyline for years after years if, in fact, our souls, and our bodies, secretly yearn for the plains that made mankind the beast that he has become, for better or worse.

 

When I roll into Charleville, which to me has always been the eastern flank of the real Outback in Qld, the place where the hospitality quotient flips over and you know you are definitely somewhere completely different than where you left, a guy walks past the car and before I can even kill the engine, lets me know my lights are on.
Last time I passed through here, one of the local cops stopped me on the street so his kids could say hello. His name was Pearso and he invited me back to his house to pick up a couple of yabby pots and sent me down to his favourite local camping spot on the Ward River.
I was keen to catch a yellowbelly this trip, as I’ve never had much luck with this native species, and when I rocked up to town, Adam met me and offered to show me around Charleville.
It wasn’t a long tour, but there is a lot to do around town, and it isn’t one of those places you should only schedule a day or so for.

The Foxtrap Roadhouse in Cooladdi is a great place to cool your heels


Between the astronomical delights down at the observatory, the historic pubs and about a million other little tourist diversions, you could be forgiven for sticking around a while.
And, of course, this is the beginning of yellowbelly country. There’s a sign in the middle of town that tells you.
Adam stuck his head in the door at home and yelled to the kids that we were going fishing. Within about six seconds three boys and a dog were already in the car. I’ve never seen anything like it.

if you’re feeling like you can do anything, the $14 Cooladdi King is a burger that will challenge your idea of what you’re capable of eating in one sitting.

We loaded up the boat and headed out to a secret spot. Well, it didn’t end up being a secret worth keeping. We did do our bit for the environment, though, and caught nearly a dozen carp, which we burned on a small pyre to ensure they didn’t make it back into the ecosystem. These pest fish destroy habitat for the local fish, and it’s a crime to throw them back.
Adam laid one of the boys’ rods down on the ground and turned around. A second later, it was in the water, snatched by a hungry fish and gone forever.
Two hours later, his missus catches another carp, but this one was still on the end of Adam’s rod, and we got the whole kit back with some careful winding.
That’s the outback. A hard place where good luck happens all the time. A land of the driest nights and the wettest days, populated by people who have left the hustle and bustle for whatever reason, but I think there’s a certain sanity test in this place. If you’re here, you’re one of the sane. If you’re still doing the rat race, you need to start questioning things a bit more. Pearso came out here because being a cop was a bad thing on the Gold Coast. Here, he gets to help people, to become a part of the community, not just a wage slave tied to a quota.

Quilpie’s main street hasn’t changed much over the years

From Charleville it was a quick run out to Quilpie, but I dropped in on my mate at Cooladdi. Gavin has been running the Foxtrap Roadhouse for the last few years and he’s doing alright.
Since I hadn’t caught a yellowbelly yet, he invited me out with him and a mate to try with them in the Cooladdi waterhole, which is a deep section of the Paroo River just outside Yarronvale station.
His mate was half aboriginal, half Irish if I remember right, and had the uncanny knack of landing yellas. If it was on, he would be reeling them in by the dozen. If he wasn’t catching anything, you moved on. Central to his technique was splashing the tip of his rod in the water every few minutes to excite the yellas in the muddy water.
I asked if the water ever cleared up enough to use lures out here. Nope, was the reply, the water always looks like this in the channel country.


It’s nearly as quiet at 3pm as it is here, at dawn.

We snagged a couple of baby yellas, and I landed my first, barely big enough to keep.
I have to say, the meat was sweet enough, but you don’t get much off these fish. They’d be better as a stew if you had to live off them.
Quilpie is a sleepy little outpost, the last bastion of civilisation, unless you count Windorah. And if you count Windorah as civilisation, you’ve been out too far west for too long.
Quilpie is home to a great little pub, the Imperial Hotel. The meals here are great, the beer is cold and the locals are always quick to embrace a weary traveller in whatever harebrained scheme they are hatching up that night.
Within two beers, I was invited to breakfast around the corner in an old Queenslander that had become the nexus of a sales network extending across real estate, tractors, livestock and, I’m told, anything else that one might care to buy or sell.

An eastern bearded dragon (Pogona barbata) suns himself on the red dirt somewhere between Quilpie and Windorah. These guys will play dead until you walk right up and touch them, even holding their breath to try to fool predators. 

At the head of this Catch-22-esque empire was the young man sitting next to me rolling cigarettes, and he described the breakfast on offer as consisting of nothing less than: two rissoles, a pork chop, a scotch fillet, four eggs poached, hash browns, half a kilo of bacon and a baked potato.
While I know that I would die a horrible death within days if I tried to actually eat this witch’s brew for breakfast, I was actually tempted to see someone else attempt it, especially someone who says they do it every day.
But in the end I pushed on west. Ever westward is the traveller’s cry, because the traveller, above all else, pursues freedom. The gypsy wants his movement.
The old fellow at the service station in Windorah who was blind, but could tell you how much you owed him by the clicking of the bowsers, is long gone.

Somewhere north of Quilpie the sky opens up with one final yawn and you can see the horizon 360 degrees wide, the blue ending in a ruler straight line in any direction.
Out here scale begins to manifest itself, the true scale of things. The little things become important and what were big things trail behind like wedding cans.

The Western Star Hotel is still there in town. It is still a watering hole for wandering jackeroos, ringers and shearers, and on any given day you can learn as much about station life out here as you want, you just have to be patient.
When you’re in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time, not much changes. There’s no point in talking about the weather because you’re in it all the time. Everyone already knows if it is going to rain or not. So conversation slows down to a steady drip. I think it has something to do with the law of conservation of conversation. The slower you talk, the more time is taken up, and there’s a lot of time out here without much to say...so the logic follows.
The moral of the story: in the Outback, less is more. The trick for the traveller is nothing more than learning to see, and learning to listen, and letting this new reality heal him.

VITAL STATS

Charleville is 745km to the west of Brisbane. Considered by some to be the eastern  limit of the ‘real’ Outback.
Quilpie is another 210km west of Charleville.
Windorah is 250km northwest of Quilpie and is the last place to stop for fuel and supplies when heading to Birdsville.