Kidman Way, Berrigan Phone: 02 6874 7588
There’s something about the outback.
You either ‘get’ it. Or you don’t.
The outback either touches your soul, or it doesn’t. You connect with it, and, like artesian water, flow beneath its surface, feeding off it and returning the richness it gives you or you skim over it, oblivious to its rich and endlessly changing character.
As you ride, the change from mulga to box, from turpentine to wilga, from gidgee to cypress to brigalow will enthral you or it’ll all just be ‘trees’.
The earth’ll glide from brown to grey to black to red, from sand to clay to iron stone or it’ll all just be dirt. The changes will either transfix you or they’ll be unseen, unheard, untasted, unfelt and unknown.
‘Getting’ the outback is about your soul not your senses. It’s about your core in tune with the country’s heart.
In the 1880’s one of the more erudite transients, the Hon (no less!) Harold Finch-Hatton published his, “Advance Australia! – An Account of 8 Years’ Work, Wandering and Amusement in Qld, NSW and Victoria”.
The Hon Harold didn’t ‘get’ Sydney, writing that he was, “quite at a loss to imagine..where Sydney got its reputation for beauty. I never saw,” he added, “anything more forlornly ugly in the way scenery.”
But he ‘got’ the bush. He wrote of its ‘lifeless solitude’ then quickly added how, “the sensation of loneliness very soon wears off…and even the endless trees come to look like friends.”
This pommie aristocrat felt the connect, he even honoured it with a capitalised name: “There is a deep fascination about the freedom of the Bush,” he wrote, “whose subtle influence very soon enslaves those who go to live there, and generally unsettles them for any other mode of living.”
The bush rewarded Harold with good finds of gold and despite him elegantly insulting Mackay as the “Boeotia of Australia” he got a really quaint town just 40 miles inland named after him.
Not that everyone who lives out here is so ‘enslaved’. Fifty years later Myrtle Rose White wrote “No Roads Go By’, an account of 7 mostly wasted years with her husband in the outback working in the main for Sidney Kidman.
Of her first night on the station, she wrote, “I crept forth to take a dejected survey of the world outside…(t)he myriad stars were diamonds of the first order in that clear rarefied atmosphere. But what an appalling loneliness! And what a dreadful menacing silence…the terrible silence sinking in and sinking in…I stood there in the terrible frightening dark. It was a feeling I never entirely erased in all the years I lived in the bush.”
After seven years of hard slog, no nearer to owning their own dream patch of dirt, the depression hitting, Kidman rewarded White’s husband’s loyalty and effort by slashing his wages by 50%. White got night-sweats but Kidman got a knight-hood.
And later he got a highway named after him. It stretches from just outside Jerilderee in the south to, depending on your map, either Bourke or 140kms further north on the NSW-Qld border at a fly spec town of Barringun.
Barringun’s got a population of just four. There’s Darryl (the only bloke in town) and his partner, Jan who run the Bush Tucker Inn (no fuel) plus Darryl’s mother. And then there’s Mary who runs the pub a rock throw to the south.
I’d heard about Mary and rang to let her know I was coming out for a chat and a beer.
“You’ll be wasting your time. I’m old and boring.”
I doubted that.
“And I’ve got no draft beer.”
Which was fine because I have catholic tastes.
“And there’s no accommodation.”
Not a problem ‘cause I have my own tent.
“Well the traffic’ll keep you awake, there’s four or five trucks through here some nights.”
I thanked her for the encouragement and said I’d see her in a week or so.
And began packing.
Because a town of just four but still with a pub is enough on its own to get me riding a couple of thousand kms. But when you throw in the fact that Mary, at 92 years (in May) is the oldest publican in the country, the whole thing changes from a ‘can do’ to a ‘gotta do’.
I’d just finished reading Jill Bowen’s biography of Sidney Kidman and with Myrtle Rose White’s book fresh in my head, I figured it only fitting to get up there I should head down to Jerilderee then up the Kidman Way. To ride over his Way the way he rode over his employees kinda seemed fitting.
If you’re riding between Melbourne and Darwin or coastal FNQ the Kidman Way is going to be your most direct route.
It’s a pretty damn decent ride too, punctuated with some good pubs (at Merriwagga, Goolgowi and Enngonia) and some very ordinary ones staffed by tired and over-it folks (Hillston and Mt Hope).
And once you get past Hillston the road becomes all red dirt and road-trains and as the sign says, Welcome to the Real Outback.
I get to Barringun with my left cheek burning from the sun and find Mary in her favourite chair, Gidgee the dog at her feet. It’s Sunday and there’s a decent crowd in. Peter one of Mary’s sons and his wife are helping out whilst the boss puts her feet up.
I grab a $5.20 stubby and sit down beside Mary and we begin chatting. The tale runs backward, the more recent stories come first and I keep gently pushing her back. Back through the passing of her husband Bay and the loss her oldest son, Michael.
Back through buying the pub in 1977 from Neil Lack, whose late dad’d owned it for many years.
Back through the days when Bay worked in Bourke for Hales a major retail store whose tag line was simply, “For Everything”
Back through the seven kids and their early local schooling and then boarding down in Bathurst. Storeys of stories.
All this time Mary is holding a hand written note on a crumpled sheet torn from a pad.
“I want you to read this and tell me what you think.”
Gidgee looks up as though understanding the import of the note. I read it, both sides, and then I read it again.
Then, some 2 hours and 52 minutes after we first started, Mary gets onto the day in 1948 when she first arrived out here.
With her 70 something year old mother and two kids, she flew from Sydney with the Butler Air Transport Company. There were fuel stops at Cessnock, Mendooran, Tooraweenah, Coonamble and Walgett before Mary caught herself looking down from the long window of the De Havilland Dragon 84 at the sun glistening off the river as the pilot used the Darling River for navigation.
“As we headed west, I looked down at that shining river and I thought: isn’t this so peaceful and beautiful.” Mary pauses then adds, “And, you know what, Colin? I’ve never ever changed…it was just glorious, it was perfect.”
Mary simply ‘got’ it. Before she even set foot on it.
I hand Mary back the note. Gidgee looks up, seems to relax an extra bit and lays her snout on the cool floorboards.
The pub has a stack of rooms (including a huge billiards room) but Mary’s always slept in the front room, not because it’s next to the road but because it faces east.
“The sunrises out here are the best in the world,” she confides and the next morning from my tent on the other side of the bitumen, a stupendous golden orb confirms her claim.
After shooting the sunrise, I finish my brew then head up to the Bush Tucker Inn where Darryl cooks me up a decent breakfast then it’s back to the pub.
Each Sunday Mary rises early and watches 6.00am Mass on her television and when I get back she’s in her chair, massarged for the week and with Gidgee beside.
The sun climbs until the awning shades our faces and I ask Mary about Rose White’s ‘Appalling loneliness’ and ‘frightening dark’. She tells me how she’s never lonely, how it’s good when people arrive, and it’s good when they go. How the sounds of the wind in the trees, of the windmill clanking, of livestock and native animals, and of the birds are the theme songs of her life. She talks of the colours which change every moment and of the countless stars at night. She talks of her love of a good cuppa and of her dog.
And after a while, Mary asks what I thought of the note.
It was given to her in an envelope by a fella who’d come by with his wife and two young daughters. He’d waited til the others’d headed to the car and he and Mary were alone and he didn’t wait for Mary to open it.
The note told of how, 20 years ago he’d passed through, doing it tough and how he’d done something unspecified that’d weighed on this conscience ever since. Also in the envelope was a ‘pineapple’ and the final words were, ‘I hope you can forgive me. Please find enclosed the $50 that was rightfully yours 20yrs ago. Chris.’
I told her that I understood. I told her that whether he’d nicked money, booze or fuel, it would’ve troubled him stealing from someone like her.
Because there might be ‘something’ about the outback that some get, but everyone who meets her knows, there’s definitely something about Mary.
This is a pub with no draft beer, no accommodation, no gambling, no wifi, no mobile phone reception, no meals and no helmet rating!
But, when was the last time you had an experience you will never forget? Who was the last person you met that you’ll always remember? Who was the last stranger you only met once but now, months, years later, often wonder about?
Out here at Barringun, in the middle of the country and in the middle of nowhere is a pub whose owner will etch into your memory.
If you even slightly ‘get’ the bush; if you collect experiences, I can tell you one truth: Your experience of the outback, of our unique bush pubs and of our special culture, will be incomplete until you drop by Tattersalls Hotel at Barringun, grab a stubby and pull up a pew next to Mary Crawley, a living treasure of the bush.
On the only relevant criterion, the unique character, it’s simply off the scale.
Tattersalls Hotel, Barringun T: 02 6874 7588
(Merriwagga down south on the Kidman claims to be home to the REAL Black Stump and the story involves an accidently cremated drover’s wife. There can’t be a more Australian ride than one including the Black Stump to the Back o’ Bourke. Get some mates and get crackin’!
A coupla days later, back in Bourke, I’m graced with the company of Phillip Sullivan, a proud Ngemba man, under the shade of a gum tree on the banks of the Darling.
The Ngemba are the traditional owners of the brown land south of the river they know as the, ‘Barwon’. On the other bank, the Barkindji, or ‘river people’ have lived since the dreaming.
For over an hour we talk about ‘getting’ the country.
He explains to me the connection and the relationship between his mob and the river and then to the earth at large.
He tells me a story, sets me a puzzle centred on a group travelling in the vast dry heat and explaining their oneness with the land.
At the end he explains the importance to his people of ‘getting’ the land,
“They know,” he says with giant arms outstretched as is to encompass the world, “the land will either take care of them or it will take them.”
It’s a quote I’ll never forget.