Warrego Hotel, Fords Bridge
Fords Bridge (you'll find it!) Phone: 02 68747877
So anyway, everyone and everything seemed to be telling me to head out to the Warrego Pub in Fords Bridge, north west of Bourke.
A few months back I’d been down to Whitton on the ‘Bidgee to check out the town where old Henry Lawson used to escape the prohibition of 1915 Leeton. He’d been sent there to dry out by Archibald of the Bulletin.
But this wasn’t the first time Archibald had dispatched Henry to the bush. In September 1892, this, ‘unfortunate towny, deaf and shy and brooding,’ had been put on the Western Mail train for Bourke at Redfern Station with a one-way ticket and a five quid note in his pocket, both courtesy of “JF”. One NYE his wanderings out there brought him to the bar of the pub at Fords Bridge.
Then I headed out to Barringun (pop 4) to yarn with Mary Crawley, our oldest female publican and if she told me once, she told me a dozen times that I should drop over to Fords Bridge.
Back in Bourke on that trip I yarned for hours with old Kats in his corner of the bar at the Port of Bourke Hotel. He too told me I should ride out to the Warrego Hotel.
Kats took a while to warm up but once he started his stories, trying to get a word in was like taking a sip from a fire hose. Finally his son Bryce came by to take the blue singlet warrior home as my head spun from the tales.
I was on the wrong bike that time (I don’t enjoy taking the Super Tenere into the sand) so I procrastinated and headed home and did some readin’ n research.
Then I started planning and packing the Tiger XC.
Lawson didn’t like the view from the train window, writing on his first day in Bourke that, ‘the bush between here and Bathurst is horrible,’ and his first mission on hitting town was finding digs.
He got a room at the Great Western, a pro-union pub run by John Lennon. (truly!)
Bourke (“the metropolis of the Great Scrubs”) was, ‘a much nicer town that I thought it would be,’ and his most immediate social observation was, naturally about drinking:
“This is a queer place. The ladies shout. A big jolly-looking woman….marched into the bar this morning, and asked me to have a drink. This is a fact; so help me Moses!”
But Lawson soon left the city and walked down the Darling. He found work as a roustabout at Toorale Woolshed where the shearing was in full tilt. The place was owned by Samuel McCaughy, ironically the bloke who bequested the town of Leeton to the government on condition that it be alcohol-free.
I figured the old woolshed would be worth visiting and after a month or so of negotiation the folks at Parks and Wildlife in Bourke gave me rare and special permission to visit and to overnight there.
I follow their mud map out from Bourke, firstly along 29kms of tar and then 38 kms of variable dirt to the edge of the National Park and a further 5kms where one of their staff is waiting to escort me in.
Bugger me, it’s Kats’s son, Bryce who tells me his old man’s not too chipper but is in good care. The road in is rugged, wet and way longer than I expect but then, after a bend around Ross’s Lagoon, the shambles of the partly collapsed old shed is before me.
Woolsheds are my cathedrals. Forget that a famous poet once worked in this one. It’s not possible to walk the old floors and not beg the timbers, the gates the rafters and the wheels to give up some stories, to talk to me.
“Whisper your secrets. Tell me what you’ve seen.”
Like great holy places and libraries, like graveyards and scenes of battles, these places demand silence and reverence.
I cannot agree with Lawson that, “(a) shearing-shed is not what city people picture it to be ….. it is perhaps the most degrading hell on the face of this earth. Ask any shearer.”
I set up the tent and the trangia and go for a walk. In its prime over 100,000 sheep were shorn each year here in 46 stands. I count the remains of 27.
Under a near full moon, the southern cross finally comes from behind the clouds at 3.12am and I get the shot I’m seeking.
Two hours later the sun plays under the cloud to gift me a sunrise for the ages. Tired but jubilant, I pack and head back to Bourke, over road still flooded in places from the early May rains and then head northwest for Fords Bridge.
It’s pretty straightforward riding for 70kms: three strips of bitumen alternating with three sections of dirt, the first two gravel but most of the last 12kms is red sand.
The dirt finishes at the signed approach to the bridge over the Warrego Bywash which is soon followed by the bridge over the Warrego itself.
Henry’s description of the Warrego as a ‘dusty gutter with a streak of water like dirty milk’, remains accurate despite the recent 4 inches of rain.
The old Salmon Ford Hotel stood between these two water-courses and it was here that Lawson saw in the New Year of 1893.
The pub’s long gone, replaced in 1913 by the Warrego Hotel, on the western edge of town. Which is to say it’s not far from the eastern edge. The total population here is three, all blokes in the 60’s of whom one is a hatter and has nothing to do with the other two!
This pub’s the only mudbrick hotel in Australia and at the back of the bar, where some of the render has peeled away, you can see the hard, backed red dirt you’ve been wrestling with to get here.
When I get to the pub, Peter is outside having a durrie with his blue bitch, 2 year old Pepe, and Colin the mailman who comes by twice a week bringing all the food and beer supplies.
Pete’s been here for a bit under 7 years. He used to be a concreter in Queensland but bought this place because he wanted a home and a job. He’s got three kids whom he hardly ever sees and a few grandkids, some of whom he’s never laid eyes on.
I grab a stubby and pay five bucks. It’s the same brand I was hit for 9 bucks fifty at a trendy Rocks pub back in Sydney a month ago. All drinks are bottles though Pete’s turning on some kegs as a test run for the nights of State of Origin.
“See how it goes.”
I tell him his beers are too cheap, that if he lifted the price by just 20 cents he’d see the difference at the end of the week.
Pete draws on his fag, then fixes on me:
“And what would I do with a pocket full of cash?”
Later on a couple of locals pull up with a ute crammed with piggin’ dogs and a quad on a trailer. Chris opens the lid of the trailer trunk and shows me maybe ten quality boar heads. They’ve had a productive day.
Kim and her husband Mark from a station up the Hungerford Road rock up with their daughter, soon followed by Ted and Beth from towards Wanaaring.
Kim’s the cook here on Friday and Saturday nights and she’s soon in the kitchen keeping us all happy with feeds from a basic menu of schnitzels, steaks, bangers and mash and tonight’s special of Mongolian Beef.
Barnsey from down the road walks up through the roaming cattle and pulls up his favourite pew outside. He talks of the old days of catching roos for food and one time of getting a red doe for some hungry hitch-hikers. “I caught this one and killed it then skun it and hung it up for them,” he tells me and I stop him.
But he, and the rest of the fellas in the circle are adamant the past tense of the verb, ‘skin’ is ‘skun’ out here. There ya go! Who says Australian English is homogenous??
Other blokes from (sort of) nearby farms bowl up. They’ve all got lived-in faces, they’ve all got hands that’ve not spent much time in pockets.
The chat ebbs and flows, sometimes it drips and sometimes it flows. After each story there’s a quiet and a group inhale as the gist is digested, savoured.
Tales are shared and swapped: stories of hardship and misadventure, of silliness and stupidity. All are self-effacing and entertaining.
In the backroom of my mind, Henry’s observation that, “I have….found that Bushmen are the biggest liars that ever the Lord created,” resonates but these aren’t tales of bravado, more yarns of life.
“For a life along the Darling isn’t like the life in town”
I decide to stay two nights.
There’s only four rooms here and each has a double and a single bed. A room on your own is forty bucks, two in is sixty. All beds have electric blankets and all rooms have heaters and pedestal fans. There’s free camping with free showers and toilets all around.
The pool table has pockets and nowhere to insert coins just rack ‘em up and shoot! Oh and there’s even a hookey board in the bar.
This is not the flashest pub you’re ever going to visit, but it’ll be one of the most memorable. If it hasn’t got all you want, you’re probably not going to find yourself out here in the first place!