Last week I was fortunate to visit the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, in Longreach, Queensland. I have discussed this site previously on the blog, but it was great to get out there and visit it for myself at last.
And you know what? I was really surprised by what I found. It was not the hotbed of parochialism that I was expecting. Instead, the main galleries housed thoughtful content on topics such as life on a large rural property, the work of shearing, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and the role of Aboriginal men and women in opening up the ‘outback’. All the exhibits (with one exception) had a good variety of material culture on display, and I think this really is what grounds museums to reality, instead of floating off into clouds of rhetoric. When you start with the object, or at least make it the key point of your display, there’s a limit to how far-fetched you can be.
Not so the “Life as a Stockman” audio-visual. Narrated by Jack Thompson, this grandiose depiction of sunsets and silhouettes began with a voice-over stating “Being a stockman is being real”, and continued in this vein for the next 15 minutes. Unfortunately this wonderful piece of cultural iconography was not available for purchase in the Gift Shop, but I did manage to note down some of the more entertaining assertions:
“Being a Stockman means living in the Outback.”
“It’s a simple, uncomplicated life.”
“Stockmen … love life in the bush, and they hate the thought of going to the City.”
“The land forges character.”
This 15 minutes epitomised what I had expected to find throughout the SHOF, so it was a pleasant surprise to find it otherwise.
I was much more surprised by Longreach itself. A typical rural township serving the pastoralists and businesses of the region, Longreach has a population of around 3000 people. In recent years, it has reinvented itself as an ‘outback’ tourist destination, mainly through the work of one family, who run a number of ventures under the name ‘Kinnon & Co’.
I was most excited by one of their offerings, the chance to ride along part of the old Longreach-Winton mail route in a Cobb & Co coach. Having spent some years researching a nineteenth-century thoroughbrace coach from the National Historical Collection, I wanted to know what riding in a coach actually felt like. The website assures punters that “this award-winning ride gives a realistic glimpse of what the pioneers experienced”, but I knew from the first look that it wasn’t going to be the authentic experience I had hoped for.
Look at the above coach. If you didn’t look too closely, you might think it was authentic. But it’s made from welded steel, rather than wood. The angle of the wheels gives another clue. The coach also comes with disk brakes and steel suspension, instead of the overlapping leather that gave the thoroughbrace coach its distinctive (and more suited to Australian conditions) rocking motion.
When I asked the operator about it, he laughed and said his insurance company would never let him run a thoroughbrace. He talked a lot about insurance. We even had to have our photos taken, in groups or individually (according to how you booked), in front of a second coach (dressed up with mob caps for the ladies and Akubras for the men, and posing with a shotgun), apparently for insurance purposes. You could then purchase your photo for $15 as a memento. I opted not to pose but still had to have my photo taken. I later learned that the insurance cost per person for this tour was $48, which seems rather steep. No wonder he seemed so unhappy about it!
While on the one hand my thirst for historical accuracy left me somewhat disappointed by the experience, the dust and grit that made its way into my hair, eyes, nostrils and mouth during the twenty or twenty-five minute ride certainly felt authentic enough!
I also stayed at the Kinnon & Co Slab Hut accommodation. These huts were ridiculously twee. Built as slab huts and furnished in mock-colonial style, they were also fitted out with full (if small) kitchens, air conditioning, large-screen TVs, and luxury shower heads. While my decision to stay there was prompted by their proximity to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, they actually stimulated much thinking about the difference between history, and heritage.
But that’s a post for another day!