The Longreach experience

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.

The Stockman's Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, Longreach

The Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, Longreach

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.

The coach we rode in. Note the angle of the wheels, indicating the sharp turning circle

The coach we rode in. Note the angle of the wheels, indicating the sharp turning circle

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.

An original Cobb & Co coach, showing the thoroughbrace suspension of overlapped leather between the front and back wheels. Compare the turn of the wheels, here at their maximum angle!

An original Cobb & Co coach, showing the thoroughbrace suspension of overlapped leather between the front and back wheels. Compare the angle of these wheels, here at their maximum turn!

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!

Riding across the Longreach 'common'

Riding across the Longreach ‘common’

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.

Slab hut exterior

Slab hut exterior

Slab hut interior

Slab hut interior

But that’s a post for another day!

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The indispensable stock horse: true or false?

Last week I was lucky enough to spend a few days on my uncle’s farm in the central-west of NSW. Comprised of around 8000 acres, the property produces oats and wheat, as well as merino sheep and beef cattle. My aunt and uncle run around 1200 sheep, and one of the jobs I assisted with while there was the mustering, and subsequent drafting (separating), of the ewes and lambs.

Working from a quad bike to muster a small mob of ewes and lambs

Working from a quad bike to muster a small mob of ewes and lambs

We mustered three separate mobs, some several kilometres (and paddocks!) away from the sheep yards that were our destination. Though there were certainly sheep dogs in use, there was not a stock horse in sight. Instead, we worked from quad bikes, which have the major benefit of being able to be mastered quickly and easily*, unlike horses. I suppose the flat terrain means quad bikes are perfectly suited, whereas horses might be better in scrubby or hilly terrain.

I have been going out to the farm since I was born – my Dad grew up there – and have no recollection of horses ever being used for the purposes of mustering. I asked my aunt about it, and she commented that the dogs don’t work too well from horseback. Which makes me really curious about why we have this pervasive image of the stockman and his dogs mustering livestock.

Mustering sheep using quad bikes and dogs

Mustering sheep using quad bikes and dogs

I have a recollection from the early 1990s of visiting family friends who ran a small cattle property in rural Victoria, and being on horseback to help with moving the cattle, but vehicles were also involved. I have talked a lot in the theoretical context about the figure of the Stockman, but I have limited experience (outside the family farming connection) of real, contemporary stock work in Australia.

I’m wondering if any of my readers can comment on their experiences of stock work around Australia, and whether horses have featured significantly, or not? I am curious about just how accurate the continued depiction of the Stockman as a mounted figure is. Given the increasingly large size of pastoral holdings in Australia, I know that helicopters are certainly used to muster cattle in the vast properties of central and northern Australia, but what other methods are being used?

I’d really welcome any comments from those with first-hand experience of this topic!

*I have been riding quad bikes at the farm for at least 5 years, but every time I go out there I need to re-learn how to use them, as I keep forgetting!