St George to Mitchell is 210 kilometres. My cousin Nadine is driving, and she stays close to the 110kph speed limit, eating up the distance.
It’s a lonely road. At the service station in St George they’d warned us to keep an eye out for animals: kangaroos and cattle, emus and wild pigs. A big kangaroo leaps across the road ahead of us, but Nadine is alert, and feathers her foot on the brake. They say you should never swerve to miss a kangaroo, or brake violently, because you’ll lose control of the car and roll or hit a tree. Hitting a kangaroo is less likely to injure you than swerving, although it won’t be much good for the kangaroo.
“Dad used to call this kind of trip Major Mitchelling,” I tell Nadine. My family spent a lot of time on country roads, and Dad especially loved travelling through unknown territory.
I remember Major-General Sir Thomas Mitchell from primary school social studies lessons. In the 1840s, he led an exploration party up this way – hence the name of the town we’re heading for. At school we used to trace maps of Australia, marking with dotted lines the journeys of the European explorers. Major Mitchell was one of the big ones. He was a rugged and determined traveller, notoriously bad-tempered, and a great mapmaker.
A soldier and draughtsman, Thomas Mitchell was involved in fighting in Spain, fought at the battle of Waterloo, then after the defeat of Napoleon worked at doing sketches of the European battlefields. In 1827 he came to Australia to succeed John Oxley as Surveyor-General.
The colonial government was keen to discover grazing lands and rivers, and to “open up” the country. Between 1831 and 1835 Major Mitchell and the men who went with him, including convicts and Aboriginal guides, ranged from the Barwon River in what is now northern New South Wales to the southern Victorian coast.
Mitchell’s exploration parties were resented by the Aboriginal people whose land he was intent on opening up. They knew what happened once white people came to stay: streams polluted by cattle hooves and wool washing; sacred places destroyed; women raped and abused; disease and alcohol, and mass shooting if anyone fought back.
It wasn’t until recent times that such events were even mentioned; but Mitchell wrote in his journal about “treacherous savages”. Treachery depends on who writes the history. The resistance fighters of Nazi-occupied Europe, who did whatever they could to trick, ambush and destroy the invader, are not described in our histories as treacherous.
Mitchell was exploring for the government, to map and survey the land and make it available for grazing and white settlement. Wealthy and powerful pastoral companies were keen to exploit the vast inland plains; and strong in the colonial mind was Captain Cook’s declaration that Australia was a land that belonged to no one. Terra Nulius.
They were tough, those explorers. Nadine and I are driving this mildly-lonely stretch in a modern, air-conditioned car, on a sealed road, in spring. Those men were travelling through dry, hostile territory, in extremes of weather and distance, eating miserable food and drinking dodgy water, dependent on the health of their horses if they were to return to civilization, and always watched and often harried by angry locals. No wonder Mitchell was bad-tempered.
In late 1846, Mitchell led an expedition into what is now Queensland, looking for rivers. He named the Balonne River after a local indigenous word, and followed it northwards, naming the site of St George. The Balonne meets the Maranoa River, and Mitchell’s party followed it further north.
We’re following the Maranoa today, over to our right, not far away. All we see, though, is flat, monotonous eucalypt bushland along the road verges, with cleared, grassy paddocks beyond. The grass is mainly what became known as Mitchell grass, astrebla pectinate, one of the premier grazing grasses of inland Australia.
Occasionally a dirt track, flanked by a mailbox and a station name, leads off through the trees.
“Look!” says Nadine, pointing off to the right. “I don’t believe it!”
There, alongside a track leading off into the trees, is a sign saying “Coffee Shop”.
There is a story to be found there. But it’s getting late.
By five o’clock, we’ve checked in to a motel. The receptionist suggests the Mitchell Hotel for dinner.
“We thought we’d go across the road to the Courthouse Hotel. I liked it last time I was here.”
“You’d be better off at the Mitchell. I’ve had bad reports of the Courthouse.”
One of the features of Mitchell is the Great Artesian Spa, and that’s where I go, for a swim before dark. Sheltered from the road by coloured glass and greenery are two pools. I dip into the cold pool and soak in the hot one, where warm bore water gushes from a pipe and steam rises from the water.
“Where do you suggest we go to eat?” I ask the ladies in the spa shop. “I thought we might go to the Mitchell Hotel.”
“Go to the Courthouse. Better atmosphere there.”
Dinner, at the Courthouse, is a friendly, cosy affair, and afterwards we cross the Main Street to the Mitchell Hotel for a drink. Nadine orders Kahlua and milk, which causes a bit of a stir, with milk having to be fetched from the kitchen. We strike up a conversation with a couple of blokes in the bar, and before we leave, we each put ten dollars through the pokies.
Mitchell is a quaint country town, with attractive old timber buildings, art works, bottle trees and a wisteria arbour.
Major Mitchell camped by the river near here, then continued far to the north, eventually turning back only when he reached the Belyando River, a tributary of the Burdekin.
Tomorrow Nadine and I will head west, across the Mitchell grass plains.