The Witches Kitchen, the restaurant of the Union Hotel in Barcaldine, is a lively place where locals come for birthday dinners or special family meals.
Early in the day, though, the restaurant is closed and quiet. One morning, from where I was staying in the cosy motel section behind the Union, I walked through to the empty dining room with my breakfast muesli, and sat there for a time, reading.
Suddenly, the street door opened and in walked two cheerful young men in bright matching shirts that seemed to be covered in flames.
I suppose that for a fire safety certificate, every hotel, shop, hall, school or office building across the state must have its fire extinguishers checked and signed off on regularly. That’s what these two were here for. Based in Rockhampton, six hours’ drive east of Barcaldine, they worked for a firm called Buddy’s Fire, spending their days driving round the Central West checking fire equipment.
My friend Yvonne used to travel for Helena Rubenstein. She drove across most of the state, Cunnamulla to Mount Isa, her station wagon loaded with samples, visiting local pharmacies in country towns to take their orders for cosmetics and skin care products. It was an adventurous life for a lone woman on those long, rough roads. And there were no mobile phones. Even today, phone coverage in western Queensland is patchy.
In Rockhampton, beginning one of her long trips, Yvonne bought, on impulse, a cane lounge. She squeezed her new cane lounge into the car with the sample cases and set out for the west.
After leaving Charleville, on the then lonely, gravel road to Quilpie, she punctured a tyre. Unable to change it, and not knowing how long she would be there in the sun, she pulled the lounge out of the boot, hauled it across to a shady brigalow tree and sat down to wait for someone to come along and rescue her, looking, I’ve no doubt, carefully made up and elegant as befitted her trade.
Eventually, she says, a car pulled up and the Marlboro Man got out.
It wasn’t really the Marlboro Man, of course – just a handsome young man in a big white hat who took her to the next town to get the tyre repaired, then home to have dinner with his wife and family. Then off she went again, delivering cosmetics and glamour to the country women of Queensland.
Yvonne tells me that she’d usually eat her evening meal in her motel room. That way she’d avoid the attentions of lonely men looking for another kind of adventure. The one time she let herself be lured into the hotel room of a traveller in jewellery, to “look at his samples”, it was his family jewels he took out to show her. She grabbed her bag and ran.
On regional Queensland’s long, long roads, workers are hauling fuel, mining equipment, cattle or supplies in three-trailer road trains. They’re driving graders for the local council or droving cattle. They’re flying past our Subaru in utes and four-wheel drives, their big vehicles filling the parking bays at motels, work boots sitting outside unit doors; and before we wake up in the morning they’re gone.
Last month, driving through mining country on the Gregory Developmental Road north of Clermont, Con and I met a “Wide Load” pilot vehicle. Soon after, a police car came towards us, on our side of the road, urging us off on to the gravel verge. With a crest on the road five hundred metres ahead, we still couldn’t see anything coming, so we eased our way along with two wheels on the bitumen, until another police car waved us further off the road. Pulling over, we stopped and waited.
Five minutes later, a monster appeared over the crest. On the back of a semi-trailer loomed a ten-metre-wide mine bucket, taking up the entire width of the road. The truck was moving along at a good pace, and we were in awe, as we’ve often been, at the skill and confidence needed to drive the huge loads that travel western roads.
A week later, we were in the small Channel Country town of Windorah, 1200 kilometres west of Brisbane. The Western Star Hotel Motel is famous in the area, and we had our dinner there, out under the verandah roof.
Near us, a group of workers in dusty high vis were eating together and enjoying one another’s company before heading off to their rooms for an early night. Leaving first thing in the morning, they’d try to beat the worst of the heat as they worked long days on road surfacing, or bridge repairs.
Windorah is one of just three small towns in Barcoo Shire, which covers 62,000 square kilometres and has a total population of around three hundred people. The Shire Council is currently advertising for an experienced grader driver, offering above award wages and five weeks annual leave, uniforms, subsidised accommodation – and ten-to-twelve-hour working days.
Con and I were off in the morning too, driving east to Quilpie then on to Charleville. Bitumen all the way now – not like it was in Yvonne’s day. Those flame-covered young men have it easier than she did; but with heat, isolation, and those long, long roads, driving into the sun and coping with breakdowns and a lack of phone coverage, it has never been easy working on western Queensland’s roads.
Main photo: a cattle road train passing a sand dune, heading west from Windorah towards the setting sun