Life can be challenging for the cowboys of Longreach, Queensland. But Pamela Wade finds it an exciting, even magical, spot to explore.
Luke used a team of eight bullocks to load a log on to a wagon. How easily that simple sentence rolls off the tongue - yet in real life, the process takes a good 30 minutes of nerve-tingling suspense, agonising frustration and endless patience. And that's just how I feel, sitting in the shade, watching.
Out in the full glare of the Queensland Outback sun, it's all that plus hot, sweaty and tiring for Luke Thomas, who somehow manages to keep his cool each time the clumsy beasts blunder the wrong way.
"They handle like a semi truck with two flat tyres and no steering," he says, cracking his long whip over their wide horns and circling them round again. "Bullocking's made to make you bad-tempered," he adds, with perversely good humour.
Real, difficult and clearly hard work, Luke's demonstration at the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame brings alive all that I have just seen inside. Combined with the Outback Heritage Centre, the Hall is located in Longreach, 700km inland from the cattle town of Rockhampton along the Capricorn Highway.
Back in Rocky, boots, big belt buckles and cowboy hats were the outfit of choice on the streets, and huge plaster bulls were scattered around the city - but here in Longreach the boots are authentically scuffed and dusty, the bulls living and breathing; and the town's palm trees, recently stripped to chimney brushes by a plague of locusts, are proof that even in the 21st century, life in the Outback still has its challenges.
The fact that I observe the palm trees while lolling in the swimming pool at my hotel, having been effortlessly whisked here overnight by the Spirit of the Outback rail service, is neither here nor there.
Even seen through the window, over the rim of a glass, from a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned carriage, it's impossible not to be awed by the sheer scale of the Outback, its immense distances and, even after long-awaited rains that have brought lush grass and clouds of butterflies along with the locusts, the uncompromising harshness of the landscape.
Tiny towns like Alpha, Jericho and Ilfracombe (its sign proudly claiming: "Hub of the West - population 149") are marooned in a sea of nothingness, and I have to wonder what it would be like to live there.
The Stockman's Hall of Fame goes some way towards supplying the answer. Five levels display all aspects of Outback life: the incredible feats of early exploration, daily life on the cattle station both then and now, the roles of women and Aboriginal workers, the impact of technology from foot-pedalled radios to satellite communication. It's well-presented, thoughtful and thorough, and deserves its awards.
Perhaps most revealing are the written and recorded personal testimonies from real stockmen: "The Outback's special to me because you can look around you and see nothing man-made," says one young man. "I've followed the Murranji trail - one false move there and you're looking at 1000 bleached bones: men, horses and cattle," growls a weathered old drover.
Over at the Station Store, Richard Kinnon gives me an even more hands-on experience of the old days when I climb up alongside him on the front seat of a Cobb & Co coach for a gallop through the common land outside the town. Forced by the drought to diversify, Richard brings his heavy horses into town for the tourist season from his cattle station 100km away. It's a family affair: his wife Marisse, in long skirt and apron, serves tea and scones beforehand, and their home-schooled children help out in various roles.
Twelve year-old Lane sits up front too - officially the pole-runner, meant to clamber along the shaft to retrieve dropped reins, his main duty is to use his catapult to ping pebbles off lazy Bess's rump up front.
Rumbling along a track through the golden Mitchell grass, we pass a billabong where Richard reckons Banjo Patterson, whose girlfriend lived in the next town, could have sat under the old coolibah tree boiling a billy and maybe getting the inspiration for Waltzing Matilda. It's exciting when he flicks the whip and the four horses lumber into a fast canter.
Dust boils up behind over the people sitting on the rear dickey seat that nevertheless costs twice the price of an inside ticket, back when the service linked the coast with the goldfields and was part of a huge franchise that included Japan and South Africa as well as New Zealand.
There's more history that night when I join another of Richard's operations, a sunset trip on the paddle-boat Thomson Belle along the river near the town. Served nibbles by the children in 1880s costume, we chug gently along under a reddening sky before returning to sit around a campfire where we listen to live country songs as we eat dutch oven stew and damper, with billy tea afterwards.
The evening's highlight is Scotty, an Aussie-bloke Pam Ayres, standing barefoot by the fire reciting Outback doggerel that's by turns amusing, clever and moving, and always engaging.
The sunset is even better when I go out with the opposition, the Longreach Explorer, on a dinner cruise that travels further down the river. All along the bank, local people have come out to enjoy the cool of the evening, and are settled in with picnics, campfires and fishing lines. We glide past kites nesting high in the coolibah trees, Santa Gertrudis cattle knee-deep in the water and a tall windmill, its vanes motionless in the still air.
The temperature is perfect as the sun sinks in a blaze of red and orange, followed by an afterglow that just gets better and better, overpowering the bonfires on the bank and throwing into silhouette the trees and a passing pelican. It would be a cliche, if it weren't so real and so stunning. Finally the glory fades and we sit on the roof of the boat eating a roast dinner under a velvety sky and a full moon dimming the stars. It's magic.
So, first a train, then boats - and next come planes, also an integral part of the Longreach mix. In fact, it's because of the railway that the impressive Qantas Founders Museum is located in the town. Back in 1920, when the ambitious and inspired duo of Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness envisaged founding an airline, Longreach, the railhead, was the obvious place to base their Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services - Qantas for short.
The museum tells the ripping yarn of adventure, disappointment, danger and derring-do, with life-size props for each stage of the story, from a replica of the original Avro biplane that clattered across the Outback carrying mail, passengers and patients to an operational Boeing 747 that's flown the equivalent of 100 round trips to the moon.
There is a Jumbo flight simulator, but even better is to sit in the actual pilot's seat and pretend to understand the astonishing array of dials and switches. We crawl all through the plane, from the computer bank below the cockpit to the black boxes in the tail, and finish by stepping outside to walk along the wing. Again, magic.
Getting there: The Spirit of the Outback makes for a relaxing journey from Rockhampton or even from Brisbane. See traveltrain.com.au
Where to stay: Longreach Motor Inn is right in the centre of town opposite the railway station, but is quiet and comfortable, with a pool.
What to do: The Stockman's Hall of Fame is a class act.
Also great is the Qantas Founders Museum.
Go for a gallop with Richard at Longreach.
Further information: Visit queenslandholidays.com.au.
Pamela Wade visited Longreach on a Reef to Outback tour courtesy of Tourism Queensland and Queensland Rail.