Saturday, 5 April 2014

Longreach, museums and children

Having left Barcaldine armed with the Best Hot Cross Buns ever and only a relatively short drive to Longreach, we reached this Outback hub with one purpose- to get a phone with better reception than our stupid Vodafone supported ones. The Grey Nomads had imparted their infinite wisdom upon us and we dutifully purchased a Telstra Bluetick phone from the Longreach Newsagency. Instant mobile reception.

With the choice of two caravan parks in town, we initially went for the one with a full page ad in the tourist brochure we’d picked up extolling its virtues of friendly service and shady sites. The unwashed body and general dirtiness smell that hit me in the face as I walked into the reception ‘hut’ caused me to turn straight around (if you can’t keep your reception area even slightly clean, I can’t imagine the amenities block fair much better), and we went with the one recommended by Lonely Planet. It was here, at the Longreach Tourist Park, that we had confirmation of something I had secretly believed since Carnarvon Gorge- we were two weeks too early for the Outback. We had planned to do the fireside readings of Banjo Patterson, a paddle steamer cruise up the Thomson River and lots of other kitsch Outbacky things. But it was the 22nd of March, not the 1st of April when “the season starts”… Someone forgot to tell the flies though, they were also a bit early and in their thousands outside our campervan. Anyway, all the Longreach-ians were very cheerful about letting us know so it was hard to put on my ‘just do it’ teacher face. Lucky for us the caravan park had a pool so we spent the rest of our first day in Longreach escaping the incredible heat and flies (but not the Grey Nomads) splashing around in it.

A model T Ford like the one Fysh and McGuiness used to travel from Central Queensland to Darwin.

The next day we started our off-season Longreach tour with the Qantas Founders Museum. I wasn’t particularly excited about this, but since it was airconditioned and fly free, I was willing to take one for the team. It started with a pretty cool short film about what Qantas means to the Outback and Australia in general, and despite the bad press they’ve received lately, I’ll admit I had a tear in my eye and couldn’t wait to pay exorbitant prices next time I flew anywhere with them. The kids ran around like headless chooks for about an hour infuriating us and the other three people in the museum, until we admitted defeat (the naughty corner wasn’t working) and went to the cafĂ© within the complex for some food. They calmed down after some lunch, and again I was pleasantly surprised at the quality (and portion size) of our food- this restaurant was also clearly a local favourite, with quite a few tables taken up with big groups of Longreachians (identifiable by their RM Williams and smug ‘I’m so glad it’s not the 1st of April yet’ looks). 

The first Qantas plane.

More planes.

Anyway, we went back into the museum, Caesar fell asleep in the pram, Marguerite was happy to play with the toys in the Childrens’ Corner, and Fiela and I could finally look and learn in peace. The Qantas Founders Museum is excellent. I think that most of its success is that it has a clear story to tell: instead of being just about planes and airports, it’s about the hardships suffered and the resolve of Fysh and McGuiness, the Qantas founders. The story of two WWI mates who left as horseman and returned to the Outback pilots, had an idea and made it a reality is quite amazing. Even their initial effort to drive in a modified FJ Holden ute (or bakkie) through the centre of Queensland to Darwin, making their own roads, bridges and bush repairs as they went is astounding. Interactive visual displays, multimedia and original planes, cars, even uniforms and first hand accounts of events and a general history of the region and life in the Outback make it really interesting. Of course, since it wasn’t ‘the season’ we missed the one tour you could take of a Boeing 747 scheduled that day. Feeling our minds had been broadened and enriched, we went back to the Uys Huis and the pool.

Another plane, this was the first kind to have a toilet. Luxurious.
 The next day was Stockman's Hall of Fame Day, and having discussed our failings re children and museums from yesterday, we had a new plan of attack. Food. Of course, the scones with jam and cream we had envisaged and pumped the kids for were not available since “Oh, it’s not the season yet!!?” Silly Uys’s! We made do with some defrosted cake instead. Anyway, the plan failed and since it was really just a repeat but in more detail and without as many planes as the Qantas thing, I took a whinging Marguerite home after 90 minutes and Fiela pushed a sleeping Caesar around and looked at the exhibit for another few hours. I had intended to come back at 2pm and swap the kids and Fiela for the Hall of Fame, but just couldn’t be bothered. During ‘the season’ there are all sorts of men on horses doing things and whipcracking and working dogs (whatever, saw that at Glengarry), but since that was a week off, just a couple of bored museum attendants were in attendance. Besides which, we had a night out planned and I needed to ready myself.

Going out clothes.

Readying myself for a night out takes much less time now that I have limited makeup and only one outfit option, which is lucky as we were to be picked up at 5pm at the front of reception for an Outback Aussie Adventure. We had booked a sunset cruise on the Thomson River, but looking at the gathering storm clouds in our finest camping gear, it didn’t look like we were going to get the full experience yet again. The guide, Alan, seemed pretty funny in a tour guide kind of way, so when it started to pelt with rain and he said he wasn’t sure whether the 2WD bus would get us home but, not to worry, there were “some 4WD options”, I thought he was joking. Then when he said, “This is going to get slippery, hold on, quick!” my smile faded, he gunned the engine and we fishtailed through about 50metres of slick mud. Marguerite and Fiela in particular thought it was pretty funny, but the grey nomads in the back looked grim. This continued on for around the last kilometre until we skidded to a halt in the pouring rain, watching as four soaked waiters ran around the boat getting all the tables off the top deck and removing them to below.

More going out clothes...

We then sat in the bus for around 20 minutes waiting for the rain to stop and a wooden plank to be found so we could get across to the pontoon, because as Alan said, “You’ve got to stick to the bush in the dry, ‘cos in the wet, it’ll stick to you ha ha ha!” For those who haven’t been out this way, the mud around Longreach is notoriously boggy- in ye olden times when it rained, you stayed put until it dried out or literally (and occasionally lethally) became stuck in the mud.

Inside the Thomson River cruise.

Anyhoo, it stopped raining, we got on board and off we sailed. The Thomson River is actually a 10km billabong and has a collection of Aboriginal ‘shield trees’, where bark has been collected for shields or even small canoes. Alan gave a really good running commentary on the history of the area and ecology of the river, and we took about a thousand sunset photos, as you do, of which I’ll only force a couple on you here today. We had a fantastic and sumptious antipasto platter (Marguerite ate almost every olive and of course, lots of ‘fancy cheese’) and then we went down below deck for dinner.

Sunset, kids exceptionally excited.

 This tour was actually a training and refresher course for all of Alan’s staff, so there was a 5:1 punter to staff member ratio which was excellent news for us as Gayle, with nothing to do, offered to push Caesar to sleep in his pram while we had dinner. This was quite an effort as he wasn’t too keen on going to sleep, after pushing him for about 20 minutes, Gayle asked Kevin, another staff member to take over so she could clear some dishes and of course Caesar fell straight to sleep, leaving Kev with all the credit. This seems quite trivial, but we’ve been with these kids, alone, for three weeks and the idea that someone else took over the management of even one of them for half an hour so we could both eat dinner, together, at the same time- that was pretty special. So we had a great night talking to all the other tour-goers and enjoying Alan and his team’s lovely hospitality. We enjoyed it so much we wobbled through the campsite and went to bed having done absolutely none of the pre-packing we had planned to do.

An aboriginal shield tree, you can see the one on the left where the bark has been cut off.

Looking back 'upriver' toward the storm we'd just experienced.

The next morning’s pack up was tedious to say the least thanks to the flies, the heat and our hangovers, but we’d had fun in Longreach and enjoyed its friendly people. I’d recommend any of Alan Smith’s OutbackAussie Tours (there’s a lot of them) and if you can only do one, I’d go for the Qantas Founders Museum over the Stockman’s Hall of Fame any day (it’s also cheaper). Visiting the Outback during ‘the season’ would make it even more Outbacky, if a little more crowded. The lovely lady running the impeccably clean Longreach Tourist Park said that at the height of ‘the season’ it’s nothing for over 150 caravans to come in and out of the park each day. Somehow, I’m glad we had most of these places to ourselves even if it meant there wasn’t as much to do and ‘experience’ in a touristy kind of way. Except for the flies, we experienced plenty of them.

Thomson River sunset.

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