Outback Opera – Blog Log

In May 2022 I made a BIG 16-day trip by road from Sydney to western QLD. I was motivated by a desire to enjoy quality music in the outdoors including soprano Greta Bradman and to observe much of inland Australia looking its best in seasonal terms. This is a nostalgic account of the trip and some of the memories evoked.

May 2022

Preamble

In 2013 I made a second trip to the Lord’s (London) Ashes Test match. A month or two before departing I heard that there was to be a black-tie dinner in the Long Room at Lord’s before the Test, with Greta Bradman, to be the guest soprano. I altered my bookings when I found I could get tickets. When none of my Swire colleagues was able to join me I invited my friend Canon Ralph Godsall to do so. He replied promptly with enthusiasm.

In my Blog Log for that visit I recorded the following:

“At about 4:30 pm I received a very disappointing email from my friend Canon Ralph Godsall, who was to attend the Lord’s dinner as my guest, saying he was stuck at Glasgow Airport with a broken-down aircraft and there was no way he could make the dinner. When the British-Australia Society noticed that there was a clergyman on the guest list they contacted me through the SACA and asked if it would be in order to ask him to say grace. They clearly thought he was travelling from Australia. I directed them to Westminster Abbey and gave them Ralph’s phone numbers with the comment that I felt sure he could draft and deliver a suitable grace in cricketing parlance, which he apparently agreed to do. In his email, Ralph asked me to record his apologies and to read his grace.

I responded to Ralph’s email as follows:

“In the colloquial – what a bastard! I am very disappointed. I will be tempted to claim authorship of your wonderful grace, but will give reluctant attribution and apologies!”

The Grace read:

O Lord, you’d scarcely think it wicket (pronounced ‘wicked’)

to give you thanks for wondrous cricket,

to celebrate the ties that make Poms and Aussies such good mates.

Now shades of that great Grace attend to take guard at the Nursery End

and praise with us the life of Bradman whose runs the Aussies once relied on. 

Give thanks to God, you cricket lovers, for food and drink. 

Remove the covers!

Greta Bradman, John Bradman’s daughter and “the Don’s” granddaughter, had recently won the 2013 Australian International Opera Award and has a truly magnificent soprano voice. Unannounced, she commenced singing in an ever so powerful voice with no amplification “Bess You is my Woman Now” from Porgy and Bess. One of my favourites-I was wrapped. She then invited me to say grace. I was chatting to John Bradman before we entered the Long Room and he told me that Greta had tested the room for acoustics and was delighted with how good they were. Just as well, for when she introduced me I was at my table (the “Benaud” table) which was up one end of the room, seemingly miles from the microphone. I jumped to my feet and addressing the other end of the room in a loud voice asked “Do I need a microphone”? I was relieved to be assured I did not. I then proceeded by way of explaining how I had met Canon Godsall at the 2009 Test. My first at Lord’s and how from an Australian perspective, not an auspicious occasion as it was the first time England had beaten us there for 75 years. I explained Ralph’s absence, gave his apologies and read “Ralph’s Grace”.

The Long Room (a big rectangular room) has been described as the most evocative four walls in world crcket. It is somewhat like a European opera house replete with three chandeliers and the walls carrying some great works of art in what I would call “old masters” style depicting cricketing scenes and portraits.

It was a big occasion. This was brought home to me when I called to see Merlin Swire as I was leaving Swire House (in my dinner suit). He knew where I was going as I had, some months ago, invited him to join me at the dinner. When I told him in view of Ralph Godsall’s transport problems I had to say grace, he exclaimed “you have to say grace in the Long Room – wow”! “Is it in Latin”?  It was a great night. I was sitting beside South Australian Premier John Bannon’s wife Angela and Sally Niehuus, a member of the SACA Board. The main speakers were Australian High Commissioner, former SA Premier, Mike Rann and John Bradman.”

A few weeks ago I read in The Weekend Australian newspaper that Greta Bradman was to make a comeback and was to join the Queensland Opera Outback Tour of western Queensland. I there and then determined that I would go!


Sunday 15th May

I have now driven 1,978 kilometres at an average speed of 94.8 km/h in the BMW X5 and am in Winton which is just under two hours drive NW of Longreach.

I left home on Sunday and drove along the Golden Highway (via Merriwa) in overcast conditions through the lovely green country on a road in surprisingly pothole-free condition notwithstanding the continual rain of the last month or so. Stayed with Gail’s nephew David Dugan at Trangie after an enjoyable Chinese dinner at the Trangie ‘Bowlo’ with David’s daughter Eliza and brother Mark with his wife Sarah.

Monday 16th May

Headed off from Trangie in very thick fog around 8:00AM on Monday and drove through Nyngan onto Bourke. I was reminded of the many Nyngan-Bourke trips I made in 1965/6 when working with Dalgety in Nyngan and visiting the graduated Nursing Sister – fiancé Gail, in Bourke at weekends. A distance of exactly 200kms. Very happy thoughts on the warm welcomes I always received. I recalled my record driving time of 100 minutes, but resisted an attempt on my record. The country is in great order and that relieved the monotony of driving through such unappealing land. I fantasised about the commentary I would have given had the recent tour guide proposal eventuated. I bet the guide who did the job couldn’t have given such an informative spiel on the value of the mulga around Byrock or explained the course of the Bogan River to the east of the Mitchell Highway.

I was fascinated by the gradual drop in elevation (height above sea level) as measured by my vehicle as we approached the Darling River flood plain. The optical illusion as you look ahead for much of the drive from Nyngan gives the impression of a slight climb when the reverse is the case.

Approaching Bourke on the flood plain, out of nowhere a bloody emu gave the front of the “Beemer” a glancing blow which triggered the Pedestrian Protection System response which in fractions of a second (thanks to explosive bolts) raise the back of the bonnet, nearest the driver, and anchor it in an elevated (3-4 inches) position. I was able to continue driving quite safely in accordance with the informative car computer advice and there wasn’t a mark on the car.

BMW Pedestrian (and Emu) Protection System

I went straight to the cemetery to view Gail’s grave. So sad. I’ll be glad when the grave is properly concreted and the headstone is in place

When in Bourke at the Nutrien (Dalgety) office I hit the phone to my BMW dealer who confirmed local advice that only BMW dealers with the necessary spare parts would be able to reset the bonnet. So I resolved to continue the planned journey with a strange-looking slightly raised bonnet.

I had a pre-arranged lunch at the Back o’ Bourke cafe with cotton grower Tony Thompson and was then joined by Ian Cole for a conducted tour. I reminded them of how with John Anderson’s help I was instrumental in getting the Government funding ($3.0M) to complete the project. I completely overlooked mentioning that Swires, at my urging, had already contributed $500,000 to the initial funding!

For old times sake I had a beer at the Port of Bourke Hotel and was pleased to see the big map of all the Clyde properties was still on display and my little framed paragraphs covering the history of MCaughey, Toorale and Henry Lawson are still hanging in the foyer.

Tuesday 17th May

I made a 6:00AM (in the dark) departure on Tuesday morning and was very conscious of the risks from kangaroo collisions around day break. I managed to position myself behind a small sedan , acting as my ”roo-bar” until the sun was properly up and the roo risk was lower.

The country to Enngonia was no better than I remembered, but from there the ”salad bowl” like Warrego run-out country, complete with the odd sand hill, did much to improve my mood all the way to Cunnamulla. I was reminded of what a wonderful property ”Clover Downs” (just to the east) is. I learned in Bourke that it had been further enlarged and quality maintained by the addition of the southern half of the neighbouring “Camden”. It should now have the capacity to run well over the 30,000 merino breeding ewes which was Clyde’s assessed complement providing great, simple scale.

From Cunnamulla to Charleville many memories were re-activated as I drove past “Victo” -inspecting it with Malcolm Capp and then owner Tom Kennedy as we unsuccessfully attempted to persuade him to sell some country and reduce debt, past “Offham” where I once flew in on a sheep inspection, and my interest in “Nardoo”, then owned by Russell Pastoral Company from whom we purchased “Beemery”. I was very interested to see the recognition to the massive fertiliser Swire truck explosion at a bridge south of Charleville. Recognition to bravery of the first attenders. The bridge was totally destroyed as was the surrounding timber. No one was killed, but the driver had severe burns to 90% of his body. It was described as the largest transport explosion in Australia’s history.

Towards Charleville, the country is dominated by mulga scrub. Charleville town was much as I remembered it. As I crossed the town gully that runs out of the Warrego, I was reminded of the wonderful remark of the Catholic priest when, after the 1990 flood, the statue of Mary was recovered undamaged from what was known as a lover’s lane, ”was the first lady to come out of the gully intact!”

The Charleville to Augathella country is indifferent, although like everywhere, is carrying a big body of green feed. It then begins to roll (downs) with ever-widening vistas. I was concerned at the level of timber re-growth, although not so Brigalow-dominant as I recalled from the areas further east. Closer to Tambo the scenery develops into the full-on downs country carrying a huge body of grasses and only lightly timbered, with some great views.

Tambo is the same delightful place that I recalled. A proud, well presented little town. The chicken races at the back of the pub didn’t do a lot for me. In the pub, I got into conversation with a local who had spent much of his working life patrolling the Great Barrier (Dingo) Fence. His boss was Rae Lilburne’s father and he had once worked in a shearing team at “Portland Downs”. Rae was the wife of our highly competent “Thylungra” Manager – Ian Lilburne.

I recalled the only other time I stayed at Tambo was around 1968 when I flew in with colourful Hillston client Dick Watkin and bought two lots of cattle. Some were Angus from a guy called Thomas who owned “Greendale” north of the town and the other was a line of steers from closer to Augathella from Julian (someone-or- other) which we resold at a Charleville auction for a slim margin. Dick was a new-chum pilot and I recall on the return flight we ran into rough weather south of Cobar. Dick reckoned we could get around it by flying out to “Tongo” on the Paroo south of Wanaaring and staying overnight with Bill McLachlan. I prevailed upon him to return to Cobar.

Wednesday 18th May

After a good nights sleep in a very comfortable Tambo MotelI I again headed off, carefully, at first light. Lovely trip through the wonderfully grassed-up country. Spotted a couple of brush turkeys and two brolgas (we used to call them Native Companions) on the edge of Blackall. As I got closer to Barcaldine the country is so reminiscent of “Portland Downs” which is not far to the west. I think this is the first time I have been to “Barky” since I was a jackeroo at “Lyndon” in 1960. I can understand why the Queenslanders so love this downs country, particularly when it is looking as well as it is at the moment. There is a noticeable absence of sheep with cattle now dominant compared with earlier times. Got a buzz out of sighting the “Cumberland” / “Lyndon” turnoff between Barcaldine and Longreach.

I loved the 170km drive from Longreach to Winton. So many familiar property names: “Leander”, “Strathdarr”, “Darr River Downs”, “Evesham”, “Vindex” (and others) and mile after mile of fresh green open downs. No dangerous wild life threatened and motored along at 120km/h.

I was a little disappointed in the Sing/Sing/Sing production by Queensland Opera-more like a singing lesson. I preferred the Waltzing Matilda/Banjo Paterson talk by a local historian that preceded it. Received the very disappointing news that Greta Bradman has gone down with the ‘flu and is not coming! Slept well at the Outback Motel.

(click or tap on images to view full size)

Thursday 19th May

On Thursday I ”did” the Dinosaur thing for which Winton is world famous. Very well presented on a spectacular “jump-up” rising from ever so flat plains 25 kms from town. A museum mixed with scientific archaeological pre-historic (95 million years ago) exploration. It reflects great credit on the vision of the founders in keeping the fossil exhibits more or less in situ and choosing such a great site for the presentation.

“The Sopranos” performance at the famous North Gregory Hotel (out the back) was quality I’m sure, but too operatic for my taste.

Friday 20th May

On Friday morning I spent several happy hours at the Waltzing Matilda Centre. I think this is one of inland Australia’s best kept secrets. Beautifully presented celebration of the local age of pastoralism with an appropriate recognition of the indigenous history. The concept we developed in the Darling Matilda Way Sustainable Region Advisory Council is still yet to be pursued. Bourke’s Back o’ Bourke Centre, Charleville’s Cosmos Centre, Longreach’s Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Qantas Founder’s Museum, together with Winton’s Dinosaurs and Waltzing Matilda Centre all have the potential to feed off each other. There are heaps of caravanning Grey Nomads about, so perhaps the tourists have discovered it for themselves.

Friday evening was the first of the outdoor concerts at the spectacular dinosaur jump up. Billed ”Dark Sky Serenade”. The opera items are growing on me, the singing was spectacularly good and there were some more familiar pieces. The venue was superb with a great sunset before the concert began.

Dark Sky Serenade-Winton
Dark Sky Serenade-Winton

Earlier in the day I made the acquaintance of some of the Queensland Opera organisers having a footpath breakfast in town. They kindly invited me to a VIP pre-concert drinks where I met some people who knew of my Dalgety and Clyde doings. Another was a locally connected solicitor now practicing in Hong Kong who was very interested in my Swire associations. He expressed great concern for Swires and the extent of their property investments in Greater China. I think that is the politically correct term-we used to call it Mainland China.

Saturday 21st May (Election Day)

On Saturday morning I discovered my Mastercard was missing! I mentally retraced my steps and came to the conclusion it must have fallen out of the stupid shallow pockets when I put my jacket on during last night’s concert. It gets quite cool as the sun goes down. Using my phone wallet is clumsy moving between cards, most businesses out here don’t use AMEX, so I have been carrying the physical Mastercard separately. After some anxious moments I found the card had been found in the dust under my chair at the concert site and was being held by Queensland Opera from whom I collected it on my way to Longreach! Very lucky.

I again enjoyed the Winton-Longreach drive.

I drove down the main street of Longreach looking for the Commercial Hotel where I spent the Saturday afternoon in 1959 after I had learnt that Mum had died, awaiting the Sunday aircraft to Brisbane thence Sydney – drinking only squash and listening to cricket – Ian Meckiff being no-balled out of the game assessed as being a chucker. I eventually recalled hearing the Commercial had burnt down!

I called in at the Nutrien office – a different building to the Dalgety one I knew, but staff all too young to know that! Nutrien call themselves Nutrien Agricultural Solutions. I pull their leg and tell them I want to buy some of this magical solution. There remains a very prominently branded Winchcombe Carson corner building.

Before leaving Longreach I made the required visit to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame. With apparently no ready record, they willingly accepted my claim of Life Membership without my official card and did not charge me the $75 admission. I thought the presentation was much improved on the last time I was here (Clyde days) although somehow I felt it wasn’t as comprehensive. Nevertheless, a top-quality exhibition in the right place.

Drove on (15 minutes) east to Ilfracombe where I am ensconced in a very comfortable cabin in the Caravan Park alongside the Wellshot Hotel.

Saturday night’s major event – Singing in the Night – was on a small rise at “Camden Park” a station between Longreach and Ilfracombe – very convenient. A truly fabulous event even without Greta. Much lighter – Moon River, Student Prince Serenade, Clancy of the Overflow etc. On the way in,I identified a local – they are mostly visitors, grey nomads, chartered in opera buffs etc – who I asked about the Barratt property (Pop Peterson’s family) “Leander” only to discover he had lived there and his wife, who was with him was one of Pop’s sisters! I was thrilled and couldn’t help exclaiming “I’ve struck gold !” This was all a good diversion away from election matters – about which the less said, the better.

Sunday 22nd May

I am feeling quite tired and took it easy today (Sunday). Went into Longreach this morning and visited the Qantas Founder’s Museum with the Boeing 747 parked alongside. Again much improved on my last visit and fascinating history. Listened to the streamed St Swithun’s 9:00AM Service and had a sleep.

Decided to give the Sing Sing Sing session this afternoon and The Sopranos this evening, a miss as I understand they are the same as at Winton.

Monday 23rd May

As I did my morning walk around Ilfracombe – the coffee window lady at the Wellshot Hotel gave me Scott Counsell’s mobile number. He lives at “Lyndon”, but was in Brisbane when I rang. He directed me to his parents, Jim and Sue who are retired in Barcaldine. Sue suggested I call Jim “about lunchtime”. So in the meantime I took a drive to Aramac and back. Whilst jackarooing at “Caledonia” we bought a mob of wethers from “Eurolie” on the Barcaldine-Longreach road and we walked them back through Aramac to “Caledonia”. I was surprised how familiar the country and property names seemed. I was also reminded of when moving by rail from “Binnerwell” (Talwood) to “Caledonia” with sheep dog – “Slippers” – and .303 rifle in hand, I caught the little motor rail that the Aramac Council operated from Barcaldine to Aramac and then boarded the back of the mail truck for the sixty mile drive out to “Caledonia”.

RR Mac Aramac

Back in Barcaldine I caught up with the Counsell seniors at their very comfortable home and we reminisced about old times, and mutually known personalities. Jim (89) told me of his unfortunate history with Dalgety and of his going to boarding school at TAS (The Armidale School). So lots of mutual friends. Sue knew the Walcha Morgan family well, in particular Pip Fenwicke.

In the evening I attended The Sopranos event in the rather grand new Recreation Park on the northern side of Barcaldine. Had a great seat-my own chair- high on the bank of the surprisingly large waterway being used for rowing events. All the events have been programmed to start about sunset. At both Winton and Camden Park (Longreach) the moths attracted by the stage lights were a feature and must have been difficult for the performers.

Tuesday 24th May

Jim Counsell took me out to “Lyndon” for a nostalgic visit. It was much as I remembered it, although the old homestead and my single man’s hut have been abandoned. I recalled it had no electricity and I studied my Farm and Station Bookkeeping Course with a carbide light.

I was impressed with Jim’s wisdom and his family’s property interests have grown significantly over the years. They have a policy of not feeding in dry times and thus see themselves as traders. They now run big numbers of goats and are impressed with their fertility and fast weight gains. Jim spoke of quite young sale goats making $190/head.

“Lyndon” turn-off

I then drove to Blackall (one hour). I gave the Sing Sing Sing event a miss and had a very enjoyable dinner with Andrew and Amy Petersen at the famous old Alice Downs.

“Arnoo” as our kids called him when they were all little and now pushing 50, has had an impressive pastoral management career including five years at “Portland Downs”. He now manages the 100,000 acre “Alice Downs”, only 15 minutes out of Blackall. They have two boys away at School (Toowoomba Grammar). Amy who hales from Dunedoo, impresses as a vibrant personality with boundless energy. As well as looking after the massive house (it’s really two houses conjoined) and huge garden, she runs an online fitness business. She had to remind me that we had actually met on two previous occasions!

Wednesday 25th May

I drive to Tambo on Wednesday morning, put in a quiet day before attending a slightly different opera event on the Shire Council hall lawn. Met some fellow grey nomads who were full of praise for their visit to Charleville, particularly the Cosmos Centre.

After some hesitation and consulting with Blackall Police I have decided to return to Blackall from Tambo tomorrow and head for Windorah from there on Friday.

Thursday 26th May

Andrew Petersen advised me not to take the BMW to Windorah via Yaraka, the last bit being unsealed and ”cut-up” by the recent rain, but to go the long way back to Longreach and down the Thomson River via Stonehenge and Jundah, all of which is sealed.

After driving back to Blackall I did the Wool Scour tour mid-morning with an unintentionally amusing guide. Actually quite interesting, in a lovely setting.

Wool Scour bore

Afterwards, I again called in at the Nutrien Branch, which on this occasion was the same building I had visited with Malcolm Capp all those years ago. The Branch Manager, a Merchandiser, appeared interested in the history of Dalgety and how Nutrien had evolved, but it was all before his time, although we had several mutual acquaintances.

The Wool Scour was the site for The Sopranos, another outdoor event in the evening, a repeat of the previous Soprano performances, but more enjoyable as the music becomes more familiar.

The Sounds of Sunset-Tambo

Friday 27th May

With such a long drive ahead (over 500km),I left Blackall at 5:45AM and drove carefully in ”roo-risk” (day-break) conditions. Enjoyed a spectacular sunrise. Called in at my now favourite Wellshott Pub coffee window, where I thanked them for giving me Scott Counsell’s mobile number. Drove down the main street of Longreach which extends onto the Stonehenge-Jundah -Windorah road.

Like the Winton drive, I had never driven (or flown over) this country and was very pleasantly surprised. Mile after mile of lovely open rolling downs carrying a good body of green grasses-Longreach-Winton whilst similarly aesthetic was mostly light herbage once you get beyond the body of buffell grass along the road edge.

I now know why Stonehenge is so named. Rather like “Thylungra’s” Stoneleigh, it is on a hard stony ridge. Stonehenge must surely be able to claim to be one of Australia’s most isolated tiny towns. From this ridge the rest of the trip is mostly hard red (mulga) country. Glancing to the east you get glimpses of water and greenery from the Thomson flood which has recently gone thru’. So far since Longreach the road takes you between the Thomson and Barcoo Rivers. You then cross the Thomson at Jundah, and they merge to form Cooper Creek closer to Windorah.

At Windorah’s only pub I found a very comfortable cabin awaiting me (out the back) where tonight’s Opera Event is to be held. I enquired after Peter Clarke’s former wife Dianne. Peter, the son of a Melbourne academic was an Overseer at “Portland Downs” and then at “Toorale”. Dianne was an aboriginal girl who had been sent away to boarding school and who I knew had come from Windorah. I could only remember her first name. A long-term resident working at the Pub, after first being mystified, returned to tell me all about Dianne who she now realised was in fact her cousin. She and Peter had a son, ”Kidman” and she told me that Dianne now lives in Mackay. Sadly, she has been in a traffic accident and had lost an arm.

I took a drive out to the Cooper Creek crossing on the Quilpie Road before the concert. The peak of the flood has gone through, but it remains a big body of moving water.

The concert did not do a lot for me – perhaps I’m tired and cranky!

Ingenious Air-con duct

Saturday 28th May

With over 450km to drive I headed off at 6:30 AM. Another great sunrise over the Cooper. Crossed several additional shallow flowing channels after the mainstream.

Once across the flood plains the country becomes harder red mulga including the western side of “Thylungra”. It is then softened by the “Thylungra” shallow flood-out channels, particularly across the Earlstoun block we added. Gets harder as you cross the Grey Range before Quilpie.

“Thylungra Station”

As I crossed the Bulloo at Quilpie, with a coffee from the Bakery, I was reminded of that wonderful flight Les Walsh and I did with John Oldfield over the Paroo, the Bulloo Overflow and the Cuttaburra Basin after some big flooding rains in 2008.

At Charleville, I booked into a rather crummy motel and took in the 6:00PM session at the Cosmos Centre. I was not particularly impressed – just short telescopic glimpses of some faraway stars.

I recalled how I’d always been intrigued by the number of senior executives in the Dalgety Queensland organisation had been one-time Branch Managers at Charleville. I have set in process a project to compile a list in chronological order, calling for help from the Dalgety Queensland alumni.

Sunday 29th May

Another 550km drive to Trangie. A few ‘roos about, but no close shaves. The country closer to Cunnamulla looked better than on the outward trip. Had lunch at the Back o’ Bourke Cafe, before again visiting Gail’s grave. Work has started on the concreting and headstone erection whilst I have been on my trip. Had a beer (or two) at the Nevertire pub after a scare I had lost my wallet in Bourke – before finding it in the car.

A pleasant quiet night at Trangie with David Dugan and Eliza.

Monday 30th May

A familiar 450km drive other than a forced detour between Orange and Bathurst due to an accident on the Highway in shocking cold wet/foggy weather. I still think the Golden Highway via Merriwa is a better route to Dubbo and beyond, from Sydney. Arrived home “pooped”, but very stimulated by all that I had seen and done.

Total kilometres driven exceeded 5,000. I have certainly never seen so much of the inland in such good condition all at the same time. There was not a dry spot anywhere I went.

The Trip by Numbers…

Opera Trip Map

(Double click the map to zoom-in, and drag the map to move around).

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