As the longest drought in living history grips Longreach, some in the quintessential outback town are finding new ways to survive.
“This is an experience not a joy ride.” Jeremy Kinnon is keen for everyone to understand it will be dusty, it will be bouncy at times, and if the horses feel so inclined there may be horse manure involved, but no one flinches.
We’re keen to put on bonnets and pose with a cheeky blue cattle dog in front of a Cobb & Co coach for a photo before hitting the road.
After taking our seats on the front, back, or inside of one of the two coaches, we’re off. Jeremy and his brother, Lane, guide the horses through the town, which sits smack bang in the middle of Queensland, sharing some of Longreach’s history.
They point out how all the streets have bird names – water birds running one way, land birds the other – before reaching dirt tracks on the edge of town. With no sign of modern life, save the occasional telegraph pole, here we can really feel like we’ve gone back in time.
I can feel dust on my teeth but there’s no avoiding that as it’s dusty and I can’t stop smiling.
Nor can I stop watching the beautiful cremello stallion that walks, trots and finally gallops alongside us. This is the only Cobb & Co ride in the world that is allowed to take passengers at a gallop and having a stallion running free alongside us adds to the drama and romance.
The stallion, Comanche Moon, has no halter or visible link to our coach but I soon discover he has an invisible one; Richard Kinnon is riding up front with his son and the horse follows him wherever he goes.
A farmer who realised he had to do something to survive a drought, Richard Kinnon started the Cobb & Co experiences with his family back in 2006.
“I’ve always loved thinking about our forefathers and the hardships and tests and trials they had to go through,” Richard explains. “And I got it into my head that I wanted to do living history.”
Ten years later Longreach is in the grip of another, even more devastating drought, and Kinnon & Co has grown to include accommodation, a riverboat cruise, day tours, and station tours at the historic Nogo homestead, which has been chosen as a key location for the upcoming Banjo Paterson movie.
The Kinnon’s station store is filled with both the smell of leather and covetable leather goods alongside cowboy hats and country style homewares, while their heritage inspired accommodation includes Pioneer Slab Huts and Homestead Stables, where touches like barbed wire lampshades and horseshoe towel racks add to the character of the rooms.
Three large claw-foot bathtubs sit out in the open air and each night I can be found soaking in a tub and looking up at the outback sky. Here light pollution and clouds rarely interfere with a star’s right to shine bright and I can see shooting stars and the red of Mars among the mass of stars.
There’s no doubt the Kinnons have created something special, and for 36 months the money from their tourism business was used to feed and water their cattle. Sadly it wasn’t enough.
“Financially we just couldn’t hold them anymore.” Richard says. “We carted 60,000 litres of water – that’s a road-train load of water – for them every day. We hung in for a good three years and everything we made was going into keeping our cattle alive and riding that wave.
“When I sold them I felt defeated, like I’d lost the battle. It’s like a page has been turned in the book.”
Richard says there’s no doubt you have to be tough to live in the outback, but there are two ways that people handle life in the drought.
“They either stay down whingeing and whining with the turkeys, or they get above it. They realise it’s here to stay, and that we’ve got to deal with it and get on with it.”
Just a few kilometres out of Longreach another family has been finding new ways to get on with life on a destocked property. Daniel Walker is a fifth generation farmer whose mother started hosting Sunday sunset drinks at the artesian pools on their Camden Park Station property eight years ago.
Now the family partners with the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and opens their home seven days a week through the tourist season for a mixture of tours, lunches and dinners.
While he admits the lack of rainfall forced their hand into tourism, Daniel now says even if the drought were to break they wouldn’t give it up.
“I’m in hook, line and sinker. The whole family loves it. We’re keeping busy, and it’s keeping a smile on our face. We’re sharing our stories with people and we’re hearing their stories, and it’s keeping us motivated.”
The big Queenslander home was completed in 1917 and contains the oldest private ballroom in the outback, and one of those large shady verandahs that provide the perfect long lunch or dinner spot.
As well as taking tours around the property to the shearing sheds, cattle yards and artesian pools, Daniel and his wife, Brooke, cater for anywhere between two and 60 people at a time. It’s a family affair with Daniel’s brother, James, and his wife Amanda, and their parents, Lyn and David Walker, all pitching in.
“We gave ourselves a pat on the back when we got through 58 for dinner the other night,” Daniel laughs. “That was a real feat for us.”
As he walks our group through the house, he shares tales of when the farm was flourishing, and explains that even if the drought were to break tomorrow it would still take a lengthy 24 months to restock, and another 12 months after that before any income started to come in.
The dining room walls are decorated with pictures of prize-winning bulls from more prosperous days, aerial shots of the property, and a large photograph of the Queen and Prince Philip.
This isn’t just any photo, but rather one with a personal connection. Daniel’s grandfather invited the royal couple to visit Camden Park during their royal tour in 1970 and they accepted. Clearly they enjoyed the visit as two years later Sir James Walker was knighted for his service to Longreach.
Daniel explains that the signed photograph on the wall was taken in a private part of the palace as a gesture from the Queen from her home to theirs. Later, as we stand on a platform overlooking the property’s artesian pools, he shares that the Queen told his grandfather that the property was the first place she had seen such uninterrupted 360-degree views.
Apart from the pools that resemble small dams in front of us, those views now consist of hot, dry, dusty earth. Daniel says while they’ve had droughts before, this is the longest in living memory and the town is feeling the pain as well as the farmers.
“The sheep have gone, the shearers have gone, and everybody who was involved in the sheep industry has had to leave,” he says.
“They say a shearer spends $1000 a week in town, week in, week out when he has work. Now their kids aren’t in the school, the teachers aren’t coming out to the area; businesses are feeling the pressure.”
With hundreds of properties fully destocked, Daniel says property owners have done everything from becoming stock agents to handymen who travel to Brisbane for work. As for his family, they’re now looking at a 10-year plan for their tourism business.
“All we know is we’ll do the best we can. We’re having a crack. You have to be progressive,” he says.
“Our pioneers, they were progressive. If things didn’t work they would walk off the land and find work elsewhere and then come back home to survive.”
It’s that pioneering spirit that can be felt so strongly when we visit Longreach and the surrounding towns of Winton and Barcaldine.
The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Qantas Founders Museum are filled with our pioneering history, but it’s when you talk to the people in the town, see their determination and feel their energy that you really get a sense of the outback.
“I really believe that’s why a lot of our city cousins come out here,” Richard Kinnon says.
“To see it and feel it and taste it. When they’re out here they can taste the bull dust, they can see the families working together.”
As terrible as the drought has been, Richard believes it is something every Australian should see.
“Even though you see the kangaroos and the emus and the cattle and the sheep suffering, it is outback Australia. Our land is what makes us the people we are. That’s what makes tourism different out here. It’s real. It’s reality.”
The Details: Longreach, QLD
The Spirit of the Outback is the only sleeper carriage train in Queensland and is the best way to see the countryside change as you cover 1300 kilometres from Brisbane to Longreach in around 24 hours. queenslandrailtravel.com.au
You can also fly in and out of Longreach with QantasLink. The best time to visit is from April to October, when the tours are running and it’s not too hot.
Kinnon & Co: There’s the charming, self-catered Pioneer Slab Huts, while the Homestead Stables are stylish and comfortable. outbackpioneers.com.au/stay
Kinnon & Co: Don’t miss the Cobb & Co Coach ride. 126 Eagle Street, Longreach.
Camden Park Station: Take a tour of this outback homestead. Landsborough Highway, Longreach.
Qantas Founders Museum: Our national airline’s aviation history. Sir Hudson Fysh Drive, Longreach.
Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame: A wonderful heritage museum. Landsborough Highway, Longreach.