Droughts, fires and floods. Many Australian outback towns are struggling to survive.
Dinah and I recently returned from a caravan tour of Outback Queensland. The “Grass Roots Tour”, organised by Suncoast Caravan Service and supported by the Australian Caravan Club saw over 100 caravanners travel 2100 kilometres through Queensland’s magnificent Outback, visiting some of this State’s most iconic country towns. Our purpose, to raise awareness on how we as caravanners could support drought, flood and bushfire-affected communities while in the process, injecting dollars back into the local communities.
Our final stop on the tour before finally heading home was the small town of Mitchell, some 570 kilometres inland from the coast. As the sign proclaims as you enter from the east, “Mitchell. Gateway to the Outback”. Mitchell was in fact the smallest town we visited on our tour. Other towns included Stanthorpe, St George, Charleville, Cunnamulla, Roma, Miles and Chinchilla. Located in the Maranoa Region, Mitchell services an expansive cattle and sheep farming district. The economy relies heavily on agriculture, primary production and tourism, all of which have been adversely affected by decades of drought and more recently, floods and bushfires. The town has a proud heritage, having been named after one of this country’s pre-eminent explorers, Sir Thomas Mitchell who camped on and named the Maranoa River in 1846.
With a population of just over 1000, Mitchell is a classic small country town. And getting smaller. Like many outback towns, Mitchell is doing it tough with its main street lined with closed shops and businesses. There are some exceptions, however. The Major Mitchell Caravan Park is open and doing well, catering for travellers keen to explore the outback. Things to see in the area include the ‘Mitchell on Maranoa’ Art Gallery, Kenniff Courthouse and the Booringa Heritage Museum. About 300 metres from the caravan park as you walk into town is one of the district’s main tourist attractions, the Great Artesian Spa offering a unique bathing experience in natural hot spring waters from the artesian basin, the huge underground sea that transverses much of inland Australia. Walking down the street, a number of business are well and truly open for business. Samios Trading Post billed as the “Myer of Mitchell” offers a huge range of country clothing and farm essentials – everything from socks to saddles. Further along the wide main street, the Mitchell Bowls Club and Restaurant, the Mitchell Bakery and one of the best country butchers we have ever visited, Lawson Butchery selling only local grown meats. Amazing! Further along still, Foodworks for all your essential grocery supplies and for personal needs, a chemist.
The other side of the street is unfortunately not so prosperous. Where there were once four grand hotels in Mitchell, three have closed and the fourth, the Hotel Richards is for sale. Picture a country pub and this is it. Cool, dim interior, great cold beer on tap and the dog waiting faithfully for its master at the front door. Dinner in the evening for us was at the Hotel Richards. Pre-dinner drinks at the bar with friends from the tour and a number of locals, then a pub dinner in the dining room. Steak the way a steak should be. Garden-fresh vegetables and coffee. Perfect.
We can help the “blues”
Queensland’s outback towns each have a unique and wonderous story to tell. All are brimming with history and stories of the outback character that helped forge our nation. There are any number of ways you can visit and experience life in Queensland’s Outback. Organised tours like the one we have just been on are a great way to travel. There’s security and collegiality in numbers and you meet new friends and share stories in the evening at the traditional Happy Hours. The Australian Caravan Club also organises a number of tours each year, so why not join the Club? Check out the ACC at: www.australiancaravanclub.com.au
Or, you can simply hop in the car and head west. Spending time and money in these communities is a great way to help their economy and ensure that they survive: a flat white at the local café, lunch stop in town, dinner at the pub, a beer or wine at the local watering hole, stocking up on groceries and fruit, the best meat in the west from the local butcher, a guided tour of the town and surrounds, a wine tasting, entrance to the historical museum, a few nights stay at the caravan park or check out the hotel accommodation. And on the way out of town, a full tank of fuel from the servo. In nine days on our “Grass Roots” Tour we collectively injected over $100,000 into the economies of the towns we visited. Pretty amazing.
A great starting point when planning your trip is the Queensland Outback website. It provides a list of over 70 Queensland Outback town and links to each so that you can see exactly what there is to see and do as well as access other essential information such as travel distances and road conditions. Go to: www.queenslandoutback.com.au
As I am writing this story, in the short time that we were away, the world has changed. During and on our return from the “Grass Roots” Tour the COVID-19 pandemic has taken over the world at large. It has changed our lives, making travel such as we have just enjoyed impossible in the foreseeable future. The resultant loss of tourism and associated income is yet another blow to the fragile Outback economy. But it will pass. Sooner or later we’ll be back on the road again and when we do, further forays to Outback Queensland and Australia at large to help support our outback economies are definitely on our agenda.
Main picture: Bustling hotel, then boarding house. Now deserted
- Welcome to Mitchell sign
- The history of Mitchell and the floods that have decided its fate
- Avoiding the crowds on the main street of Mitchell
- With his master at the bar, someone has to guard the door
- The Dulbydilla Windmill story
- Now relocated to the centre of Mitchell
- The main street and iconic bottle trees
- Major Mitchell Caravan Park. Shady in the Outback sun
- The closest you want to get to a roo out west
- The Warra Hotel on the Warrego Highway
- Built in the 1880’s and looking as grand as ever
- Classic Australian architecture
- Hand-built pedestrian railway underpass at Warra