Blackall and Barcaldine, with their strong Labor and union connections are two places I’ve always wanted to visit. And here we are! I’m so excited in Blackall to see the Labor Federation Memorial, representing the first meeting that led to the first Shearers’ Union in 1886, the group that eventually became the Australian Labor Party.
There’s also a statue of Jack Howe, who famously set two shearing records in 1892 – one with blade shears and the other with mechanical shears. His record of shearing 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes with blade shears has never been broken, while his record of 237 sheep with mechanical shears stood for 58 years. My family’s crest features a pair of shears so I feel a certain affinity with shearers!
Also in Blackall is the Black Stump memorial representing the observation site surveyors used to establish a principal meridian passing through the town to gain a more accurate basis for maps of Queensland. Country to the west was known as ‘Beyond the Black Stump’, another phrase every Australian will recognise. A fossilised tree stump is also on display in the main street and could apparently be anywhere from 1 to 225 million years old.
The (almost) free campsite along the (dry!) Tambo River was hugely popular and very well managed. We found Blackall a lovely, friendly town but all too soon moved on to Barcaldine to continue our exploration of the history and traditions of Australian workers.
Barcaldine, on the Barcoo River, was founded in the 1886 when the rail line extended west from Rockhampton, eventually going all the way to Longreach. It is home to the inspirational Tree of Knowledge, used as a meeting place during the 1891 Shearers’ Strike and the reputed birth place of the labour movement in Australia. The 180 year old ghost gum was mysteriously poisoned in 2006 but has since been preserved and is now protected by an award-winning timber structure. http://www.treeofknowledge.com.au/history.htm
I’m keen to see the Australian Workers Heritage Centre in Barcaldine, our only national and ongoing tribute to the rich heritage and traditions of all working Australians. It’s full of fascinating displays and exhibitions including a train station, police watch house, one-teacher school and the AWU Shearers’ Hall. I was disappointed that some of the displays looked somewhat tired and worn, but fascinated nevertheless, by all the detail and personal stories.
It was near Balcaldine that Australia’s Great Artesian Basin was first successfully tapped in the 1880s, greatly enhancing the viability of the town. We’re amazed by the extent to which outback Australia depends on Artesian water.
Barcaldine proves to be one of our most friendly camping experiences. A country and western singer entertained us each night (not my favourite style but fun anyway!). And the camp ground manager offered delicious-smelling authentic Chinese takeaway on Friday and Saturday nights (sadly not GF).
Not far up the road we come across an unexpected gem at Ilfracombe. Lining the road is a beautifully presented long display of historical machinery and antique farm equipment. Known as The Great Machinery Mile, it’s too good to miss!
Next stop is Longreach, where the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame has long been on must-visit list. We check in to another (almost) free campsite run by a local council, this time on the Thomson River, and set off to explore. We decide to leave the Hall of Fame until morning and squeeze in the Qantas Founders Museum first. This museum explains the outback story of the founding of Qantas, which soon became an international airline, and we particularly enjoy the very informative introductory film. Gary is disappointed there isn’t a four-engine Constellation on display as he’d expected, and I’m disappointed because, no matter how hard I try, I’m unable to control the flight simulator and actually fly once I’ve taken off!
Opened by the Queen in 1988, the Stockman’s Hall of Fame is a tribute to the pioneering stockmen and women of Australia. Housed in a majestic building designed by Feiko Bouman are fabulous displays with loads of information about many aspects of outback life and details of all the major stock routes criss-crossing the country. Families like the Duracks are well represented.
What is missing for me is more information about the role of Aboriginal stockmen and their families who played such a vital role, and some recognition that they were the original owners and inhabitants of the land.
Needless to say, these last few days have been a highlight of the trip for me, but there’s more to come with Winton and Dinosaur Land!