A big-sky story: Longreach
Find out why it’s so satisfying to stay awhile and listen to the stories that the ‘heart of the outback’ is telling.
TrueBlue Magazine - Oct/Nov 2019
Words: Jac Taylor
The name alone conveys adventure and exploration. Longreach is that intriguing dot on the map, smack-bang in the centre of the giant state of Queensland. It is indeed a long reach from anywhere, though it’s named after the ‘long reach’ of the Thomson River, on which the town is set.
As you can imagine with such an extreme place, holding its own on the plains of the Central West, 700 kilometres from the coast and almost the same to Mount Isa in the other direction, this town has a surplus of stories to tell. From the families that have worked the land for a century and more, to the seasonal workers bumping up the population each year, the yarns that people tell about life in this stunning, mind-bending location weave together to make a strong and fascinating town fabric that makes any visit to Longreach unforgettable, if you take a little time to talk.
This is not the place to keep your head down at the pub. The locals have too much to tell you.
Flying into Longreach, the town beneath you is an orderly island, floating amongst the seemingly endless expanse of red earth below and blue sky above. Big-sky country reaches right up to the edge of its grid of streets, butting up to the fences and backyards of suburban residents and available to any visitor who takes a five-minute walk from their hotel. Pause at sunset on that edge, where desert meets town, and you may be rewarded with mobs of muscle-bound kangaroos passing you by, or flocks of chattering birds heading to the river for their end-of-day social.
The river itself is a surprise. Thomson River is not only the lifeblood of the town and its wildlife, but of the region’s thriving tourism industry. “People come out and don’t realise the river is long enough and deep enough to have three different boats on it,” says Joyce Rogers, the owner of Toobrack Station, who I mistake for a local when we chat. But she quickly corrects me. “No, no,” she says. “I’m not a local – you’ve got to be born here to be ‘a local’. I only came out here in ’56.”
Those three boats do a great job taking visitors to the region through the Longreach landscape, packaged with other must-do outback experiences, so even the most casual tourist can come away with an enjoyable taste of bush life.
Outback Aussie Tours’ MV Explorer boasts 360-degree views from the top deck – ideal for birdwatching or simply basking – with a bar, nibbles, plenty of stories told by the captain as you glide through the water, and a stop at Sunset Bend to toast another spectacular outback dusk.
Meanwhile, the Thomson Belle claims its stake as the only paddlewheeler west of the Great Divide, and along with its sister, the Thomson Princess riverboat, is run by Outback Pioneers for a slick cruising experience either way.
Storytelling wears a professional face these days in Longreach, and all cruises include a feed and plenty of entertainment. The MV Explorer stops at Smithy’s Outback Dinner & Show for a two-course camp-oven dinner, plus plenty of music and storytelling on stage; Outback Pioneers’ two options similarly include some onshore fun in the shape of a campfire dinner and barefoot bush poetry, then a big-screen presentation called Starlight’s Spectacular Sound & Light Picture Show.
On the land
One of the main attractions in Longreach is undoubtedly the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre: a long name for an equally comprehensive place. Capturing the spirit of Longreach – the tenacity of its pioneers, the impressive bushcraft of its stockmen and women, its love of a good story – can’t have been easy. Yet here the staff have beautifully turned the intangible into the tangible, accessible with all five senses.
The museum and heritage centre breaks the town’s history into five separate galleries, but it is the Outback Stockman’s Show that really brings station life into focus for visitors, with local stockmen and women (and their trusty farm dogs) showing off their best herding and animal handling skills. The experience includes a filling bush-style meal, storytelling and musical entertainment, and makes the sometimes extreme stories of bush life feel so much more appreciable, even for city slickers or suburban kids
Of course, nothing can give you a true appreciation of station life like actually staying on a property yourself, and there are opportunities to do just that around Longreach. It’s particularly satisfying to know your tourist dollars are going directly to those working the hardest out here, too. A special and inspiring stay awaits at Noonbah Station, a working cattle station run by the fourth generation of the Emmott family.
Those who live on the land can be tough, but Noonbah has a soft side, too. Angus Emmott is a passionate natural historian, registered wildlife carer and nature photographer, and he loves to take visitors on his natural history tours around the property. Combine that with waterside camping spots (among other accommodation options on the station) and you’ll never see the outback the same way again. Once you take the time to look, the place is teeming with wildlife, from frogs to birdlife to Australian native animals. All funds raised go toward Angus and Karen’s caring for orphaned or injured wildlife.
If you want a different taste of Longreach history, Outback Pioneers recreates the original Cobb & Co Longreach to Windorah mail route by stagecoach, drawn by five stock horses. It’s not a luxury tour, but it’s a fantastic experience, and definitely an adventure, for those who don’t mind a bump or three on the journey – especially if your idea of luxury is scones with jam and cream, a movie, some entertainment and a billycan lunch at the end.
Under the night sky
Far from the bright lights on the coast, Longreach’s orange street lights may colour the occasional scudding cloud, but the glory of the Milky Way is still visible most nights just a few minutes’ walk away from the main street.
Longreach Tourist Park, on the outskirts of town, is flat, red-earthed and simple, but the stars stretching above it make for a luxury canopy if you want to camp close to town.
Within the town centre, six motels make up the total of more conventional accommodation options, and they are often booked out – so be sure to make a reservation ahead. It’s a similar message for Longreach’s best-known fine dining option, Harry’s Restaurant at the Longreach Motor Inn, which often turns around 70 to 100 plates in an evening, including weeknights. Whether you’re staying at the Motor Inn or not, it’s where you head for good beef Wellington or the best fish dinner in town. “It’s buzzing here every single night,” says staff member Sarah Kennedy as we chat. “And a lot of nights, we are turning people away.”
A surprising option in Longreach is Indian food, with both Curry Across the Street and Little Star Indian Restaurant producing delicious, authentic offerings.
Breakfasts are getting mighty fancy here, too, with detox smoothies available at the Secret Garden Café, and coffee to write home about at Casey’s in the main street. Meanwhile, Outback Pics does double duty, with a photography gallery and shop combining rather perfectly with coffee and cakes in the shady courtyard.
Worth a visit
Longreach School of Distance Education – take a daily tour, see a ‘remote’ lesson in action and smile at the fact your tour fee goes to assisting this essential service for outback kids.
Camden Park Station – just a short drive out of town is reputedly the British Royal Family’s favourite Longreach spot: a working cattle and sheep station and a fascinating visit.
Welcome Home Café & Tearoom and Stonegrill – grab some outback tucker at the Outback Pioneers booking office, in the form of biscuits and slices for ‘smoko’, to lamb shanks and hot-stone steaks for the serious eaters.
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