THE OUTBACK CLUB The back of beyond and back
By TOBY WALKER
I WASN'T overly concerned.
We were only half an hour out of Windorah when that pointy rock decided to carve a name for itself into one of our tyres.
And anyway, it was the first real morning of our three-day driving tour of Queensland's Central West - still early days and time enough for some fauxadversity on the Gateway to the Outback.
You know how to change a tyre, my drinking-driving, camera-wielding companion Angus inquired?
"No worries," I bluffed.
It was about then I remembered the sticker I'd seen plastered on the wall of Shane and Monique's pub in Jundah the day before.
'Jundah ? where you'll get away from it all,' it said.
We were away from it all alright ? and a couple of hundred kilometres west of Jundah as well.
Away from mobile phone reception, away from traffic, away from work and definitely quite a way from anyone who might have the slightest idea about changing a tyre.
It shouldn't have taken us as long as it did, but by the time we'd cottoned on to this tyrechanging caper a road train had slowed down and pulled over in a cloud of red dust - and Wolf Creek/Falconio-inspired doubts on my part ? to check on our dismal progress.
The flies are friendly, the driver cheerfully observed as a few dozen buzzed about and played tiggy on my face.
It turned out the bloke was en route to Windorah to see Mark at the Western Star Hotel ? the same publican who'd fed and watered us admirably the night before after we'd lived out a dozen postcard moments during sunset at the famed red sands.
So there we were, talking to this fella on the side of Highway Nowhere about the thousands of dollars skilled riflemen were making off the roos they killed and sold to the Koreans and Russians ? apparently they're quite partial to gamey meat in those parts.
The conversation was nice ? it always was out west ? but we had a fresh tyre to get us to Quilpie and he had a truck full of carcasses to deliver, so we parted ways.
It was a Thursday morning out west in November ? hot enough to know summer was coming but amicable enough to ensure the old egg on a paint tin trick remained nothing more than fantasy.
The occasional and immensely knowledgeable grey nomads we happened upon told us we'd missed the prime touring weather by a month or six, but the new Ford rental we'd picked up in Longreach had air conditioning aplenty and, as I said, the conversation was nice.
The phrase it's cabaret time had also, somewhat incongruously, become the motto for the trip and filled in any periods of silence.
So this cloudless day was our only real full day of driving.
The previous day had entailed a brief tour of Longreach outposts like Stonehenge and Jundah and a quick stop at Coopers Creek (the end-of-the-line on Burke and Wills' ill-fated journey) before reaching Windorah.
A woman at the National Australia Bank in Longreach had even laughed at us the day before when we told her we were heading to Windorah for a look, it was that sort of 'you're not from around here' chuckle that haunted me.
Quilpie was remarkable for three reasons.
Firstly, for a place I found to possess no remarkable qualities to speak of, Quilpie's pub was, even moreso, wholly unremarkable.
This, however, was offset by a shop on Brolga Street (the main drag) entirely devoted to the sale of eskys.
The only thing that topped that for me was St Finbarrs School nearby which had a strategically placed slippery slide at the door to the classroom.
It pleased me greatly to think the children of Quilpie at least got to enjoy cherished moments down the slide each time the bell rang before they would inevitably grow into adults and face the unavoidable disappointment that was their local.
Charleville, fantastically dubbed Cosmo's Bilby Country in the tourist literature, is one of those proud towns built on the longspent wealth of the wool trade that has remained a beacon for life in the west.
Unfortunately our tour of the highly recommended Cosmo's Centre and Observatory planned for us by our long-suffering sponsors at Tourism Queensland was cancelled due to a freak occurrence ? rain.
To see the rain come down in all its life-giving glory was actually something to behold.
Friday would see us follow rain clouds from Charleville, through Augathella, Blackall and Barcaldine before arriving in Longreach.
Now, I don't want to pay any disrespect to the Australian Workers Heritage Centre in Barcaldine.
After all, it was in this town the shearers decided to strike against poor wages, in turn giving birth to Australia's first organised union movement and ultimately the Australian Labor Party.
But because we invested so much time laughing at the hilarious picture collage of ALP stalwarts from the party's once proud days, we left it quite late to take in the Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach.
So, all I can say about the Stockman's Hall of Fame is that it is visually impressive and almost certainly requires more than 15 minutes to be fully appreciated.
And watch out for swooping magpies in the carpark, too.
It rained heavily during our last night in Longreach (this probably won't happen for any of you planning to go there might I add) so we sought refuge in the Lyceum Hotel, lovingly referred to by the teenager employed at our motel as the bloodbath.
Admittedly, Angus and I did comment to each other on the Lyceums Spartan decor, but there was no blood in sight and we were fully exposed to what was perhaps the finest pub jukebox I've ever had the pleasure to go deaf to.
Several Bob Hawkes later, we drunkenly learned the pub had been stripped back to basics because it was being used in scene for an English film production and the regulars were ropeable at the loss of their beloved pool table.
The movie you ask? A film based on the disappearance of Peter Falconio as it turns out.
So with the clock well past my bedtime and the police keeping the footpath warm outside for any booze-stashing stragglers, Angus and I proceeded to enjoy one of the finest displays of hospitality I've ever received from a publican ? named Lethal.
Lethal, if you ever read this, cheers mate.
So that, in a glossed over and highly selective nutshell, was the Central West of Queensland from yours truly.
There's plenty to do but I found most of it involved either driving or chatting to the good people who live out that way.
Sure, there's an abundance of birdlife and native fauna, sightseeing options and all that other crap you can learn about in the brochures but I'm not the best person to advise on those things (as you can by now probably tell).
For me, it was the people we met along the way who were only too happy to say gidday. They know the stories, they own the stories, they ARE the stories.
Just ask them.