Highway to Hell
It was the sort of Queensland afternoon which made tarmac sticky, heat shimmers blurring the road before me. ( In fairness that may have just been my eyesight, as I’d been sick – and boy do I mean sick – since arriving in Australia 10 days before.)
In the baking stillness of a late February day, I made my way up the Bruce Highway (is there a Sheila Highway?) which runs down the eastern coast of Queensland, connecting the state capital Brisbane with tropical Cairns in the far north. The highway is, for much of its 1026 mile length, single carriageway, and winds its way over creeks and rivers, past mountain ranges and through towns and villages of various sizes including Maryborough, Rockhampton, Mackay and Townsville.
I was convinced that I would finally spot a kangaroo – Australia is full of them, right?
1026 miles. If I travelled 1026 miles from home I’d be on the Poland-Belarus border. The Bruce Highway is notorious as one of the world’s most dangerous highways, allegedly responsible for a huge 17% of Australia’s road fatalities, mainly due to aggressive overtaking but also poor maintenance and frequent flooding. Stretches of the road are poker straight, for mile after monotonous mile, testing the powers of concentration of even the most conscientious driver, who may all too easily drift into the path of one of the huge logging trucks which thunder southward.
With this cheery thought in mind, I left the very upmarket seaside resort of Noosa where I was staying and joined the highway just west of the market town of Eumundi. I headed north west, past the pyramid-like Mount Cooroy and the picturesque rolling farmlands of the Mary Valley, and the endless car dealerships and farming machinery suppliers on the outskirts of the old fashioned town of Gympie.
Just north of Gympie, in need of a break and understandably keen to avoid meeting an unpleasant end, I called into the Woodworking Museum. It’s more exciting than it sounds, trust me. No, really. The staff were delighted to see me – I was clearly their only visitor that day. In fact I was possibly their only visitor ever. What I didn’t learn about timber cutting and forestry is nobody’s business.
I spent a good hour or so mooching around amongst various types of lethal-looking saws and axes and bits of extremely large logs. A particularly enthusiastic local mosquito spent a good hour or so mooching around amongst my various limbs, leaving me with several reminders of my visit.
Feeling suitably refreshed and newly-imbued with a working knowledge of the operations of sawmills in Queensland in the late 19th century (one never knows when this sort of information might come in handy), I continued my journey northwards, towards my destination – the small town of Gunalda, and in particular the Gunalda Hotel.
My visit was necessary research for my book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter. The lady in question’s son, Bill Campbell, had sold the family farm on the slopes of Mount Tamborine in southern Queensland in 1930 and purchased the lease of the hotel. Unfortunately, the 4 or 5 years of his tenure coincided with the worst economic depression in Australian history, with unemployment rates approaching 30%. They were desperate, desperate times. The hotel business failed and Bill and his wife Topsy lost everything.
I turned off the Bruce Highway and headed for Gunalda, which the signposts indicated was just a short distance away. Tasteful roadside advertisements for the hotel appeared at regular intervals.
Gunalda isn’t a one-horse town. It’s not even a half a horse town. In fact, I’d be surprised if there was ever anthing more than a hoof. This was the back of the back of beyond. I’m sure it must have been a thriving little place once, but there is NOTHING there now. The “town” consists of 2 streets set at a right angle, a bakery, a second hand store, an estate agents (I can’t imagine they do much business, other than perhaps for those clients who wish to escape the law), a shop which doubles as a post office, and beyond that, the hotel.
I called into the post office as I needed to send a parcel to Toowoomba. It sold everything from vegetables to table lamps to flip flops to wooden chickens to condoms to saws to ACDC t-shirts to flags. Who doesn’t need a wooden chicken and an ACDC t-shirt?
I wouldn’t give a Castlemaine XXX…
I left the post office and walked the few yards to the Gunalda Hotel. Sounds quite exotic doesn’t it? The very name conjures up images of genteel accommodation in the colonial style, potted palms swaying in the breeze on the verandah, guests sporting panama hats and expensive shoes sipping daiquiris on the lawn. A sort of Queensland version of the “Raffles Hotel” in Singapore.
“Hotel” was stretching it. A great deal. The establishment in which I now found myself was straight out of a Castlemaine XXXX advert. A low, one story building attached to an older building which I assumed housed the letting rooms, with a large sign bearing the words “Great Northern Brewing Co – Gunalda Hotel”.
Inside, the interior was strangely modern but dark and incongruous, totally devoid of character, the original fixtures and fittings having been removed long since. I struggled to imagine Topsy holding court as she pulled pints, Bill out back rolling out the empty barrels, while the band struck up a lively tune in the corner.
At the bar sat a couple of locals, each with lengthy beards, one plaited to its owner’s waist, the other’s left long and grey and bushy. Both were covered in tattoos and sported double denim and sunglasses, and glared at me as I ordered my lunch. I squeaked a nervous “Hello!”. Neither spoke. It was like a cross between a ZZ Top convention and a scene from “Deliverance”. I expected a banjo-playing albino to appear and strike up a tune at any moment.
I ate my lunch of soggy, not-long-defrosted calamari under the hostile gaze of the locals. All had beards and tattooed calves. And that was just the women. Still no one spoke. Still they continued to stare. Being the genial sort of woman I am, I briefly considered striking up a conversation about the Ashes but thought better of it. I got the feeling that they hadn’t encountered many eccentric Englishwomen travelling alone in these parts.
“On a dark desert highway…”
I’m sure they were all lovely people but I wasn’t going to hang around long enough to find out. This was the one and only occasion I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable on my entire trip (apart from the time I nearly trod on a tarantula at Australia Zoo, and the time I was leapt upon in the rain forest by a vicious snake which was actually a foraging wombat, and the time when I threw up half-hourly for 3 days), and I beat a hasty retreat. Happily, everyone else I met on this trip couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful.
Sadly the Gunalda Hotel had turned out to be less “Raffles” and more “Hotel California”…
“Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door…”
Oh, and I never saw a kangaroo yet.
You can read more about the fruits of my trip, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (published 2017) here