My writing is a combination of three elements. The first is travel: not travel like a tourist, but travel as exploration. The second is reading literature on the subject. The third is reflection. – Ryszard Kapuscinski

Ryszard Kapuscinski was a Polish writer and traveler who was once nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote extensively about democracy and revolution. It is fitting that the above quote is used on this day. Today, in the foot steps of swaggies and shearers, I ride through the area where revolution and civil unrest rocked the foundation of Australia and led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.

It was day six of my motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland and I was now heading south into a cooler climate. In essence, it was the last day of my outback motorcycle tour.  After a hot and blustery ride from Winton to Longreach the day before, I had decided to camp at the nearest caravan park. As it happened right next to a church group with guitars playing the joyful lyrics of “Kum ba yah” my lord, “Kum ba yah”.  If you’re new to my blog and want to see how I got here check out my post on Mad Miners, Guns and Opals

In the foot steps of swaggies Longreach Caravan Park
In the foot steps of swaggies at the Longreach Caravan Park. Singing “Kum ba yah”.

No wild camping available

It had been my desire to camp somewhere secluded along the road, but there was no suitable place, even the occasional rest area was openly exposed to the main road. The road was long, straight and flat, with aches of dry grass land. I rode on for mile after mile. I could only imagine what it must have been like in the middle of one of the hottest place on earth. The poor swaggie humping his canvas swags from isolated farm to isolated farm looking for work.

I traveled in relative comfort on my KLR650 “Emu”, but even then I felt the hot dryness of a sparse land. I was in the foot steps of swaggies and the shearers, and I was getting a little taste of the conditions they endured. This is where the legends of the outback were born.

No more tyranny of distance

It’s no wonder it was here that the tyranny of distance was finally addressed, when Australia’s national airline was first established all those years ago. A single Avro biplane hoping across the country from isolated farm to isolated farm, must have seemed like magic to those isolated communities.

QANTAS 747 SP under cover at Longreach QANTAS museum
This QANTAS 747 SP is the major attraction of the QANTAS museum in Longreach

Longreach is best known for being the home of QANTAS it is also the home of cattlemen and sheep farmers. There are a number of  great exhibits here, including the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the equally impressive QANTAS Museum. I knew that if I stayed in Longreach to see all that it had to offer it would be another three days before I could continue my journey. It’s a place I know I will return to soon, and it will deserve a post of its own. However, my plan today was to get to Tambo, home of the famous chicken races and location of the famed “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”.

Longreach hall of fame
This is an old picture of the Longreach Stockman’s hall of fame.

An early morning departure

Packing my tent and hitting the road early helped me avoid another chorus or “Kum ba yah”. It was early and I knew from the amount of road kill that I passed, there were suicidal Kangaroos in the area. Not wanting to tempt fait too much, I decided to stop for a coffee and breakfast at a small town called Ifracombe. It was enough time to allow the sun to come up a little further, and the Kangaroos to find a place to sleep for the day.

The Ifracombe Hotel which is only about 20 minutes from Longreach had a curb side coffee bar. With coffee in hand I crossed the highway and enjoyed a “silent” casual breakfast in the park while watching the first of the Grey Nomads and their giant caravans pass by.

All too soon, I was back on the road again and heading for Barcaldine, and it wasn’t long before the Barcaldine town sign came into view.

In the foot steps of swaggies and shearers

It was here  in 1891 that three of the newly formed shearers unions, 3000 workers and their families came together to protest the poor wages and conditions of shearer, and it is here where the great shearer strike officially started (although it should be noted that there was also general unrest and militancy occurring right across the region with strike camps from Cloncurry to the New South Wales border). Armed militancy continued on for another four years.

A militant group of shearers had taken up arms in Clermont just down the road, and had then joined up with the those at Barcaldine to create Australia’s second armed uprising. They even marched under the Eureka Stockage flag. History shows that the Eureka Stockade didn’t go too well for the miners, neither really did the second uprising for the shearers. But it was only luck not good planning that prevented the 150 troopers sent to Barcaldine from being over run, such was the anger the shearers had for the governor of the day. The troops were grossly out numbered and out gunned. However, there were many families in the crowd which would have  mitigated the anger, the troops managed to arrest the union leaders, who were taken away, tried and found guilty of sedition.

Send in the troops, get those bastards

The governor quickly reenforced the Barcaldine troops with 1000 extra men to take back and secure the Railway station. Even though history shows the troopers won this part of the battle, it was no where near a victory and shearers still had the numbers where it counted. However, the shearers lost direction after the arrest of the union leaders and they retreated, only to reform sometime later in other smaller pockets of insurrection (Including the burning down of the shearing shed at McPherson’s station) They realised they couldn’t win by armed conflict so they sat down and formed a political party. The result was the formation of a political manifesto that outlined the creation of the Queensland Labour Party. 

Who would have thought the history of Australia could have been changed with one simple protest. We all know of the Eureka Stockade and the battle against gold taxes. But not many Australian’s know that on the banks of the Alice River there was a brooding desire for political change which led to civil unrest and the country literally balanced on a knife edge. 

Barcaldine home of Labor Party

Now I’ve been to Barcaldine in Central West Queensland a number of time. The first time was in 2000 when I drove through on my way to a new job in Mount Isa. At the time I knew very little about the events that had occurred there. I remember looking for a place to eat my lunch and finding this old raggedy gum tree to sit under. 

Little did I know at the time that this raggedy gum tree was the very one those union leaders and shearers sat under back in 1891 to discuss political power and the rights of shearers. If you want to read more information on the history of Barcaldine the following blog is an excellent read History of Barcaldine. 

Tree of Knowledge

They called that tree the “Tree of Knowledge” and it had folklore status in the ranks of the Labor movement. The “Tree of Knowledge” was a common Ghost Gum, that was thought to be over 200 years old when it died.

The tree gained significance when three thousand shearers massed under it during the shearer strike to protest wages and conditions and formulate the Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party.

Tree of Knowledge outside the Barcaldine Railway Station. In happier times before it was “Murdered”. The tree was already over 200 years old which is old for a Ghost Gum.

For this reason the “Tree of Knowledge” is revered in the Labor Party (note the change to the American spelling). The name was actually changed sometime after the manifesto was written. The tree is long dead and this is where the story gets intriguing. On the 3rd of October, 2006 the great “Tree of Knowledge” was proclaimed “Murdered”.

A murder mystery like no other

The rest of that story reads like a Dan Brown novel, there were a number of the usual suspects, Ruben Carter’s name was mentioned, Dr Plum from the library and even John Howard the Liberal Prime Minister of Australia was implicated.

There are two problems with the “Tree Assassination” plot. The first was the use of Roundup. Even though Round Up or its active component glyphosate was found in the soil at the base of the tree leading to conclusion that it was a ruthless plot by special forces agents of the the government of the time.

How to kill a tree (children look away now)

The first is that best practice for killing a tree is that you chop into the tree or drill holes and inject the poison into it. This allows the poison to be drawn into the tree. The second problem is that glyphosate usually prevents a tree’s growth and does not work well on trees that are not growing, i.e old trees are less susceptible to glyphosate poisoning than young trees.

Now if you want to kill an old tree, I doubt that any self respecting “Tree Assassination Unit” would rely on doing the job with common round up. This probably rules out Dr Plump as he would have had access to information about poisoning. Ruben Carter was still in jail at the time for a murder he didn’t commit and the Prime Minister was heading into an election. The the last thing he would have wanted was a symbolic attack at the heart of the Labor Party by making the tree a martyr.

This would only make the tree a rallying cry for left wing radicals, and the greens definitely wouldn’t kill a tree……..would they? Still to compensate for the untimely death of the “Tree of Knowledge” the Labor Party spent over $10,000,000.00 building a monument to it. I’m sure that is a justifiable use of tax payers money.

Barcaldine monument to the Labor Party
This is the monument erected at significant cost after the death of the tree of knowledge in Barcaldine

A sad indictment on politics

As I stood looking up the the poor dead “Tree of Knowledge” I couldn’t help thinking” I wonder what the Swaggies and Shearers of 1891 would have thought about this monument to their cause”. To me, the ghostly remains of that once proud tree, left to stand under a monument of steel and glass is a travesty.

It made me sad, I thought it probably should have just been buried or even burnt in some sort of ritualised swaggie camp fire. After wandering around the $10 million dollar monument to the poor shearers who only wanted a decent wage for a days work, I got back on Emu and turned south.

Back to civilisation

I was now riding out of Barcaldine on my way to the famous “Black Stump” Even though I had been “Beyond the Black Stump” for most of my trip soo far, it was good to get to the other side and theoretically back into civilisation.

Emu and I taking a break at the Rest Area on the famous Barcoo River just out of Blackall in Central West Queensland.

The road to Blackall was a fairly straight line with trees and thousands of aches of Mitchell Grass plains. About forty kilometres out of Blackall I came across one of those iconic rest areas. It was a large impressive expanse next to a bridge and right on the banks of the famous Barcoo River.

Aboriginal meaning

In local aboriginal dialect the name Barcoo refers to “dividing country belonging to two tribes”. This suggests the Barcoo River serves as a boundary between two the aboriginal groups of the region. Another term ‘Barracoo’ is given as the word for ‘big river or large creek’ in the neighbouring Guwa language. (Thanks to Hugh Jones who researched this and let me know).

Emu pulled up at the Barcoo River Rest Area, the bridge in the background.

The Barcoo river like all the rivers in this region and those in the Channel Country further up, are part of the Lake Ayr basin. They flow south west towards the lake during heavy wet seasons. If you are lucky enough to be able to fly over the channel country during these times you can actually see the head of the water column, where the land is stark and dry in front of the water it gets progressively greener and lusher behind it. However, on this day it was dry and a perfect place to camp. But my goal was to get to the famous Chicken races in Tambo and it was far too early to pull up for the night.

Even fly swatting is a sport in this area

It’s amazing the terms you hear when in the outback. Without realising it I was becoming very adept at the famous “Barcoo Wave”, a technique to swat away the millions of flies that just appear from nowhere. I understand there’s actually a competition for the most flies swatted in an hour, why am I not surprised. The ride from Barcaldine to the Barcoo was quite a pleasant drive with kilometres of Mitchell Grass land, paddocks of cattle and a crisp refreshing breeze.

Even though cattle play a big role in the agricultural community here, it is sheep that first Brough graziers here and for which the town is legendary. There are stockmen and women that are legends in this area and no one was more famous that the great “Jacki Howe”. Getting back on Emu it wasn’t long before I arrived in Blackall. It is situated on the banks of the famous Barcoo River, and the Landsborough Highway and has two two famous land marks. The “Black Stump” and a monument to its most famous son “Jacki Howe”.

The black stump and world record shearers

Arriving in Blackall, I find myself in your typical country town, but this is more than just your average country support centre. This is in fact, the boundary of civilisation as we know it. On one side of town is the sophisticated urban arena while on the other the ravages of an uncivilised, untamed wilderness. Interestingly enough the school is on the untamed side.

A sign marks the demarcation between the “Sophisticated Urban Arena” and the “Untamed Wilderness”. It all starts and ends with the black stump.

In the early times of exploration stumps were used by surveyors to set up their equipment. This stopped the equipment sinking into soft or damp ground. The original term “Black Stump” came out of a land dispute in New South Wales (NSW). The term “Outback” was used in reference to the land “Outback” of the survey marker at the old “Black Stump”.

The “Outback” statement was first used for this legal argument in a court case . A grazier was complaining about a squatter who had set up a sheep race on his property allocation. The squatter argued that the land did not belong to the grazier because it was “Outback of the Black Stump” and therefore not possibly within the graziers land allocation. From that case it became synonymous with the known (or surveyed) civilised area and the unknown (not yet surveyed) uncivilised area. The black stump was where the “Outback” officially started.

More than one black stump

However, there are many black stumps in the Australian bush, but only three that claim to be the “Actual” “Black Stump” that defines the dichotomy between civilisation and the “Outback”. These include:

  • Blackall (Qld)
  • Coolah (NSW) (where the court case as actually heard)
  • Merriwagga (NSW)

Burning (again) of the Black Stump

I find it interesting that the “Black Stump” used by surveyors in 1887 in Blackall was actually burnt down and had to be replaced? It was already a “black” stump, presumably being a tree that had burnt down in the first instance, before being used as a survey marker. Otherwise I guess it would have been a tree, which would not have the same connotation or practical use. So important was the Black Stump to Queensland and Blackall’s history that the town replaced it with a statue of a black stump in 2018. Clearly, the stump was not as important to the Labor Party as the Tree of Knowledge, otherwise the monument would have been grander.

This is the location of the Black Stump, behind this not so black bit of wood is the unchartered, uncivilised “Outback”

Birth of a legend

Sheep farming was so prominent in this area and still is, but as the colonies were growing so fast and this growth was based on its sheep exports, the term “Living off the sheep back” was coined. Demand for wool from the colonies was bringing solid prices world wide and Blackall was front and centre in this trade.

For many people in the cities at the time, all they knew about the “Outback” was that it was uncivilised and the home of sheep stations and hostile aboriginals. There were a few legends of the time that they knew about, generally those created by famous authors like Banjo Paterson and Henry Lawson. These heroes were recognised as the pop starts of their age, and no one was faster or better than Jackie Howe. Who in 1892, sheared 321 sheep in seven hours and forty minutes, a record that was only beaten in 2015.

Monument to a legend of his age. The Jackie Howe monument in the centre of Blackall.

This is heart land

On my journey in the foot steps of swaggies and shearer, I had come to its heart land. This area and places like this, is where the legend’s of Australia were born. Australia’s very own identify can be traced back to these areas, the hard working, beer drinking and semi militant Aussie battler came from here. For the digital swaggie this is heart land.

While I rode around town and soaked in the history of this place, I could only stop long enough for lunch before having to hit the road again, if I was going to get to Tambo before skippy came out and the sun retired for another day.

My outback adventure has officially finished

My motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland was now officially over. I had found what it meant to be a swaggie, uncovered the truth of the murdered swaggman at the combo waterhole and found his heart land. Hopefully, having published the truth, the ghost can lay to rest. I guess, I’m no longer on an outback tour of Queensland. Let’s just say “Welcome to my motorcycle tour of regional of Queensland”.

As I ride out of Blackall, past the “Black Stump” and onto Tambo, I lament on all that I have learnt so far. I’ve always thought that Outback and regional Queensland is a place of honesty and hard work. Nothing I have come across so far can detract me from that thought, except maybe another chorus of “Kum ba yah” 🙂

Thank you Swaggie:)

Tonight I get to make my fortune at the World Famous Chicken Races. I’ll enjoy a couple of red wines as I toast the swaggie and his role in creating the Australia we have today and thank him for his efforts. We must also recognise the strong and great pioneering women that stood side by side with the shearers and who’s efforts are equally valiant, its a shame we don’t know more about them.

I hope you enjoyed this tale and follow me on the next part of my adventure, you can read about my gambling success in the next blog post . Safe riding ……………..Digital Swaggie:)

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Gary is a travel writer, educator, training specialist and part time adventurer. When not paddling rivers, diving on the Great Barrier Reef or riding down some dusty outback track on his trusted KLR650 "Emu" he likes to explore historical areas and look for the back story.

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