Not quite outback

Not quite outback

Above: an aerial view of the black-soil plains with Jimbour House circled, Google Earth

Jimbour, where everything – the sky, the land – is stretched wide.

 By Susan Prior

We leave the city on a piercingly sunny afternoon. Away from the confines of the office where the horizon goes only as far as the street corner, towards an expanse of blue–gold. It’s dark glasses and visors against the glare as we drive westwards heading for a weekend away from responsibilities and computers.

To Dalby, and thence to Jimbour House for a day at the opera. Once you’ve experienced opera in the bush, you will begin to appreciate Australia ‘out there’ at its inimitable best. What is remarkable about this event it that it is free. A gift from a range of sponsors including the Queensland Music Festival, Western Downs Regional Council, Opera Queensland and Jimbour Station.

Outback or bush?

As Australians, we have our own unique vocabulary for our regional and rural areas. So, as we venture further towards the sun’s dwindling rays, I ponder whether Dalby and Jimbour House can be defined as being ‘Outback’ or merely in the ‘bush’. Where does the Outback begin? Where does it end?

Later, when I am back at my desk, I do some research to see if anyone has come up with a definitive answer. And the answer is no, not really.

Outback Australia is generally, and somewhat loosely, described as being ‘beyond the black stump’, where, apparently, civilisation seems to have gone to hell in a handbasket.

Why a black stump is the boundary marker, and not a tree, a road, or a river is a good question. The etymology of the term ‘black stump’ is a story in itself, so I won’t go into too much detail here. (Fire-blackened tree stumps used as markers?) Meanwhile, at least three Australian towns lay claim to being home to the black stump, so exactly which stump the Outback is beyond is anyone’s guess.

As for the matter of civilised society – heavens, we were travelling out ‘Woop Woop’ (another Australian expression) to experience the cultured and civilising influence of the opera! And when we arrived at Dalby, our destination for the night, we located a fab and definitely civilised café using a phone app that I usually consult when we need a decent caffeine hit while away from home turf.

So, on those criteria – charcoaled stumps and civilisation – Dalby is most definitely not in the Outback.

More digging revealed another definition, which emphatically stated that the Outback is ‘those places in Australia which have less than 300 millimetres (11 inches) of rainfall per year and are inland from the coast’. (‘Inland from the coast’ seems to be a grammatical redundancy, but I won’t push the point.) Dalby is indeed inland, so it gets a tick for that, but the Bureau of Meteorology website informs me that it has a mean annual rainfall of 676.4 mm, so again, I think we can safely say Dalby is not in the Outback.

I guess it all comes down to culture and perspective. Tourists visiting Australia are sold ‘Outback’ tours to Dalby and the Western Darling Downs region. However, I’m from Brisbane, so I’ll settle for saying we are going out Woop Woop, or bush, for the weekend.

The black soil country of the Darling Downs, near Dalby

Mad Max meets black-soil country

To get to Dalby the route takes you on the Warrego Highway, through the Lockyer Valley, known as Australia’s ‘salad bowl’ – for its rich alluvial soil, good water supply and ideal climate for growing fruit and veggies – and on through Toowoomba, perched high on the Great Dividing Range.

Head north-west from Toowoomba and the scenery changes dramatically, becoming something other-worldly. There is a faint whiff of Mad Max to the massive and complex agricultural machinery abandoned, seemingly at random, around the broadening paddocks.

The line separating earth and sky is defiantly straight, with sparse vegetation shimmering in the distance. Telegraph poles lope drunkenly for kilometres across the plain. The highly fertile soil of the Darling Downs region is a distinctive black, reflected in the ashen appearance of the grey-green vegetation clothing the roadsides. This soil is the key to the region’s prosperity – it has superpowers when it comes to supplying plant nutrients and its capacity to hold water. It constitutes the basis of the Darling Downs’s agrarian economy, which saw incredible wealth realised for some early pioneers intrepid enough to endure what must have been a harsh and unyielding existence.

The road we travel is named after the Warrego River – an incongruous label, because, it’s more like a reluctant, part-time stream. Warrego is an Indigenous word of the Bidyara language meaning ‘bad’, or ‘river of sand’. From Brisbane to its conclusion in the genuinely ‘Outback’ town of Birdsville, the Warrego Way is 1,578 km and takes about 48 hours to drive.

For visitors to Australia, it is out in this country that many of the labels Australians take for granted must appear puzzling. I originally come from the UK, so I am used to these seeming idiosyncrasies. For example, we refer to Toowoomba as a city, whereas in my mind it is a middling-sized town of just more than 100,000 people. Out here, fields are called paddocks, whereas in England paddocks are teensy fields where horses are kept. And as just mentioned, a stream with an intermittent flow is grandly elevated to the status of river. To be fair, out here any water at all assumes a not-unreasonably exaggerated importance and is to be celebrated.

The sounds of silence

One thing my partner, Brian, and I both notice about Dalby and its environs is the silence. Birds are notably absent – apart from the pesky, introduced, Indian Mynas. I contact Professor Hugh Possingham, world-renowned and Brisbane-based ornithologist, to ask him if I was imagining this lack of avian activity. I wonder if it was a seasonal thing, perhaps. His response: ‘Re Dalby, good question. The native vegetation of that area has been devastated – once rich grasslands and woodlands – now very little remains.’

And so it seems.

As far as the expansive horizon are paddocks growing sorghum, mung beans, cotton. Brian was raised on a farm on the tiny Caribbean island of Barbados; he points across to an area under cultivation with seemingly limitless boundaries. ‘That one field there,’ he says, ‘is larger than the whole area of land under crops on the island.’

Yes. Everything – the sky, the land – extends wide out here.

Prickly pears, and the power of red

Where the paddocks remain pasture, remnant patches of invasive prickly pear cacti can still be seen. Many early settlers grew the prickly pear as a garden plant. Apart from the fact that the first settlers grew it for the cochineal insect that thrived on it – and from which red dye is made – it had good fruit to eat and made an excellent hedging plant. Red is associated with war, danger, strength, wealth – the colour of power – so red dye for the officers’ jackets was essential. Captain Arthur Phillip included cochineal-infested prickly pear plants from Brazil in the stores on the First Fleet. Of course, we know what happened. The gangly plant bolted, carving its spiney way across the landscape, spread by emus, scrub crows and magpies, all of which loved its moreish sweet fruit. Mechanical and chemical efforts to eradicate the pest failed. Amazing bounties were offered for the destruction of these birds, but nothing could tame the cactus.

In 1921, the Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board was set up with the express task of bringing the scourge under control. At the time, the prickly pear had crippled 26 million hectares of farmland in Queensland, to the extent that some farmers were forced to walk off their properties. The Board established a laboratory to investigate possible ways to eliminate the plant. This led to the discovery that the Argentinean cactoblastis moth caterpillar was an effective biological control agent, culminating with the first release of the insects in 1926 in a campaign that lasted until 1939. It was considered one of the most successful examples of biological weed control in the world. In Dalby, so significant was this development that locals refer to events as BC or AC – before cactoblastis, and after cactoblastis. Locals pitched in to help spread the moth caterpillar and an area the size of Tasmania became viable farming land once more. In Dalby’s Myall Park there is a monumental cairn commemorating its eradication.

Jimbour House

The driveway to Jimbour House

We leave Dalby the following morning. The air crackles dryly in the winter sunshine; the sky is crystal sharp, cloudless, cerulean, hovering above the dark soil. It is just a short drive from Dalby along roads stretched and undulated by the heat of summer – like giant ribbons of outstretched grey chewing gum – across the plain to Jimbour.

Anticipation is always an essential ingredient to any theatrical entrance, and Jimbour doesn’t fail to deliver; expressing the pride of its erstwhile architect, Richard Suter, as it sits perched atop a slight prominence – enough to give it stature and views all around.

To really appreciate everything that Jimbour once was you have to understand what Queensland once was. Our history since white settlement is so recent, this land so very vast. At the time Jimbour was settled, Brisbane was a small convict outpost, not yet a free settlement, and part of New South Wales. Explorers followed by settlers had only recently spilled north from the Liverpool Plains looking for new territory to farm. The Jimbour run of 300,000 acres was taken up in 1841 by Richard Scougall who had arrived from Scotland nine years earlier. He established a flock of 11,000 sheep and 700 cattle on land that was essentially in the middle of nowhere. By way of comparison, 300,000 acres equates to about 488 square miles in size; Hong Kong is 420 square miles. Transport was by bumpy horse and cart. Any supplies that were needed were weeks, if not months away. Water supply was a real issue. Settling this place took guts.

View of Jimbour House on Queensland's Darling Downs in 1928, SLQ 199262

Jimbour was the most northerly outpost of European settlement. It was from this remote spot that in 1844, Ludwig Leichhardt began his famous trek into the interior.

That same year, 1844, the property was sold to Thomas Bell and remained the property of his family until 1881. It was the Bells who employed Mr Suter to design and construct the Jimbour House that we see today, although it had deteriorated badly by the time the present family, the Russells, took over in 1923. Since then the Russell family have methodically renovated and improved the property.

There is much information about the property available online for interested readers, and I have included a link to the Jimbour House website at the conclusion. The house is inextricably entwined with the culture and history of European settlement and deserves more attention that I can give it here. So, for this article I don’t want to dwell on the history of the homestead, as fascinating as it is. Rather, I wish to convey our impressions as we wandered the grounds on the day of the opera.

Jimbour House and gardens

Jimbour Home’s gardens

Jimbour is one of Australia’s largest and most prestigious rural homes. Still a private residence, visitors are welcome to wonder around the gardens – an incongruous oasis of trees, verdant lawns and kitchen gardens. The contrast between the surrounding countryside and this small elevation is profound. Some of the largest trees were planted by the Bells but the garden didn’t really come into its own until the Russell family employed Harry Stokes, a Brisbane landscape gardener, to renovate it at the same time they were working on the house. This is when gardens took on the form that is recognisable today. Carefully placed seats, statues, fountains, and meandering paths transport the visitor back to a different time.

If for a moment you forget where you are, then the airstrip in the paddock to the rear of the house pulls you up with a jolt, reminding you of this homestead’s remote location. As you step away from the lushness of the garden, the airstrip extends out before you, flat and dry. Turn on the spot 180 degrees and you are back in a subtropical paradise. Water, established trees, and carefully planted flower beds contribute to an ecosystem that makes a lie of the wearisome monotony of the black soil plains beyond.

The opera

The carpark below the house is full, and lined up along the airstrip are the light aircraft belonging to all the opera fans who have flown in from rural areas for the day.

As we stroll around the gardens, the opera is in full swing. We pause to rest on a stone bench and to admire the full magnificence of our bucolic location. The Merry Widow is being played out in the amphitheatre below the homestead, and operatic strains seep through the fig trees towards where we sit. Ten thousand people have travelled here any which way they can, by plane, car, bus, train, from all parts of Australia, and even from around the globe. This event is an operatic bucket-list trip of the highest order.

Below us in the main arena, a diversity of music fans – country folk, city dwellers, seasoned opera fans, and opera newbies – arrange themselves easily in front of the stage, perched on the foldout chairs they brought in with them, lounging on rugs. The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, strangers mingle. It’s the perfect spot for a picnic, a glass of wine, or a thermos of tea. There are is no black-tie dress code here. It’s jeans and comfy shoes. Shady umbrellas dot the crowd; Akubras, Panamas, sun hats made from raffia and cotton – shade is essential. Even on this winter’s day the sun is sharp and keenly relentless.

And the opera is all the more enchanting for being enjoyed at such an unusual venue.

Back cover of a tourism booklet from about 1931, image courtesy of the John Oxley Library

We meander back down from our reverie by the house to reunite with the throng just as they join in a resounding chorus of the ‘Merry Widow Waltz’. Love it!

And did I say it is free?

So, this is how Aussies do opera!

Jimbour House website, here.

A comedy of errors?

A comedy of errors?

The albatross latitudes

The albatross latitudes