The brolgas are dancing in the dust in the space between the front verandah of the Blue Heeler Hotel and the Matilda Highway. They are bold and unafraid of people, walking right through the open door and into the bar if they are not chased out, and scavenging for any dropped scraps.
It is late afternoon, and I’ve settled in on the verandah after a long drive. The arrival of the brolgas is a daily event the locals don’t bat an eyelid at… but for tourists it’s a great novelty and the cameras click furiously.
The Blue Heeler is the lone pub in the tiny town of Kynuna, a 1860s staging post for Cobb and Co. coaches. The hotel was built in 1889 and is still a good spot to stop over if you’re driving between Mt Isa and Winton.
One of Kynuna’s claims to fame is its links with “Waltzing Matilda”. Folklore has it that the owner of nearby Dagworth Station, Bob Macpherson, told Banjo Paterson about the suicide of the shearer Samuel Hoffmeister beside the Combo Waterhole. It is said he had a last drink at the Blue Heeler.
This story inspired Paterson to write “Waltzing Matilda”. A sign on the wall declares the Blue Heeler to be the place where the song was first performed (but try telling that to the people of Winton, who claim that piece of history for their own pub, the North Gregory Hotel).
Visitors to the Blue Heeler are wont to leave a piece of themselves behind, scrawling messages, names and dates – along with the odd original verse – that cover almost every bit of the interior walls. There are also hats, shirts and other mementos pinned up.
The main bar runs between a pool room and the dining room. In the pool room, beyond the red felt of the table, is a large brick fireplace donated by R.M. Williams for the pub’s centenary.
A guillotine window between the bar and the dining room is a direct link with Paterson’s stories of his time here. In the story Golden Water he wrote of watching the Macphersons pass champagne through the window to the union shearers after the burning of the woolshed, in a gesture that ended the conflict in September 1891. In the dining room an upright piano still stands ready for someone – anyone – to play a tune. No prizes for guessing which is the most attempted!
When the sun goes down, I move inside and country hospitality is immediately evident. Seeing me eating alone, a couple invite me to join them and soon we’re swapping life stories.
If, like me, you’re looking for a place to break your road trip, there’s basic accommodation at the back of the pub. Six ‘motel-style’ rooms have ensuites, new beds and bedding, flat screen TVs with satellite reception, and air conditioning. There are also ten single-bed dongers and a caravan park next door.
As for the brolgas, as dusk nears they simply fly away into the distance, in the direction of the river and the waterhole. But tomorrow’s visitors can be almost certain they’ll be back.
You can check out more of Lee’s pub reviews in the book Great Australian Pubs (Explore Australia).