I have always had a thing about old hotels, as my grandmother had the Federal Hotel at Bakerville on the Atherton Tableland in Queensland when I was young. My great-grandparents built it in the 1890s and every holiday was spent there with my doting gran, generating lots of memories of the old miners who drank there and told tall tales. She taught me to cook the huge meals the men ate, make up the big old four poster beds and to knit and crochet. Money was tight and there was no electricity, but playing cards at night by the light of a kerosene lamp seemed pretty exciting compared with life at home.
As an adult, when I visited her with Tony, he was fascinated by the slab hut my great-grandparents lived in while they built the pub, the slab stables used by the Cobb and Co horses, the blacksmith shop, and the butcher shop where the slaughtered beef was hung.
The licence was surrendered in the 1960s and the old pub was eventually moved in to the Historic Village in Herberton, where it is has a new life as the tea rooms.
Our interest in old pubs was rekindled when we started touring with our caravan. We’ve put together this list of our six favourites, all of which are accessible on sealed roads, which is important to many caravanners.
But we would like to rue the passing of another of Australia’s iconic hotels; the Conargo Hotel near Deniliquin in southern New South Wales, which burnt down shortly after we wrote about it in Caravan World (CW Sept ’14). Built in 1867, it was an integral part of the Deniliquin Ute Muster, home of the famous Conargo Pub stickers and had the second highest sales of Bundaberg rum in New South Wales.
DALY WATERS PUB, NT
Daly Waters is about 600km south of Darwin, NT, and 3km off the Stuart Highway and is the name given to a chain of springs by explorer John McDouall Stuart in 1861. Daly Waters Airfield played in important role in the 1926 London to Sydney air race and was an important WWII airforce base. The airfield was closed to commercial planes in 1956, but the complex was restored in 1992 and contains a wonderful record of its history.
The Daly Waters Pub was built in 1930, so it is quite young compared with some other historic pubs. However, there is absolutely no doubt about its iconic pub status. We stayed at Daly Waters on one of our earliest trips to the Territory, and we can remember being fascinated (and horrified) by the decor and the locals.
In years gone by, Frank Turton used to do his ‘Wild, Wild Eagles’ show with two black chooks perched on his head and, on one memorable occasion, he climbed up on to a chopper that was on top of a shed and turned on some sprinklers and did his show from up there, much to the consternation of the pub’s owner, who had to threaten him with all sorts of dire consequences if he didn’t return to the ground.
Patrons are encouraged to leave their mark, so the place is decorated with bras, hats, thongs and a huge range of paraphernalia including an Irish hurling stick. The history is hair-raising too, with a murder (the victim is said to be the resident ghost), cattle stampedes and brawls.
From April to October, this awarded hotel has its famous ‘Beef ‘n’ Barra’ nights with free entertainment, and there is a range of accommodation and caravan parking, and a full menu of snacks and meals.
A night at the Daly Waters Pub should be on the itinerary of every RVer travelling the Stuart Highway.
NINDIGULLY PUB, QLD
The oldest continually-licensed hotel in Queensland, the Nindigully Pub was built in 1864, 45km south of St George in southern Queensland. The pub is in mostly original condition, and any renovations have been tastefully done in the old style.
The pub was a Cobb and Co staging post from the 1880s into the 20th century. The best collection of ringers’ and cow cockies’ hats that we have ever seen adorns the walls of the bar, and we love the glass water dispenser on the bar (c. 1880). Several special events occur annually including the Nindigully pig races in November.
Known locally as ‘The Gully’, the pub brewed its own beer and spirits a century ago when Nindigully was a boom town. Today, the town consists of the pub, two houses, a general store and the town hall, and has a population of six.
The Nindigully Pub is a frequently-mentioned ‘don’t miss’ topic at happy hour and many RVers will recount the great times they have had there. Opposite the pub is a large free camping area on the banks of the Moonie River. Even those who are not really set up for free camping can comfortably spend a couple of nights there, as they can use the pub’s showers and toilets. They can also avail themselves of meals and snacks including the huge 5.7kg road train burger, which we have never had the courage to order. Look out for the sign in the urinal: Express Lane. Five beers or less.
In recent years, a beer garden and a large barn have been built out the back of the pub, and there is music some nights. The barn caters for weddings and other events, and is very well-appointed including a chandelier.
A word of advice though; it is best to visit the Nindigully Pub in fine weather. After heavy rain, the ground becomes an oozy quagmire not suitable for camping.
MIDDLETON HOTEL, QLD
Middleton Creek was named after a member of the Burke and Wills search party in 1861, and the pub was built by a carrier called Wiggins in 1876. It is one of the most isolated hotels in Queensland; 200km east of Boulia and 164km west of Winton in outback Queensland. Just to the west of Middleton are the spectacularly scenic Lilyvale Ranges with their brick red mesas rising out of the Mitchell grass plains.
The area has a lot of wildlife including roos, camels, eagles and brolgas. It was fascinating to see the black kites and wedge tail eagles perching awkwardly on the barbed wire fences when they tired of circling above; that is what a lack of trees forces them do.
The old pub is starting to show its age, and is as ‘outback’ as you will find anywhere. The dining room doubles as the owner’s family lounge. A genuine old Cobb and Co coach is parked outside and has been beautifully restored, making for great photographic opportunities at sunrise and sunset.
We camped in the free camp opposite called the Hilton Hotel, which we have been told was the site of a hotel of that name in days gone by. A sign says ‘VACANCY, no air-conditioning, no TV, no pool, no charge’. Fuel is no longer available at Middleton as the old (circa 1930s) bowsers have given up the ghost, but the pub’s toilet and shower are available to campers for a fee.
We walked over to the pub for dinner and enjoyed our home-cooked meals and the hospitality of quintessentially Aussie Lester and Val Cain.
All that remains of the town of Middleton are the pub and a disused hall. The isolation and the harsh dry landscape make us marvel at the tenacity of the people who settled and lived in these remote areas over a century ago and those who still live there today.
LIONS DEN HOTEL, QLD
The Lions Den Hotel was built in 1875, on the Bloomfield Track opposite the Lions Den tin mine, about 30km south of Cooktown in far north Queensland and only 4km from the Mulligan Highway. The story goes that a heavily bearded man called Daniel was seen standing in the entrance to the mine, looking like Daniel in the lion’s den, hence the name.
Annie Ross was the first licensee and the pub remained in the Ross family until 1964. The original corrugated iron structure has been upgraded and added to over the years. More recently grassy powered and unpowered camping sites have been added overlooking the Little Annan River. Cabins are available also, and meals are served seven days a week.
The walls of the pub are adorned with visitors’ signatures (including ours from the 1970s and again in the 1980s) and it is decorated with an eclectic collection of stuff including a huge bra, snake skins, croc skulls, a human skull and plastic floats and beer labels. There is a museum out the back as well; a great place to check out with a coffee or a drink.
In the 70s, the Lions Den had a fearsome reputation for its gun and drug-running clientele and a previous licensee once told us that he was allowed to keep a loaded pistol under the bar.
A visit today is tame by comparison, but we love to call in for a beer or a snack when we are in the area. It is a great place to reminisce on the wild history of some of these far flung outposts.
ROYAL HOTEL, QLD
The old Royal Hotel at Eromanga in far south-west Queensland claims to be the furthest pub from the sea in Australia, and the harsh dry landscape makes that claim quite believable.
The pub was built of mud bricks in 1885 as a staging post for Cobb and Co. It also serviced the local graziers (the pioneers had arrived in the 1860s) and opal miners. In the 1880s, Eromanga (the Aboriginal word for ‘hot dusty plain’) was known as Opalopolis and there is an impressive memorial to opal miners in Opalopolis Park beside the hotel.
The pub has had a succession of licensees, and its fortunes have depended on the success of the local industry. It was very run-down when it was purchased by John Walker and his family in 1980. Many years of hard work have brought it back to its present condition, and it is now managed by John’s son Scott and his wife Diane. In the barbecue area, you can see some of the original mud brick walls. Some of these bricks were fired, but those that were not have been painted to try to minimise erosion of the bricks and mortar.
Scott is a part time opal miner and has samples and jewellery for sale in the pub. He might even give you some advice, if you’re lucky.
When we visited, we had the chance to have a drink and a very informative chat with John, who is a mine of information about the area. He told us of the native wells close by, and we found them quite easily.
We enjoyed our well cooked and reasonably priced meal in the dining room, thinking about past clientele who had sat in that same room after a very hot, uncomfortable trip on a coach. The pub prides itself on its large steaks and great coffee.
With the discovery of oil and huge dinosaur fossils in the area, the future of this great old pub seems assured.
NOCCUNDRA HOTEL, QLD
The Noccundra Hotel was built in far south-west Queensland, 145 km west of Thargomindah, in 1882 from sandstone blocks brought from interstate by camel train. It has been continually licensed since then, and stands in proud isolation in the harsh dry landscape. It is listed by the National Trust, but present owners Neil and Margaret Turner have been permitted to repaint it, and historic photos now adorn the walls replacing the old graffiti. They have also re-introduced meals, and they are famous for their barbecued steaks. Neil drives to Broken Hill, NSW, for groceries and other supplies every couple of weeks.
The low doorways of the hotel are a feature, and Neil told us that he thinks the floors were raised to stop the ringers riding their horses into the bar.
When we visited this year, we were amazed to find that this enterprising couple now do take-away meals for campers at the Wilson River nearby. The camp is only a few hundred metres from the pub, but a bit hard to negotiate on foot at night, if you don’t want to unhook your van. Just order and pay at the pub, and Neil will deliver at the appropriate time.
He told us how great it is to deliver a meal, to find a couple sitting at their table in candlelight ready to enjoy it.
Just for fun, we ordered a take-away burger for lunch, but we love sitting in front of the fireplace in that old dining room, so ate there at night, and reminisced about the old Cobb and Co passengers who also would have eaten there. When we returned to camp we were delighted to find the full moon reflecting on the Wilson River: it reminded us of the stairway to the moon at Broome. Visiting these old pubs creates wonderful memories.