With no fire to stoke, no comfy stained sofa to sink into and certainly no pint glass in sight, obvious dilemmas face the English drinker in Australia, but the four walls of an outback pub capture and compress the soul of some seriously remote places into an unforgettable experience.
Road trips and their inherent promise of adventure get me worryingly excited, but work commitments curbed this particular drive from Sydney to Adelaide (and back again!) to a 24-hr trip and is, therefore, best described as the polar opposite of a mooch.
The 1588km drive to South Australia’s capital isn’t top of the road trip charts, its sheer length driving many travellers to the point of insanity – my boss (Will) and I almost fell victim to its spell.
Onto the Sturt Highway, we locked knees and pedal hit metal. Cruise control was sorely missed and radio stations weren’t. The landscape, on the whole, is relatively unexciting – once past Wagga Wagga the hills have rolled themselves out to become vast Plains of nothingness, the still horizon occasionally bouncing to life courtesy of a roaming kangaroo, a bumbling wombat or an utterly gormless emu.
9 hours in, the prospect of a chicken parmigiana washed down by cold beer finally got the better of us in the small farming township of Balranald.
The Shamrock Motel caught our eye, the bedroom’s proximity to the bar playing a major factor in our decision-making process.
Like something from a wild-west movie, the entire pub immediately fell into an awkward silence when we strolled in. Out-of-towners. The faint sound I could hear was probably a mouse fart from the attic.
We awkwardly shuffled our way to the bar and ordered the parmigiana and beer, sitting down at the out-of-towner table to work our way through several schooners and a mountain of food.
Fuller than a caterpillar’s sock drawer, we eventually weaselled our way into the rowdy back-bar to continue the evening’s festivities with the locals. The barman, a young 20-something told us he was just visiting from Sydney and earning a few extra bucks. On hearing that I was an Englishman living in Sydney:
“I know an English fella in Sydney,” he shouted excitedly, “do you know a guy called James?”
Not wanting to pee on his peanuts, I asked what his surname was.
Stumbling his words and eyes bulging with eagerness he replied, “Brits. James Brits. You know him, DO YOU KNOW HIM?!”
Something told me he hadn’t left Balranald.
Sydney’s recent lockout laws didn’t make it as far as this outback town. In fact, despite the several policewomen in the bar, we were told that there’s no official closing time, lights off only when the last one stumbles home – it really doesn’t get much more accommodating than that.
The night rolled on. We met Dale the ex-farmer who had recently made a late switch in profession to motel manager after his crops dried up, along with his bank balance. The beer seemed to keep the smile on his face.
Chloe the nurse and Chris the paramedic were young professionals unable to get jobs in their hometowns, opting instead for more regional positions in Balranald. They seemed to be adjusting slowly but surely to the quiet life. Merry Aussie-rules fans rolled around the bar, bouncing from jukebox to bar to pool-table to bar, to tv and back to the bar again. They would have given Pacman a run for his money.
The biggest surprise came when someone announced there was a makeshift ‘disco’ in town, immediately sending a mass exodus of predominantly male patrons into the cool night in a rampant search for a lonesome Sheila. Whether this was a clever ploy by the landlady to get an early night I don’t know, but it worked a treat.
With a big day’s drive ahead of us we had to give the disco a miss and headed back to our twin room. Aside from trying to sleep-pee from the motel window in the middle of the night, and then climbing into bed with my boss, it was a very successful evening.
If you’ve never set foot in a proper outback watering hole, then put it on your to-do list now. It’s an Aussie icon. It’s a world away from a city pub experience; it’s a melting pot of personality and you’ll have the wildest conversations with some out-there characters. Revel in the atmosphere, drink your weight in beer and be careful with your jukebox selections….
Some more inspiration to get you out the door