Cinematic landscapes, offbeat daytrips and a chequered history make Cunnamulla an intriguing mix
“I’ve had a revolver pulled on me three times. I’ve broken both legs. Broken me back. But I’ve had a good life, I suppose,” says Les Capewell, staring intently into the camp fire.
Capewell imparts this information with the casual air of someone reciting a shopping list. Now 83, the retired boss drover has spent decades leading cattle through some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. Dressed in a sharp, black shirt, he growls rather than talks, wears his white beard long and squints out of his one good eye.
Here in Cunnamulla, 750 kilometres west of Brisbane, people are tough. They’ve had to be. In its heyday of the 1950s and ’60s, this was a thriving wool town; the pubs were packed with rowdy, beer-swilling men, their pockets flush with cash. But times change.
Excessive stockpiling led to a devastating market crash in 1989; overnight the price of wool became worthless. People faced a simple choice: skip town or wait it out until the market bounced back. It took two decades for the latter to happen, and though the ramifications remain to this day, all is not lost.
Today, Cunnamulla’s compact town centre is built around a war memorial fountain near the banks of the Warrego River. The 1500-strong population is an even split between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, with the economy revolving around agriculture and tourism.
Peieta Mills is leading the charge for the latter. She runs popular Cunnamulla accomodation, Club Boutique Hotel —easily the most salubrious digs in town—as well as a tour company. Together we take a drive out to Yowah, Australia’s oldest opal mine, 160 kilometres west of Cunnamulla.
The drive cuts through the heart of Australia’s almost post-apocalyptic outback landscape. Only periodic dense patches of gidgee and mulga trees punctuate the vast scrublands of copper and yellow. Brumbies gallop across the plains while hawks and eagles feast on the flesh of kangaroos, their fate long since sealed by oncoming trucks.
In town we meet Scott Shorten, a miner and resident of Yowah since the 1960s. Dressed in a bulky knitted sweater, his hair tied back in a ponytail, he has a laid-back, good-humoured air about him.
“Finding opal is 90 per cent luck, 10 per cent skill,” he says, letting out a tobacco-ravaged laugh. “You can guarantee that where it’s supposed to be, it won’t be.”
This may go some way to explaining why several travellers passing through have hit the jackpot in recent years. A decade ago, for example, a group of four Brisbane uni students uncovered a gem worth more than $2000 while waiting for their car to be fixed.
With a population of just 60 (that number swells to around 250 in winter), Yowah has only relatively recently obtained basic amenities such as electricity, phone lines and reticulated water.
Consequently, those who live here long term tend to be of an eccentric disposition. Many others come looking to strike it rich, but most only last a season. There’s a persistence to those who remain, and it’s not about the money so much as the enchanting landscape and laid-back lifestyle.
Shorten himself is still searching for the elusive Yowah Nut (the ironstone concretions containing valuable crystal), but in the meantime the freedom he enjoys is worth its weight in opal.
On the way back to Cunnamulla we make an unlikely stop-off. In the tiny settlement of Eulo, Ian and Nan Pike have established a date farm, boutique winery and spa facility quite unlike any other.
I’m led to an open-air, thatched, walled enclosure, where four freestanding bathtubs overlook acres of bush. Lanterns hang from trees and a burning log fireplace in the corner completes the cosy ambience.
Already bemused, I’m further taken aback when my host pours fresh mud from a bucket into one of the tubs. This mud, it turns out, is thought to be more than 20,000 years old and is rich in potassium, magnesium and other health-promoting minerals. It’s far less viscous than you’d expect, and watching the sunset burn amber through the trees, a beer in hand, I’m soon assured this beats any exorbitantly priced five-star spa experience.
Though the baths may seem an extravagance in the Outback, the entire region is founded on the Great Artesian Basin, an underground freshwater source stretching more than 1.7 million square kilometres—nearly a quarter of the continent. Without it, life in these remote regions could not be sustained.
I learn more about this at the Cunnamulla Fella Centre, where the Artesian Time Tunnel—the museum’s star attraction—chronicles the basin’s development throughout the past 100 million years.
Right outside the centre is an imposing bronze statue of an archetypal Aussie bush character. Created by sculptor Archie St. Clair and based on a drawing by artist Michael Nicholas, The Cunnamulla Fella is said to personify the larrikin Aussie spirit immortalised in song by Stan Coster and Slim Dusty. At double life-size, it’s an eye-catching work and the town’s most iconic landmark.
In truth, though, Cunnamulla’s real trump card is its proximity to the surrounding region. Nearby Bowra Station is a mecca for bird enthusiasts, containing more than 200 species, many of them threatened.
Charlotte Plains offers the chance to tour an authentic sheep and cattle property, bathe in natural bore water and meet people who’ve led the outback life for generations.
If you’re keen to indulge your childhood Temple of Doom fantasies, head to Rocky Station, where a 70-metre swinging footbridge spans the flood plains of another working cattle property.
Back at the Club Boutique Hotel, Capewell is hosting a camp fire dinner. It’s a weekly occurrence here, with the old-timer showcasing his whip-handling skills amid a three-course roast dinner.
“Tell you what,” he says, still breathless from having demonstrated he could probably whip a cigarette from my mouth while blindfolded. “I’ll make you a bet.
“If you can reach that table before my whip hits your backside, I’ll give you 10 dollars. But if I catch you, then you owe me 20.”
Painfully aware the whip could cut straight through my jeans, I barely have time to come up with an excuse when the countdown begins.
“Hang on, hang on.”
Fighting the rising tide of panic, I can picture the welts already.
Geting to Cunnamulla
Rex Airlines flies to Cunnamulla from Brisbane and Toowoomba on Wednesdays and Sundays.
Tours to Charlotte Plains, Artesian Mud Baths, Bowra Station and Rocky Station can be arranged through Outback Australia.