Town made famous by Henry Lawson's short story now little more than a pub and a fence.
If you want to experience the true Australian outback then Hungerford, with its solitary pub, its collection of genuine bush characters, and its amusing rabbit proof fence, captures the strange essence of life on the edge of the vast inland desert. Part of the experience of Hungerford lies in the fact that Henry Lawson walked from Bourke to the town, wrote about it in the amusing short story 'Hungerford', and recounted its hardships. Today there is little to do but open the gate on the fence which still divides New South Wales from Queensland; have a drink at the pub; and look at the Paroo River, usually nothing more than a collection of muddy water holes. If you are conscientious the area is known for its connections with poets who wrote about the harsh lands. The shearing sheds and billabongs they wrote about can be visited.
Hungerford is located on the Paroo River 975 km north west of Sydney via Dubbo and Bourke and 1039 km west of Brisbane via the Balonne Highway. It is 214 km north west of Bourke on a dirt road. Positioned on the Queensland-NSW border it is now little more than a pub and a border fence.^ TOP
Origin of Name
Henry Lawson claimed "It is said that the explorers gave the district its name chiefly because of the hunger they found there, which has remained there ever since. I don't know where the "ford" comes in - there's nothing to ford, except in flood-time. Hungerthirst would have been better." The truth is more pedestrian. One of the first Europeans to travel through the area was named Thomas Hungerford (it became known as Hungerford's Camp) and he gave his name to the town. Hungerford later became a member of parliament.^ TOP
Things to See and Do
The Royal Mail Hotel
Today there is only one hotel in town and it is a simple building. It described by the Heritage of Queensland as:
"The Royal Mail Hotel is a single storey building with a timber frame clad and roofed in corrugated iron. It has two major elevations with a corner entrance and a wing extending to the rear forming a U shaped plan.
"The main entrance is on a truncated section at the north eastern corner and the gabled roof and awning is truncated to match. A wide awning supported on timber columns runs around both main elevations and the corner. The corner entrance opens onto the bar which has a high ceiling, is lined with pine boards and has 12 pane sash windows. A double sided brick chimney is between the bar and the original sitting room. The bar fireplace is formed with a brick arch and is in regular use. That to the room behind is lined with ripple iron. A room adjoining the sitting room was also part of the original living quarters, but is now used as a store room. The cellar survives and is reached by a handmade ladder. Shelving for kegs has been cut out of the earth.
"The original dining room is now living quarters for the licensees. The ceiling and most of the walls are lined with ripple iron as is the pub kitchen and a private bedroom. Modern sliding doors have been added to the kitchen and living quarters. There are 3 guest bedrooms approximately 12' square. 2 rooms are lined with pine boards, but the other is ceiled and lined largely with ripple iron, a material that has also been used in parts of the bar and dining area.
"The outbuildings are clad with corrugated iron and consist of 2 bathrooms and an unused washhouse. Bathroom fittings are early and feature ripple iron lining and a claw foot bath. The former staff quarters has lost its cladding to all but one wall and is used as a storage shed." It is a wonderfully vernacular hotel. The walls have lots of information about Lawson's journey to the town.
Wild Dog Fence
When Lawson passed through the area he laconically noted that there was " an interprovincial rabbit-proof fence - with rabbits on both sides of it". Today the fence, which still needs to be opened and shut by everyone passing through Hungerford, is known as the Wild Dog Barrier Fence and it stretches from Jimbour in Queensland to the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia. The aim is to control dingoes, wild dogs and rabbits. How effective it is can be debated? There is a penalty of $1000 for not closing the gate although how it is policed is hard to determine.
Henry Lawson and Hungerford
I have always been fascinated by Lawson and Hungerford. A few years ago I wrote a long article in the Griffith Review. Here is an edited version. It explains Lawson's trip:
About ten kilometres south of Hungerford I get out of the car and start walking. Hungerford sits on the New South Wales – Queensland border some 230 km north west of Bourke. It's a one-pub town divided by a gate in an interstate rabbit fence which has to be opened and closed by everyone crossing the border. This is the true outback. It is a land far removed from the narrow coastal strip, and the big eastern cities, where most Australians live.
It is so easy to forget what the land beyond the Great Dividing Range - that 'great grey plain' as Henry Lawson called it - is really like. If your life is all tall buildings, twenty-first century modernity, sun-soaked beaches, whale watching, sealed streets and urgent people who drive and talk too fast then, even if you spent your childhood in the bush, you will have forgotten the reality.
Walk along the dead straight dirt road between Hungerford and Bourke, even in the spring, and within ten minutes you'll feel the sweat bubbling up and dampening your armpits. Every few seconds you'll involuntarily offer that great Aussie salute as you try to flick the tenacious little bush flies from around your mouth and eyes. Your back will turn black as the flies settle in silent hordes. Your shoes will be covered in a fine layer of red bulldust. You'll start to feel enervated and, always, on the horizon, there will be that shimmering lake of illusion, the blue oceanic mirage that has driven travellers mad with its thirst-quenching unreality.
When Henry Lawson walked this road in 1892 – possibly the most important trek in Australian literary history – he would have experienced all this and more. He took three weeks to make the journey from Bourke to Hungerford and it was to confirm all his anti-"rural idyll" prejudices about the Australian bush.
Lawson's journey west had started as a well-orchestrated literary challenge. In the early 1890s J.F. Archibald, eager to stir up controversy, had nurtured a debate in the pages of The Bulletin. What was the true Australia? Was rural Australia the romantic idyll of brave horsemen and beautiful scenery as depicted in the poetry of "The Banjo" and his ilk? Or was it the unforgiving, harsh reality of Lawson's grim vision?
With a level of venom which is worthy to stand beside the sheer rage of something like Bob Dylan's "Masters of War", Lawson hit out at Paterson in a 122-line tirade titled, sarcastically, "The City Bushman".
In the wake of this, and with a fine sense of nurturing the young writer's creative impulses, Archibald offered Lawson a rail ticket to Bourke and a £5 note.
No one knows exactly what the arrangement was but it is easy to imagine Archibald saying "Get out there, way beyond Grenfell where you were born, and find out what life in the outback is really like."
Lawson accepted the challenge, arrived in Bourke, lived for a while in a corrugated-iron shed over the road from The Carrier's Arms (which, in subsequent fiction he would call The Shearer's Arms), took a variety of odd jobs in the area, walked from Bourke to Hungerford, experienced the full horror of the "great grey plain" in drought and eventually returned to the city to write While The Billy Boils in which he continued his assault on the bush romantics while virtually inventing an Australian realism – full of short, sharp sentences and as raw as Hemingway and Raymond Carver with its sparse use of adjectives and its honed-to-the-bone realism – which was dryly laconic, intensely Australian, passionately egalitarian and socialist, and deeply humane.
In its harshness it finds its finest flowering in stories like The Drover's Wife which opens with a heart-breaking sense of bleakness and loneliness.
"The two-roomed house is built of round timber, slabs, and stringy-bark, and floored with split slabs. A big bark kitchen standing at one end is larger than the house itself, veranda included.
Bush all round—bush with no horizon, for the country is flat. No ranges in the distance. The bush consists of stunted, rotten native apple-trees. No undergrowth. Nothing to relieve the eye save the darker green of a few she-oaks which are sighing above the narrow, almost waterless creek. Nineteen miles to the nearest sign of civilization — a shanty on the main road.
The drover, an ex-squatter, is away with sheep. His wife and children are left here alone.
Four ragged, dried-up-looking children are playing about the house. Suddenly one of them yells: “Snake! Mother, here’s a snake!”
This is Lawson's realistic vision of the Australian bush. It is harsh and unforgiving. Interestingly it is a vision that few would challenge today. The image of the bush as a place of hardship, pain, suffering and loneliness is now widely accepted.
In Bourke I found myself at a table in the Royal Hotel with a group of "city slickers" who were either on secondment or had moved from the city. They were, for the most part, what critics would call "do-gooders" – people who had come to Bourke to work with the local Aboriginal population either as medical, legal or social aids. In the space of three hours, and with goodly supplies of alcohol making everyone more loquacious, there was no mention of Paterson's romantic vision of the outback.
These were people who, implicitly, understood Lawson's notions of hardship and loneliness. Lawson has clearly won the romantic-realist debate.
Today a larger myth persists. But the myth is laden with ironies. Lawson won the debate about the nature of the bush. It is harsh and not romantic. Ironically it was the painters – Nolan, Drysdale and dozens of others – overwhelmed by the skies, the eye-squinting intensity of the colours, the redness of the soils and the flatness of the terrain – who defined the bush as the outback.
Still searching for Lawson I scour Bourke and Hungerford and, unlike the great man, instead of walking I drive the dry, dusty road between the two towns. There is a great, unforgiving beauty in this desert. You have to feel it, you have to drown in it, to make it real. Lawson wrote this landscape into existence. He saw it with humour, compassion, love and an unswerving commitment to those poor sods who ended up trying to eke a living from its brutal grandeur.
Perhaps the saddest irony of all awaits me as I walk around a corner in Bourke, map and instructions in hand, to find the Carrier's Arms and the tin shed where Lawson stayed. The Carrier's Arms is now boarded up. No one drinks at its bars. No one raises a glass to Australia's greatest short story writer. And, over the road, where once that tin shed stood there is now a Spar supermarket. The Lawson legacy has been turned into a car park.
And here is an extract from Lawson's Hungerford. You can read the short story at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lawson/henry/while_the_billy_boils/book1.6.html. It is very short and very funny:
"One of the hungriest cleared roads in New South Wales runs to within a couple of miles of Hungerford, and stops there; then you strike through the scrub to the town. There is no distant prospect of Hungerford - you don't see the town till you are quite close to it, and then two or three white-washed galvanised-iron roofs start out of the mulga.
'They say that a past Ministry commenced to clear the road from Bourke, under the impression that Hungerford was an important place, and went on, with the blindness peculiar to governments, till they got to within two miles of the town. Then they ran short of rum and rations, and sent a man on to get them, and make inquiries. The member never came back, and two more were sent to find him - or Hungerford. Three days later the two returned in an exhausted condition, and submitted a motion of want-of-confidence, which was lost. Then the whole House went on and was lost also. Strange to relate, that Government was never missed.
'However, we found Hungerford and camped there for a day. The town is right on the Queensland border, and an interprovincial rabbit-proof fence - with rabbits on both sides of it - runs across the main street...
'Hungerford consists of two houses and a humpy in New South Wales, and five houses in Queensland. Characteristically enough, both the pubs are in Queensland. We got a glass of sour yeast at one and paid sixpence for it - we had asked for English ale.
'The post office is in New South Wales, and the police-barracks in Bananaland. The police cannot do anything if there's a row going on across the street in New South Wales, except to send to Brisbane and have an extradition warrant applied for; and they don't do much if there's a row in Queensland. Most of the rows are across the border, where the pubs are."
This extract appeared in While the Billy Boils (published in 1896) which was written after Lawson had visited Hungerford in the summer of 1892-1893.^ TOP
Other Attractions in the Area
A few kilometres north of the town the visitor crosses the Paroo River. When it is not in flood, which is most of the time, it is little more than a few muddy waterholes.
The Paroo River is a typical inland river. It flows from the Warrego Range to the flood plain south of Wanaaring where it joins the Darling River between Tilpa and Wilcannia. It is the last remaining free-flowing river in the northern Murray-Darling Basin. The Paroo's catchment is semi-arid to arid climate with an annual average rainfall of 200 - 400 mm. The catchment covers more than 76,000 square kilometres of inland Australia and is the most westerly in the Murray-Darling Basin. To see the river in the dry season is to be reminded just how harsh and unforgiving this country is. Check out http://www.thargotourism.com.au/paroo-river for more details.
Currawinya National Park
Currawinya National Park covers 151,300 hectares and was once the home to the Barundji people. The park is significant to the Barundji people for its religious, social, cultural and economic values. It has a variety of vegetation types, landscapes, birds and animals, including the endangered Bilby. The Queensland Government Department of National Parks site notes: "Red sand plains and mulga scrubs beside long, dusty roads give little hint to the lakes, rivers and wetlands that make Currawinya one of Australia’s most important inland waterbird habitats. Lake Wyara and Lake Numalla are the main feature of the park which also protects sites of Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultural heritage as well as threatened wildlife." This is harsh, desert country. There is a good downloadable map. Check out http://nprsr.qld.gov.au/parks/currawinya/pdf/currawinya-np-map.pdf. The road to Lake Wyara and Lake Numalla is 4WD only.
* Prior to the arrival of Europeans the area around Hungerford and the Paroo River was occupied by the Barundji Aboriginal people.
* By the 1850s the area was being developed by the pastoral industry.
* By the 1860s the Paroo River was a cattle camp for drovers passing through the area. The camp was the beginning of Hungerford.
* In 1874 a hotel was opened in the town to cater for the passing stockmen and bullock drivers. The first license was issued to John George Cooke.
* Hungerford became a Cobb & Co depot in 1875.
* In 1876 a contract was awarded to Michael McAuliffe who rode from Bourke once a week to deliver the post.
* In 1879 the border between New South Wales and Queensland was surveyed. It was found that the Royal Mail Hotel, which had previously been paying rates to New South Wales, was actually in Queensland.
* In 1880 a post office was opened on the Queensland side of the border.
* Beginning in 1882, Cobb and Co ran weekly buggies between Hungerford and Eulo and Thargomindah transporting mail, goods and passengers.
* In 1885 a second hotel, the Commercial, was built in the settlement.
* In the summer of 1892-93 Henry Lawson walked from Bourke to Hungerford.
* In 1896 Lawson published his short story Hungerford.
* At its peak around the turn of the century Hungerford had a population of around 100 and a magistrate's court, police station, post and telegraph office, a school, 4 churches, several shops and 3 hotels.
* In 1904 the Cobb & Co service to the town stopped.^ TOP
Royal Mail Hotel, Achernar Street, Hungerford, tel: (07) 4655 4093.^ TOP
Royal Mail Hotel, Achernar Street, Hungerford, tel: (07) 4655 4093.^ TOP
Royal Mail Hotel, Achernar Street, Hungerford, tel: (07) 4655 4093.^ TOP
There is a useful local website which covers the town's main attractions. Check out http://www.thargotourism.com.au.^ TOP