The bar at the outback Toompine pub, which is also known as the 'pub with no town,' in Queensland's Quilpie shire.

Go bush for ultimate pub crawl

COL Whelan spent almost three decades in the rather impersonal role as official photographer of Australia's National Rugby League competition.

Sure he enjoyed what he did. After all he had the best seat in the house at a sport he really loved, and he met hordes of interesting characters. But it was still a job.

Then, towards the end of his career in rugby league photography, Col became increasingly disenchanted with the gradual decline of off-field personality.

"Players, coaches and officials were becoming muzzled, and not voicing their true thoughts," he reflected.

"Clubs insisted a media manager was always present to make sure the same tired cliches and empty sentences were uttered. One of the fun parts of what I was doing was gradually being taken away."

So, in the off-season, Col often took to the road, and to the bush. He had a motorbike and while he enjoyed the solitude of the long trips, he especially relished the interaction with the locals when he stopped over at a pub.

Here, he discovered, were real people, telling it exactly how they saw it; uncensored and uncut.

Soon the expeditions, and the pubs, took on a life of their own and Col Whelan has published a book called Pub Yarns: The Pub, the Whole Pub and Nothing but the Pub.

It is, according to the author and photographer, "a large format tome of 90,000 words and several hundred stunning images of the bush, its pubs and its people''.

Col started reviewing pubs for Australian Motorcycle Magazine back in 2012, three years before he pulled up stumps as an NRL photographer and offloaded his business, Action Photographics, to the game's governing body. Some of the content of his book dates back to then, but the majority is from his travels over the past two years.

But the book "journey'' actually started in 2010 when he rode his bike from Adelaide to Sydney. During the seven-day trip he was stunned by the number of bush pubs, cafes and restaurants displaying the "for sale'' sign.

"My first night stay was at Tooleybuc, on the Murray River," he recalled.

"The local pub was for sale, not because the owner had made a fortune and wanted to move on, but because he was going broke.

"The next night the pub in which I stayed was also for sale, and for the same reason.

"And for the following five days every pub, every cafe and every restaurant I visited was for sale, each of them going down the financial drain."

Col reckoned that if he could encourage riders - through his pub reviews in the magazine - to visit small towns and their pubs, they may be able to contribute to saving some of these struggling businesses.

"From then on my monthly pub reviews were aimed at getting city money out into the bush, and the book is the next step in this goal," he said.


Having a feed on yabbies at Toompine.
Having a feed on yabbies at Toompine.

"The book is not the dream. Getting people into the country is the dream. The book is merely one of the vehicles.

"My one great hope is that it makes people homesick for places they've never been, and gives them a sense of missing people they have haven't yet met."

Col estimates he has visited close to 80 pubs on this particular book-compiling journey, but refuses to buy into the "which is your favourite'' debate.

"I try to explain just what it is that makes a pub great and for that I give them a very quick history lesson," he said.

He reckons two factoids hold the essentials to a great pub.

"When you are in a truly good pub, you feel that you're out, but you also feel that you are at home.

"And one of the ways great pubs achieve this is by not allowing the bar to be a barrier. Great pubs have a feeling of inclusiveness where the publican, the staff, the locals, the regulars and even the blow-ins are equals."

Some publicans, however, take this to extremes. Take 92-year-old Mary Crawley, who runs the Tattersalls Hotel at Barringun on the Queensland-NSW border midway between Cunnamulla and Bourke, for example.

"Most days it's pretty quiet in this town of just three people," Col said.

"Mary, with her ever-present dog Gidgee at her feet, will get you your first drink and then come around and join you in the sunshine. But when I interrupted my chat with Mary to ask for another, she refused to fetch it.

"You saw where I got it and where I put the money, so just go serve yourself."



Mary Crawley runs the Tattersalls Hotel at Barringun on the Queensland-NSW border.
Mary Crawley runs the Tattersalls Hotel at Barringun on the Queensland-NSW border. Contributed

Out at Toompine, an hour from Quilpie, Dogga runs the local whose 6500-acre beer garden is veined with yabbie-filled waterholes. Yet, according to Col, he is rarely behind the bar.

"Instead he'll join you out front, telling stories and laughing at yours," Col said.

"If a vehicle engine breaks the background silence Dogga will track it until he spots the actual car or truck. And if it's a regular he'll duck away and get the "usual'' for the driver.

"'Gotta make 'em feel at home', he says. When they get here in the arvo, they've not been sitting on their hands all day. They've all been doing tough yards and need to sit down, put their feet up and have a cold one."

But there is also a third ingredient that Col passionately believes is essential in the recipe for a great outback pub.

"There has to be a sense of custody.

"A good publican always has knowledge of the story of the town, and the pub, and has a feeling of taking care of a living organism."

At Yaraka, four hours south of Longreach, Chris and his wife Gerry run the pub in a town best known for being on the Outer Barcoo and near the site of the shanty mentioned in Banjo Paterson's A Bush Christening.

Col figures Chris and Gerry are across every part of the history of the town - the floods, the droughts, the dust storms. He says they know the story of the pub and they know the entire Paterson poem and the location of the shanty ruins.

"Every person in every pub has a story but so too, every pub has its own stories," he said.

For me, a good publican will know these stories and will be able to share them with his patrons."

Sometimes, Col discovered during his travels, a pub doesn't even need to be open to create a great atmosphere.

"Every morning at the Ellangowan Hotel at Augathella, a group of blokes known throughout town as the Tree of Knowledge will congregate on chairs out front of the pub," he said.

"They are mostly retired shearers who get there at 9am, before opening time, and tell stories, stretch the truth, embroider facts, make stuff up and generally just have a laugh. Blow-ins are welcome too, so long as they contribute to the enjoyment. You can't just be a sponge.''


Lester, who runs the pub, in front of the the Middleton Hotel, which is about 160km west of Winton in Queensland.
Lester, who runs the pub, in front of the the Middleton Hotel, which is about 160km west of Winton in Queensland.

For Col this assemblage was akin to a group involved in a "shout'' at the bar.

"Each bloke contributes. Everyone takes a turn at lighting up the laughter and no one shirks their turn," he said.

"Of all the journeys out to the bush to research the book, this was one of the best starts to a day that I had."

Among the many other memorable anecdotes in the book:


at Middleton, which is in the absolute middle of nowhere, Lester, who runs the place with his wife Val, makes visitors feel at home by hanging out in a blue singlet, shorts and no shoes


Another view of the Middleton Hotel.
Another view of the Middleton Hotel.


the business card for the Prairie Pub does not just have the names of Tom and Andrea, but also their three young daughters. And at night only one meal is served, with everyone sitting down at the huge table together like guests of the family


Hungerford (population 11) is the smallest town in Australia with its own police officer. For publican Graham and his wife it's not unusual for the other locals, including 90-year-old Mac, to all be in the bar together. Each local has their permanent perch at the bar, with a stool always reserved for a visitor


the new owners of the historic Royal Hotel in Leyburn were halfway through a lap of Australia when they realised pubs were the highlights of their trip, so they decided to get one of their own. The former owner, ex-NRL player Shane Webcke, said if he had designed the perfect people to take over his pub he could not have dreamed of a better pair


in Ingham, the Royal is owned by Alan Quagliotto and his wife Sharon. Alan's dad bought the place in 1959 and it's been in the family ever since


and at Texas, on the NSW-Queensland border, Helen and her staff make a point of asking every new face where they've come from and where they're headed. It's like dropping in on cousins.

While Col may have visited 80 great pubs in his travels, Pub Yarns: The Pub, the Whole Pub and Nothing but the Pub had room for only about 60 of them.

But he says that's not a problem because he already has a list of 20 ready for Volume Two.

Pub Yarns: The Pub, the Whole Pub and Nothing but the Pub, RRP $29.99, is out now through New Holland Publishing.