“British girls do well out here” says Reid as he brushes embers off the camp oven, peering inside to check on our breakfast. I’m still wiping the dew out of my lashes after a night out under the stars. “Plenty of lonely sheep farmers” he adds with a grin.
Lonely indeed. “Out here” is Paroo Shire, where just over 2000 people live in an area bigger than Denmark. Eleven hours west of Brisbane, and twelve hours from Sydney makes it a tough prospect for anyone wanting to get laid in a hurry. Well, at least with someone new.
I’ve told Reid I’m after a fella. Not some limp-wristed city boy but someone who can shear a hundred sheep before lunchtime and then toss a scrubber. Don’t apply if you can throw a cheap tart over your shoulder. Out here scrubbers have four legs and spiky horns. Reckon you could ‘toss’ a bull onto its back?
It seems the Aussie Country songster Stan Coster found someone who could, right here in Cunnamulla, the Paroo’s largest town. Unfortunately that was back in the 1950s, when the Shire was a thriving hub for sheep and cattlemen, but the legend of a “Cunnamulla Fella” lives on in song and statue.
Squatting on his swag in the centre of town, the bronze Fella embodies the tough spirit of country life. Whether he was ever real, or just a composite character of the era, no-one knows. But the tale of this rodeo-lovin’ larrikin is helping to draw travellers off the beaten track in search of true Aussie-ness.
Promising to get us “up close and personal”, our guide Leesa makes a date at the woolshed. Not a table-top dancing bar in Cairns (where there certainly are a few scrubbers) but a dingy, smelly shed set amid vast acres of parched countryside filled with hot, furry bodies and a few sweaty men.
As we step inside, I can barely hear the whirring shears over the din of pumping techno. Peering through billowing clouds of dust and hair we watch as the team clip their way through dozens of sheep with the slick effort of a production line.
Mike is the quickest of them all, whisking off around 170 fleeces a day. He waves me over to his “sling”, swinging at chest-height above a squirming woolly beast.
Thrusting hot and heavy clippers into my hand, he pushes me firmly into the sheep’s side to reach right to the base of the coat. Three patchy stripes later and he demands his blades back.
Leesa hauls me to my knees and bundles a blood-spotted fleece into my arms.
“You’re a rouseabout now” she says, rushing me to the grading table where I hurl the wool into the air hoping it will land dirty side up. That way, the graders can decide how much it’s worth.
She knows first-hand how frenetic this work can get, but now has four kids to raise and has opted instead to show her mates around her home Shire.
At least that’s how we feel as she shows us the Cunnamulla she knows so well, warts ‘n’ all. Nothing is staged. We even get thrown out of a local pub.
When we’re not eating our body weight in meat around the camp fire, we’re down on the farm with cattle drovers, surfing the sand dunes or kayaking through a forest drowned by the chocolate-tinted waters of the Warrego River.
Cheering the horses home at Cunnamulla’s racetrack brings in a few extra dollars to spend at the five pubs in town.
However, while we’re out braving the chill in our swags each night, I fear my quest for a modern-day swagman is failing. Many Cunnamulla fellas have left for jobs in the city, but there are a few folks moving into the Shire to seek their fortunes from the dirt. So we set off to meet the noodlers of Yowah.
Yowah is the only place where opal comes inside a nut, or stone, often just lying around on the ground. But there’s a catch. All the stones look alike – brown and knobbly – and they don’t all contain opal.
“We’ve gone nine months working seven days a week without finding anything” Scott Shorten tells us as he explains his noodling (fossicking) trade. So why do it? “Because you never know if the next one is the one” he says.
“The One” would be a black or red opal, but the varieties are endless. Iridescent opals bear ribbons of bright colour like a satellite photo of a vast delta.
There’s even one shaped like Australia. But all I find is “potch” – ironstone with a sliver of shimmering colour worth approximately zilch. Better not give up my day job quite yet.
“When you crack open a nut and find opal, it’s like a natural high. You’re the first human to see it” says Scott. His biggest haul is a fist-sized stone worth $50,000.
When I ask how he celebrated, he laughs and says “Oh, I paid the bills and went out working the next day. I’ve been doing this for 37 years and I’m still addicted”
It might be a dusty and sometimes fruitless existence but life in Yowah, as in Cunnamulla, has a certain charm – you never know what, or who, you might find. My Cunnamulla Fella is out there, but I’ll just have to keep cracking ‘em ‘til I find the one.
The damage & the details: Paroo Shire is in south-west Queensland, just off the Matilda Highway. Multi-day tours start from $750. For info, Ph: (07) 4655 1679,www.stephaniemillsgallery.com.au.