Just as every person in every pub has a story, so too does every pub. In Pub Yarns – The Pub, The Whole Pub, And Nothing But The Pub, covers the stories of 50 Australian pubs across South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. Each is captured through the photography and words of author Colin Whelan. In the book, Colin travels across Australia on his motorbike to visit these disappearing icons and gives details of his travels between the pubs. He also shares the marvellous stories of pioneering history and the characters and drinking culture that he uncovered.
After an easy coast down through the mountains to the coast, I’m on a stool outside the Royal Hotel in Townsville, where I’ve started an argument between some of the locals about the oldest pub in the place. It’s a pub argument; that kind of discussion where everyone is damn sure they’re right until someone has the bloody hide to produce some proof and the others, go, ‘Really? Bugger me!’ What is impressive is the wrong knowledge.
‘This is the second oldest, the West End’s been around since ’85.’
‘The Mad Cow’s the oldest but it’s not a pub any more.’
‘What about the purple pub on the Strand.’
‘What about Tatts, doesn’t that date from 1897?’
‘The Mansfield started in 1899.’
‘The Big O is the oldest but it’s shut down.’
While we’re trying to sort it out, a woman on a bicycle pulls up. ‘Here’s Alisha. Her folks own the West End. She’ll know.’
I ask her why she’s drinking here if her parents own a pub themselves. ‘It’s on the way home and it’s rude to pass a pub, in my book.’
She grabs a drink from Suzy and comes back out and yes, the West End has been going since 1885, and yes that makes it the oldest pub still operating as a pub in Townsville. The talk just flows on to other pubs, gone but not forgotten.
The exquisite three-storey Buchanan’s Hotel, a white lace beauty built in 1902 and converted in World War II to accommodation for US troops. Lyndon Johnson stayed there during the war and returned in 1966. Just weeks after a developer was refused permission by the Heritage Commission to destroy it, this beautiful pub was burnt to the ground.
They all stress to me, ‘Make sure you write it was burnt, not that it just burnt.’
And the astonishing Queens Hotel on the Strand. In 1872 the Queens Hotel was built facing the water, but like so much up here, history was shaped by the winds, and in 1903 Cyclone Leonta huffed and puffed and blew down most of this stick hotel. It was replaced by a magnificent stone masterpiece which took more than 15 years to finish. An atypical building up this way, but sturdy, strong and wind (and fire) proof. Thankfully the building remains but it’s no longer a pub. This mob at the Royal knows all these stories: they know where the pubs fit in and they know where their pub fits into the story of Townsville’s hotels.
Above: Royal Hotel
Left: Suzy at the Royal Hotel
I head back in for a refill and get chatting to Suzy. In the 1980s Suzy was living in Sydney’s western suburbs. Her sister was living in Aitkenvale, a suburb in far-off Queensland, and was liking the life. Suzy figured she’d do a road trip up north, visit sis in Townie and then head up to Darwin. So she packed her stuff and her budgie into her car and hit the Pacific Highway. She liked Townsville; liked it more than her sister did. Six months after she arrived, her sister headed south, her budgie died and Suzy’s never left.
‘I never got to Darwin, still haven’t. Too much fun here.’
Behind her at the bar, blackboards dispense wisdom and explain the pub rules. Beside me is Pete. We grab our drinks and head outside. Pete’s not sure whether he’s a blow in or he’s been sucked in. He’s from Tasmania but in 1971 he was working with a mate as a roofer in Alice Springs when Cyclone Althea hit Townsville on Christmas Eve: First thing we did after recovering from New Year’s Eve was pack our truck and head east. We figured there’d be a lot of work for us. But it didn’t work out so we ended up working for the same mob we were contracting for in Alice.
But he liked the town, stayed upstairs at the Royal for two or three (not too sure which), years and now lives up the road. There’s no longer rooms available upstairs, all taken by permanents who call this pub, ‘home’.
Rhino turns up in his dark green Jag and a voice announces, ‘Ah, the Dukes of Hazard have arrived.’
Rhino’s a man who likes his Jaguar, but he doesn’t worship it. He likes to drive it. Fast. One of his more famed drives was on a gravel backroad, giving it the hammer with Pete in the front seat. They hit a crest and whilst the Jag might be streamlined on the road:
It’s not really all that aerodynamic, probably needs about 400 kilograms in the boot. The front wheels took off first which is fine, but they also landed first and that’s not quite so fine, but I kept it straight and we had a long landing strip so it was all good.
Pete reckons there was a warning sign to slow down for the crest. ‘Mate at the speed we were going there was no time for reading.’
I ask old Pete about his time here at the Royal, how many publicans has he been through? ‘Been through? I’ve been friendly with them all,’ the words eke slowly out. ‘But never that friendly.’
I don’t understand but then replay my question and realise I’ve not used that bit of slang since high school. I tell Rhino that no, he can’t have a spin on Super Ten, and Suzy calls, ‘See ya,’ as she leaves for the day and others split for home.
An arvo in a fair dinkum town pub winds down and not a single person leaves without wishing me good luck and safe travels. Another good one added to the list, I fire up Super Ten and head off to see a mate.