When you’re road-tripping around Australia, heading to the nearest pub is a good idea. Well, sometimes, say serial road-trippers Lee Atkinson and Bill McKinnon.
She said: Come for a drink, stay for the local secrets
You might call us fair-weather campers, but we have a rule on our road trips: life’s too short to pitch a tent in a howling gale or pouring rain. So, when the weather turns nasty, we head to a pub.
Country pubs are great value for money, offering warmth and a dry bed for not a whole lot more than you’d pay for a powered site in a caravan park. Sure, you might have to traipse down the hall to use the bathroom, but it’s still better than dashing across a dark park in the rain. Rooms might be simple in most, but many also sport great verandas where you can people-watch – almost as entertaining as watching your neighbors trying to reverse-park a van for the first time. And you don’t have to cook or worry about who’s going to drive home.
But the thing that makes Aussie pubs so memorable is the people you meet and the things you learn when you’re there – if you want to know about the state of the road, or where the fish are biting, or that secret swimming spot, perch yourself at the bar and you’ll soon find out.
At the Burketown Pub, on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria, locals in the know will tell you to keep an eye on the fridges behind the bar – if they frost over there’s a good chance you’ll get to see the region’s famous Morning Glory Cloud roll across the sky the next morning.
Sometimes you’ll get more than you bargain for. In Western Australia, in a town famous for rock lobster, I was entertained by the publican, who’d just been abducted by aliens – they were teaching him to play the piano using microwaves via a chip implanted behind his left ear. And I once won an unexpected motza at the chook races in Winton’s North Gregory Hotel, the pub where Waltzing Matilda was first performed.
The food’s not always quite what you expect, either. Parachilna’s Prairie Hotel in the Flinders Ranges is famous for its feral mixed grill (kangaroo, emu, and goat), and the Marree Hotel where the Oodnadatta and Birdsville tracks meet does the world’s best quandong pie, but nothing trumps the date-night seafood platter at the Hotel Dunedoo, a six-hour drive from the sea in central-western NSW, where you’ll need to BYO hammer (or borrow one from a tradie in the front bar as we did) to crack the crab claws.
They might have their quirks, and they may not always be flash, but in terms of character, a country pub beats a boring motel unit any day of the week.
He said: The pitfalls of the country pub
Even for those among us who have never ventured beyond the city, the Australian bush pub is a detailed, hi-res image we all have in our mind’s eye.
The front bar of the country’s most famous bush pub – the Birdsville Hotel – is that image brought vividly to life, with a bit of well-crafted vaudeville for added impact, and a fantastic experience for the first-time visitor. Just make sure you order an XXXX.
The bush pub has, however, changed quite a lot over the past 10 years or so. Before we were rudely interrupted by Covid, the Outback was full of young overseas backpackers on working holiday visas, and many of them had jobs in pubs as cooks.
Now, the bush pub has never been renowned for the quality or sophistication of its cuisine, unless you consider rissoles and mash, schnitty with chips, or very, very well-done steak among the world’s great dishes. But when the backpackers were working the pub kitchens of western Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory, you could often order a risotto, a curry, a pad Thai or (and presumably the locals, many of whom live exclusively on beef, didn’t know what this was or they would have run the cookout of town) a vegan option.
The standard of accommodation offered by the bush pub has also improved, but if the weary road-tripper is seeking warmth (or coolth) and comfort, it’s still far from guaranteed.
Sure, a pub room can be dirt-cheap – less than $50 in some of the lonelier, unloved country towns – but, as with cars, caravans, and camping gear, you usually get what you pay for.
There’s nothing so miserable as lying on a mattress that’s been … er … well-used since about 1963, on a stinking hot night with no airconditioning, watching the Outback’s stunning assortment of winged insects doing their spiral flight of death around the single, flickering light globe that dangles from the middle of the ceiling, with the pub’s coolroom compressor roaring just outside your window and the munted locals mournfully howling along to Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again playing on the jukebox in the public bar down on the ground floor.
It’s not too late. There’s a nice motel just down the road …
This article originally appeared on Escape