Cunnamulla and water.
Within the Murray-Darling basin on the Warrego River, 750 km due west of Brisbane, lies the celebrated town of Cunnamulla. In the Gunya (or Kunja) dialect of the original inhabitants – an offshoot of the Bidjara language, which is being revitalised and taught in local schools – “Cunnamulla” referred to a deep waterhole in the Warrego River, the northernmost tributary of the Darling river. It was this reliable waterhole that drew the intersection of two major stock routes (following the recommendations of Australia’s first North-to-South explorer, William Landsborough), attracted the Cobb & Co coaches, and proved the perfect site for a new township in 1868.
That year brought a courthouse and a Post Office, then in 1877 a Provisional School opened. These modest establishments had been instigated in Queensland in 1869 to tackle the problem of providing basic education with a limited budget to a far-flung population. The local people were responsible for providing a suitable building, and provisional school buildings were often of a very low standard. Moreover, teachers’ salaries were low, and their standard of training correspondingly poor. Provisional schools were intended as a temporary expedient which would eventually be replaced by standard State schools. Often the provisional school withered away as population shifted, the gold played out or the railroad moved further west. However, Cunnamulla prospered, and it had a State School by 1885.
Transport links; River, road and train.
In 1879 Cobb & Co. drove the first coach through from Bourke. Cunnamulla was one of many settlements which grew up in South-West Queensland as a result of the activities of Cobb & Co. and is the only one to have survived. This is pointed out in town by the nostalgic mural at the Five Ways corner. In Henry Lawson’s delightful short story set in Cunnamulla, “The Hypnotised Township”, the action stems from rivalry between Cobb & Co and local coach drivers and mail contractors. Just 200 km north of Cunnamulla one of Cobb & Co’s five coach works was built in Charleville, and this factory was the longest survivor, operating until 1920.
Charleville was also the terminus of the Western railway line in Queensland, and originally the destination for the wool from Cunnamulla stations. However, when NSW extended its rail to Bourke, its freight rates were more competitive than Queensland’s, and the farmers began to use the Bourke connection instead to transport their wool to market. Queensland government negotiations with the Carrier’s Union were stymied by the 1891 Australian shearers’ strike, which was supported by the carriers. To discourage the transport of wool via NSW, the Queensland government then introduced the Railway Border Tax as an interim measure before the Federation of Australia mandated free trade between states. More sensibly they decided in 1895 to extend the Western railway line from Charleville to Cunnamulla. However, Queensland Rail remained physically at odds with NSW Rail, being the first operator in the world to adopt narrow gauge for a main line, while NSW had selected European standard gauge.
The next bone of contention was where to place Cunnamulla’s railway station. Chief Engineer Henry Stanley visited the town, and – with an optimistic view to continuing the line further west, across the river – opted for the centre of town. However, this site threatened to encroach on the town cricket ground. After many petitions from determined locals it was decided in favour of a location north of the town, which had the extra advantage of being above the flood level. When the railway line to Cunnamulla was opened in 1898, the key drinking hole in the centre of the town had already been named the Railway Hotel in great anticipation. The hotel evidently decided to keep confusing visitors, and kept the original name until the 1970s when it became the Trappers Inn.
Pasture fuels growth of the town
By 1880 Cunnamulla had a population of about 200, was sprouting local industries and services, and growing into the proud centre of the Shire of Paroo. Profits from the surrounding pastoral stations were safeguarded at the local Queensland National Bank. In January that year the bank was robbed at gunpoint by a station hand, Joseph Wells, who accidentally shot a neighbouring storekeeper in the shoulder. Wells managed to flee the scene on foot, and might have evaded detection, camouflaged in the branches of a tree, had it not been for a sheep dog who sat barking underneath. Wells received the death penalty, but there was so much public debate about capital punishment, that his was the last execution in Queensland for armed robbery with wounding. The Robbers Tree stands testimony at the southern end of Stockyard Street and is listed on the Queensland Heritage Register.
In 1889 a successful artesian bore was drilled at Cunnamulla, and the first half of the twentieth century brought good sheep grazing seasons, high wool prices and population growth to a peak of 2200 in 1961. By the time the wool boom had faded, the town and its surrounds were well equipped to continue thriving. Cunnamulla has its own hospital and airport, and its racecourse hosts four meetings per year. Other inclusions on the Queensland heritage register are a strikingly elaborate war memorial fountain (1924) and the lavishly decorated pressed-copper Paroo Shire honour board (1918) in the civic centre.
The Visitor Centre provides a fascinating insight into the beginnings and significance of the Great Artesian Basin: the Artesian Time Tunnel incorporates an old mine lift which takes travellers back in time 100 million years to discover the geology, and the megafauna that roamed the Eromanga Inland Sea: marine reptiles, some of whose bones turned into opal. Fellow Shire townships Eulo – with its fossilised remains of a Diprotodon – and Yowah – known for its opal mining and the “Yowah Nut”, a local and distinctive type of opal – offer hands-on fossicking.
Although Cunnamulla was founded on a once reliable waterhole, the name of the Warrego River in the Bidjara language is believed to mean “bad” and “river of sand”. Indeed the Warrego is essentially an ephemeral stream: it is not unknown for years to pass without any flow in the basin and substantial amounts of water reach the Darling River only in wet years. The other extreme is also known, and in 1990 Cunnamulla was devastated by a flood which saw the Warrego River reach 10.15 metres.
The Cunnamulla fella
The “true blue” spirit of the people of Cunnamulla and its region is hard to miss. Right in front of the Paroo Shire Hall, Visitor Centre, Art Gallery and Museum sits a larger-than-life local on his swag holding his mug of tea. Cast in bronze the statue gazes across the centre of town. A tribute to the “ringers” of the bush, he is the subject of the enduring country music hit, “The Cunnamulla Fella”, written by Stan Coster and recorded by Slim Dusty. The town holds a festival in the cooler months, the Cunnamulla Annual Roundup, which celebrates the best of the Outback, including a Rodeo School held over three days, led by some of the country’s most admired stockmen.
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