So it begins; he driving, me happy to be the passenger.
I know the Min Min is somewhere out there, somewhere beyond. No chance of even a glimpse until we shrug off the pull of the coast and plunge into the Outback. Leave far behind the coastal huddlers with their desk jobs, soft hands and short horizons. The Min Min isn’t here, never would be. Have to turn away from the sea. Inland. That’s where we’ll find it. Or not at all.
He’s taking this Toyota to a relative at Normanton in the far north and I grab the chance to go with him. I know he’s not interested in the Min Min. For him this is just an Outback road trip for two grey blokes. Or maybe, for the well-read man he is, like the wanderings of Don Quixote with Sancho Panza.
Past Beenleigh and Ipswich, we’re on the Warrego Highway before long. Roadside has a veneer of grey gums and ironbarks. Move on up the range to Toowoomba, gateway to the famous Darling Downs.
"We’re starting to pull away from the coast now," I say.
"How do you mean?" he says.
"We’ve crossed the Great Dividing Range. All waters here drain inland, not to the east."
Beyond Toowoomba, busy grey clouds sloping away across the paddocks towards a low green strip along the south-western horizon. Here and there, low-set farmhouses shelter in clumps of trees well back from the road at the ends of driveways marked with fresh puddles.
Continue on past Dalby. More grey-cloud ceiling. Fallow fields and no trees nearby.
"This whole area used to be dense brigalow scrub before the First World War," I say.
"What’s brigalow?" he asks.
"A kind of wattle tree," I say. "Dark trunk and silver leaves. Only about 60 years since it finally gave up in the face of overwhelming machine and chemical onslaught."
Not visible from the car are the extensive coal seam gas fields in this area; gas trapped below ground in coal seams by the pressure of underground water. But it’s also a cropping area growing wheat, barley, chickpeas and more. Many farmers are unhappy; don’t want drilling anywhere near their land. They say drilling has made their fields subside permanently. Whatever the truth of it, governments of both persuasions are backing expansion of the gas fields.
Gun-barrel straight road as I settle into a bit of a reverie. Road follows a railway line built for the grain trade but now taking coal as well.
Eight hours after leaving home, we get to Roma, our overnight stop. Population almost 7,000. Streets with lots of bottle trees native to the area. Bulging trunks and a profusion of much smaller branches above.
After dark, we set off on foot. Find the White Bull Hotel around the corner. Sunday night and it’s quiet inside, with an early workday start tomorrow for most. We settle in with our meals.
"You’ve done well today," I say. "I’m really grateful that you’ve invited me along. I’d never come out here by myself."
"Yeah, it’s another world here for sure,’ he says. ‘Feels like the real Australia. People getting their hands dirty, not just sitting in front of a computer screen."
"Does that make them real Australians?" I say. "If you don’t get your hands dirty at work does that mean you’re not a real Aussie?"
"Well, I think those who have a go are the real deal."
"Oh, so you mean those that have a go, should get a go?" I ask. "Is that what you’re saying?"
"Feels like you’re putting words into my mouth now," he says with half a smile, but I can see he’s on guard. I’m a bit alarmed at where this is going.
"I just think those who make an effort shouldn’t be held back," he says more firmly.
"Wait on," I say. "What about the single mum with three kids under seven living in public housing in the suburbs? Deadbeat of a husband left her in the lurch. Doesn’t she deserve to get a go too?"
"Yeah, well we should help those kids for sure," he says. "Give them a hand up not a hand-out."
I sit with that for a few seconds before saying in the most controlled voice I can summon up, "Australia is a rich country at the richest time in human history. Surely, we can do better than that."
Next morning, vehicles moving before sun up just outside my door. Early start for out-of-town workers or grey nomads moving on.
Nervous about seeing him this morning. Things got a bit out of hand last night.
When I see him, he’s all smiles. Suspect it’s all for show. Not a good start after just one day of our trip.
Short drive downtown. Have a walk and a look around. Lots more bottle trees in the streets and elegant buildings from earlier times like the 1918 School of Arts Hotel. Brick with timber verandahs and topped with a tower looking out over the low-set town.
On the way back to the car, he bails up a local dressed for work. The worker says Roma has done well from the new gas fields. Before that it’s been a gas town for over a hundred years in fact. They joke about exporting the holes left when a mine is finished. Could be a market for that in places like Singapore and Hong Kong that are short of space.
Out of town, we’re soon in cattle country. Road cuttings have bare faces with a fringe of hairy low-slung grass on top. Car is climbing and the cuttings getting higher and more rocky. Just past Injune, cross the Great Divide and we’re back into the coastal drainage catchment.
Four hours from Roma, we reach Rolleston. In Beazley Park, explore the historic Purbrook Hut, a slab-sided relic from the 1860s.
Display panels inside the hut tell some of the history of European settlement in the district. Words on the wall, If this hut could talk, it would tell tales of courage and hard work...
There are hints of another story too, with paragraphs about conflicts and massacres. Settlers didn’t see the area was already occupied by the local Karingbal Aboriginal people. Clashes started when settlers stopped access to waterholes vital to the Karingbal. Over the next few years, those that survived capitulated and worked willingly for the white settlers. Those that didn’t were moved away to Woorabinda Mission.
"I can’t help admiring how the first settlers overcame all those obstacles," he says.
"I know what you mean," I say. "It must’ve been very hard, especially for the women with lots of young children. Still, it seems a big call to say in 2022 the surviving Aboriginal people worked willingly for the white settlers. Bit of self-delusion there I’d say."
Back in the car but still thinking about the fate of the Karingbal. Can’t help feeling he’s more on the side of the white settlers. What would the Karingbal say if they could speak to us about those times? If they could tell their version of what happened.
Not far to Emerald. In the early evening, we walk to the Irish Village pub. It’s plastered with Gaelic words from his homeland, and there’s also a mural on the wall, showing some old bloke and a young lad beside him.
"What’s that mural about?" I ask him.
"It’s an ancient Gaelic myth," he says. "The salmon of knowledge. The story goes this salmon magically gains all the world’s knowledge by eating hazelnuts falling into its pond. An old poet finds out and vows to catch the fish so he can acquire the knowledge. Finally, when he lands the fish, he instructs his servant to cook it but warns the young man not to eat any of it himself. As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the servant inadvertently puts a fish-adjacent finger into his mouth while cooking and hey-presto, now knowing a thing or two, he becomes Finn McCool, an Irish hero and all-round legend."
Thinking about the salmon story, I couldn’t help wondering to myself, who’s the master and who’s the servant on this trip? Who’s Quixote and who’s Panza?
"It’s been quite a day," he says. "That hut in Rolleston was a real eye-opener wouldn’t you say? You know, it’s quite tragic really. At least some of the first settlers to this area would’ve come from Ireland and even after centuries of suffering under the English invaders, those Irish took over Aboriginal land, apparently without remorse. It’s truly shocking and sad."
"For sure," I say. "But you know, since Rolleston, I’ve been thinking about how it could’ve been different. I picture one of the pioneer groups led by someone with a bit more insight, and now that I’ve found out about Finn McCool here, that leader could’ve been like Finn. I imagine him coming into this country and through his special knowledge, he sees the district is flourishing, not in the way the fields of his homeland were lush and green, but in another way. He sees the Karingbal people are essential to that flourishing. He realises the white settlers are out of place here, and so he leads his group back to Moreton Bay where he begins to advocate for better treatment of all the Aboriginal tribes."
He's quick to dismiss my idealism.
"A fine idea no doubt," he says, "but it could never have happened".
We leave at 4 am on the third day. Destination Kynuna.
Moving west, and after sunrise there’s more blue sky. Not far from Jericho, we cross the Dividing Range back into the West. Lots of small cone-shaped termite mounds of orange-ochre dirt near the road, some dressed up in cloth capes and even hats.
Late in the day reach Kynuna beside the legendary Diamantina River. The place holds onto its connection to Banjo Paterson’s famous poem Waltzing Matilda. The swagman in the poem drowned just down the road at Four Mile Billabong, though some say he could’ve been shot during the big 1891 shearers’ strike and the death covered up as a suicide. In a contest with Winton’s North Gregory Hotel, the Blue Heeler Hotel in Kynuna claims the first public performance of Waltzing Matilda. One person’s history is another’s half-truth.
They were hot-headed times back then. Working-class poet Henry Lawson took the side of the striking shearers in his poem Freedom on the Wallaby. In contrast, Banjo Paterson was a born-to-wealth friend of the pastoralists, and his poem backs up the squatter; the swaggie was a thief and not a starving worker.
This is also the country of the Koa Aboriginal people. Many graziers liked to believe the Koa just “melted away” when the white settlers arrived in the 19th century, but reports persisted of a massacre of Koa (“nearly the whole tribe”) in the 1870s at a place now called Skull Hole. In 2021, the government officially recognised the Koa’s native title connection to a large area west of Winton, proving they didn’t “melt away” as the settlers’ version of frontier history made out.
I have a personal connection to Koa country. My great-grandfather was a groom at a Cobb & Co changing station here in the 1880s and 90s, swapping fresh horses for the ones exhausted from pulling the coach.
After dinner at the Blue Heeler, we drive in the dark beyond the village.
Close to the road at a property gate. Inky blackness below and vast starfields above. Deep silence except for the crickets bowing a chirpy drone on finely tuned wings, and the moving air sounding softly in our ears.
Reckon this could be the night; no moon and headlights few and far between.
The Min Min light is named for that pioneer settlement in western Queensland, now a ghost town, where reports of a strange light first surfaced 100 years ago. They say the light sometimes follows travellers for many hours, no matter how fast they drive.
A light appears, but we quickly see it’s headlights tracking along the road towards us.
"False alarm," he says, sounding a bit smug. Just as well I won’t have to put up with him much longer.
"The night is still young," I reply. Unlike me, dragging my sorry old arse around these past few years since my cancer diagnosis. Have a lot riding on seeing this thing. Just want a sign of better days to come, something to give me hope after feeling hopeless for so long.
But nothing appears in the darkness.
The minutes seep slowly into two hours. Still nothing.
More time creeping along. Nothing to see.
But wait. He’s suddenly excited and animated. Points me along the onward corridor of the road. He’s jumping around, amazed, laughing, whooping.
"Look at that!" he shrieks.
I can’t see a thing.
"There it is. Don’t you see it?"
"See what?" I say.
"Out there above the road. A white globe. Bobbing up and down. Ducking and weaving. It’s amazing! Not getting closer. Just floating there. Gotta be the Min Min."
He’s running around, waving his arms and pointing.
"I can’t see anything," I say quietly, thinking how cruel fate can be.
During the tense drive back to our motel, he begins to whistle an upbeat tune from his youth.
"Do you have to do that?" I ask, failing to conceal my annoyance. "You really don’t care about anyone but yourself, do you? Don’t give a shit about the Aboriginal tribes kicked off their land. Aren’t prepared to give up any of your privilege to help those in need. And you don’t get how unfair it is that you saw the Min Min and I didn’t."
"Sorry you’re feeling that way," he says. "But I never pretended to be a bleeding heart."
Next day, he leaves me on the street in Julia Creek. It isn’t a punishment for my outburst last night. I’m heading back to the east coast while he’s aiming to reach Normanton, near the Gulf of Carpentaria to the north.
We shake hands, briefly putting aside our differences.
"Adios, Senor Panza," he says. "Keep a lookout for windmills. Either water pumps or wind turbines will do."
"Adios, Don Quixote," I say, flattering him one last time. I thought I was the real leader of this quest but sadly, I know he usurped me in those final hours near the Kynuna road last night when my eagerness turned against me, and his devil-may-care indifference gifted him the prize I’d come so far to find.
He seems reluctant to leave.
"Don’t be downhearted that you didn’t see the Min Min," he says, looking a bit sheepish. "As you no doubt recall, Quixote could easily be confused about what he saw."
Brian Feeney has degrees in civil engineering and urban planning from the University of Queensland and worked as a town planner in Queensland for more than 35 years in local government, state government agencies and as a consultant.
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