"Come to Winton mate and do this drought-fundraiser," said the text from Butto (Gavin Butlin, who runs the Airlie Beach Music Festival). "It'll be a great night, you'll have a ball." Gordon Sheard received the same text and we just said yes. We were seriously looking forward to it, another gig with Wanita (Australia's Queen Of Honky Tonk). Also on the bill was Lance Friend and his band. The only problem is that Winton is 900kms from Cairns. That's probably the same as going from London to Edinburgh and then qute a bit more. It's a hell of a long way whichever way you look at it, and there are no shortcuts in Australia. 400kms from Cairns to Townsville, turn right and go through Charters Towers, then another 250kms to Hughenden, then another 250kms to Winton. Winton is seriously Outback. What this means is roads that go forever, and if you've a drama, chances are you're on your own.
An hour out of Cairns was casualty number one. Between Babinda and Innisfail a double-length Mobil tanker had left the road. Police and the fire service were there, and it appeared no one was hurt. This would have been terrifying for the driver. These things are massive, and once they lose control there's nothing you an do except pray. The rain made the driving hazardous, to say the least.
Casualty number two. Between Charters Towers and Hughenden we had a burst tyre. Luckily we were in Gordon's car, not my truck. I hate to think what wold have happened otherwise. The tyre had simply shredded. Of course this meant unloading all the gear out of the boot of the car to get to the spare. We were both bitten by something nasty in the heat, and decided to stay overnight in Hughenden rather than push our luck and try to get to Winton.
There's not a lot to do in Hughenden, believe me. A couple of streets and convenience stores, and two pubs. We got a room at one of the pub/motels. It was fine, $117 for the room. I was in bed by 8, and slept for 10 hours. The next morning we went in search of a new tyre. Forget it. Hughenden only does tractors and 4WDs.
It's a long drive from Hughenden to Winton. Miles of road, dust, the occasional rest stop, and miles of roadworks. We didn't give the roadworks a second thought on the way to Winton. We should have done with hindsight, but hindsight's a wonderful thing (with hindsight). We arrived at Winton around lunchtime. No mobile phones, no contact with the rest of the world.
Here's the gig. They closed off the main street, put up a temporary stage, and Lance Friend and band had to provide the PA, we took our own backline. You could tell people were looking forward to this. There was a real sense of community, all the food was going to be free, and people could drink a beer in the street. The weather forecast said there would be no rain, but even at 4pm the clouds were looming overhead. It couldn't rain, there hadn't been any for two years.
Here we are at around 6.30. The heavens had opened for the first time in two years. Here's Lance and Nudge moving the PA out of the rain. The seats in front of the stage emptied as everyone piled into one of the three pubs in the street. The show must go on, and it did, with the audience watching from wherever they could find shelter. I suppose you could say this put a dampener on proceedings, but many said we'd brought the rain with us. Maybe we had, after all.
Green room Winton-style. Note the plastic mirror dangling from a piece of string, a plastic Winton Shire Council seat, and Gordo tuned up and ready to play. As the night progressed more and more cases were put into the tent by the stage, and the water level gradually rose, until everything was just piled up. Guitar cases, leads, clothes and boxes. The rain was here to stay, but we were going to play.
So we played in the pouring rain to a small but appreciative audience. Wanita was, well, Wanita. No one puts on a show like her. We were joined by the lovely Carolyne Morris, Lance's Stephen Nudge Cook on percussion, and Brannon Crickmore on violin. It went well, and ended up with all of us on stage belting out "Knockin' On Heaven's Door". At least the heavens had opened, which was more than anyone could have expected.
At the end of the day it was a great gig. The crowd loved it, and it rained. What more could you ask? Well, maybe that it hadn't rained between Winton and Hughenden. We left at 6am, and it took 4 hours to travel 200kms. Trucks were bogged as the roadworks turned to mud. We nearly had heart attacks trying to get through this. Such is the unpredictability of the Outback.
The drive home took 15 hours. This photo was taken an hour away from Cairns. You can see the low-lying clouds and the street lights. Nothing worse than being tailgated by road trains and drivers with no sense of self-preservation. When we got back it felt like we'd been away for a week. Having said all that, it was a great trip, a good gig, and yes, I would do it again. Of course I would. I think Gordo would too, just not for a little while.
There is, quite simply, nowhere like the Australian Outback. It goes forever, it's hot, dusty and unpredictable. The people make the Outback. Rough as rough is, they'll do anything for you. If you've not been there, you have to go. Just check the weather before you set out, eh?