It’s apparent when you come to the first cattle grids off the main Mt Isa to Boulia Road. Brightly painted car bonnets splashed with hand-painted slogans are propped up at the fence line.
“Hot beer. Lousy food. Bad service. Welcome to Urandangie, Qld” says one. Another says it’s 51km to the Dangi Bush Resort, a “rare droving days pub”. Other signs announce Urandangie is the home of the Georgina River and free riverside camping is available.
Close to town is a grave with an upright slab of rock. A car bonnet headstone commemorates the “Unknown Traveller. Arrived in 2009. Built his humpy here. Drowned in the March 2011 flood. Refused to move in the flood.”
At the intersection we find the Urandangie pub, with bougainvillea decorating a sign that announces it is also the Dangi Bush Resort. Mt Isa is back the way we have come. Across the road is a hitching rail and a “horse parking” sign.
A green directional sign has points left: 2km to the Georgina River, 48km to the Northern Territory border, 95km to the Plenty Highway, 313km to Jervois (fuel – cash only), 650km to Alice Springs and 71km and 98km respectively to Manners Creek and Tobermorey stations. A lonely arrow to the right points only to the cemetery.
A car bonnet sign points straight ahead to public toilets and solar-powered showers with the curious footnote “Maintained by the Boulia Shire”. One deduces irony afoot and that the amenities might be best avoided.
Inside the pub is a small bar roped off from another room jammed with memorabilia. “If it’s old and doesn’t move it will probably end up in there,” says a voice from behind the bar.
You know instinctively that you have arrived at the tiny town’s human power station. Pam Forster, now in her sixties, spent most of her life in Victorian towns until she “got the shits with the world” a decade ago and decided to head for Darwin.
“On the map it was about as far away as I could get from where I was in Australia,” she said with a grin. She didn’t make Darwin. Her path took her to Katherine and Derby with a stint at Urandangie on the way. Something about the dot on the map in the Queensland outback appealed to her.
Six and a half year ago she returned and bought the pub in a town of 12 adults (including herself) and 16 kids. She loves the life and swears the only place she will be going when she leaves the hotel is along that right turn to the cemetery.
“The best thing about living here is that life is so uncomplicated and relaxing,” says Pam. “The rest of the world could be gone and we would still be here.”
Pam has a strong relationship with the indigenous people, the station workers and contractors heading for projects a few hundred kilometres away or relocating on journeys of thousands of kilometres across the interior.
Grey Nomads? Pam screws her face. Some are OK but she doesn’t enjoy the sour-faced retirees who skulk in, buy a soft drink and ask for a glass so they can share it while they stare at the photographs and memorabilia.
Stingy and unfriendly or not, all tourists get information thrust at them with history and data on Urandangie. It includes the statement that Urandangie is spelt with an “e” at the end despite maps that erroneously spell it Urandangi.
We read that Tobermorey station was once owned by two brothers, who split off half into Manners Creek Station when they married two sisters. A little rearranging followed with the wives swapping stations and brothers and one wife later moving on to a new partner in a deal involving a horse.
You learnt that the town is pretty much surrounded by the million-hectare Headingly Station, which has a working population of 28 in residence, making it a bigger town than Urandangie. Drought is across the region – the usual 40,000 head of Santa Gertrudis at Headingly has dropped to about 8000.
Behind the bar hangs a commendation from Superintendent R. D. Miller, the Mt Isa police district officer. It commends Pam Forster for unwavering commitment to the community of Urandangi (no “e”) and support for the police.
Without being asked Pam merrily gives directions to the free camping area on the Georgina River. Beside the pub and its friendly back yard of goats, chooks, geese and machinery is the start of a camping area but its development is in limbo until rain falls and a lawn can be grown.
“We can keep a lawn going in the droughts but you can’t start one,” says Pam. Droughts are often broken by impressive floods when the Georgina swells and bursts over the flat landscape. Pictures on the wall show the pub surrounded by a sea of muddy brown water in the big flood years.
One photograph shows the 2011 flood. “That’s the one that drowned the Unknown Traveller,” I nodded wisely. Pam nodded with a grin.
Some days are quiet, some are flat out but Pam always has her eye out for something extra for Urandangie (like marking the graves of phantom travellers). Her partner Ross-Clark Dwyer scours the country and stations collecting Southern Cross and Lister engines: almost 100 of them are now built into the landscape at the crossroads.
Pam puts on impromptu disco nights for the kids in the town. She organises “Get To Know Your Neighbour” days for station and community folk who live hundreds of kilometres apart. Other social occasions are created by her fertile imagination, humour and energy.
We have a couple of beers with a crew driving three trucks to a job dismantling a drilling rig somewhere west of Tobermorey. One driver tells us he’s from Taupo in the Kiwi North Island. He’s heading back there soon and tells us to call in to see him. “Just ask for ‘Slab Sinton’.”
We laze on the banks of the Georgina for a couple of days. Yellow belly have been biting after the wet but the river has drained a little too low by the time Tony tosses a lure. Next year maybe.
On the way to Boulia for the camel races we take Pam’s advice and stop in at the school, where nine children are on the roll. Some indigenous children in the outback might lack education facilities but not at Urandangie.
It has a teaching principal, another full-time teacher and a full-time teacher aide. Usually the principal’s spouse is also a teacher but not in the case of Alex Price from Brisbane. His wife is a nurse and is studying French and education.
That meant another residence had to be built at the dusty compound to house the second teacher. In the outback contract builders don’t come cheap. Talk of the town was the price tag on the modest demountable house: $818,000.
Alex’s double classroom was a bright, well-equipped unit. Only four children have turned up today but he is busy. One teacher is off for the day and the teacher aide is a little late getting there from Headingly station.
He admits he had a little culture shock when he first arrived from Brisbane at the beginning of the year but he is loving the life and expects to stay about three years. One of the challenges of the role was the way the children often moved to different areas. Hence the halved attendance on the day we visit. “It’s the way things are. You have to be flexible.”
Back at the pub, Pam had told us the school had one of the best equipped classrooms in Australia on a per capita basis. She spoke with a mixture of pride and bemusement that peppers much of the goings-on at Urandangie. We told Alex she had suggested we visit the school.
He smiled. “Ah yes, Pam. She’s the lifeblood of this town.” If that ain’t that the truth Elvis is camped on the Georgina River.