Ben Stubbs encounters bushrangers, rock royalty and a long-forgotten king on the outback Kidman Way.
The streets of Jerilderie are empty. Dusk swells across town as I walk along the bitumen. The only place open is the pub, and even it is quiet. There are no gates or guards anywhere to be seen, and I certainly can't see the palace. This is strange, considering that the man who is apparently the King of England lives down the road.
Locals at the Royal Mail Hotel tell me that the Earl of Loudoun, Michael Abney-Hastings, who lives in the central NSW town of Jerilderie, is the rightful sovereign. It seems the TV documentary, Britain's Real Monarch, uncovered evidence that Queen Elizabeth was an illegitimate heir (something about a maid and a randy royal in the 16th century) and if the correct line had been followed, England's royal family would be living as NSW rice farmers and not in Buckingham Palace.
This is just the first of many peculiarities I encounter on the outback route on the Kidman Way that traces a line 800 kilometres north from Jerilderie towards the Queensland border. The Kidman Way is named after Sir Sidney Kidman, the former cattle king who had many properties along the trail. My wife and I are attempting a 250-kilometre taster of the iconic trail over a long weekend.
Despite having a king in their midst, the thing that brings most travellers to Jerilderie is Australia's most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly. In 1879, when the storm created by the Kelly Gang in Victoria was at its highest, Ned and his crew travelled to Jerilderie to publish his letter (now known as the Jerilderie Letter) in which he told his version of what happened.
The local historian, Laurie Henery, walks through town with me to explain.
"Ned wanted to set the record straight, so the gang came here to publish the letter," Henery says. They cut the telegraph lines into town and locked all the local policemen in their own cells to ensure they weren't interrupted.
We walk under the arches of the Royal Mail Hotel and Henery tells me this is where Ned kept most of the town hostage, making sure to buy them a round at the bar while he did so. To keep the locals onside, he also burnt most of their mortgage deeds when he robbed the bank.
We take Horgan's Walk past the old sites the Kelly Gang visited to the swollen banks of Billabong Creek - apparently the longest creek in Australia. Big trees and old houses line the banks. This is normally a dust bowl, though Henery tells me it is almost unrecognisable because of recent rain. He suggests I head north along the Kidman Way to look for myself.
We drive along the flat plains. The rain hasn't soaked away yet and the fields look like the water-logged rice terraces of Asia rather than the dry centre of NSW.
This exotic illusion is maintained as we drive along the featureless terrain towards Darlington Point. I take a right turn and see a giraffe bobbing through the trees. As we continue, I notice a mob of Mongolian wild horses galloping across the plain. We are on the edges of Altina, a wildlife park in the middle of central NSW with some of the most unusual creatures in Australia.
We jump in a horse and buggy with owner Gino Altin and tour the grounds, seeing alligators, hyenas, bison and maned wolves.
Altin built the park to satisfy his lifelong obsession with exotic and endangered animals.
Being "thunderstruck" is not normally a term I would associate with wine tasting, though at the Warburn Estate just outside Griffith on the Kidman Way, that is exactly what they're hoping for. Rock band AC/DC contracted Warburn to produce a signature line of wines that includes "Back in Black" shiraz, "Hell's Bells" sauvignon blanc and the "Highway to Hell" cabernet.
Robyn Turner sits me down for a "high-voltage" tasting and, despite my reservations, I have to say that the Back in Black isn't bad at all.
We break our journey in the multicultural town of Griffith and spend the night recharging. With nearly 50 per cent of people in town having Italian heritage, I'm looking forward to some authentic food. The town is quiet, as we are here on a Sunday, which is reserved for family time. We find a table at the restaurant Dolce Dolce and they serve us generous portions of home-made gnocchi and Italian pork sausages, which I wash down with a shot of grappa, as is the local way.
We start early the next day to complete the last 150 kilometres of our Kidman Way experience. I pick up fresh cannoli and Italian espresso and we hit the road.
There are snakes, lizards and echidnas crossing the road at intervals as the straight road cuts through the fields of red earth beside us. The end of the line for us is Hillston, though this is just the midpoint of the Kidman Way that continues towards Bourke.
We visit the Red Dust and Paddy Melons Gallery, where the exhibits on the wall reflect the hard living of this place. There are no fruit bowls or flower arrangements in the paintings; these are images of crushed cow skulls and crumpled water tanks along with pictures of the Lachlan River that slips through town on the other side of the Clubhouse Hotel.
Before we turn off the Kidman Way for home, we stop at Merriwagga back along the road. "Middle of nowhere" is suddenly a term I can appreciate. I see two streets, a few abandoned businesses and a man drinking a beer. Merriwagga does get the occasional drifter and grey nomad, though, as the pub in town is the famous Black Stump Hotel. The legend goes that in 1886 a woman named Barbara Blain was travelling with her husband, transporting wool through the outback. She stopped to cook them dinner when the wind kicked up and the flames caught her dress. She was incinerated, and when her husband found her charred remains he described her form as resembling a black stump.
There are six other towns in Australian laying claims to the Black Stump legend, although the locals at the pub laugh off the impostors.
The owner looks like she has seen a few summers and when I ask how business is, she replies brightly, "There's been lotsa Mexicans here!" It takes me a moment to realise she means people from Melbourne.
There is a solitary parking meter out the front, but it does not seem parking would be an issue.
With all these outback towns, their importance doesn't seem to come from the number of shops on the main drag or zeros are on the population sign. It's all about the pub, and this tin-roofed watering hole on the shimmering plains is one of the best.
The Kidman Way offers a unique slice of outback life, from royalty and alligators through to hard-rock wines. It might seem like the middle of nowhere from a distance, though up close this route is one of the most colourful places in NSW.
Getting there Jerilderie is about 650 kilometres from Sydney along the Hume and Newell highways, so allow 7-8 hours to drive. From Jerilderie, follow the Kidman Way north.
In Jerilderie: The Jerilderie Motel and Caravan Park has cabins and caravan spaces at 121 Newell Highway on the way into town. Phone (03) 5886 1366.
In Griffith: The Griffith Centrepoint Apartments has comfortable self-contained apartments in the centre of town from $120 a night. Corner of Yambil and Ulong streets; see centrepointapartmentsgriffith.com.au.
In Hillston: The Kidman Way Motor Inn, Keats and High streets. Phone 6967 2151.
In Merriwagga: Black Stump Hotel, 9 Mons Street. Phone 6965 4457.
Along the Kidman Way
Jerilderie: for information on the Kelly Gang, see thekellytrail.com.
The Altina Wildlife Park is located at Darlington Point off the Kidman Way. For further information and booking details, see altinawildlife.com.
Warburn Estate: To try AC/DC's signature wines from the source, book a tasting at Warburn Estate just outside Griffith on the Kidman Way. See warburnestate.com.au.
Ben Stubbs travelled courtesy of Griffith Tourism.