Lawson's long walk

Bruce Elder follows Henry Lawson into a 'the great grey plain' of outback NSW.

If you have a literary bent, a trip to Bourke and Hungerford in search of Henry Lawson is a wonderful way to explore outback NSW and southern Queensland.

Eager to stir up controversy in the early 1890s, the great editor, J.F.Archibald, nurtured a debate about the "true" nature of Australia in the pages of The Bulletin. The two main antagonists were Banjo Paterson, arguing for the beauty of rural Australia, and Lawson, who had a darker, more realistic view of rural hardship.

Eager to give the argument some real-life clout, Archibald gave Lawson a rail ticket to Bourke and a ?5 note. It was a chance for the writer to see the real outback close up.

Lawson accepted the challenge. He lived in Bourke for a while in a corrugated iron shed over the road from the Carrier's Arms (which, in subsequent fiction, he would call the Shearer's Arms) and took a variety of odd jobs in the area. He walked more than 200 kilometres from Bourke to Hungerford, experienced the full horror of the "great grey plain" in drought and eventually returned to the city to write While The Billy Boils.

In this, he continued his assault on Paterson while creating a new style of writing: dryly laconic, intensely Australian, passionately egalitarian and socialist and deeply humane.

The good citizens of Bourke have been less than enthusiastic over the years about keeping the Lawson legend alive. The tim shed opposite the Carrier's Arms has been demolished to make way for a supermarket car park. The Carrier's Arms, as with so many of Bourke's pubs, has closed but you can still see the exterior and imagine what it must have been like. There's a simple memorial to the poet and short story writer in the park across the road from the Carrier's Arms and around the corner in Oxley Street the blacksmith's workshop, used by Cobb & Co, is still largely unchanged.

The dead-straight dirt road between Hungerford and Bourke still exists and, even in spring and autumn, you'll feel the heat. One person declared it was so hot in Bourke that when locals died and went to hell they sent back for extra blankets. Your shoes will be covered in a fine layer of red bulldust, you'll start to flag and always, on the horizon, there will be that blue oceanic mirage that has driven travellers mad.

When Lawson walked this road in 1892 possibly the most important trek in Australian literary history he would have experienced all this and more. He took three weeks to make the journey from Bourke to Hungerford. A few years ago, some Bourke enthusiasts decided to recreate the walk but they gave up, realising the task was tough and unforgiving.

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All that is left for the visitor is to hop in the car (preferably a four-wheel-drive; the road is dirt but is navigable in a sedan if it's dry). If you like outback pubs, lonely stretches of flat road, clouds of dust rising behind the car and chatting with real bushies, then this is well worth the effort.

The route is bisected neatly by the Warrego Hotel (you could call the area a town but that would be to imbue it with undeserved qualities) at Ford's Bridge, which is 68 kilometres up the track. It's a great place to stop and quench your thirst.

Hungerford is on the NSW-Queensland border about 230 kilometres north-west of Bourke. It's a one-pub town divided by a gate in a rabbit fence that has to be opened and closed by everyone crossing the border.

This is the true outback. It is easy to forget what the land is like beyond the Great Dividing Range that "great grey plain", as Lawson called it. As you travel the route, make sure you read Lawson's story called Hungerford, which includes this description: "The country looks just as bad for a hundred miles round Hungerford, and beyond that it gets worse: a blasted, barren wilderness that doesn't even howl. If it howled it would be a relief. I believe that Bourke [sic] and Wills found Hungerford, and it's a pity they did."

But, with a cold beer in your hand at the Hungerford Pub (and the Warrego Hotel), you'll be happy you made the journey. Lawson didn't mention that bit.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Everyone should drive to Bourke, if for no other reason than to experience the road between Nyngan and Bourke, the state's longest stretch of straight road. From Sydney to Bourke is 771kilometres and it takes about 10hours. From Bourke to Hungerford, 216 kilometres north-west, take the Mitchell Highway, cross the legendary North Bourke Bridge and take the Hungerford Road. Most of the road is dirt but, when there has been no rain, it is as good as a sealed road.

Staying and eating there

For unusual historic accommodation, the Bourke Riverside Motel incorporates the old Telegraph Hotel; 3 Mitchell Street, phone 68722539. New B&B The Port of Bourke Hotel serves a generous grill and buffet; 32 Mitchell Street, phone 68722544.

More information

The Bourke Tourist Information Centre is in the Railway Station Building, Anson Street, Bourke, phone 68721222. There are many books about Lawson's life, most out of print. Regarded as the best are Henry Lawson: A Life by Colin Roderick and Henry Lawson: The Man And The Legend by Manning Clark.

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