DRIV­ING CHAN­NEL COUN­TRY

Bou­lia to Win­ton in Queens­land’s west.

Australian Traveller - - Contents - WORDS RACHEL BARTHOLOMEUSZ

IT’S MID-MORN­ING at the Mid­dle­ton Ho­tel, half­way between Bou­lia and Win­ton and in the mid­dle of nowhere. Be­hind the bar sits 73-year-old pub­li­can Lester Cain, a cold stub­bie in his hand and a worn Akubra on his head. Les is the stuff of a film­maker’s dreams: a larger-than-life out­back char­ac­ter with a reper­toire of dry one-lin­ers. But when di­rec­tor Ivan Sen came to Mid­dle­ton to film 2016 drama Gold­stone, a fol­low-up to Mys­tery Road, it wasn’t Lester that had caught his eye. It was the spec­tac­u­lar and pow­er­ful land­scape of Queens­land’s re­mote Chan­nel Coun­try. “I au­di­tioned, but they told me I’d be bet­ter suited to ro­mance,” says Les. You get the im­pres­sion he’s had plenty of time to work on that line. Mid­dle­ton it­self is lit­tle more than a pub, with a pop­u­la­tion of three: Les and his wife, Va­lerie, and their daugh­ter. It’s the only stop on the 362-kilo­me­tre, five-hour drive between the towns of Bou­lia and Win­ton. Les gives us a petrol top-up from an emer­gency tank he keeps for just such pur­poses, our fuel tank too small to last these long out­back drives. The ‘Hil­ton Ho­tel’, a free camp­ing space across from his pub, is empty to­day. “Most Aus­tralians aren’t in­ter­ested in the desert, mate,” says Les. “Maybe they’re a bit fright­ened of trav­el­ling so far, and when they get here, they think there might be noth­ing to see. But they don’t know.” The Bou­lia to Win­ton drive is Chan­nel Coun­try at its most fas­ci­nat­ing; a pow­er­ful re­gion that cov­ers more than a quar­ter of Queens­land, as beau­ti­ful as any reef or rain­for­est or beach. Red plains ex­tend to the hori­zon, cov­ered in small dry clumps of Mitchell grass. There’s lit­er­ally noth­ing, and ev­ery­thing, to see. The im­pos­si­bly flat earth is bro­ken oc­ca­sion­ally by mesas, out­crops left be­hind by an an­cient in­land sea. As we drive through, the sky turns a bruised black-green, and washes ev­ery­thing in a mag­nif­i­cent light. A storm rolls in, but it doesn’t rain. It will, a few months later, and the coun­try is trans­formed. Chan­nel Coun­try is a desert that floods, a land of ex­tremes. Its en­tire ecosys­tem must take ad­van­tage of short del­uges of wa­ter and with­stand long droughts. It takes its name from

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT: When dry, the land may look bar­ren; But af­ter a flood it is flushed with grasses; Lo­cals know this is some of the best cat­tle-fat­ten­ing land in Aus­tralia; The Mid­dle­ton Ho­tel is the only stop on the five-hour drive between Bou­lia and Win­ton; A beer with pub­li­can Lester Cain is worth the trip alone. PRE­VI­OUS PAGE: The re­gion takes its name from the braided chan­nels of wa­ter that run through its flat plains.

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