DRIVING CHANNEL COUNTRY
Boulia to Winton in Queensland’s west.
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.