It’s all fracked

In breaking news I can report that there are no giant tomatoes in the small Queensland town of Roma.


And despite widespread confusion in the Italian community, neither does it brings to mind the soaring antiquity, Renaissance glory, post-Byzantine significance and mythological lore of its namesake in northern Italy. Where The Eternal City proudly shuffles upon a shag pile carpet of culture, Roma has to be reminded to scrape its boots on the mat.

What Roma does have is the demonstrable pride of being the birthplace of Ray Meagher, the actor who plays fictional soap opera legend Alf Stewart from Home and Away, whose exquisite lexicon includes, Strike me pink! You flamin’ galah, you let the mongrels escape!

That and a lot of coal seam gas…


Which is why this well-heeled agricultural centre, the food bowl of the Darling Downs, has suddenly come over all sleek-sneakered gym bunny in the midst of a ‘roid rage incident.

Tired utes bearing rangy mutts, bailer twine belts and empty streets full of remember whens  have been supplanted by a vicious swarm of activity that buzzes frenetically, a fluoro orange aura beating from within it.

This is a boom town, heavy with expectation and the cloying smell of lucre.  High-vis tradies crowd the coffee lounges, pie in hand, while rigs bristle with antenna and reflective striping, an alien colony intent on domination.



The tired determination of country Australia has been browbeaten by a high octane optimism that is infective. The Santos shop, front and centre on the main drag, reflects gangs of people in its eerily empty glass; utes with flags, stickered tags and flashing lights dance in formation, the numbers on their doors like ball-room dancers’ ID tags, their flags reminiscent of a marauding Korean tourist group hustling to see the sights first.


Foxtrot specialist

New sites bloom at the edge of town, crammed with drilling equipment, schmick trucks and air-conditioned dongas:


Halliburton’s heroes


Carved from dirt


An army on the move


and unmanned servos have appeared like a rash over night.


Unmanned but ruthless

Crammed motels spew guests into the arms of seedy pubs, while concrete bins and shipping containers (complete with matching sheet sets) double as home. Buildings breed before our eyes as motels and caravan parks are carved out of the dirt, row upon row of low-slung shelter crouching close to the ground.

One of five motels under construction

Out of thin air

Out the back of the pub on the way out of town a greying woman sits silently in the dark, smoking a fag and sipping on a can of rum and coke. Her eyes are a lifetime away, lost in a better place, and she makes no attempt to talk but is friendly when we meet in the shower block, a rudely utilitarian place full of clogged drains and virus-like linoleum.

For a moment I consider the possibility her life among the containers is to welcome the workers home, a happy ending to a day streaked with sweat and dirt. The truth is far sadder: her husband, slumped on the bar, spills his fate, “Lost the farm to the bank mate. Had to slaughter all me stock. Bloody mongrels, even took the Mrs’ hair straighteners…”

Half a click out of town and gas flares light the way to the wells, stains of sharp light on a fading horizon:


While the traffic continues its haul to the east past endless supply stations:


The burble on the CB is constant, a barrage of instruction, though the chatter is careful not to name names. A couple of crumpled Hitachi mechanics (slaves to the machines) fill in the gaps over a beer at the end of the day:

“There’s no locals mate, none. No-one knows whats going on – they got a policy of not employing anyone with an attachment to the land, so it’s all mob from somewhere else yeah? They got a three-week-on, one-week-off schedule and get this mate, when the boys knock off for the week the whole plant shuts down! They reckon it’s so they only got one crew working on it. It’s scary mate. No-one knows what’ll happen here, ya know?”

According to the ABC’s CSG site, ABC: Coal Seam Gas: By The Numbers, coal seam gas means exports, jobs, revenue, greenhouse gases and land clearing. And while there is undoubted economic benefit, the exploration, extraction and export of coal seam gas comes at a searing environmental and social cost.

The few locals that would talk about the Santos GLNG gas field project spoke of bustling streets and swollen end-of-year figures, of libraries with readers and pools that splash. But many also admitted they didn’t understand the specifics, of facts and figures that sift through fingers like sand.

Perhaps Josh Fox’s film Gasland should be compulsory viewing.


Another Roadside Attraction

Pounding along a blood-dirt-lined blacktop, swaying to an anonymous beat, the horizon bleeds into the desolate expanse of the interior, a void that inhales your thoughts. I find a well-placed sheep’s skull can help focus the mind, at least on the white lines…


In the midst of this tattered landscape is Muckadilla, a scabby outpost offering cold beer and a story or two. The name comes from the mud (naturally), said to have healing properties and used to treat burns victims during the war. Where once battalions of starch-fronted nurses cared for the injured, today visitors are treated to a crash-course in ocka drawl and this little gem:



Utilised to its full extent, the bench is a precursor to a glorious display of newsworthy stories papering the cracks of the hotel walls, including a grainy shot of a croc eating a shark as it is snatched from the water by a burly fisherman in Karratha; Gordon Ramsey’s ‘fucking omelette’ recipe, a cow-eating wild boar and a sign above the bar that reads: “wanna rage doll?”

Well, yes I do. Thanks for asking.


With Mary parked up beside a demountable behind the pub, the Tin Lid entertained by a concrete kangaroo and the Cowboy lounging against the bar, we get the lowdown.

Described as ‘land you could fatten a crowbar on’ Muckadilla is thriving. The population of this skidmark strip has soared from three to 14 in just four years, courtesy, the publican is sure, of the high standard of the counter meals.

Well, that and mining.

40 odd clicks to the west is Mitchell, deep in the belly of western Queensland’s cattle and sheep farming district. Here the mammoth stock trains pile up, the end of the road for the triples.


The tail bogies are sidelined, lowing sadly as they are unhooked in the dust and shackled individually for the rest of the drive. Heading east the bitumen flakes and boils, traffic snarling into formation, and at Muckadilla the whump of B doubles invades your bones: the sign says 80 but the locals reckon most slow to 120, eyes pinned. Those that stop – and plenty do – are grizzled and oil-stained. They smell of heavy metal haulage and to a fault are carrying mining equipment…


40 odd clicks to the east, Roma is the freshly squeezed heart of the Central Queensland coal seam gas industry, a ‘hotspot’ that threatens to explode, leaking noxious tendrils of sinister tension.

Muckadilla, propped on the roadside between the two, rides the rip that sucks and gluts between agriculture and mining. It is an inveterate battle of will: farmers vs miners, environmentalists vs resource boomers, the sane vs the fanatic, a modern-day land grab, widely considered unsanctioned yet financially condoned.

This staunch little place capitalises on the war. The pub has always been the stations’ watering hole, there is cheap rent in sawn-up containers parked in the dirt for the mine workers, and let’s not forget the counter meals, which encourage a steady stream of greased truckers and their loads. The pub was once an exotic thing. It’s now functional, practical, air conditioned and well lubricated.

Before the fire

Before the fire

60s barflies

60s barflies


After a night of bellicose ribaldry, stories puddling on a sticky bar beneath exhausted elbows, we weave back to our sleeping hulk which is bathed in the glow of floodlights and well-placed palm trees, just another roadside attraction.


Eat your heart out Kerouac…

On the road again, loaded up on future dreams slick with nostalgia: this sunburned life, grimy with dirt, never looked so good.

The suburbs recede into no-man’s land, a grey sand between urban and bush, the threat of a mall around every corner. Once past the sprawl of fading wealth, the outer rim of the coastal conurbation, its lush green polo-pony-stud-farm badge proudly polished, the land rises sharply, tipping us deep into the interior… which is a vastly different world.

There is a point of no return. It is the point at which you glance up to see an endless sky divested of clouds and soul-searchingly empty. It is stretched taught to the horizon, no room for benign fluffy whites here. This is a place of blistering starkness, with light so sharp it looks as if it could shatter into a thousand shards, where a harsh and unforgiving reality takes no prisoners.

This is bat country…

The Tin Lid is living his little life to the full – it’s one long day of bumping F150-riding laughter, cold pools, hot chips and treasure hunts after another. His first case of pink sun-kissed skin brings on much back-slapping and calls of “You’re a true blue Aussie beaut now mate!” from his proud father and lamenting from his mother. Doesn’t bother him.

Black Mary's a great babysitter

Black Mary’s a great babysitter

Life on the road

Life on the road

He is the reason we dawdle and skitter, his attention span about as good as Mary’s fuel economy (the Cowboy has taken to treating her like a boat and calculating money spent in “hours on the water”), but he is also the reason we stop and look, chase, laugh, tumble and shout. He is the reason we are doing this.

After a day of breakdowns (the great solar story at Muswellbrook: the fuel filter fiasco on the steepest of hills, which caused Mary to hiccup and stall inducing fear in those of us not snoring: and the messy starter motor slaughter in Gunnedah) we find ourselves marooned…


at the Red Chief Motel, Gunnedah, the epitome of 70s kitsch and dubious signage:


Yes, the phones are self-dial, the TV is colour and the air-con is welcome respite from lazy gusts of 39 degree heat that wrap around your like an ermine shroud. What is not clear is the connection between the Red Chief and the Indigenous man depicted on the side of the pebbledash clutching a woomera. And our thin-lipped Aussie proprietor can elucidate no further. She just points out the pool and offers the Tin Lid free Coco Pops. Beaut.

The forecourt is steeped in late afternoon light by the time our impromptu exile begins. As the Cowboy mutters and curses deep in the bowels of Mary’s engine, the Tin Lid and I play with bits of tar and the splayed offshoots of frayed truck tyres.

All thoughts of a cold beer in the local pub have been summarily placed on hold and the evening descends into a parody of a bad road movie, a dust-streaked family holed up in a tinny motel, lolling in an air-conditioned stupor and faced with ten-to-ten takeaway from the local Chinese, an ill-fated marriage of gristle and monosodiumglutomate.


Gunnedah is streaked with lush green avenues, stately wide-brimmed homes and a healthy looking cricket pitch in the centre of the town. It smacks of a different era, a time of wagons hauled into town, of crinoline-wrapped womenfolk, roustabout-crammed pubs and the Sisters of Mercy.

Grand old pubs stake out the corners of the main street, vying for alpha status, while bush staples – the civic mall, Best and Less, Crazy Charlie’s, the gentlemen’s outfitters and a tired milk bar flogging spiders and day-old sushi – make up the bits in between.



A desiccated once-bloaty toad lays sprawled on the pavement, much to the Tin Lid’s delight, and the butcher takes us on a verbal tour of the agricultural delights of the region as vast rumbling stock trucks surge through the streets, bleating and screeching in protest.


Sporting the moniker Koala Capital there is plenty of emphasis on re-greening prime agricultural land in Gunnedah and the importance of sustaining old growth gums to support the koala population. We went searching but found no ‘walas’, not even in the tallest gums. Instead, we found an eccentric old fella with a model railway in his front yard, intent on teaching us the rules of rugby union. And a giant tomato…


While real estate windows are flocked with For Sale signs, it is clear that there is plenty of business going on here. What is less transparent is the nature of it. A high street window reads:


Further inspection yields little information, other than the expensive tag line Unlocking Resources to Fuel the Future. And then there is this, conveniently located in the middle of town:


Which looks suspiciously like a coal seam gas fracking plant cunningly concealed in two 40ft. containers.

A quick chat with a bloke in a hat at the pub confirms our suspicions. Gunnedah is home to a coal seam gas program, as well as a number of newly sited coal mines. This leafy old lady, long in the tooth but beautiful still, is frantically redefining herself, a stately maid tarted up in tight clothes and towering heels, a grimace of red on tired lips to draw the crowds.

We pass dusty sale yards and stock pens on the way out of town, Akubra-wearing farmers in tidy rigs roar in and out, and the pubs are filled with ag workers, from roustabouts to cockies to the slaughter man. But it makes you wonder where the other mob are, the mining mob, and how long it will take to change the face of this place irreparably.

On a lighter note this is what happens when the staid world of chartered accountancy steps outside of its box – a Christmas greeting taped in the window that defies the methodical earnestness of counting numbers. Other people’s numbers…

Sobre, dignified and professional

Sobre, dignified and professional

A cursive explosion of happiness

A cursive explosion of happiness


To avoid heat exhaustion during the heatwave, repair to your local bush pub where the atomised water is free…