Last updated 12 October 2023
Feel like you are part of the landscape, learn about the Outback history and meet the characters of Western Queensland on an Outback Aussie Tour.
I’ve lived in Queensland the majority of my life and never ventured further west than Charlotte Plains. A few months ago I rectified that oversight and travelled solo to Outback Queensland. I flew into Longreach. A few days later I travelled two hours by bus to Winton. I stayed in a mixture of accommodation ranging from glamping tents, a retro hotel, to converted stables.
In both Winton and Longreach it’s easy to get around without a car. Plus its very safe to solo travel. I’d arranged to see all the well-known attractions including the Qantas Founders Museum and the Outback Hall of Fame by organising accommodation close to these attractions.
I ventured onto Longreach’s Thomson River and this is where I got to spend some time with Alan Smith (aka Smithy).
Outback Aussie Tours
I first met Smithy, 57, about two months earlier at the Outback Muster, held inside Brisbane’s Exhibition and Convention Centre in Southbank. From the moment we started talking at the Outback Aussie Tours stand, I knew Smithy was a high energy, go get ’em kind of guy. He has a glass half full outlook with everything (and everyone) he approaches. But nothing prepared me for the brief time we spent together enroute to the Thomson River. After a busy afternoon doing research for a story, Smithy planned to drop me at their Drover’s Sunset Cruise turnaround point – Sunset Bend – so I could experience part of their river cruise on board the MV Longreach Explorer.
(I’d like to add a caveat here – this is the special treatment travel writers occasionally get. Sometimes we try to squeeze too much into one day and Smithy was doing his utmost to get me to experience the second half of their cruise on the Thomson.)
On Longreach’s main street, Smithy arrived in his battered old Ute. Before we left town, he fired off a quick question, “What do you drink?” I was still thinking over my answer as he drove to the other side of the road, parking in front of the Branch Café. He emerged a few minutes later with a silver ice bucket, inside, a bottle of bubbles packed in ice and two glasses.
We drove out of town, turning left into a private paddock. As we’re hurtling along a dirt road, the champagne bucket bouncing on my lap, we’re chatting about the landscape. He pointed out the Gidgee trees (acacia cambagei.) “They are reportedly the seventh hardest wood in the world” Smithy says, matter of factly. He’s doing his best to educate this city gal. “The white ants spit their teeth out just looking at it,” he adds laughing. It’s becoming clear this big guy loves what he does with Aussie Outback Tours, promoting the Region he now calls home.
Alan Smith setting up Aussie Outback Tours
Smithy arrived as young 21 year old in Longreach in 1987 from Blackhall. “I came here because they were opening the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and I knew that would bring people to the Outback,” he says. He’d completed a hospitality practices course and had travelled extensively around Australia, getting plenty of tourism experiences under his belt and creating ideas.
Smithy registered Outback Aussie Tours (OAT) in 1988. A year later he purchased his first tour vehicle, a Toyota Troop Carrier. He met Sue, in a Youth Hostel in Longreach in 1990. They bonded over a love for the Australian outback life and heritage. Smithy openly admits they are the complete opposites in personalities, but they share a passion for community and freedom. They married in 1992 and are both the owners of Outback Aussie Tours (OAT). They have four children.
The OAT mission: to create special moments and experiences in one of a kind locations by sharing stories and hospitality where guests relax and feel at home. Their taste of the Outback begins with delicious country recipes.
Cruising on the Thomson River
Smithy timed it perfectly pulling onto the top of an embankment above a bend in the Thomson river, parking the Ute just as the sun was setting. Below us the MV Explorer was moored on a river bank. Beside the boat, were a group of *Emmott’s short-neck turtles (Emydura macquarii emmotti) raising their little heads above the muddy water.
Passengers from the MV Explorer were milling about watching the sunset and the turtles. Smithy popped the bottle of bubbles, passing me a glass as I made my way down to the river bank. I was curious to see these turtles endemic only to this region. Shy creatures usually, two turtles strolled onto the muddy bank, in search of a snack. The cruise appeared to have perfectly timed this stop with the turtle’s appearance. (The boat captain helps by tossing out some turtle-friendly snacks!)
[*The turtles are named after the man who discovered them, Angus Emmott, a third generation western Queensland grazier from a beef cattle station, Noonbah, 150km south west of Longreach.]
The return cruise from Sunset Bend was tranquil and picturesque. The setting sun cast a myriad of colours across the evening sky, reflecting on the river’s surface.
Conversations with fellow passengers flowed. It was a relaxing atmosphere onboard. I met a couple from the Gold Coast who arrived the day before and were staying in one of the Longreach caravan parks. We were discussing what to see and do in Longreach.
We exited the boat and were ushered to tables covered in black tablecloths. Passengers sat down with new friends, ready for Smithy’s Outback Dinner and Show. On the porch of Smithy’s hut, musical performer, Owen Blundell introduced himself. Beneath a starry sky, we were about to dine on a two-course camp oven-themed dinner – our choices this evening: barramundi or lamb stew.
Smithy was my dining companion. Despite having had some dental work earlier that afternoon, he was in fine form, telling more stories and sharing an insight as to why he is so passionate about the community and OAT. He talks about the camp ovens they use to cook the food. Many years ago, Smithy met John Menzies, an outback character who as a teenager was a cattle drover. John learned the ways of the bush from droving stock, to camp cooking, to wagon building. John shared with Smithy great stories of the bush and how to cook in a camp oven: the ‘Bedourie’ spun steel.
“I learned how to get the heat just right, cooking anything from damper to roasts and more,” explains Smithy. “John told me if you can cook on a Bedourie you can cook on a shovel. He shared his damper and brownie recipe and we use that same recipe at Smithy’s dinner.”
The performers for the show change throughout the season. This evening Owen Blundell sings songs, tells jokes, and takes requests as dinner is served. The crowd enjoys every song. Smithy suggests I take a closer look at Owen’s two-headed guitar after the show – effectively two guitars joined!
Owen strums his guitar and sings a country ditty – the meal is served by friendly staff. I choose the lamb stew and it’s a generous portion. I can’t finish it and I want to leave space for dessert (a delicious choc and orange brownie.)
Our dinner at Smithy’s was gluten free, including the desserts. They offer a chickpea curry for vegetarians. “When people book we ask them if there are any dietary requirements and if there are, they get a card when they are seated that signifies to the waiter which meal to drop,” explains Smithy. Compliments to the chef, Lou, who I meet after dinner. A delicious meal.
OAT like to support the community and purchase locally where they can. The chemical free lamb is supplied by a local farmer, purchased from their local butcher. Groceries for all the food provided on their tours comes from the Longreach Foodworks and IGA.
Owen Blundell is taking requests. He receives one for Johnny Denver. From a bag he pulls out a wig and glasses, then breaks into, ‘You feel up my senses,’ imitating Johnny Denver’s pitch.
The night ends with freshly cooked damper and a cup of tea. Then it’s time for guests to board the coaches and return to their accommodation.
- 2-course camp oven themed dinner cooked over the Gidyea coal
- Billy tea and damper
- Full table-service dining under the stars
- Live entertainment on Smithy’s River Stage
- Licensed bar
- Return coach transfers from Longreach accommodation
Other river cruise options include:
Explorer’s Smoko Cruise
This leisurely boat excursion glides along the Thomson River exploring the river’s upper reaches, where you are shown the shield trees, alternatively known as canoe and scar trees. These trees are significant to our First Nations people.
Upon returning downstream, join your guide for a classic Outback Queensland smoko: a traditional billy tea, coffee, damper, homemade slice, and freshly baked treats.
Outback Rail Adventure brings back the romance of rail to the Outback
Longreach was officially declared a town in 1887. The Longreach railway arrived in 1892 when the final section of railway line from Barcaldine to Longreach was laid. The station was finally finished in 1916 during WWI. “But they couldn’t afford to have an opening, so our station was never officially opened,” explains Smithy. “One hundred years later, the Governor of Queensland Sir Paul de Jersey who loves his trains and railway history, came out to Longreach to officially open the station, 100 years after it was finished. There was a welcome to country smoking ceremony out the front and 100 people enjoyed a long dinner on the platform,” adds Smithy smiling at the memory. The parked Spirit of the Outback train provided atmosphere. (The Spirit of the Outback train runs from Brisbane to Longreach twice a week and stops at the Longreach station.)
“I think the Spirit of the Outback train was there so people couldn’t fall off the platform,” Smithy adds cheekily.
Smithy and his ideas
Smithy is constantly thinking about what the Outback needs. He wondered how he could utilise what surrounds Longreach within a 30km radius, how to cover the distance and get enough story and content to hopefully keep the interest of paying guests. “I wanted to bring back the romance of rail within Western Queensland,” he explains.
After four years of hard work, commitment and devotion, an idea that stemmed from a conversation at a pub finally came to life when Outback Rail Adventure rolled out its first passenger tour on June 24th.
Outback Aussie Tours offers the following Outback Rail Adventures:
· Old Bluey Flyer
· Historic Ilfracombe Excursion
· Great Darr River Run
· Silver Tails Rail Sunset operates on Wednesdays,
Fridays and Saturday
· Silver Tails Rail Sunset with Smithy’s Dinner
· Longreach Whistle Stop Package
All Outback Rail Adventures depart from Longreach Railway Station.
“We run our rail experiences using the existing line that Queensland Rail owns,” explains Smithy. “We had to develop the infrastructure to create our own Depot so we can get off the main line. We created a turnout off the mainline, which had to be curved. We not only have a line into our workshop, we have a display and storage line, which gives us room to grow the business as time goes on.”
Smithy appreciates the support to help make this vision of his a reality: QR, TMR, and Longreach Regional Council, local contractors for the bobcat work and the heavy earthworks for the roads and the pads. “It’s been a big project,” says Smith humbly. Understating the obvious.
“Our big picture and I guess our hope for the future is to run a weekly trip from Winton to Emerald in the winter time so we can showcase how the landscape changes,” explains Smithy. “Sometimes there are not enough seats on the planes out here and there are only two trains a week from Brisbane [Spirit of the Outback]. And some people want to see the country during the day time, not everyone wants to travel at night time.
Did Smithy come up with the initial idea to connect Longreach and Winton by rail?
“Maybe,” he replies cheekily.
He then admits the idea to link Longreach and Winton by rail was first proposed by Ed Warren around 12 years ago. Ed was Mayor of Winton Shire Council between 2008 – 2012.
OAT are starting their Rail Adventure with smaller trips.
The Historic Ilfracombe Excursion disembarks at Ilfracombe for passengers to explore the town’s unique attractions like the Wellshot Centre and Machinery Mile, followed by a lunch at the famous Wellshot Hotel “Everyone can enjoy the history of the old Wellsot building.”
I love the post on Instagram of a kangaroo keeping up with the train at 60km/ hour. (Ilfracombe has a market every third Sunday of each month from April to September, which the train excursion links up with.)
Their Old Blueys Flyer tour is a short one and a half hour trip over the floodplains out past the sale yards, where the train stops and passengers have the option to get off the train, to do a short educational guided walk through Mulga territory. Nathaniel (Nat) Buchanan was one of the early explorers of Western Queensland. He was a bushman and drover and with business partner, William Landsborough, in 1860 they set out to explore Western Queensland. A year later they had established Bowen Downs Station on the Thomson River. Nat met Catherine (Kate) Gordon near Rockhampton. She was the first white women to live In the Longreach area. Smithy tells me there are some amazing stories about Nat. The Aboriginal people called him ‘Bluey’ Buchanan, or Old Paraway. Later in life Nat was known on horseback to carry a parasol because of his fair skin. He was quite eccentric
“He developed stock routes across Australia, it’s a good pioneering story and that’s why we call this one Old Bluey’s Flyer, as a tribute to Nat. His story is befitting of a celebration and on the old Blue Flyer tour we tell his story to keep his good work alive,” explains Smithy.
Silver tails was the name given to the ‘upper crust’ of the Longreach community, back in the day when the Drovers came through anyone who was anyone used to own a block of land here,”. They’d call it the ‘Silver Tails Town.’ OAT’s Silver Tails Sunset Tour travels over the flood plains to the Leander sand ridge. Here the tour stops, passengers enjoy canapes and champagne, or wine, or beer sitting among the ghost gums and blood woods, while watching the sunset in the west. “We want people to feel like a Silver Tail on this tour, we add little touches like a gold platter for the drinks and blue napkins for the food.” At a secret lagoon bridge passengers watch the sunset over the west. If passengers want to do Smithy’s Outback Dinner and Show they can disembark at Smithy’s Crossing to have dinner and watch the live show next to the river. Other guests disembark at the Longerach Railway station.
The Great Darr River Run is a 33km morning train trip with a Classic 2000 class heritage rail motor. “Every soil type and different plant in the whole Longreach Region is represented in that short 30km distance. On this rail journey, you cross the floodplains past the sale yards, traveling through the Gidgee scrub, the open Booree plains and into the Mulga lands. There is an optional Mulga Walk offered, where you learn about bush tucker and medicine trees. Before long, it’s all aboard again traveling down to the picturesque Darr River waterhole where the billy is boiling for a cuppa, served with delicious homemade goodies using old fashioned recipes: damper, corned beef with relish, or with the traditional golden syrup, fruit cake and jam drops.
Following morning tea, guests relax on the journey back to Longreach. “We bring the outside in through those windows,” says Smithy. “As the train travels through different landscape, you can push the windows down, smell the gum leaves on the red country and the gidgee, and feel like you’re part of the landscape. The freedom of Western Queensland comes together with the romance of the rail.”
Jen’s train experience
Unfortunately my visit to Longreach was a few weeks before the first Outback Rail Adventure. But Smithy wanted to show me the custom-built Outback Rail Adventure Workshop, in Kite Street, the new home for their rail motors. I donned a high vis jacket to view the carriages and get a feel for what the passengers will experience on their rail journey. The only thing missing was the clickety clack of the wheels on the line, Smithy did a pretty good re-enactment.
A woman on the tour calls him out immediately, saying she was the President of the CWA and it stands for: ‘CHICKS with ATTITUDE!
Smithy laughs at the memory. I can imagine his cheeky self being admonished by a senior CWA member.
Smithy and his family live at the historic Homestead at Rosebank Station, 10 kilometres outside of town.
Rosebank is located on the open Mitchell and Flinders grass downs country. On Rosebank Station is a homestead built in the early 1900w. This homestead has an interesting history with stories, events, and special visitors (including Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Prince Alexandra). With its closed in verandas, and tendered gardens Smithy and his wife Sue appreciate they can call it home – for now.
Smithy and Sue have invited me to their home. Smithy and I arrive just as the sun drops below the Mitchell grass. The house is full of character and charm. I’m shown through the main room and into the ‘Princess Room’ bedroom where Princess Alexandra once slept, back in 1959.
“We want to see people enjoying themselves, offering our guests good old-fashioned country hospitality with old recipes thrown in. We want to share the spirit of this land, which we are so grateful we have the opportunity to share,” says Smithy
The Rosebank Station Tour includes:
– Return coach transfers from Longreach Accommodation
– On board commentary by our experience guide
– Tour of the homestead including the Princess Room
– Home-made morning tea
Tours are available every Monday and Friday, 8am -11am, until 29 September 2023.
Outback Aussie Tours 2024 extended tours include:
– Corner Country | 14 Days
– Cape York and Torres Strait | 11 Days
– Journey of the Gulf Savannah | 12 Days
Their Legendary Longreach and Winton Summer tour explores all the iconic sites in comfortable air-conditioned coaches. They also offer a 2-for-1 rail deal!
Brisbane departure dates: 31 October, 14 November, 5 December 2023. 27 February, 5, 12 and 26 March 2024.
Visit the OAT website for more info. Or phone 4658 3000 to book.
Note: the writer was a guest on an Outback Aussie Tour. All opinions expressed are her own.