Technology has brought us many conveniences. But I believe it has also isolated us and replaced some of the traditions that connected us.
Here in the outback, where I live, the evening’s entertainment used to be a family get-together in the living room after the dinner dishes had been done. Dads were the chief storytellers, relating the challenges or experiences of their day. Mothers would have stories of things that had happened around the homestead too. Boys and girls were eager to hear about life on the station, and would learn to tell their own tales of what had happened in their day. Then, mother might play the piano and father the banjo or a squeeze-box, while the children might recite a poem or sing.
As part of the family, children discovered the world around them, learnt to welcome a challenge that would test them and make a good story later, and learnt about themselves and their place in the world.
Today, the wonders of television, Netflix and computers tend to pull all the family members into their own separate worlds after dinner. They might watch survivor shows on TV or play in computer worlds instead of having real survival adventures and creative challenges in their everyday lives.
In the outback, white man’s storytelling tradition goes back to pioneer times, when the stockmen would gather around the campfire at night and tell the stories or poems that passed from one isolated community to another. Of course, they were taking part in a far older tradition of storytelling by the first Australians.
Unfortunately, even in the outback, the iconic scene of stockmen out on horses around the fire at night has become rare. Most are now using helicopters, motorbikes or 4WDs to round up stock, and there’s no need to be camping out.
Recently, though, some have been returning to the more traditional ways of managing the station. We’re remembering that we used to do it with horses because we loved it. It kept us grounded and real, and there was mateship in those campfire get-togethers.
Gathering around the campfire with a stockman’s dinner is also one of the highlights of the Starlight’s Cruise Experience. After nature puts on her entertainment for us on the banks of the Thomson River, and usually a sunset as spectacular as anything you’d see in an art gallery, we step ashore for a pioneering experience under the stars.
The stockman’s stew you’ll eat is made to my grandmother’s secret recipe. In Mackay, where my mother’s parents had a sugar farm and a few cattle, my grandmother’s beef stew and mash were well known, and all the cane cutters wanted to work for them because of it! Grandma took great pride in that, and the pride and care has been passed down to our kitchen today – they know they have something to live up to!
Another highlight of the evening’s entertainment around the campfire is Scotty the Barefoot Poet. He’s a real outback gem! He knows and understands the bush and speaks with his heart and soul. He’s a natural storyteller and people love his genuineness and eccentricity.
Then there’s the Starlight’s Spectacular Sound and Light Picture Show on the riverbank under the coolibah trees. The story of Captain Starlight continues the tradition of tales of heroes told under the stars. It’s an exclusive movie I commissioned because I’ve known and loved this story since I was a kid. It was filmed locally in locations used by Captain Starlight, and features local people in many roles.
Like watching a flickering campfire, the film creates a magic that shifts your sense of reality. Even though I’ve seen it many times, it can still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I imagine Starlight and his men here amid the sounds and smells of the bush – the smoke from the campfire, the cicadas, and the dingoes howling in the distance.
And the evening wouldn’t be complete without billy tea and damper. The perfect billy tea made over an open fire is addictive. Different woods on the fire create different flavours and the most prized is dogwood, which grows on the flood plains. If it’s added just towards the end, it gives a hint of its natural oil.
Needless to say, the evening will do more for your spirits than a night in front of the TV!
I hope that, after an evening in the bush on the Starlight’s Cruise Experience, our guests will go back to the city with an overwhelming feeling of being part of the real Australia. I want them to be thankful to be part of our amazing land and its history. I want to help bridge the gap between city and bush, and to send people home feeling more connected to nature, more connected to the people they have met, and with a story or two of their own to tell.
Explore the Longreach and Winton region with its rich pioneer heritage and outback landscapes in six days. Cruise the Thomson River at sunset, enjoy a campfire dinner under the stars, go on safari at Nogo Station, ride the Cobb & Co stagecoach and more.