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The Amazing Little Town of Winton

(Reprint from News: March 16, 2002)

March 16, 2002

 

To complete my experience on the Matilda Highway, late that afternoon I pulled into the small town of Winton, Queensland.  Winton, with a population of about 1,500, is a very pleasant Outback town and, I decided, was a good place to spend the night.  Amazingly enough, this tiny town sitting alone in the Outback is the birthplace of not one but two of the most famous symbols of Australia:  “Waltzing Matilda” and Qantas Airlines.

 

In April of 1895, shortly after Banjo and Christine co-wrote “Waltzing Matilda” at the Riley’s ranch, the song was sung in public for the first time in Winton’s North Gregory Hotel.  The song was an instant hit and spread across Australia like wildfire, eventually becoming the country’s unofficial national anthem.  In the 1970s, Australians decided that they needed an official national anthem, so they put it to a vote.  I guess Aussies didn’t think the words of “Waltzing Matilda” were dignified enough to represent them at the Olympics (can you imagine a gold-medal winner standing on the podium while proudly singing about billabongs and swagmen?), so they gave the nod to a rather bland tune called, “Advance Australia Fair.”  You know how I would’ve voted.

 

The other important event in Winton’s history happened in 1921, when a couple of pilots got together here and formed the “Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service,” which they abbreviated to Qantas.  The first meeting of Qantas took place in the Winton Club, which still stands (although part of it today is a takeout Chinese restaurant -- seriously).  Qantas soon afterwards moved their headquarters to Brisbane, but without the encouragement and financial support of the Wintonites (er, Wintonians?), Qantas would have never gotten off the ground – quite literally.

 

That two important events in Australian history occurred here in this tiny town in the proverbial "middle of nowhere" I found to be quite amazing.  That’s especially true since the most famous thing that my hometown of Portland, Oregon -- with a population of over one million people -- is known for is being the home of that baton-wielding Olympic skater, Tonya Harding.  In case you haven’t heard, by the way, Tonya was arrested a while ago for throwing a hubcap at her boyfriend -- yes, I’m serious.  But at least she hasn’t stuffed any jumbucks in her tucker-bag.  Well, not yet, anyway.  But I digress…

 

I hadn’t stayed in any hotels yet while in Australia but I couldn’t pass this chance up, so I walked into the pub of the North Gregory Hotel and booked a room.  That evening, I strolled along Winton’s empty main street and watched the blazing sunset, then returned to the hotel where I’m writing this entry now.  It’s about 9 p.m. on a very warm and breezy Saturday night, and I’m on the second-floor balcony overlooking the hotel’s courtyard where an outdoor barbeque is finishing up.  The North Gregory Hotel is a pleasant place to stay, the staff here is very courteous, and, best of all, you can almost hear “Waltzing Matilda” playing through the floorboards.

 

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Above left:  Downtown Winton, a pleasant little town in the Outback.

Above center:  Sunset at the North Gregory Hotel, where "Waltzing Matilda" was first performed back in 1895.  

Above right:  The pub of the North Gregory Hotel.  That's the friendly owner, David Strang, standing with the phone.  I had a nice chat with him before I headed over to the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

 

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Above left:  Inside Winton's "Waltzing Matilda Centre," the only museum in the world dedicated to a song.

Above center:  That's A.B. "Banjo" Paterson, author of "Waltzing Matilda" and "The Man From Snowy River."  By the way, Banjo was named after his father's horse, not a musical instrument.  Good thing he hadn't named his horse "Daisy."

Above right:  It's an interesting museum, but I probably learned more about Waltzing Matilda than I wanted to.

 

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Above left:  Back outside, this is Arno's Wall.  Arno is in his 70's and immigrated to Australia many years ago from Germany.  He's put everything, including literally the kitchen sink, into this wall.

Above center:  Qantas was founded here at the Winton Club in 1921.  Part of it is now a Chinese takeout restaurant.

Above right:  Leaving Winton on one of Queensland's single-lane highways.  Fortunately, I didn't meet any Road Trains on this road.  Only six more hours until the coast!

 

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