Great Aussie pubs

By Karen Halabi, with Ellin Williams June 24, 2010
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The great Aussie pub is an icon – we’ve had famous songs composed about them as well as in them. Here are the best outback drinking holes around the nation.

NEXT TIME YOU’RE PASSING through a country town, head for the wide verandahs and cheery atmosphere of the local pub. Here you’ll discover the soul of a town; it’s where the beer is cold and the yarns are spun.

New South Wales

Apart from the legendary Pub With No Beer, NSW is dotted with quirky and colourful character pubs.

In the tiny township of Tilpa, 130km north of Wilcannia, in far west NSW, there’s a classic pub called the Tilpa Hotel. The interior of this old corrugated iron pub is plastered with graffiti from its many adorning fans. And, for a $2 donation to the Royal Flying Doctor Service, you too can leave your mark on the pub’s tin wall.

In nearby Broken Hill, call into the Palace Hotel, the historic, three-story pub with long verandas and elaborate cast-iron balustrades featured in the movie, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, or visit the Silverton Hotel in the former mining ghost town, known for great hospitality and quirky locals.

Then, hit the Pacific Highway and head north to possibly our most famous pub of all. As country singer Slim Dusty once lamented “There’s nothin’ so lonesome, so dull or so drear, than to stand in the bar of a pub with no beer”. But as legend has it that’s exactly what happened at this historic pub in Taylors Arm on the north coast of NSW. While the debate still rages as to whether this pub was in fact the inspiration for the song, one thing is for sure – with the addition of a new brewery the pub’s valuable liquid asset will never run dry again.

A little further north you’ll come across The Billi Pub in historic Billinudgel, the former home of Australia’s oldest publican, a woman by the name of Mar Ring. She was publican for 53 years until the age of 101. She taught former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke how to pull a beer, and was awarded an M.B.E. for community service. A painting of her still hangs over the public bar. This timber pub in the Brunswick Valley of Northern NSW, close to Byron Bay, is steeped in history, with many photos of the old township along with a good collection of memorabilia. The Billi is a good old country pub with tall stories and a friendly atmosphere, much the way it would have been in the early days.

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From Billinudgel you can head out west via Goondiwindi to Nindigully, just across the border into Queensland.

Walking into the rustic Nindigully Pub is like walking into the lounge room of the outback. This quintessential outback pub on the banks of the Moonie River has been the meeting point for locals for well over 100 years. It’s famous for the more than 140 Akubra hats from local farmers and stockmen which adorn the walls. Queensland’s oldest hotel, it was issued a license in 1864 after it had been shearers’ accommodation for Nindigully Station and is still in its original condition.

From here you can head north to Roma where the historic 1863 Romavilla Winery is a rarity – an outback winery. Sample the local wines in the rustic timber and corrugated iron building, and imagine the hardships establishing a winery here.

From Roma take the Matilda Highway north through historic outback towns such as Blackall, Barcaldien and Longreach to Winton.

Legend has it that Australia’s best known and much loved national song and the nation’s unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda, was sung for the very first time at the North Gregory Hotel in outback Winton in north-west Queensland. The Tattersalls Hotel in Winton has also been serving up genuine outback hospitality for 120 years and is a top spot to share an icy beer with locals including miners, station owners, ringers, truck drivers, cattle buyers and shearers.

A little further north along the Matilda Highway through outback Queensland be sure to stop and drink a toast to Australia’s hardest working dog, the blue heeler, at the Blue Heeler Hotel in Kynuna, the 100-year-old hotel where Banjo Patterson observed champagne being handed through the window to end the angry shearers strike of the 1800s. The Combo Waterhole, the famed billabong featured in Waltzing Matilda, is 20km south of Kynuna.

On the same outback highway headed north towards Mt Isa you’ll meet locals as colourful as Mick Dundee over an ice cold beer in the historic Walkabout Creek Hotel in McKinlay in outback Queensland. It’s famous as Crocodile Dundee’s regular drinking spot in the original movie of the same name. Known originally as the Federal McKinlay Hotel it was sold for $290,000 after the movie was made and is now the town’s one tourist attraction.

One of Australia’s most legendary watering holes is the Birdsville Hotel on the desolate Birdsville Track in outback Queensland near the South Australian border. Built in 1884 it has been witness to history made, yarns spun and the survival of Australian mateship.

But even without heading so far outback you can see some great Aussie pubs by sticking to the Pacific Highway. If you’re passing through Brisbane, stop off at the Story Bridge Hotel (formerly know as Kangaroo Point Inn), one of only a few hotels to feature architecture from the quintessential Queenslander period. Built in 1886, it’s famous for its Australia Day cockroach races.

Further north up the Pacific Highway on the Sunshine Coast is historic Eumundi. There is something special about a country Queensland pub with their wide balconies and timber lattice work shading dimly lit bars and swirling ceiling fans and Joe’s Waterhole (formerly The Commercial Hotel) in Eumundi is one of these treasures.

Rockhampton is Australia’s beef capital. The Great Western Hotel here is widely regarded as the home of great steak, beer and rodeos. This 116 year old pub plays host to major national rodeos and features a huge undercover rodeo arena for 1,000 people that attracts champion riders to the hotel.

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Just past the New South Wales and Victorian border in Rutherglen is your first glimpse of typical Victorian hospitality. But don’t be fooled by its heritage architecture and lacework veranda – the Victoria Hotel comes with many surprises, including its own mortuary. 

Head south and have a beer where the Kelly Gang drank at Tanswell’s Commercial Hotel in the heart of Beechworth, just three hours out of Melbourne. After a day visiting Ned Kelly’s local hideouts, nothing beats a cold one in a traditional nineteenth-century pub.

It doesn’t get more country Australia than a schooner at the ‘Wally’. Praised among locals, the Walhalla Lodge Hotel remained the only oasis during a town blackout by entrusting its beer supply to a cool nearby stream. You’re sure to cop a good yarn at this quaint watering hole.

If you’re heading to the coast and love fresh, locally caught seafood with your beer, then the Caledonian Inn in Port Fairy is your dream destination. “The Stump” as it’s known by locals, looks exactly the same as it did in 1844, before builders abandoned it for the gold fields, making it the oldest continually licensed hotel in Victoria.

The town of Corryong on the way to the Snowy Mountains was the home of Jack Riley, the man said to be the inspiration for Banjo Patterson’s famous poem The Man From Snowy River. There is no mistaking why the Corryong Courthouse Hotel Motel deserves a visit. Have a drink and immerse yourself in the Australian legend.  

South Australia

The only stopover on the 528km Birdsville Track, the Mungerannie Hotel sits on the edge of the Sturt Stony, Simpson, Tirari and Strzelecki deserts and is nestled beside the Derwent River – an oasis in sharp contrast to its surrounds.

Right in the heart of Burke and Wills explorer country, the Innamincka Hotel at Cooper Creek in South Australia once played host to early drovers who brought cattle down the Strzelecki Track. The pub’s convivial Outamincka Bar has become the stuff of bush legends and is must stop for anyone travelling in these parts.

You can’t get more outback than the famous Prairie Hotel at Parachilna in South Australia. Built in the 1890s, the pub attracts visitors from all over the world who come to try the renowned Australian native cuisine or bush tucker, otherwise known as ‘feral food’, while drinking in the view of the magnificent Flinders Ranges.

The William Creek Pub is located smack bang in the middle of the world’s largest cattle property, Anna Creek Station which, at 23,800 sq kms is almost half the size of Tasmania. William Creek is South Australia’s smallest town. The William Creek Pub has an almost legendary status and is the only watering hole on the Oodnadatta Track between Marree and Oodnadatta.

On South Australia’s Darling River is the picturesque town of Pooncarie. With only 89 residents, a general store and a pub built in 1976, the town has a lovely old country town feel. But the first Saturday in October sees the town swell to around 1,500 people for the annual Pooncarie races. People come from all over the country, and of course they drink at the old Telegraph Hotel.

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In a beautiful little valley called Pyengana you’ll come across a sign that says, “Pub in a paddock 3km – come and see our beer drinking pig”.  The Pub in the Paddock is surely one of Australia’s quirkiest pubs. This 1880s watering hole sits in the middle of a paddock in Tasmania’s Pyengana Valley and is famous for its beer swilling pig, Priscilla, who can scull a watered-down stubby in seven seconds. In a pen out the back the sign says, “Hi, Geez I’m dry, I’d luv a beer”. The owner claims the pig has downed 76 stubbies in on session, “more than Boonie”. A Tasmanian institution since 1880, the pub offers hearty country meals and comfortable accommodation.

Northern Territory

The colourful Daly Waters Pub, clad in corrugated iron, is crammed with decades of Australian memorabilia. Once a popular drover’s rest, this quirky pub built in 1930, gained fame again as a stopover for pilots and passengers arriving on the new Qantas airline in 1934. Today, it is a pit-stop for thirsty tourists travelling the Explorer’s Way between Alice Springs and Darwin.

At The Mataranka Pub at Mataranka Springs just south of Katherine you can lean against the bar with its brightly coloured paintings then toddle off to see the nearby replica of the hut in which Jeannie Gunn lived at Elsey Station. Her story was captured in the book We of the Never Never.

The Humpty Doo Hotel in Arnhem Land is conveniently located for travellers heading to Kakadu. The hotel has many colourful local characters, so stop in at the famous Humpty Doo Hotel when next in this part of the world.

At the Barra Bar & Bistro on the Kakadu Highway at Jim Jim, you can cook your own local delicacies on a supplied barbecue with an accompanying buffet.

Just south of Darwin on the Darwin River Road at Berry Springs,  you’ll find the Lichfield Pub, home of the bull arena and shed, which has a 180ft long bar.

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Western Australia

Over on our west coast, The Roey, Broome’s oldest pub, lives by the saying “if it’s going to happen in Broome, it’s going to happen at the Roey”. If you stumble across a local character by the name of Swindle, pull up a chair and order a coldie because he has enough tales about pearling and gangsters to last a week.

While sunset camel rides on Broome’s Cable Beach are world famous, it’s the tales about beer drinking camels that draw attention at the Whim Creek Pub.  Half way between Karratha and Port Hedland, this pub has its own wildlife sanctuary and was once home to a camel with a penchant for beer. Don’t worry about missing the pub – it’s painted bright pink!

The biggest and best known pub in Kalgoorlie is The Exchange. It holds the record for the biggest volume of Jim Beam sold in regional WA. It was originally constructed as a shed in the late 1800s.

The population of the small goldmining town of Kookynie, 200km from Kalgoorlie in Western Australia, is less than 10 people, but the town’s 1894 vintage Grand Hotel with its big verandahs and spacious rooms continues to survive. It was once the favourite watering hole for local prospectors.

True Australian country hospitality is alive and well in our great Aussie pubs. Whatever the style of accommodation or the location, the locals will greet you with a firm hand shake and a strong stare. Our great Aussie pubs are about the people and the places, and they’re the heart of our nation.

Karen Halabi is a freelance travel writer based north of Sydney, who has written for the SMH, Age, Courier Mail, Sunday Times, and Sunday Telegraph newspapers. This is an edited version of an article first published by Tourism Australia.