More than just a commercial hub, Charleville has won over outback tourists, giving them a chance to see the stars and save the bilbies.

Story By Chris Pritchard

Where to live is a major decision. Steve and Noi Maher did their homework, visiting many outback towns before choosing Charleville in south-west Queensland. Though they were happy in coastal Cairns, they daydreamed of life in a rural centre. “We’ve spent seven wonderful years here and have never regretted it,” Steve says. “Friendliness seduced us – we’ve never felt like newcomers or outsiders.”
The Mahers lease a restaurant, Young Tiger, in Charleville’s Warrego Club. Noi, who taught cookery in her native Thailand, mainly prepares her homeland’s dishes, but the restaurant also tips its hat to other Asian cuisines and Aussie favourites. Korean workers from the local abattoir used to drop in occasionally, but they’ve moved on now. The current crop of Vietnamese abattoir workers sometimes come for a meal, but most diners are long-time locals.
“The lifestyle’s so easygoing,” Noi says. “People are cheerful. It’s what’s kept us here.” Set in semi-arid sheep-and-cattle country 750 kilometres west of Brisbane (to which it’s linked by road, rail and air), Charleville has mushroomed over the past decade. Today, it has 3500 residents and attracts 50,000 visitors annually.
It was gazetted as a town in 1868, three years after an initial thirst-slaking hotel opened and 20 years before the first train chugged in. It is the biggest town in the Murweh Shire and, according to mayor Denis Cook, is the commercial hub of the district’s pastoral activity. “It anchors us – it’s where people come to do business,” he says.
These days tourism is one of the town’s main service industries. Outside Heinemann’s Country Bakery in Alfred Street, locals sip coffee while discussing stock prices and dispensing advice to tourist groups. Just up the street is Historical House. Many outback towns boast history-laden museums but Charleville’s seems unusually crowded. “We don’t have room for half of what’s donated,” laughs a volunteer at the rambling residence, which once seemed capacious enough for a museum.
The town’s most imposing building is a hotel, formerly the outback’s grandest. Hotel Corones has its own memorabilia-filled museum though some of its rooms are themselves museum-like with, for instance, 80-year-old hairbrushes a part of the decor. The foyer was once a ladies’ writing room. Under pressed-metal ceilings old photos, framed letters from bigwigs and assorted other bric-a-brac fill public areas. The museum showcases fashions worn to outback balls. A historic meeting room is where commercial travellers from Brisbane haggled with Charleville’s business leaders.

This story excerpt is from Issue #86

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2013