The Wallaroo Hotel in the small village of Coolatai, NSW, combines a mysterious history with a crafty, modern edge.

Story By Mandy McKeesick

For more than 100 years Australian folklore has been riddled with stories of the elusive black panther. Be it the ‘Queensland wildcat’, the ‘Penrith Panther’, the ‘Grampians Lion’, the ‘Gippsland thylacine’ or the ‘Outback Terror’, tales of these seldom-seen, mysterious cat-like animals continue to surface, even today.
Perhaps the biggest “panther outbreak” occurred in the small northern New South Wales village of Coolatai in 1958. Local historian Joan Campbell says 13-year-old David Wheatley was nearly thrown from his horse when it was spooked by a “large black-furred, panther-like beast”. The newspapers of the day ran with the story and Coolatai’s only commercial outlet, the Wallaroo Hotel, fattened on the rumours.
Some of the locals were naturally sceptical of the panther sightings but, according to Joan, there were many that confirmed David’s story. Eager to get a piece of the action, publican Harold Cummins constructed a trapdoor cage and set about trying to catch the evasive feline. He did not succeed, but the legend of the Coolatai Panther has continued to grow over the years.
Today the Wallaroo Hotel is still the only commercial outlet in Coolatai, with its 28 residents and surrounding livestock graziers and wheat farmers. A poem written by John Grills about adventures with the black panther adorns the hotel’s walls, as does a graphic painting entitled Grunter vs Panther at the Wallaroo. Today, however, the panther must compete with champion racehorses such as ‘Sunline’ and ‘Shogun Lodge’, and with the Parramatta Eels rugby-league team, for pride of place in the public bar.
The pub has been owned by league legend Noel Cleal, and been burnt down, threatened with closure, renovated and, since April 2008, running smoothly under the care of Graham Sweeney in the bar, and his mother, Diane, in the kitchen.
“Graham learnt to read by studying the racing form guide,” Diane says. There is an active punters’ club in progress at any one time in the hotel and a popular Calcutta for the Melbourne Cup, as well as a footy-tipping competition, a pool competition and weekly raffles with proceeds donated back to the local tennis, fishing, hall and sportsground committees. Any beverage can be ordered and it is not uncommon to see boutique wheat beers alongside Tooheys stubbies, and a fine single-malt whiskey among Johnny Walker bottles. “However, Bundaberg Rum and VB remain big sellers,” Graham says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #76

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2011