The Willalooka General Store offers a quiet, roomy bar with flavoursome food and the odd world-champion shearer.

Story By Ian Glover

It’s quiet in the Willalooka General Store. Traffic on the Keith-Mount Gambier road is light. The pool table is unattended – no ‘seven ball in the corner pocket’ going on at the moment. Beer’s sitting idle in the lines. All this suits Shannon and Catherine Warnest down to a tee – they’re busy shearing their sheep. At this time of year, a quiet tavern is a good tavern. After a poor season there’s lots of sand in the wool – it’s taking longer than expected and is murder on the cutters.
Shannon and Catherine bought their block two years ago, have been handfeeding for months and have destocked to about 800–900 animals. Both are shearers; Shannon in fact is both the Australian Open Shearing titleholder and the Golden Shears World Champion, winning the prestigious contest in Bloemfontein, South Africa in 2000 and again in Toowoomba, Qld, in 2006. His trophies and testimonial plaques festoon the interior of the bar and he hopes to add to the collection this year, competing again in the world championship, held in Norway.
While Shannon was literally born to the trade (his father was a shearer/slaughterman in Angaston), Catherine’s introduction was somewhat more roundabout. Originally from Charleville, Qld, she invested in 500 wethers and worked in return for agistment in her final year (1998) at university studying for a Bachelor of Arts. She was shearing around Boulia and Winton and was encouraged to go south, where she met Shannon, but found after the move to South Australia that the sheep were bigger and heavier, being Border Leicester crosses rather than straight Merinos. “Sometimes I have to get Shannon’s help to drag them to the stand,” Catherine says. “The tavern is something completely different – a way of becoming less dependent on sheep for income. It’s a great stepping stone for us.”
The store has had a chequered history. In 1956, Cliff and Joan Leedham moved to Willalooka and set up a telephone exchange (with, initially, two subscribers). They then opened up the first store, just with general goods, but later added a petrol bowser and fuel depot. However, after Cliff broke a leg while repairing a car, the family moved on. By 1975, the store was being run by the Hardy family, originally from Glenelg, SA. They extended the operation to include a bottle shop, coolroom, freezer and two public toilets. It was taken over by the McClintocks in 1983 and, 11 years later, sold to John and Michelle Walker, who, for a time, even offered customers haircuts. (“I’ll have a VB and a short back and sides, thanks.”) Shannon and Catherine took over in 2002.

This story excerpt is from Issue #59

Outback Magazine: June/July 2008