Food Safari 8: Hebel Seafood Extravaganza

If the semi-arid, remote, inland of Australia is famous for one thing and one thing only, then surely that one thing is the quality of its seafood. It’s a no-brainer, therefore, that each year the P&C at the Queensland town of Hebel (just up the road from the Ridge) should put on a seafood fundraiser for its tiny public school. This year, a record seven families sent their children to the school. Go Hebel!

It’s a big deal, the Hebel seafood thing, as it raises funds for the students’ annual trip away. It’s such a big deal that both buses left from the Ridge: the big one and the little one (I know). We boarded the little one and headed up the Castlereagh Highway, which in parts is the bumpiest stretch of bitumen in the whole of the southern hemisphere. We all had jogger’s nipple by the time we’d reached the Nine Mile.

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The day had been cool and overcast, threatening to rain but without really following through. When I did my laps at the pool this morning (20, since you’re asking) I was the only one there apart from the kiosk lady and the lifeguard. It was odd, after so many hot weekends crowded with students, to plough up and down the black line under a heavy sky and a thin drizzle.

The ominous clouds still hung over Hebel as we mooched over to the community hall. We’d crossed the border and so there was a one-hour time difference. Of the many things that I’m not good at, maps and time differences are two of them. The hall was locked and the people inside couldn’t find the key. They mouthed through the window, “It’s only 5 o’clock!” I thought it was 7, when maybe it was 6. I kept quiet. There was a Maths teachers and an intimidatingly over-qualified biochemist Food Tech teacher with us and I didn’t want to say anything that would show exactly how ignorant I am of how clocks work.

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Eventually someone found the key and they let us in, or themselves out. It was your typical small-town country hall, set up with tables and a small stage displaying the raffle booty. On the wall was the list of sponsors: The Linen Cupboard at Dirranbandi; Mr Cheap and Lost Sea Jewels at the Ridge; Eclect. Chic Vintage at Goodooga; and, inevitably, John Murray Art Gallery. That guy must get hit up for every single fundraiser in north-western NSW.

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A hardy team had been at it all afternoon, setting up tables inside and out for the ravenous hordes. It all looked very beautiful and very promising.

Perhaps too promising.

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We’d settled into our second stubbies of Gold when the change hit. Chairs went flying, table decorations blasted around like shrapnel from a pipe bomb, and every burly cocky within 50 kilometres was called upon to dangle from the foldable shade tents. The Ridgites stoically remained seated, hanging onto our lucky door prize tickets and our beers, not helping in any useful way. What could I have done? I’ve never in one place seen so many men capable of knotting down a tarp. I would have used neat bows and granny knots and looked like the feckless, soft-palmed teacher that I have become.

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The time difference thing may have taken the Maths teacher and the biochemist by surprise too as we sat for what seemed like a trillion years waiting for the food to appear. Or maybe time slows down in Queensland and it was only quarter of an hour.

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Eventually it came, and the ravenous hordes fell upon the glisteningly icy cold seafood. There was salad and ham and bugs and crabs and fish and calamari: the works. My God, it was bloody delicious. BTW I know that ham is not a seafood but it was there.

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Someone said it was flown in to St George this morning. Someone else said it was bought from the freezer shop at Walgett but I think that was sour grapes. I had salads and oysters and bugs and a bit of everything. I went back three times.

A CD player plugged into the PA provided a thoughtfully curated playlist: Aqua’s Barbie Girl followed by Johnny O’Keeffe’s Shout followed by Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger followed by Billy Joel’s The Piano Man. Spotify and Pandora really need to get their shit together. When I’m relaxing at a seafood dinner I find that the theme tune to Rocky II really hits the spot.

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Outside, the tarps flapped and cracked in the wind. Inside, I caught a glimpse of the tables for Visiting Celebrities and the local Rotary Club and the sponsors. Perhaps the actual Mr Cheap was in there? I’d always thought that it was just the name of a shop but maybe, maybe, there really is a Mr Cheap from Lightning Ridge. The thought gave me tingles.

Just as we finished our meal the rain, which had huffed and puffed in clouds the colour of gun metal, eventually threw itself down upon us. We scuttled inside, but weren’t game to cross the threshold into the Big Room. Instead, we hung around the bar, shuffling from foot to foot and feeling slightly self-conscious.

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We had all eaten way too much. And then dessert came. I didn’t have any but I did use the suddenly cool weather to my advantage: I bought a red wine. The stubbies of Gold were 5 bucks but a brimful glass of wine was only 3. You beauty. The only downside was that I had stand at the bar and ask for it. The first time I said, “Could I have a red wine please” I’m sure the PA stuttered into silence and tumbleweed blew down the middle of the hall. A man with an unfeasibly large belt buckle and a hat with a brim as wide as a small planet looked at me askance. I blushed, but held my nerve. My reward was to be the envy of everybody.

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At last the raffles came on. It’s a golden rule of events like this that the prizes should range from the highly desirable blockbuster first prize to the strange assortment-of-things-in-a-basket-wrapped-in-cellophane 15th prize. The blockbuster was a car fridge and I didn’t win it. Second prize was something to do with gardening (a hose? some seeds?) and a John Murray print, which I didn’t win either. By the time we were at 7th prize the goods were grouped into increasingly random combinations: a set of screwdrivers, a flashlight, a bottle of Jim Beam and a John Murray print. A gigantic box of washing powder, a John Murray print, a pair of nail scissors. Didn’t win anything.

We were all quite relieved when it was time to go. We’d had a good time but we were stuffed with food and drink and getting sleepy. Everyone stumbled out of the hall. As we headed over to the buses in the park across the highway the air became filled with the sound of Toyota diesels firing into life as the locals headed back to their properties.

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It was a cracking night. Numbers were down due to the weather but hopefully the P&C raised enough to send the kids somewhere lovely.

Forever now, when I think of seafood I will think of Hebel.

Day trip to Hebel

Any man who has the opportunity to get his light-rigid licence and fails to do so is a fool.

I went to the RTA to see Angie (RTA lady and newly crowned Opal Queen) and, at only the second go, passed my theory test. I can now (theoretically) lash an uneven load of timber and I know (in theory) how many rest breaks to take in a 72-hour period. Go me.

All I need to do now is learn how to actually drive a real light-rigid thing. Luckily, Bill and Naomi offered to sit in with me on the school’s Big Bus and we made a date for Saturday lunch in Hebel, with me driving. We hit the road at about half eleven one Saturday and headed north. The roads on either side were lush and green following the recent rains, so different from the dull khaki of a couple of months ago. The bus drives like a gigantic whale, wallowing and yawing on the outback roads. It was, in other words, neither light nor rigid.

We hit Hebel about 40 minutes later. On the eastern side of the highway was the shop, where Naomi wanted to get lunch. On the western side was the pub, where Bill wanted to go. We went west.

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I’d been told about the Hebel pub and its famous sloping bar. It didn’t let me down.

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It’s not very big, the Hebel pub, but it is very old. It was a Cobb & Co. staging house back in the 19th century, and hasn’t been painted since 1911. (One of these facts is true.) The walls are decked out with shearers’ singlets.

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And stencils for wool bales. It’s all very old school.

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The man behind the counter (I would say “the barman” but I’m not sure that he wasn’t just somebody from Hebel who happened to have a bit of time on his hands) poured us our drinks and directed us to the demountable hereafter referred to as “the bistro”.

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Look, it’s too easy to take the piss out places like Hebel, especially when you’ve just blown in from the bustling megalopolis of Lightning Ridge. But, at the same time, some places just make it too easy. I mean, come on, guys!

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We got chatting to an older couple who were heading to Winton on the Dinosaur Trail. The female of the pair did a circuit of the bistro’s “games room” and said that the bistro needed a woman’s touch. It occurred to me that this was a potentially sexist statement and that men are just as capable as women of making cosy, welcoming environments but I thought, what the hell, this is Hebel, so I nodded in agreement.

The menu was the usual pub fare. One of the mystery items was “finger bowl”, which set us all to wondering. Turns out it was not a dish of warmed water to accompany our prawns but a huge un-bowl-like plate of hot chips and dim sims. Queensland sure ain’t Kansas, Toto!

I went to get a second round in. The barman pointed out that there weren’t any more glasses left behind the bar so I went back and got our originals. It’s that kind of pub.

While our food was being drenched in scalding animal fat I went for a tour of the grounds. There was a dog that wanted you to kick a busted old footie. And an old lock-up, where I’m guessing many a shearer slept off a skinful back in the day. As I was taking this photo a notice that a man was having a piss up against the next building. I’ve cropped the picture to avoid causing distress to sensitive viewers.

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After our delicious meal we took a turn around Hebel. There’s a lovely little school there with eight hardy souls enrolled. The grounds were very beautiful and well appointed. Those kids will, I hope, look back fondly on their years there.

We went past the shop opposite the pub, and Naomi pointed out the food that people were bringing out. It all looked much nicer than the finger bowl from the pub. Bill pretended not to notice.

We were drawn to a brown sign on a fence. It said, “Hebel Historical Circle”. The circle has a park for the kiddies and, next to it, a circle.

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It’s a Bicentennial project, this circle. I felt a warm glow of nostalgia. I remember those days! There was a time when Australia was awash with Bicentennial money, and all kinds of daft and unlikely projects got government cash thrown at them. I was living in Alice Springs at the time and every weekend a group of sunburnt patriots would appear in town, pushing wheelbarrows or space-hoppering their way around Australia for the Bicentenary.

The circle is just that: a circle, with interpretive signs every few paces with moderately interesting facts about Hebel.

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Did you know that:

  • Dan Kelly and Steve Hart weren’t killed at Glenrowan, but escaped and hid out at Hebel.*
  • When Queensland separated from New South Wales in 1859, Hebel became an important site for customs duty collection? (Yes, youngsters, this was before Federation!)
  • Major Thomas Mitchell camped out near Hebel in 1846.
  • The pub didn’t have draught beer during the Second World War, only bottled beer. The pile of empties next to the pub was so big and glistened so brightly in the sun that it could be seen by aircraft and was used as a navigation aid for planes flying between Sydney and Hong Kong.
  • Hebel is the birthplace Tom Dancey, an Aboriginal sprinter who won the Stawell Gift in 1910. His trainers, ever thoughtful of Dancey’s best interests, kept the £1,000 prize but did allow him to keep the blue ribbon and silver cup.
  • Another Aboriginal sportsman born in Hebel is Tommy Chapman, Australian featherweight boxing champion in 1944.
  • Tommy’s brother, Victor, was another Hebel-born legend. Victor was a fluent Yuwaalaraay speaker who went on to become Australia’s first Aboriginal school headmaster.

That is a pretty bloody impressive list!

There were some more recent signs too, such as the one about the big hailstorm that nearly wiped Hebel off the map. The sign has a picture of then Queensland Big Cheese Peter Beattie and a youthful Anna Bligh smiling at the camera.

I would say that, if you’re ever passing through Hebel, (a) stop and look at the Historical Circle and (b) eat at the shop, not the pub.

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There was one last surprise for me as I was navigating the 20-seater whale across the highway: pet rabbits are illegal in Queensland! Brilliant!

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Thank you, Hebel, for a grand afternoon.

 

* I think even people from Hebel don’t really believe this.