Food Safari 12: Walgett Sporto

It was time for a Federation meeting again, so in the bus we got and off we set, down the Castlereagh, braking hard for the 64 trillion emus that thought it was a good idea to meander across the road without warning.

There was a change of venue for the meeting, and so it was that at about half five in the afternoon we pulled into the gravelly car park of Walgett Sporto.

Like lots of clubs in small regional towns, the Sporto was something of a memorial to lost glories. Even the smell in the foyer – a mixture of cigarette smoke that’s somehow got into the aircon, ageing carpet fibres, schooners of Tooheys New – brought upon me a Proustian moment, my own club land Remembrance of Things Past. The honour boards were filled with winners in singles and doubles events for year after year after year until, in recent times, the names are replaced by those two poignant words “Not Played”.

Inside, the club was almost empty. The Chaser was on the telly and its gravitational pull was as strong as that of a black hole. A Federation meeting or … $2,000 if you choose to take four steps, or [dramatic pause] $45,000 if you choose to take six steps. And against The Beast!

But I am, if nothing else, a dutiful person. The meeting was in a side room and was, essentially, two hours of a growing rage that was as impotent as it was intense. Teachers being defunded from prisons. TAFE being torn apart. NAPLAN. But we motioned and resolved and, at the end of it, staggered towards the bistro safe in the knowledge that we’re just a bunch of irrelevant piss ants a long, long way from Decisionsville.

But, hey, it was Parmy Thursday!

This is where I make an unAustralian confession. I’m not a fan of the parmy. When did they become a Thing? For as long as I can remember the burger was the benchmark in pub tucker. The modern parmy is a gigantic object that could not possibly have come from a single creature but must have been stitched together with fencing wire or blended into a smooth pulp before being reconstituted, like a meaty Pringle. Being “of my time”, I went for the burger. In this case the $15 Texas burger.

I wasn’t sure what to expect (I should have read the description on the menu but, like, who does that?). In what way was it “Texan”? What actually is Texan cuisine? I know that Dubya once nearly choked on a pretzel but then I think that happened in Washington, where he’d been seduced by fancy Yankee snacks. I’d have guessed maybe a kind of smokey rib sauce. And Cajun. Do they have Cajun stuff down there or is that somewhere else? Must Google.

The Walgett interpretation of the Texas burger had onion rings, which I didn’t immediately connect with Texas. Though I could imagine Dubya choking on an onion ring. It also had barbecue sauces and melted cheese. It was grand!

Which was the general consensus all round. The lady at the counter was lovely and cheerful and made us all feel welcome, and the food was pretty quick to arrive. They even catered for S’s bizarre request to accompany his parmy: “mashed potato and salad”. I didn’t think of myself as a food snob till now but that’s just wrong.

Chuck stole the show with his mixed grill. It had everything, including corn on the cob, which neither Chuck nor I had seen on a mixed grill before. It was becoming quite a night.

The piece de resistance was, however, the dessert cabinet. There were no madeleines, so I couldn’t extend my weak Proust metaphor, but there were …

… profiteroles and Snickers cheese cake!!!! Here is our expert dessert fondler Mr B about to tuck in. How was it, Mr B?

I think that face says it all. Out of shot, his leg is kicking like a dog having its belly scratched.

The Sporto bistro belied the down-at-heel feeling I felt when I first went in. It was a really friendly place. If my Texan burger didn’t truly evoke the wide-open plains or the Sierre Madre, I’m frankly buggered if can say what, if it didn’t taste of onion rings, it should have tasted like.

The winner was of course the dessert cabinet. Well, we were all winners on the night. Apart from those sacked teachers, dismantled TAFEs, NAPLAN coordinators, etc etc.

We woz robbed

Spring is finals season, and in this year’s Barwon Darling Rugby League, Lightning Ridge made it to the grand finals in Ladies League Tag and the Under 17s. Unfortunately, Walgett, who won the men’s premiership, have “previous” (as they used to say on The Bill) and so the finals were held on neutral ground in Bourke.

I hitched a ride with some other teachers for the Big Day. We headed down the Castlereagh to Walgett, then headed west. The fields on either side were yellow with canola – or some flowering plant – that’s popped up along the roadside in recent weeks.


The football ground was about half full when we arrived, with the Under 14s just finishing. The low drrrrrr of the bouncy castle’s compressor competed with the shouts and catcalls of the crowd. We ducked round to Tito’s for a five-buck box of chips and chicken salt to prepare us for an afternoon of drinking and shouting and general yahooing.


The ladies were on first. (I’m not being old-school here: they are actually called “ladies” on the programme, not “women”.) The Lightning Ridge Redbacks’ opposition was the Cobar Roosterettes.

I was slightly perplexed by the Cobar team’s name. In my mind the -ette suffix can be used to denote small size (cigarette, kitchenette, statuette), and these Cobar ladies were not small; it can be used to denote a feminine version of a noun (suffragette, bachelorette, brunette), but surely a feminine rooster is, well, a chicken. But, as I sucked the chicken salt off a particularly long chip, I remembered the “likeness” version of the -ette suffix: leatherette, flannelette, and … um … videocassette.

By the time I’d worked all this out the game was over. The Roosterettes were just too darned good in defence for the Redbacks, who weren’t helped by a shocking penalty count against them. But well done, Lightning Ladies!


Next up were the U17s, quite a few of whom I teach. In these western leagues the teams travel immense distances just to play football; the Ridge-to-Cobar trip is five hours each way, plus playing time. Bourke Warriors had failed to field a team at the Ridge this season, maybe scraping 11 lads together for the trip north. It was disappointing, therefore, to see that they had somehow conspired to load 22 players on the programme for grand final day, against the Ridge’s hardy 14.

When our fullback was carried off about 15 minutes into the game it seemed all but over and yet the Ridge led the game for 78 minutes. It was a heart-stopping finish but, sadly, the Warriors’ fresh legs off the bench helped them over the line in (literally) the last minute for a 44 points to 40 victory. But well done, Lightning Ridge Redbacks U17s!


We didn’t stop for the men’s final between Cobar and Walgett, instead heading back to get home before dark. We crossed vast flat areas of what I described as “open box woodland”. I’m not sure if it was open box woodland but I was very pleased with myself for having come up with such a scientific-sounding descriptor, and so I defended it against the other teachers. (The best they could come up with was “floodplain”. Pfft.)


We hit Stanley just on dusk. I haven’t been in the Ridge for long and yet it still felt like home, seeing his huge emu profile rearing up against the north-eastern skyline.


So football’s over for another year. I expected Monday’s lesson’s to be a write-off, with the boys re-living every tackle and every try. But they looked pretty flat, poor things, having had the title stolen from them with barely a couple of minutes to go.

Never mind, lads and ladies. Two football platitudes: “we woz robbed”; and “there’s always next year”.

Night out in Walgett

When I was a younger man I lived for some years in Alice Springs. At the time there was one TV channel, the ABC. If you mentioned this fact as in indication of the place’s isolation or backwardness, old timers would scoff and talk about the olden days when … well, you know.

Murray Neck Video World was the most profitable in the southern hemisphere. (That’s not a fact. I just made it up.) I can still remember the jingle:

There’s a whole world of fun, just waiting for you
The biggest collection, you’ll see that it’s true!
We’re number one for home entertainment
At Murray Neck Video World!

There were four radio stations though: ABC, CAAMA (the Aboriginal one), 8CCC (the community one) and 8HA (the commercial one). They were all quite different, except on Sunday morning. On Sunday morning they all played country music. All of them. So Alice Springs is where I learnt to love country music, in the same way that Winston Smith learnt to love Big Brother. 1987 was a watershed as it was when I bought my first C&W album, Dwight Yoakam’s Hillbilly Deluxe.


It was actually a cassette as I didn’t have a turntable. I still like that album, and Readin’, Rightin’, Rt. 23 is still one of the most poignant songs I’ve ever heard.

In the days before hip hop took off in the bush the vast majority of Aboriginal bands played C&W. There were some exceptions, such as the rockier Amunda, and Coloured Stone from out of town, and I loved the Areyonga Desert Tigers’ version of The Ballad of Lucy Jordan. But most often they played the sad-eyed, world-done-me-wrong ballads that out-blues the blues.

The best of all of these ballads came from the King of Koori Country: Roger Knox’s Goulburn Jail. So when I heard, through the ‘What’s on in Walgett’ newsletter, that Knox would be playing the Oasis Hotel in Walgett, I knew I had to be there.

*          *         *

The day of the gig was a windy Saturday. In the small gum tree over my back fence the apostle birds huddled on the branches, occasionally clucking and mithering as the breeze ruffled their feathers and caused them to bump into one another. I wondered about the wisdom of going. I wouldn’t be setting off till late – sunset was at 5.15 – and everyone warned me about the roos; with the recent dry they’d come in to feed on the roadsides and, each day, the verges were punctuated with their bodies.


But I am made of stern stuff. Oh yes. I hopped on the Kwaka, cranked it up and pointed it south.

It was soon dark and, sure enough, the road was alive with wallabies. In my peripheral vision mobs of them bounded like ghosts in the far reaches of my headlights. Occasionally one would stand with its back to me, invisible and perfectly camouflaged against the dried grass and khaki soil, then spring into life at the most inopportune moment.

It was slow going.

It was cold.

I wondered about the trip home.

But eventually I crossed the Five Mile Warrambool and the Namoi and the glistening lights of Walgett beckoned ahead of me. There was a servo. And a little pagoda in a park with three huge uncollared dogs staring balefully at me as I phut-phutted past.

I pulled up at the Oasis. Surely this is the most ironically named hotel in the whole of Australia? It’s girded by a ten-foot steel fence and comes from the Soviet workers’ canteen school of architecture. I didn’t take a picture at the time: I’ve only got an iPhone and it was dark and there were lots of people hanging around and looking at me because I’d just bowled up on a motorbike. So the next day I looked for it on Google street view; it doesn’t look too bad here, which just proves how much the Internet lies. In real life, at night, it’s horrible.


The lads on the door said that Roger wasn’t on just yet but would be “soon”. I was hungry and looked around for somewhere to eat. I turned, looked across the road and saw Wongs Fish and Chips. Done.

There might have been a Wong once, maybe a hundred years ago. Or maybe these two behind the counter were the Wongs. It was your typical scungy outback chip shop. Kids flitted in and out buying chips and huge bottles of Coke; parents picked up phone orders from the toastie machine. Stores in towns like this often get slagged off for charging rip-off prices, but it’d be a tough gig working twelve hours in a Walgett takeaway. The Wongs didn’t look like they were awash with money; they had the weary expressions of folk just scraping by. Is this the dream they dreamed of, all those years ago when they got their Australian work visas?

The most popular dish seemed to be chips in tin foil with gravy poured over them. It looked tempting (I’m a shocker for food like that) but in the end I played safe and went for the cheeseburger and chips.


When I was a young man (here I go again), this time in England, we’d go for nights out to Big Town. At chucking-out time we’d spill from the pubs and clubs and onto the street, and if there wasn’t a chip shop nearby we’d get a burger from one of the little caravans that dotted the town centre.

The burgers these vans served up were only fit for drunken English teenagers. The “meat” part wasn’t even fried but bobbed around in a vat of hot, briny liquid, then got slathered in onions. We loved them, but since then I’ve been spoiled by fancy Australian burgers. At Wongs I got a little memory of England. Maybe the Wongs did their training at Big Town?


It reminded me instantly of the flag of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, as I’m sure it did you too.


I asked for some sauce to help get the chips down. Mrs Wong tentatively held a sachet of tartar sauce toward me. I shook my head: “No, tomato sauce”. She looked at the box of tartar sauce sachets, then back at me, then followed my eyes towards the four-gallon drum of tomato sauce on the back counter. “No sauce,” she said. My eyes narrowed. There goes your five-star Trip Advisor rating, Mrs Wong.

My delicious meal finished, I headed back over the road. It was ten bucks to get in and bands had been playing since two that afternoon. The Big Day Out should really take a look at itself.

I made my way past the front bar and through the throng towards the performance area. Like lots of Soviet-era motels in the Australian outback this was a horseshoe of rooms around a blue-metal forecourt. A stage of pallets had been rigged up in the centre and the band was up there: drums, bass, rhythm and lead guitar. And, in the centre, seated like a medieval king, was the great man himself. Oh yeah!

I found myself a good spot near a 44-gallon drum with flames shooting six feet into the air. As is always the case at these things, there were plenty of people ready for a chat. Often they’d start with, “You a copper?” or, for variation, “You security?” Maybe it was the black leather jacket, or my natural air of authority. More likely it was the fact that I was one of only two gubbas in the entire joint, the other being the glum-looking copper trying to keep a low profile in his hi-viz and POLICE cap.

The band played, Roger sang and people danced on the blue-metal forecourt. He still has a fantastic voice, and lots of people leaned over to bellow in my ear “He’s a legend!” He sure is. I tried to take a couple of photos, but it was too dark. But I like them for their blurry impressionistic take on the night, like those grainy shots that Robert Capa took at the D-Day landings.


Well, ok, that’s a bit of a stretch. But there he is: Roger Knox! Yeah, in the middle!


I get talking to a woman; she’s real friendly. When I look up there are three sets of eyes on me. I say, “You’re gonna get me in trouble!” She shrugs her lips contemptuously in the men’s direction. “You all right. I got plentya nephews here.” This wasn’t a great comfort.

A bloke from the hotel (at least I think he was from the hotel) shouted, “You stoppin’ here tonight?” “Nah,” I said, “I’m heading back to the Ridge.” “You should stop here,” he said, “Rooms are cheap. Twenty dollars.” I looked round the horseshoe of rooms that surrounded the party. I wondered how many grey nomads, misguidedly thinking they’d treat themselves to a comfy bed out of the caravan when they hit Walgett, were lying grim-faced in their rooms, about twelve feet away from the King of Koori Country and his audience. “I’ll give it a miss,” I said. The man screwed up his lips and cocked his head to one side: “Ten dollars?”

Roger had the audience in his hand. All the classics: How I wish I was back in the Dreamtime and Streets of Tamworth (revised to Streets of Walgett). But he didn’t play Goulburn Jail; he did knock out another prison ballad but I think he knew the audience wanted a good time, not some miserable reminder of life. After he finished, the band stayed on, a mix and match of locals, and got stuck into a rousing rendition of Wipeout: “C’mon Walgett, let’s rock!” People gathered round the King to get selfies. It was time for me to be off.

The wind had dropped but the air was cold. A meteor slid through the sky to my west. The roos were thicker than ever. There were foxes, a feral cat bigger than a fox, a dingo or wild dog. A spotted pig minced quickly over the road like an overweight lady in tight high heels. Occasionally I hit a pocket of air filled with the tart stench of road kill. It was slow going, and I was never gladder to see the dark silhouette of Stanley at the side of the road.

Back in Walgett they’d still be kicking on. The grey nomads would be grimacing in their motel beds. The copper would be checking his friend’s Facebook status on his phone. And Roger Knox might come on for an encore. He’s still the King of Koori Country.