Barcaldine’s Tree of Knowledge.
Barcaldine’s Tree of Knowledge. Paul Ewart/Tourism and Events Qu

TRAVEL: Touring the outback with a former wrestler

I FIND myself gasping for breath and wondering what possessed me to challenge bush poet, tour guide and former wrestler Tom Lockie to demonstrate a "Canadian Blackout" submission move.

His hands are thrust under my arms from behind and my chin is pressed sharply into my chest.

I laugh through the pain and growing shortness of breath.

"You can hold an 18-stone, six-foot tall wrestler like this," Lockie explains at the century-old historic Globe Hotel, now reopened as a multi-million-dollar community cultural precinct. "Your opponent has 12 to 15 seconds to submit, otherwise he blacks out."

The lively, barrel-chested 73-year-old, known in his day as Tiny Tom, has lived in Barcaldine since 1965, and has tried his hand at most jobs, from working rodeo circuits, timber felling, fence making, cutting cane, baking bread, mustering, running trucks, bulldogging and calf roping.

As a young man, a bare-footed Lockie would handcut and shovel-load 12 tonnes of cane each day in Nambour. "If you saw a bloke having a good feed in the morning, you knew he'd been out in the field," he says.

"One day I ate 11 Weet-Bix while I was waiting for my fried breakfast to cook. Thing is, I never even liked Weet-Bix."

His best year was 1964, when he earned 1100 pounds in 18 weeks, drove a new Triumph sports car, and paid more tax than his father earned.

Nowadays, he runs the highly regarded Artesian Country Tours that offers tourists a glimpse of ancient Aboriginal life, visiting rock-art sites and caves in and around Barcaldine.

Lockie is one of a host of local stars who bring Queensland's Central West to life.

Cheryl Thompson is another such character. The owner-manager of Ridgee Didge Cafe, Thompson, a descendant of the Iningai people, has returned to her home town after 20 years.

She is back to build opportunities for local indigenous people.

The ambience at the Ridgee Didge is warm and friendly, the food is great, and there's art for sale, free internet and delicious, locally roasted Coolamon Coffee.

"We want the atmosphere and the food here to be on a par with that of our big cities," Thompson says.

Make sure you visit the indigenous arts centre at the Central West Aboriginal Corporation's Red Shed, in Boree St, where you can buy hand-made ceramics, artefacts and paintings.

Across the road from the Ridgee Didge is Barcaldine's chief attraction - the Tree of Knowledge memorial.

During the tumultuous months of 1891, the ghost gum that stood here became the gathering place for what became the Queensland Shearers' Union and therefore the founding place of the Australian Labor movement.

The tree became a symbol for the "fair go", although this didn't prevent vandals mysteriously poisoning and setting fire to the tree in 2006.

The heritage-listed ghost gum is now preserved for posterity underneath a $5 million, 18-metre-high timber and steel structure that is spectacularly lit in gorgeous dappled light at night.

Heading 28km out of Barcy, nature lovers shouldn't miss the chance to check out Lara Station and Wetlands. There are tranquil, shady camping spots and you can relax in the naturally heated mineral pools or take a kayak out on to the wetlands.

The writer was a guest of Outback Queensland and QR. The Spirit of the Outback-themed train travels twice weekly from Brisbane to Barcaldine and return (via Rockhampton).

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