When you drive into Ilfracombe, in Queensland’s Central West, you see a sign proudly stating: Winner of Tidy Towns Competition, 2003.
I’m not sure about you, but I find that really scary.
Any town that displays a sign boasting that it won a Tidy Town competition eleven years ago is either stuck in a time warp, or is comfortable with the notion that it’s already peaked, and will never reach those exalted heights again.
Both are perfectly legitimate reasons for you to put your foot on the gas.
I stopped in Ilfracombe however not to see if I could recognize some faded grandeur of times past – vestiges of the glory year of 2003 – but because I’d heard they have a great Sunday brunch.
I’m a sucker for a Sunday brunch, especially if it’s in a town that won a Tidy Town competition eleven years ago, and still has a sign declaring as such.
Most probably there are now tidier towns than Ilfracombe, but in the whole scheme of things, if you were to assign one word to the town other than “blinkandyou’llmissit,” you would still veer towards “tidy.”
Ilfracombe was once the “Hub of the West.”
In the late 1800’s, it was a thriving bustling commercial centre, a junction for the shipment of wool to the rest of the world. In those days the town was part of Wellshot station, a huge sheep property (what Americans call a ranch) which was the biggest in the world – not because of its land area, but because it had nearly 500,000 head of sheep.
If you’re not put off by the Tidy Town sign, and you stop and walk around Ilfracombe, you start to get a sense of the history of the place. You see it hidden in the old railway station, and the post office. The pride that the town displays is not in its tidiness, but in its contribution to the growth of Australia.
There’s a saying that Australia was built off the sheep’s back. Ilfracombe was at the epicentre of that period where we became rich from what we sheared off an animal, not from what we pulled from the ground.
On the Friday before the Sunday brunch, it began to rain. It hadn’t rained in the district for nearly eighteen months. The area had been suffering through a crippling drought, and some graziers were paying up to $10,000 a week to have feed shipped in to keep their stock alive.
The rain that started on that Friday was a huge relief to the local property owners – in fact to everyone in the district – because they all depend on the trickle-down wealth that flows from the land.
I drove the 27kms from Longreach to Ilfracombe on the Sunday morning with my windshield wipers swishing from side to side. It was surreal driving through severely drought affected country in the rain. Luckily I was on tar – because if the road had been dirt, like it was only a few years ago, I wouldn’t have made it. I’d have got bogged.
A small amount of rain on those parched lands ironically turns the ground to mush very fast, and the dirt tracks leading in and out of the properties become impassable.
What that meant was that when I walked into the cafe, it was empty. I was expecting a crowd. In fact I’d wondered whether I should make a reservation. I’d been told that the brunch usually attracted between 60-70 people.
But none of the locals from the surrounding homesteads could make it into town, even in their four wheel drives.
The buffet consisted of tinned baked beans, sausages, bacon, fried mushrooms and potato patties, cereals, instant coffee in urns.
On the surrounding walls were huge photos of the early pioneers, and the hey days of the wool boom.
The Ilfracombe Cafe and General Store has been servicing the local district for more than 100 years.
It’s now run by Tim and Judi Johnson, who over the past eight years have built the Sunday brunch up to legendary status within the district.
And really, when I looked at the spread they were offering, I marveled at their skill.
I imagined what it would be like on a normal Sunday – the dining room full of cockies (ranchers) and their wives and families, chatting about wool prices and the sheep markets and what the useless politicians were doing in Canberra, none of them having any understanding what it was like out in the bush.
Around them on the walls were remembrances of a glorious past.
I finished my snags and beans, and then made sure that I took my plates back to the kitchen. I didn’t want to leave a mess in this historic tidy town.