Vision Splendid: A New Light Shines on Winton
“Oh, there once was a swagman camped in a billabong,
Under the shade of a coolabah tree,
And he sang as he looked at the old billy boiling,
Who’ll come a waltzing Matilda with me.”
The people of Winton in Western Queensland have responded magnificently to a setback that recently rocked the town. In many ways, it reflects the resilience of life in the Australian outback.
If an ongoing drought was not bad enough, the destruction of the Waltzing Matilda Centre by fire in June 2015 had a severe impacte.
The centre, completed in 1998, was combined with Winton’s existing Qantilda Museum to provide a range of attractions constructed around the story of the swagman as told in AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s famous ballad Waltzing Matilda.
It became a major attraction for tourists and a lifeline for a town suffering due to the economic downturn in regional areas.
Yet the townsfolk simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with the job of rebuilding a bigger and better centre.
Winton is filled with enthusiasm as the new centre rises from the ashes and the official opening nears in early 2018.
Speaking with long-time local Jenny Elliott from the temporary information centre housed in the Royal Open Air Theatre and Museum in Winton’s main street, she tells me they are working on the new $22 million Waltzing Matilda Centre every single day of the week.
“It is impressive,” she said. “Amazing.
“We were pretty lucky that the Government realised the benefits of rebuilding.
“It was insured and we get $1.2 million off the State Government, and the Federal
Government gave us $8 million.”
The original Waltzing Matilda Centre was an old Queenslander-style building, that had an office block added.
Cox Architects have designed the new building. They did the Age of Dinosaurs Museum at Winton as well.
A.Gabrielli Construction from Townsville is doing the build and Len Coyte from Peak Services in Brisbane is managing the project for council.
It was shortlisted among the World Architecture Festival award finalists for cultural projects.
The building involves concrete walls being poured in position.
They have a coloured rib finish from cast strips that are bush hammered.
It will be the same finish as the Age of Dinosaurs Museum at Winton, reflecting the look and colours of the Outback.
The build has involved 9.6m feature walls being done in a single pour.
The centre will have the same look from the front and rear entries, and retain the distinctive windmill.
Although it’s been almost two years since the fire – which was caused by an electrical fault in the ceiling of the famous billabong scene – Jenny tells me travellers were still coming through town and saying how much they loved the place.
“It’s surprising how long it takes to do stuff. After all the meetings on how to put it back together, it took a while to decide.
“We all thought we knew what we were doing but we didn’t.
“There were about 17 submissions for the new design but some didn’t meet the criteria and it was narrowed down to seven. In the end, everything fitted.
“The turning point was the start of construction early last year.
“There has been no rain interruption to speak of. We’ve had no decent rain for five and a half years.
“The feeling of the town was we were really excited when building started.
“Generally, we are all locals and have been able to get work elsewhere to get us through.”
As well as the loss of one of Australia’s premier tourist attractions and cultural artefacts, the fire also left 18 people without work.
Mayor at the time, the late Butch Lenton, worked in conjunction with Winton Shire Council to redeploy as many staff as possible while many of the rest found alternative work in the district.
Most of the building had been destroyed by fire, smoke or heat damage, although some artefacts and adjoining buildings were saved.
The response to the loss of such items has been overwhelming, Jenny said.
“We have had calls from all over Australia.”
The billabong scene that re-enacted the Waltzing Matilda story was incorporated into the cafe, art gallery and another legends room. They all went in the fire.
The story of Waltzing Matilda dates back to January 1895, while Banjo Paterson was staying at Dagworth Station, a sheep and cattle station to the north-west of Winton,
Paterson wrote the words to a tune played by Christina Macpherson, one of the family members at the station.
Macpherson had heard the tune The Craigielee March played by a military band while attending the Warrnambool steeplechase horse racing in Victoria in April 1894, and played it back by ear at Dagworth.
Paterson decided that the music would be a good piece to set lyrics to.
The first public performance was at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton’s main street.
The Sarah Riley Show told of Christina McPherson and Sarah Riley – one was Paterson’s fiancé and the other said to be the inspiration for the story.
“Sarah was his fiancé,” Jenny said. “No one really knows what happened there but it was a nice little twist in the story.”
The schedule for the Waltzing Matilda Centre reopening is April 19–22 as part of Winton’s Way Out West Festival.
Waltzing Matilda Day is celebrated each year on April 6, the day when the song was first performed.
The idea behind the dates is to get a flow-on effect from people attending the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
The Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival has really taken off. It will run from June 29 to July 7 in 2018.
That involves screening 30 films over nine days at a variety of obscure venues but centred around the Royal Outdoor Theatre with a million stars overhead.
Jenny Elliott said the Waltzing Matilda Centre opening would provide a big boost to the town.
“It’s our major attraction, along with the Age of Dinosaurs Museum and Lark Quarry, the site of the dinosaur stampede.
“It will represent more of what the area has to offer. Still dedicated to the song but highlighting the culture, history and intrigue of the bush.
“It’s not just one thing. We are lucky we don’t have to worry too much.
“There are no traffic jams out here, we try to keep it as real as possible.”
It’s that casual lifestyle that Jenny loves about the area.
The way everyone looks out for each other. The big sky. The landscapes, wide open spaces.
“We’re fair dinkum … we do not have to create a fun park.”
An example is Willie Mar’s Chinese garden on the edge of town that has been restored by those who knew him.
“His father came here originally. That was in the early 1900s,” Jenny said.
“When Young Willie died in 2007 everything was just sitting there. The house, shop, vehicles.
“Someone had the idea of keeping it.
“You can wander down and have a look. They are the sort of things that people can think of doing … they have not been kcreated.”
The tribute to Willie Mar shows the regard in which he was held and the way country towns look after their own.
Above: The words to Waltzing Matilda by AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson, displayed in the North Gregory Hotel.
Feature photo: The Banjo Paterson statue at the original Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton.
For more on experiencing Winton, visit: http://www.experiencewinton.com.au/
For more on the Waltzing Matilda centre, visit: http://www.matildacentre.com.au/
For more on the Vision Splendid film festival, visit: http://www.visionsplendidfilmfest.com/
To see more designs by Cox Architects visit: http://www.coxarchitecture.com.au/