Outback and country towns are often the hardest hit when it comes to natural disasters, but they are often the towns who show strength through solidarity and this is especially true of a country town known as Home Hill.
Located in sugar cane country of Burdekin, Home Hill is home to around 3500 people and offers landscapes dominated by lush green cane fields as well as access to some of North Queensland's finest produce.
“The Burdekin produces 32 percent of the nation's sugar cane,” Home Hill local and Malpass Hotel publican, Phil Campling said.
“Our area is very, very dependent on the sugar cane industry. We also have a lot of small farmers around growing the likes of the pumpkins, capsicums, eggplant and all varieties of vegetables, so we have plenty of small crop farms in Home Hill, and the whole area is very dependent on agriculture,” he added.
During the past few months of imposed restrictions, the Home Hill community has shown solidarity by supporting one another, be it through shopping locally or employing locally. Home Hill is located just 12 kilometres south of Ayr, and the two towns are linked via the Burdekin Bridge (Home Hill’s best-known landmark which is 1,103m long, and one of the longest multi-span bridges in Australia).
While the tight-knit community experienced an enforced hiatus from indulging in a hearty meal and a pot of beer from their local hotels, patrons could still access the Malpass Hotel’s bottle shop which attracted a higher number of locals during the State Government's lockdown.
“We were able to operate our bottle shop during the restrictions, and during that time we actually saw an increase in our bottle shop trade of 15 per cent in the three months. So people are still drinking, they continued to come in but were drinking at home,” Phil explained.
“The other thing that's happening is, because of the restrictions, customers haven't been going over to Ayr, so they stayed local and they purchased with us. I don't know what's happening in Ayr, but I know that we're up 15 per cent in the three months since all the restrictions came into place.”
There are nine hotels in total between Ayr and Home Hill, and the Malpass Hotel is the third largest in terms of bottle shop size, and Phil said they were not necessarily the cheapest, but gave the best service.
“From this pandemic, we have felt the support from the Home Hill community, which is a very tight community, and I mean tight. Over the other side of the river, on the other side of the Burdekin Bridge in Ayr, it's a different sort of community all together. Nowhere near as community minded as the Home Hill people; that's a fact,” Phil said.
“And that’s not having a go at them, I'm just saying the nature of the people are so different. Home Hill people to Ayr people, they have their rivalries which is lovely whether it be in a game of football or whatever, rivalry is fine,” he added.
While only a small town, Home Hill still has three hotels in its vicinity, however only two are currently open, including the Malpass Hotel.
“Sadly, Home Hill is a dying town, it really is a dying town,” Phil said.
“There have been three hotels in the town, only two are open at the moment; in the 13 years that we have had the hotel, we have seen four owners in one of the other hotels and seven owners in the other. The reason being, there is just not enough business to support three hotels.
“I've always said there's enough business in this town for one and a half hotels and my saying has always been I'll be the one, and the other two guys can fight over the half,” Phil quipped.
“I say that because this hotel is ninety-six years old now and was the second hotel in town. The first one was the Crown Hotel which opened about 10 years before ours. After the Second World War, the town began really opening up, and our hotel used to have all the teachers come and stay here from the school, so we used to have all the white-collar workers stay here,” Phil explained.
“The other two hotels used to have all the blue-collar workers such as the farm hands; that was the basis of what it was, so this hotel was a little bit more upmarket than either of the other two. And that has continued right through to today. The farmers all come to drink in our hotel.
“But the days of the worker going into a hotel have long gone; I've been told stories where 25 years ago they lined up four-deep at the bar. When the cane industry used to close the mill, it would close on a Friday and reopen on the Monday, so the workers were around all weekend. These days, it's all shiftwork, because the mill runs 24-hours a day and the industry is mechanised,” Phil added.
One of the tribulations associated with country businesses is downward trade and closures, and Phil said that since owning the hotel, he has witnessed about 90 per cent of shops close down and become vacant. One positive aspect though has been the introduction of a large IGA supermarket located about 50m from Malpass Hotel which he said has changed things dramatically for the town.
“People began shopping more in Home Hill rather than driving 12-13 kilometers away to the Woolworths and Coles in Ayr. Now, the good thing that has come of the IGA, is that those big supermarket chains don’t open on a Sunday, so all the Ayr people come over to Home Hill to shop at our IGA on Sunday.”
Another positive aspect that came from the downtime, has been the ability for Phil and his team to take on some renovation work while the hotel was closed. He said from the first day he closed the doors in March, planning for the reopening was underway.
“I got everything out and decided we were going to do up the kitchen, our poker machine area, the toilets, our dining room and also the outside of the hotel,” Phil said.
“So on day one, I started planning all the works. Our Capital works have gone up right through the ceiling, but we used the time to get jobs done that we would never otherwise get a chance to do,” Phil explained.
“It's been a blessing because the work I had to do in the kitchen, I would have had to close the kitchen for two or three weeks just to do that; to do the work that I was doing in the bar, I would have had to close the bar for two weeks, and the same for the dining room and the gaming room.
“Now all the work has been done, we have new carpet, it’s been fully painted right through inside and outside has also been done.
“All the old hotels used to have tiles on their exterior walls, so we’ve taken all of those off and put cement render on and modernised it. There's so much work we've been able to get done that we would have never got a chance to do except for the corona virus problem,” Phil said.
With school holidays underway and unrestricted travel within Queensland, it’s more important than ever to support the country towns doing it tough. Malpass Hotel is located on the Bruce Highway about 110km south of Townsville. It is a well-known icon right on the highway and is the first hotel you see heading south, and the last building you see if you’re heading north.
For more information visit Malpass Hotel