Ask a Canberra foodie to review Grazing and most will wax lyrical about the fine food and wine dished up in Gundaroo's circa 1865 Royal Hotel.
However, it comes as a surprise to younger generations that in the latter half of last century hordes of Canberrans flocked to the same venue, not for a fine dining experience, rather for a colourful evening of Aussie tucker and true blue entertainment at what was then home to the Gundaroo Pub.
In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who lived in Canberra in the 1970s and '80s who didn't enjoy a night or two at the village's famous watering hole. Many readily recall the bumpy trips in the rickety old school buses that ferried folk out to the pub along potholed dirt roads from a series of staging posts around Canberra; but for many the finer details of the evening are, let's just say, a bit blurry. Perhaps that has something to do with the conditions of the return bus trip and meal ticket, which in the 1970s cost as little as $10, but which also entitled revellers to unlimited glasses of beer and wine.
The alcohol-fuelled eventful evenings were the brainchild of a young Ron Murray who bought the rundown pub in 1968 and cleverly transformed it into one of the busiest country pubs in the entire country.
First up, the bus trip wasn't any old courtesy bus. By arranging for fake hitch-hikers to be picked up along the way, Murray ingeniously turned the bus ride – which was back then a rather dull one-hour journey – into a highlight of the tour. On arrival at the pub, a four-piece bush band would belt out tunes on the dance floor, while wandering minstrels would entertain the merrymakers as they chowed down their classic Aussie fare of kangaroo tail soup, T-bone with sweet corn and potato and a slice of freshly baked damper and jam.
However, it wasn't an immediate road to success for Murray. "In the early days he had to hire the crockery and cutlery for people to eat off as he couldn't afford to buy it," recalls John Davis who was manager of the pub for the best part of two decades from the late 1970s.
"Without doubt the halcyon [period] for the pub was the 1980s when in the lead-up to Christmas we'd do three or four functions every day, totalling over 1000 people a day," Davis says, "by then Murray was bringing in groups of tourists, predominantly Japanese from Sydney for day trips around Canberra." It was the impetus for Murray to expand into tourist coaches, of which he now has almost 200 vehicles, making Murrays Coaches one of the largest coach operators in Australia.
"He'd take them to the War Memorial, up Mount Ainslie and then out to Gundaroo where they'd enjoy a hayride around town, a sheep-shearing demonstration and, of course, lunch," recalls Davis, who especially recalls the T-bones, 16-ounce (450-gram) monsters he'd order specially in from a butcher in Harris Street, Sydney. "They were our trademark – so big they were overlapping the sides of the plate ... you should have seen the tourist's eyes popping out of their heads at the size of them."
While Japanese tourists no longer flock en masse to Gundaroo and while Canberrans have more choices closer to home for an evening knees-up, as part of the Canberra & Region Heritage Festival, the Gundaroo Historical Society has teamed up with Grazing and Murrays Coaches to host a one-off Back to Gundaroo Pub day on Saturday, April 2.
According to Ron Miller, organiser of the day, "Grazing's award-winning chef Kurt Neumann will prepare a three-course contemporary version of the Gundaroo Pub dinners and there'll be special guests (there is even speculation that Ron Murray may even make an appearance), live music, and photos on display."
Regular readers will be aware of this column's penchant for stepping back in time, especially if amber fluid is involved, so to get into the spirit for the Back to the Gundaroo Pub day, this week I tracked down a couple of the original fake hitch-hikers employed by Murray for those infamous bus trips.
"When the bus would pick me up, thumbing a ride on the Federal Highway, the passengers wondered what the hell I was doing in the middle of nowhere," entertainer Mike Jackson recalls, "most never caught on I was part of the show 'til they saw me playing my mouth organ or squeeze box at the pub later in the evening, and even then many were so drunk they didn't recognise me!"
However, it wasn't all beer and skittles for Jackson, who on busy nights in the 1970s when Murray had three buses operating on a staggered timetable, would have to hop on and off buses at various prearranged locations. "That worked well, except for the days when I got off the second bus about 12 kilometres out of Gundaroo, and waited for the third bus, only to find it had been cancelled ... it was a long walk into the pub carrying my gear," Jackson says.
"Once at the pub, there was an air of organised chaos, but it was, in fact, a very well-oiled machine run by Murray, who was one of the most natural comedic entertainers I've ever met," says Jackson, now an accomplished children's entertainer (check him out here: mikejackson.com.au/), and who adds, "the script for the evening was skeletal, you never knew quite what was going to happen so there was always an element of the spontaneous good fun that made working there a joy".
Jackson is touring in Britain and laments he won't be able to appear at the Back to the Gundaroo Pub day, however fiddle player and storyteller extraordinaire, Bob McInnes, who also worked as one of Murray's wandering minstrels in the 1980s, is making the pilgrimage to his old stomping ground.
"For evening gigs I would park the car at Sutton and hitch-hike along the Gundaroo road getting picked up by a Murrays bus taking revellers to the pub," McInnes, who now lives in the Southern Highlands, recalls.
"After being picked up I was invariably asked what was in my case so would get out the fiddle and hoe in to a tune," he says, "this would lead to everybody joining in choruses of songs like The Wheels on the Bus."
Just like Jackson, McInnes would find himself "stranded" at the pub with the partygoers and would end up entertaining in each of the individual rooms, all of which "had cigarette smoke billowing out of them".
"Although a non-smoker, deep-breathing to sing in the smoke-filled rooms, I'm sure I always ended the night on a nicotine high," McInnes says, "perhaps it was the same for Ron Murray himself who would appear on the scene and join in with his didgeridoo and hilarious tabletop emu dance which would have the crowd in stitches!"
Back to the Gundaroo Pub: From 11am, Saturday, April 2. $85 per person includes lunch at Grazing and a tour of the old pub. Book early to avoid disappointment: Ph: 6236 8777 or email@example.com
The wheels on the bus go round and round: For those who really want to relive the pub's heyday, The Gundaroo and District Historical Society are organising a bus (Murrays, of course) from Canberra for $20 a head. Who knows, the bus may even pick up a "lost" hitch-hiker or two along the way. To book a seat on the bus or for more information contact Ron Miller, Ph: 0411 400 897 or gundaroohistoricalsociety.com
Did You Know? Photos showcasing the nightly shenanigans at the Gundaroo Pub are more difficult to track down than you'd expect. "It seems folk were having too much fun back then to think about taking photos," says Ron Miller, organiser of "Back to the Gundaroo Pub", who is hoping readers of this column will dig earnestly through their old photos and uncover some suitable for his display.
CONTACT TIM: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick. You can see a selection of past columns at: canberratimes.com.au/act-news/by/Tim-the-Yowie-Man-hvf8o
WHERE IN THE REGION?
Where in the Canberra Region Photo: Supplied
Cryptic Clue: Give us this day, our daily bread.
Degree of difficulty: Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Rod and Mary Stone, of Kambah, who were first to correctly identify last week's photo, as "the boat and trailer which sits forlornly, like a beached whale, on private property on the western side of the Monaro Highway at Colinton, between Michelago and Bredbo". The Stones, who just beat a tidal wave of other readers to the prize, including Mark Sparshott, of Pearce, Alan Wilson, of Wanniassa, and Paul Tomkins, of Calwell, regularly drive past the boat on the way to the Canberra Gliding Club's airfield at nearby Bunyan.
Where in the region last week.. Photo: Supplied
Several readers including Peter Harris, of Latham, and Peter Lee, of Spence, nailed the clue which related to the fact that Charles Lachlan McKeahnie, reputed by some to be the man in The Man from Snowy River, died after his horse slipped on the nearby Bredbo Bridge in August 1895.
Finally, special mention to Sean Roberts and his wife Susan Mitchell-Roberts, of Richardson, who not only emailed in the correct answer, but also submitted a selfie of themselves posing in front of the boat, which they passed shortly after 10am last Saturday.
Sean Roberts and his wife Susan Mitchell-Roberts selfie at the landmark boat. Photo: Supplied
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am on Saturday, March 19, with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.