Can pub - and ants - be tiny town’s saviour?

By Shepparton News

Veteran journalist Gus Underwood discovered there is a tiny town in South Australia being revived by a pub and possibly - of all things - a prehistoric ant.

Jeff and Karen Brown admitted they had never heard of a place called Poochera and initially weren’t a bit interested in ever going there.

Originally from Sydney and approaching their 60s, they had been leading a nomadic lifestyle for several years but had decided it was time to start looking for somewhere to settle down for the rest of their working days.

They were keen to explore Western Australia to find something that might suit them there.

They never got there.

A hotel sales agent they had previously done business with and who had led them to a five-year stint managing the remote Mount Dare pub, the most northerly watering hole in South Australia and the westerly launching place for eastern Simpson Desert crossings, kept insisting they check out the Poochera pub on the Eyre Highway in South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula.

With just over 30 residents in Poochera, the pub, like many country pubs, had fallen on hard times and its doors had been closed 18 months earlier.

It was far from a ready-to-go enticement for the Browns, rather a challenging rebuilding project in luring back clientele from the surrounding cropping and sheep farmers and some of the hundreds of tourists who travel the Eyre Highway, the only sealed southern highway link between the eastern southern states and Western Australia.

The hotel agent’s persistence eventually paid off and Jeff and Karen finally and somewhat reluctantly decided to check out what could be their prospective new business and home.

With an affordable deal immediately offered when they got there Jeff and Karen quickly relented and have been the proud owners of the historic pub since January 2015.

‘‘It’s been a work in progress resurrecting it and there is a fair bit more work to be done yet to get it to the stage we would like but we are making progress in this regard,’’ Jeff said.

Jeff was unaware until arriving in Poochera that the tiny township boasted an obscure but historical Australian and world find.

It is a home to a prehistoric ant called Nothomyrmecia macrops - Jeff calls it the dinosaur ant - and it’s the world’s most primitive living ant.

A colony had been originally discovered on the other side of the Nullarbor near Balladonia in 1931 and the species was living proof that ants had evolved from wasps.

And there was a fascinating story on the discovery of the rare ant colony at Poochera.

Word got out in 1977 that an American scientist was heading to Australia to try and find the rare ant colony at Balladonia.

This prompted Dr Bob Taylor and a party of entomologists from Canberra to try and beat the Yanks to find this colony.

On their way to the west their vehicle struck mechanical problems at Poochera and the party was forced to make an unscheduled overnight stop.

That evening Dr Taylor wandered off to conduct an impromptu insect survey in Mallee scrub near their camp. To his astonishment he discovered a Nothomyrmecia macrops worker ant crawling on a eucalyptus tree trunk.

He couldn’t hide his glee at the find, rushing to his colleagues and announcing, “The bloody bastards are here.’’

It had been 46 years since the last find of the ant since the discovery at Balladonia, 1700 km further west.

A metallic, enlarged version of the ant had been on display at the Poochera service station in recent years but is now looking for a new home after the service station closed its doors.

Jeff Brown believes the suitable place to exhibit the model would be in the town’s park where it could be utilised in publicity blurbs to lure tourists to the town.

‘‘And when they visit they might pay us a visit too which would be good and would help keep us going,’’ said Jeff with the grin and wink of an astute businessman.

Jeff believes he will be Poochera’s last publican.

‘‘When we pull the plug I wouldn’t expect anyone to take it on. Many country pubs have closed their doors and a lot of those who haven’t are doing it really tough,’’ Jeff said.

That’s why the Poochera locals are hoping Jeff and Karen’s health holds up and that day is a long way off happening.