CAPE York’s legendary Archer River Roadhouse has changed hands for just the second time in its 40-year history after Brad and Modena Allan officially handed over the keys this month.
The new owners are a group of investors who have other remote roadhouses in Australia, including Kings Creek Station in the Northern Territory.
Brad and Modena have been at the helm for the past 19 years after they joined forces with long-time friend Hugh Atherton to buy the roadhouse in 2004.
They became full owners when they took over Hugh’s share just before COVID hit and have been flat out ever since, with huge tourist numbers hitting the Cape after lockdowns, combined with the nearby road and bridge construction works.
“It’s definitely been one of the best chapters of our lives,” Brad said of owning the roadhouse.
“We leave with a lot of friends and a lot of good memories.”
It was Brad and Hugh who first set sight on the property in the 1990s and pondered the idea of taking over from owner Sherrill Mehonoshen (nee Jackson), who carved out the 1000-acre plot from her family’s Wolverton Station to create the roadhouse.
“Hughy and I used to come up to the Cape to go fishing. We’d go camping at False Pera with a few boys we went to school with,” Brad recalled.
“We’d gather on the Tablelands around Anzac Day and drive up. It took two days then because the road is nothing like it is now.
“We’d seen the roadhouse and Hughy and I had these long drives and were talking about buying one.
“He was in Beaudesert and I was at Childers and we’d sit in the Toyota and have a yarn.
“We’d ask Sherrill every year we’d come up if she would sell and every year she would say ‘Nah, nah, I’m not ready’.
“Then one year she said she was open to the idea and we didn’t get there on the price.
“We left it for a couple of years and she said she was negotiable and keen to move on.”
Modena, who had never laid eyes on the place, wasn’t as keen.
“I remember ringing Mo from the phone box, basically the same phone box that is out the front of the place now,” Brad said.
“She said: ‘What are you doing? Come home and stop dreaming’.
“But we came up with the kids in the June school holidays of 2004 and sat in a unit for the week and watched how busy it was.
“We worked out a deal and took the keys on the first of March in 2005.”
The trio of new owners brought new ideas and, most importantly, fresh energy to the business.
“I completely understand what it must have been like for Sherrill because she had done 20 years and we’ve just done 20 years and that’s just about enough, I reckon,” Brad said.
“We spent quite a bit of money over the years to make improvements and tried to take it to the next level.
“I’m sure the new owners will do the same thing.”
LOCATED two hours from Weipa, Lockhart River, Aurukun and the Bramwell Junction Roadhouse, the Archer is well positioned.
Brad said it was the locals who made the roadhouse a special place, even though the tourists brought most of the business.
“We’re sort of the hub for the local community,” he said.
“When we got up here the communities didn’t have big stores or offer any kind of fast food.
“We were offering burgers and fries to those Lockhart locals who would come out and camp on the river. They’d get a feed, some beer and have a night out.
“This was a hub for many people and because of the lack of communication in the Cape, everything would come through here.
“If there was an emergency, we’d get the phone calls and have police ring us for information.
“The Weipa people have always been very good to us and come down here to camp and have a feed and a drink and say hello.”
Truck drivers have also made the Archer River Roadhouse a home away from home.
Drivers from most freight companies stop at the Archer to unload and then help themselves to a cup of coffee and sit out the back and enjoy their dinner away from the general punters.
“We don’t let everyone come back but the people we know were always welcome,” Brad said.
“Up here, we rely on the truck drivers for everything, so it pays to look after them if you can.”
RIVERS AND BRIDGES
A BRIDGE will finally be built over the Archer River next year, which should stop motorists risking their lives by driving through floodwater each wet season.
Countless cars have been swept off the causeway in the last two decades and one man was killed in 2014 after an unsuccessful crossing attempt.
For Brad, he’s been involved in too many rescue attempts to count and won’t miss the phone calls.
“I’ve told that many people not to drive in it (when it’s flooded) and they still do,” he said.
“It’s this get-home mentality. You see it in aviation when the pilot wants to get to their destination and instead of turning around and avoiding bad weather they keep going until it’s too late.”
One rescue still springs to mind for Brad, who rescued a family hanging to tree branches after their vehicle got washed away.
“It was 10.30 at night and they were lucky that Barry (Holz) went down to check the river levels on his motorbike. As he got down there he could hear kids screaming and he realised what’s happened and come back up here so we could help out.”
A rescue plan was put in place and Brad was able to launch his small boat and get to them in time.
“I’d hate to think what would have happened if Barry didn’t go down there.
“It’s hard for me as well because I’m putting my own life at risk – I don’t have any training in rapid water rescues.”
BRAD is lucky to be able to tell his story after a routine plane trip went wrong in 2010.
The long-time pilot took his Cessna 182 for a quick flight and ran into mechanical problems.
“I decided to take the aircraft just for a local flight just to give it a run, because I hadn’t given it a run for about a week or so,” he said at the time.
There seemed to be no problems as he banked the plane heading back. Then at 700 feet in the air, the engine stopped.
Spotting a clearing behind the roadhouse, he veered the plane toward it and braced himself.
“It’s sort of the only clear area that I had to land in,” he said.
Once again, it was Barry who was first on the scene and came to his rescue, although Brad escaped with minor injuries.
“It was basically just cuts. I had one deep laceration which needed medical attention but I was very lucky,” he said.
That didn’t stop him from getting another plane and doing it all again. More recently, he’s been into helicopters and has offered scenic flights for tourists.
CHANGES IN THE CAPE
THERE was barely a caravan or even a camper trailer on the road when Brad and Modena first took over at the Archer River.
“The road just keeps on getting better and that brings more traffic and more business,” he said.
“People were worried about the bridge but people will still stop at the roadhouse because they need a place to pull up and have a rest.
“The new owners know what they are doing and they’ll take this place to a new level.”
It’s the wet season that they will miss the most.
“You get the place to yourself and it’s green and there’s water around and plenty of life,” said Brad.
“It’s probably getting too busy for us now and it’s a seven-day grind for a long period of time.
“At the start of the tourist season, I have plenty to give but at the end of the season I’m buggered and all given out.”
When they took over the Archer, the generator was turned off at 10pm and turned on at 7am. Now it runs 24/7.
“The units used to just have ceiling fans and no air con, but the tourists want air con so we had to supply it,” Brad said.
“It might sound like a complaint but it’s not. Times change.
“If I was young enough I’d do it all again.”
THE NEXT CHAPTER
MODENA is just coming to grips with the thought of leaving.
“I thought we’d be here for a few more years yet because we thought our son would take over,” she said.
“Then we could kick back a bit and enjoy it a bit more. But he’s not interested in it, which is OK, but I did think I’d have more time.”
However, she’s quickly trying to adapt.
“The first couple of days I was a bit overwhelmed but we just moved out of the granny flat and into the camper trailer near the horses,” Modena said.
“Last night we kicked back and had a few wines and a few of the truck drivers came to sit around and it was much more chilled.
“That made me feel a lot better.”
Modena said she would miss the regular faces, including those from Coen and Lockhart River.
“They come in and call us Aunty Modena and Uncle Brad, which is very lovely and shows that level of respect we have for each other,” she said.
“I think they’ll miss us a lot and we’ll miss them, for sure.”
Brad said they would likely move to Cairns at first, but then find a place in North Queensland to call home.
“It was a big decision for us to sell because we’ve put a lot of time, effort and love into this place,” he said.
“It’s been our business and our home and given us everything we’ve ever wanted. We’ve got the horses here, the cattle and live on 1000 acres in Cape York that not many get to do.”
TONY McFadzean is one of three investors who have purchased the Archer River Roadhouse.
He’s teamed up with Brisbane-based Thomas Collins and Thomas Robson to add to their growing portfolio of remote properties, which includes Kings Creek and Erldunda Roadhouse.
“It’s such a beautiful place,” Mr McFadzean said from the Archer River last week.
“We’re very excited about the Archer and taking over the reins.”
Mr McFadzean said one of his business partners had a family connection to a property near Musgrave and was travelling in the Cape last year when he stopped at Archer River.
“He dropped his name to Modena one day and said for her and Brad to give him a call if they ever wanted to sell and that call came about six months ago,” he said.
“From there, we came up as a group and had a look.”
Mr McFadzean spent 35 years working through the ranks of Woolworths and has proven to be successful in the commercial real estate business.
“Our model is to find a property with a high traffic flow, which guarantees you can make ends meet,” he said.
“I wouldn’t think people will see massive changes because we’ve fallen in love with what exists here already, not because of its potential.
“You have to learn the property before making significant changes and that’s what we’ll do.
“We’ll put managers in, keep the existing staff and take it from there.
“I was in Weipa the other day with the Archer River shirt on and it seemed everyone had a story to tell about the roadhouse, which was really nice.”