What is a Topless Raffle, I hear you ask? Let me (try to) explain. It was still early as I walked along the main street of Charters Towers. The town was quiet, but I could hear music coming from the pub across the road from my hotel. I decided to investigate and have a nightcap. There were only a handful of people at the bar, and I didn’t really pay attention to them as I ordered a beer. I found a table and sat down.
It was then that I noticed something extraordinary: two women standing at the bar were topless. Even in Australia, this seemed unusual. A barman walked past, so I asked what was going on. He looked a bit surprised, but not half as surprised as I did when he said, “Topless raffle, mate”. I gave him a confused look. He was friendy and tried to clarify by saying, “Meat train, alcohol dollars, yeah?”
He looked again to see if I understood. I didn’t. He went back to collecting glasses. Back at the hotel, a little research unearthed the fact that topless raffles are common in Australia. Naked women raffle trays of meat (I think I misheard when the barman said “meat train”) to raise funds for local sports teams, or similar ‘good causes’. It was a fascinating, if bizarre and vaguely degrading, snapshot of small town life.
I arrived in the former gold rush town of Charters Towers late in the afternoon and found my way to the historic Royal Private Hotel. Built in 1888 and restored to its former grandeur, the Royal Private is one of the oldest buildings in town. It started life just after gold was discovered in the area, and has seen the town’s fortunes rise and fall along with the ore dug out of the ground.
Jupiter Mosman, an Aboriginal child and indentured servant to some gold prospectors, discovered the first gold in 1871. Gold meant only one thing: gold rush fever. Within months Charters Towers was booming, thousands of prospectors arrived in the hope of striking it rich. The town grew rapidly to around 30,000 people, making it the second largest in Queensland during the gold rush years.
It became a rich place, know to locals as ‘The World’, the legend being that you could get anything available anywhere in the world in Charters Towers. Money was lavished on buildings, and many heritage sites from that period still exist, including one of the first regional stock exchanges. These buildings take pride of place on a walking tour of the town. I walked the trail and spotted a museum.
Australia specialises in good folk museums. The Zara Clark Museum is no exception. Run by volunteers it tells the history of the town and has an interesting collection of items from the local community. Machinery and memorabilia about warfare, medicine, domestic life and agriculture are housed in two buildings dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
I had a fun time poking around, and had a thorough run down on the history of the town from one of the volunteers. It’s hard to imagine walking the quiet streets today, but the town hosted 15,000 soldiers during World War II, double the town’s current population. I can’t imagine what they did for entertainment, but I suspect topless raffles would have been popular had they existed in the 1940s.
I drove over to the Venus Gold Battery, where gold ore was crushed and processed. It opened in 1872 and closed in 1972, long after the gold rush had ended. I asked the ticket seller if I could walk around. “Tour only”, he said. I didn’t have much time, so I asked how long the tour was. “One and a half hours”, he replied. I had time, so asked when the next tour was. “Tomorrow”.
Hoping he’d take pity on me, I explained that I’d be in Cairns then getting my onward flight. “Well, have a nice day”, he said, and turned away. It was only 11am and there was only one other car in the car park. Surely, an extra paying visitor might be welcome? Apparently not. Yet another insight into small town life. With that, I departed Charters Towers to see if I could drive the 500km to Cairns in time to catch my flight to Perth.