Features, Queensland, Roadhouses

Former roadhouse owners look back on ‘one of the best chapters of our lives’

Having run this popular roadhouse for the past 18 years, this couple reveals how they came to own the popular site, as numerous truckies speak of their fond memories of stopping by.

Situated on the way to Cape York in far north Queensland, the Archer River Roadhouse was owned by Brad and Modena Allan for close to two decades.

But on July 4, the legendary roadhouse was taken over by a group of investors who own five other roadhouses in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

This is only the second time in the roadhouse’s 40-year history that it has changed hands.

It’s located on the banks of the Archer River, on Peninsula Development Road, 65km north of Coen, 166km south of Bramwell and 200km southeast of Weipa.

Big Rigs spoke to Brad, 59, about his time at the roadhouse and what comes next.

“We bought it in 2004 with a long-time friend named Hugh Atherton, and then bought his share out in December 2019 just before Covid hit when it was a bit of struggle. But as a long-time business we managed to survive,” he explained.

“After that we have been flat out, 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. 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 then 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. 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,” said Brad.

“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.”

Brad recalls that the now 58-year-old Modena, who had never laid eyes on the place, wasn’t as keen.

“I remember ringing her from the phone box, basically the same phone box that is out the front of the place now. 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 1st of March in 2005,” he said.

Brad said that a lot of truckies stopped there as well as caravans and other travellers.

“I would have to say the favourite meal for truckies was steak, eggs and chips,” he said.

I asked Brad if he recalled any incidents that stood out during his long innings. “Once a truck pulled up here and the driver came in and ordered two meals. But his occupant wasn’t anywhere to be seen. After some time we were going to call the police and report him missing but he suddenly turned up and had been wandering in the bush,” Brad said.

Truckie Gavan Roy, left, and Brad Allan enjoy a beer near a river.

Truck drivers Big Rigs has spoken to over the years were glowing in their praise of Brad and Modena, including Weipa based Gavan Roy. “I have been stopping at the Archer River Roadhouse since about 2006 and spent a lot of time there over the years since then, either on my time off or passing through in the truck. We (truckies) were always made to feel like part of the family, with their regulars being allowed to come round to the back table behind the kitchen, help ourselves to coffee and tea, order a feed or sit down to a home style meal for dinner with the staff and owners, “Roy said.

“The showers were always clean and open all night so it didn’t matter what time you rolled in you’d always get a hot shower. My family and I became good friends with Brad, Modena and Hughy over the years and would always call up before leaving Weipa or from down south to see if they needed anything picked up.

“In more recent years I have been taking my family down to the roadhouse to enjoy what the place has to offer – pig hunting, swimming, playing with the horses, fishing, socialising and occasionally helping out with the shop.

“Caretaking the roadhouse over Christmas/New Year period in recent years was always a highlight, seeing the change from the dry season and thousands of travellers to nearly no one on the road apart from locals trying to move about for the holiday period. “Watching the river flood and become impassable really reminds you how prepared you need to be when travelling up here (the Cape) in the wet season. I remember we had 29 cars parked out front one night, and I reckon half of them would have gone hungry if the roadhouse wasn’t there. That river is up and down like a yo-yo at times and continues to catch people out. Guess we will see how much of a benefit this new bridge will be once it’s finished.”

Roy continued, “I got the call from Brad one night about 9.30pm, he was straight to the point, ‘I’ve got some news and don’t think your gonna like it – we’ve sold the roadhouse’. The conversation carried on for a while talking about the ifs and buts, and reminiscing on some of the good times we’ve shared over the years. The news did come as a bit of a shock, but wasn’t unexpected. I have met Tony, new owner of the roadhouse and he has told me everything will continue as is, even keeping on all the current staff and everyone will be offered the same hospitality as before.

“I wish Brad and Modena all the best with their next chapter, and I thank them for always looking after me and my family, always making us welcome whenever we called by. It won’t be the same without them but 20 years of being in business at a busy roadhouse, I think they’ve got a lot of fishing to catch up on,” Roy concluded.

Cairns based Stewart Lambert drives a Western Star 4900 for Tuxworth and Woods and said that Brad and Modena were great people who looked after truckies.

“I would stop there on the way to Weipa from Cairns and on the return trip and get a steak sandwich. They were always friendly and the facilities clean. Lots of trucks stopped there. Once I got caught on the other side of the river after rain and walked across to the roadhouse in shallow water but I have seen drivers swim across it,” Stewart said.

Veteran small fleet operator Dennis Dent is based at Mareeba and has been going to the roadhouse for years. “Brad and Modena will be a big loss for Cape York. They have been a brilliant couple who really have looked after me and my drivers,” he told Big Rigs.

Dent said on one trip up to the Cape heavy rain closed a crossing and he was stuck on the other side of the river. “I swum across the flooded river to get some grog whilst I was there,” he said.

Stewart said the road from Coen to Weipa was still mostly dirt with patches of bitumen.

“It is getting better,” he added.

The new owners

Sydney based Tony McFadzean is one of three investors who have purchased the Archer River Roadhouse along with Brisbane-based Thomas Collins and Thomas Robson, to add to their growing portfolio of remote properties, which includes Kings Creek and Erldunda Roadhouses in the NT.

A flooded crossing near the roadhouse.

“Brad and Modena are a hard act to follow and whilst we are learning at Archer River I can’t see many changes. This was a perfect takeover for us and I was up there recently and mowed the lawn which was new for me. It has such a proud history. We have 10 staff,” McFadzean said.

He has been interested in trucks since he was young and holds a HR licence.

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.

That will result in more tourists coming to Cape York and more business for the roadhouse.

The Toots memorial outside the Archer River Roadhouse.

Toots memorial

Outside the Archer River Roadhouse is a monument to the late female truck driver Toots Holzheimer who was a pioneer of the road transport industry.

Toots died in 1992 aged 57 after an accident at Evan’s Landing in Weipa whilst loading her truck.

Life after Archer River

Brad and Modena have a property in Cairns and are looking for a house on the

nearby scenic Atherton Tablelands, perhaps at Mareeba.

“I have a helicopter and make barbecues so we will be kept busy. But we will never leave up this way where we have so many friends,” Brad said.

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