Combo Waterhole is a refreshing change even in the driest times, a pleasant place to camp by a billabong and wait while your billy boils. Situated 7km south of Kynuna, between Cloncurry and Winton, it is a short trip off the Landsborough Highway bitumen to some interpretative signs and a walking track to the waterhole, which in the wet season is one of many channels of the Diamantina River.What little water there is kept in place by stone overshots installed on Dagworth Station in the 1890s. Teams of labourers used horses, drays and baskets to cart in stone and soil laid in tightly packed rows strengthened by keystones. The water has become a haven for wildlife thriving under the shade of coolibah trees.It’s not known if Banjo Paterson witnessed the building of these overshots when he visited Dagworth in 1895 with fiance Sarah Riley but it was another tale of that visit that has remained strong in the Australian imagination. Paterson, then 31, practised as a solicitor, but had also started a writing career. From 1885, he began submitting poetry to The Bulletin.His fiance Sarah was a friend of Christina Macpherson, sister of station owner Bob Macpherson. Christina was a talented musician and at Dagworth Paterson heard her play on her zither a “catchy, whimsical, haunting tune that deserves words to keep it alive”. Christina was playing the Scottish tune called Bonnie Wood O’ Craigielea. She heard it at the races in Victoria that year and the tune stuck in her head. Now Paterson set about composing words to Australianise the song combining two local legends for the purpose.The first legend was about shearers. One day Bob Macpherson and Banjo stopped at the Combo Waterhole where they found the remains of a recently slaughtered sheep killed by a swagman. The incident reminded Macpherson that a year earlier Dagworth had been through a bitter shearers’ strike (one of many in the 1890s). As Macpherson planned to start shearing with non-union labour, unionists used the cover of nightfall and gunfire to set the woolshed alight, killing 140 sheep. When police investigated the suicide of Samuel “French” Hoffmeister who shot himself at the strikers’ camp a day later, they found a burned letter linking him with the woolshed fire.The second legend was of a trooper pursuing a man who had killed an Aboriginal youth. The trooper stumbled on a swagman who thought police were looking for him because he’d killed a sheep for food. The swagman tried to escape but drowned in a waterhole. The name for Paterson’s new ditty came to him when he and Macpherson found a swagman on the road and Macpherson said “that’s what they call waltzing matilda”.
The song was first performed at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. It was an instant success that soon swept across Australia, becoming the favourite song of Australian troops fighting in the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. The song became associated with Winton and its tourist centre (now being rebuilt after fire) is named the Waltzing Matilda Centre. But the song was born at Combo Waterhole, 160km further to the north.