West to Longreach

 by Vic


27th Dec 2002

Travelling into Central Queensland

We decided about a week before Christmas this year that we would spend a few days heading west from our home in QLD. We had to be back by the 3rd Jan to pick up people from Brisbane Airport.

We had spent some time looking on the Internet for suitable places to visit on the way, and what there was to see and do at some of these places. We decided to drive west towards the Warrego Highway and then head to Roma and eventually on to Longreach or Winton depending on the time.

We left home at 9am and headed west through the Blackall Ranges to Dalby. The countryside round here is unusually green and there were plenty of signs that a solid storm had been through the area with quite a bit of obvious damage, mainly around Woodford.

A lot of gum trees along the road had lost huge limbs, sometimes it looked as if half the tree was strewn across the road. The clean up guys were out with their large mulching machines, the kind that can be towed behind a truck. It must have been some storm; probably Christmas Eve when we had an electrical storm ourselves with some very heavy rain.

Dalby is the main town in the wheat belt of the Darling Downs. This area has been in severe drought, possibly for the locals, the worst since records began. In true style they had a severe downfall prior to us coming through. I'm sure the Rain-Gods see us leaving the house. Paddocks were knee deep in water, water holes were full and very large ponds had formed along the roadside. It was clear we were not seeing any sign of the drought yet.

We drove on to Roma, which is 270 Kilometres west of Dalby and there are only two other towns between them with more than 100 people in either of them. The wheat belt gives way to dry scrubland. There are still signs of quite a storm prior to our passing even here.

The prickly pear grows so big it forms large trees, and it grows in large numbers out here. This is a pest cactus which the authorities have possibly had some small success in eradicating, although hard to believe here. The problem with it is that as a piece drops to the ground, it develops roots and forms a new plant.

The land is flat for hundreds of kilometres around with mirages on the horizons, and trees that rise up out of their false water's edges. Well, we arrived in Roma, 7000 people living in an old country town with almost no redeeming features. They cling to the oil exploration as a hook to gather in the tourist dollar.

The caravan park we stayed at was next to the information centre and tourist exhibit that celebrates the oil industry in Roma. We saw that there was to be an outdoor multi-media show during the evening, so we quickly downed our dinners and made our way over there. It was a very good presentation, with a good film- and sound-track, and also an animated film happening down below the screen level, which changed often throughout the story. The show was really worthwhile and interesting; but we were the only ones at it. I asked the guy running it why, as the campground wasn't exactly empty, and he said it that it gets busy in the winter months but the summer is not the popular tourist season. He said some nights he turns up and nobody shows so he packs up and goes home.

28th Dec 2002

Before leaving town this morning, we had to visit the largest bottle tree in the town. These are quite weird looking trees with trunks that bulge out in the middle like a bottle, hence the name I suppose. (Depending on where you live, they're also known as the Baobab, Boab or Upside-down Tree). After taking the necessary photo, we drove from Roma to Rubyvale, which is over 500 kms in a north west direction along the Carnarvon Highway.

The road North covers some really beautiful countryside and as we go through the rocks and sandstone cliffs that border the Carnarvon National Park the views can be quite spectacular. We stopped a couple of times to take photos of the cliffs and another huge Bottle tree.

We drove through Injune and they didn't even notice we had been past, it was still very early and we didn’t see why we should disturb them or their breakfast. The guidebook said there was nothing to see anyway, even though they have tourist brochures telling us all about their nothing.

The next town on the way was a place called Rolleston; we stopped here on mild sentimental grounds as it had the same name as a town as I used to live near in Christchurch in New Zealand. We had a couple of stops to take photos near Rolleston. The day was warming up and we thought it might be time to stop and have a coffee. The local takeaway/coffee shop was a corrugated iron shed that was rather chic by design when you think we’re well into the Australian "Bush". We ordered two cappuccinos, some nice cake and sat and waited, and waited. There was one guy serving, dishwashing, making sandwiches and making the coffee, oh and I forgot making conversation with whoever turned up. Oh well we are in the bush - can't rush these people.

I read the newspaper while we waited and found the most exciting thing that had happened in the district was the capture of a couple of guys with a Hi Ace van full of Chop-Chop (Rough cut illegal tobacco), and the name of the policeman that caught them was Sergeant Ash!

Eventually, we got out of Rolleston and headed northwest towards the Capricorn Highway which of course follows the Tropic of Capricorn from Rockhampton to Longreach. We stopped in on the way at the town of Springsure, they weren’t around to greet us either, but we visited anyway. On the way into the town there is a slab hut dating from around the 1860's and a very large windmill. The Slab hut had a sign on it telling us it was open; but it was closed of course. We took the required photo and moved on.

Springsure sits in a valley with a number of small mountains surrounding it. The most spectacular is Mt Zamia and Virgin Rock. We took some time at finding some good vantage points to get some photos of Mt Zamia. We crossed the highway and climbed up banks etc in order to get a good vantage point. We couldn’t work out which rock was in fact Virgin Rock, or why it was so-named, and we also weren’t sure we really wanted to know. After we were all photographed out we drove off. About 2 Kilometres past the town there was a full photo vantage point, with maps, drawings and a potted history. We didn’t bother stopping - that was for the tourists; we had taken our art and were moving on. (Of course we may have found out why Virgin Rock was so named if we had stopped there).

With towns with names like Emerald, Sapphire and Rubyvale, it is not hard to guess you are in gemstone country. The main stone that is mined in the Sapphire and Rubyvale area is the sapphire. These little villages are a collection of ramshackle dwellings alongside piles of tailings. As you drive through the roads, the air is dusty; the whole place has a yellow dust over it, and everywhere are heaps of tailings, some abandoned, some in use. There are lots of narrow little streets; billboards advertise mine tours, gem cutting, and gem buying services. There is a drive-in bottle shop perched on a hillock in the middle of lots of tailings, it’s a very rudimentary bottle shop, in fact it appears to be just a tin hut covered in beer labels, only the presence of a sandwich board displaying prices outside the door gives it away. This whole area appears so very basic. I think it may take more than a few sapphires for these people to make it big.

We thought it was about time to look for a place to put our tent up, so we pulled up at a caravan park in Rubyvale but there was nobody around. I went to the office and on the door was a sign saying "Closed today for Maintenance". Who knows how many todays that sign had been there for! Oh well we'll find somewhere else, in the meantime we decided to do the main event that this little town offered, which was to go for a walk down a sapphire mine.

We went to the "Miners Heritage" mine for our look down in the depths. The tour was great; they took us down over twenty metres into the tunnels. This area has been mined for almost a hundred years. The sapphires are not obvious however, as they are buried in the fill of old riverbeds. You have to drill into the rock and hope to find something. You can see the drill marks in the photo. They told us that they drop a shaft down in a straight line then mine to the west of it. The gems sit on the western side of the old riverbeds. The mine was self-ventilating, that is, a number of shafts reach down from ground level to crucial places. Temperature in the mine stays constant, between 22 and 25 degrees Celsius all year round, (great for the wine cellar) and given that it was probably around 45C outside at the time of our visit this was appreciated. The main passages that we were walking around were lit very well. The tunnels were about six to seven feet high and about a metre wide. There was no wooden shoring done in this mine. We were shown many old shafts that were mined back at the beginning of the 20th century and into the 1930's. These shafts were often dug by miners lying on their stomachs, with no more than a candlelight on their helmets. It must have been a terrifying experience in those days.

Today's miners use modern equipment to dig the mine, move the rubble and screed the material afterwards. A very slick operation in today's terms, but their rewards are not always guaranteed.

The mine tour over it was now time to find a place to stay for the night. We backtracked to Sapphire and went to a place that looked perfect. We drove up to the office of this very nice looking caravan park and camping grounds and went indoors. There was nobody around. I rang the bell and there was still no one around. I rang it again, we could hear a radio playing out back, there must be someone here. I walked around the back and found the radio but no people. I went to the manager's house next door which was fully open, and still there was nobody. We walked around the whole campgrounds; the only sign of life, someone snoozing outside their van, but that was about it. It was like walking into the campground equivalent of the Marie Celeste. Walking around this campground, I felt like I do sometimes when we are playing a computer adventure game and you haven’t found something in the adventure that you should have. Nothing is going to alter in the scene until you find that something that is required to trigger the next scene. We spent over thirty minutes there and still no one appeared.

We gave up looking for whatever it was we were meant to find and moved on to the next little mining town. We finally found a place to put our tent up at a little town called Anakie. This was a first rate one star campground with all the grace and charm of a rubbish tip. The showers were cold, and they had the nerve to post a notice in the shower blocks asking us to limit the time in the shower to 3 minutes because of the water shortage! I think we both ran the taps for longer than that waiting for some hot water. The campsite appeared to be below the water line, but it did have the redeeming feature of being right next to the pub. Anyway just a place to lay the head until hitting the road the next day, just hope it doesn’t rain overnight.

29th Dec 2002

Normal routine, pack up the tent and go; this time we travelled almost due west and just below the Tropic of Capricorn on Route 66. Nothing like the American one I shouldn't wonder. This is a long dry road with towns spread sparsely along the way. As we turned onto route 66 we were paced along the highway by an emu and I wondered if he was following us. After Anakie you start heading into true outback Australia and it becomes more obvious as you travel west, as bush areas become few and far between. We stopped for a few photos and crossed the Great Dividing Range again, a notice told us we were in the Lake Eyre catchment area. I found this amazing, as we were many many Kilometres from Lake Eyre in South Australia.

We travelled a further 350 kms. We stopped at Alpha hoping to buy some ice. Alpha was closed, so we headed into Jericho, it was off to the left and we were turning right, but they didn’t have any ice anyway, so we went on to Barcaldine where they did have ice. What a performance, if you can't get something in one town, it could be over an hour to the next one. It took us half the day to get our day’s ice supply.

We were about to shoot through Ilfracombe, not far from Longreach, population 160, when we noticed it had a line-up of old trucks and machinery along the side of the road, set out like a museum. There was about a kilometre of this ironmongery, right through the length of the town. We had to stop and take the tourist picture, this was a wonderful find, there were several sheds of old equipment, museums of old household stuff etc. It was great and it was all free viewing, well, a donation tin was attached to one doorway. We stayed at Ilfracombe for about an hour wandering up and down the line of trucks, bulldozers, graders, carts and steam engines. It was really interesting but the flies were thick and the heat was oppressive. We finally retreated to the car where the air conditioning cooled us down and we could get away from the constant flies in our eyes, ears nose and mouths.

It was early afternoon when we arrived in Longreach, and very hot, close to 45 degrees Celsius, putting the tent up was an experience with the heat, the sweat and the flies. While we were getting ourselves organised in the campgrounds our old friend the Emu turned up again, were we really being followed? This time he had some friends with him; a pair of Brolgas, which are large crane-like birds.

After the tent was up and established, we headed into town and found a pub for a cold beer. That was so refreshing, we went on to another pub for another cold beer, that one was good too.

We had noticed in some of these outback towns a large number of police around. Everywhere we went there were police out there minding our business for us. In Longreach there was a pair in a patrol car cruising around the town taking video footage of the streets from inside the car. We wondered what for.

30th Dec 2002

It's time for us to be tourists in Longreach.

We went to the Stockman's Hall of Fame Museum around 9am and stayed there until near 2pm. This is well worth a visit, and a full day is really needed to see it properly. It’s mainly about the opening up of outback Australia and although pays homage to the stockmen it really does a good job at expressing the courage and spirit of pioneering life in early outback Australia. I still don't think we saw it all, it was being altered too, and so one of the floors was closed. I guess it will be ready in time for the tourist season during the middle of the year.

After doing a bit of shopping we went to the QANTAS Founders Outback Museum, as Longreach is the original home of QANTAS airways. This museum is across the road from the Stockman's and is every bit as good. They have a full size 747 parked on the apron, which was not yet part of the displays but apparently will be. Being a QANTAS Platinum Frequent Flyer for nearly 10 years I found looking around this museum fascinating.

They have a full size model of the Avro, which was the first plane QANTAS owned, and a model of a DH61, which was one of the early planes of the 1920's that had a passenger cabin. It even managed to include a toilet cubicle.

We had a very full day and it was very worthwhile. There are a number of other attractions like this around Longreach but they were closed for Christmas and New Year break.

We spent a couple of hours in the campground swimming pool talking to some people from Victoria. It was very pleasant in the late hot afternoon and a good time of day to relax after a long day of being a tourist.

31st Dec 2002

The previous day had been very hot, and that night the wind had blown very hard, we had to get up in the middle of the night and rearrange the tent so we didn't get blown away.

Today we're heading to Winton - Waltzing Matilda country.

The sky looked different today, more overcast and the wind was really quite strong. I stopped at a service station to fill up with fuel before driving the 175 Kilometres to Winton. The guy pumping the gas told us there was a storm coming through and that they thought it could produce up to 10 inches of rain. The storm would not arrive until later in the afternoon or in the evening. We thought about going back to the tent to shut the windows and decided that we wouldn’t bother, as the tent got so hot, and we'll be back before the storm breaks.

As we drove west to Winton - and there’s absolutely nothing between Longreach and Winton - the clouds looked more and more menacing. It didn’t help that there were flood markers every few kilometres and we do know that storms in the outback can very quickly flood roads. And we're smack in the middle of the wet season. Anyway we kept going to Winton. We arrived in Winton around 11 O'clock and went into the Winton Waltzing Matilda Museum. This is another very well constructed exhibition that focuses around the lives of Swaggie's, (swagmen or tramps), and of course the song “Waltzing Matilda”. Winton is the town that inspired “Banjo” Patterson, the man who wrote “Waltzing Matilda”.

It also highlights another attraction of the Winton district, the Dinosaurs, or more specifically, their footprints. This is the site of the only known set of Dinosaur footprints that were made in a stampede. The Waltzing Matilda Museum also features the past history of Winton and the surrounding districts.

We did not give this museum a very good go unfortunately as, when we were walking between buildings, it became obvious that the weather was taking a turn for the worse and we knew we had left a tent window open 175 Kilometres to the East. We also didn’t fancy being separated from our belongings because of flooding. We left for Longreach just after midday and were no sooner on the road than the rains started to come. It was very heavy rain that turned the roads into rivers very quickly. We could not travel at the same rate as we had been coming in and had to slow down a great deal.

We passed a number of road trains going in the opposite direction and they proved to be potentially very dangerous. These trucks with three or four trailers pump a huge wall of water off the road, and will completely obscure your vision for the duration of their massive length. The wind from these monster trucks passing you at over 110 kilometres an hour (they don’t slow down for much), would force a vehicle even as big as our Nissan Patrol to veer wildly from the road. With this exceptionally heavy rain you couldn’t see more than a few metres anyway, and when you add the great muddy waterfall pumped by the road train and the very strong side draught they created, you have quite a dangerous situation. Alison handled this very well (as she drove the journey back to Longreach), and would slow down almost to a stop when a road train approached, to wait for it's wake of wind and water to subside before continuing at normal speed.

By the time we got to within 40 kilometres of Longreach the storm had abated and the roads had dried up. The wind was still blowing quite hard back at the tent, and there was a little water inside from the rain, so we were quite lucky, but I think we still got back in time.

We rearranged the tent, cleaned up the water, and sat and played cards for a couple of hours as the rain arrived again, and turned the ground around the tent into a reddish brown slush.

By 4pm the rain had given over, the wind had dropped and we were able to sit outside again. It was New Years Eve and there was hardly any one in the campground. We decided to sit at our tent and have our own New Years Eve. We were getting tired anyway, and as we’d opened the bottle of champagne early, we had it finished just after nine. We declared it New Year's Day somewhere, quite probably in New Zealand and promptly went to bed.

1st Jan 2003

It's pack-up time again, time to start the journey back towards home. We drove the 540 odd kilometres to Charleville, only to find it shut because it was New Years day. Charleville is a Flying Doctor base, but any exhibits displaying this characteristic were closed because it was 1st January. Nobody comes this way in the summer anyway. Between Longreach and Charleville there were more long straight roads with red dirt on either side, only to be broken by long straight roads with brown dirt on either side.

One of the results of the drought is the large amount of road kill that can be seen all the way from any town to any town. On stretches of the road between Longreach and Charleville there were flat kangaroos and wallabies every few yards. They often attracted large clouds of black crows and hawks. These birds present a danger, as do the dead kangaroos lying on the ground. At times we were dodging around them and the road marker poles that seemed to appear in the middle of the road, at 110 kms an hour. Often as you approached a line of these dead bodies, birds would rise in all directions from the carcases, and settle again as soon as you had passed. This drought may not have been good for the kangaroos but the crows and other carrion birds were definitely thriving.

We arrived in Charleville around 1.30pm and drove around until we found suitable accommodation, we had decided to stay in a motel for the last night and eat out as a bit of a change. We selected the hotel called the Cattle Camp; they had budget rooms and were putting a meal on in the evening. We noticed as we pulled up in front of our room that the Emu was strolling around again, pretending that he had lived there all along.

I thought the name of the pub was due to it having been some sort of watering hole for cattle drovers in the early pioneering days, however after having met the manager I wondered. He was in his early 30's and he was as camp as they come.

After we were sorted out in our accommodation we decided to walk around the town and take in the local atmosphere. We were the only ones on the street, another ghost town. We decided to do a pub-crawl back to our own. There were only three pubs on our route so this was not difficult.

In the first pub we had a bit of a chat with an old guy, he was originally from around where we live now in the Redcliffe and Caboolture area. This guy was just a little on the drunken side as he toddled off towards the centre of town. We finished our drinks and headed in the same direction to the next pub. Well who do you think was there, the same old guy, must have been doing the same thing as us. I asked him if he would be at the next pub and he said he would be, so we left him. We didn't see him again; he might well have known of a few pubs that we didn't.

We had spent a delightful half-day in Charleville, we had visited three pubs, watched a bit of test cricket and decided to have a perfectly ordinary meal in the Cattle Camp, our home for the night.

I realised I didn’t have enough cash to pay for dinner so I went to the bar and asked to get $50.00 cash out while buying a bottle of cheap red plonk to wash down my steak. I asked the lady behind the counter for all of this at once and completely confused her.

When I finally got my message across about the wine, she went into the bottle shop and started ferreting around among the white wines. I had to explain to her that red wines are generally found on a shelf, not in the cooler, and they are quite usually a different colour.

She still looked very confused and continued to look in the cooler, I could just hear her: “^%$#@ Tourists!” Anyway the “Camp Manager” came across and turned her round and pointed her at the red wine on the shelf directly behind her. I picked a simple bottle of Jacobs Creek, and as soon as I had done so the manager grabbed it and disappeared out the back with it.

The bar lady charged me bottle shop price, not the more expensive bar price, and gave me my extra cash and went back to pulling pots of beer for the locals. (A pot is a Queensland term for a glass of about 10 ounces. So if you drink a Gold beer, it’s sometimes rather amusing to go up and ask the barman for a pot of gold!) When I got back to the food counter, the “Camp Manager” was laying a table with wine glasses he’d whistled up from somewhere, and had opened the bottle and was trying to make the table look like it was set in the Savoy instead of in a dodgy bar in Western Queensland. Ah well, we were the special guests. We had a good night really and they were very friendly.

2nd Jan 2003

The road between Charleville and Morven had narrowed somewhat from the previous roads and the traffic was getting a little heavier, we were seeing a vehicle every couple of minutes instead of one every half hour.

We noticed our friend the emu on the roadside again as we travelled, and also a fairly large mob of goats, but not much else was alive out there. The road through here was again a graveyard for kangaroos and emus.

We did the trip from Charleville to home in around 10 hours without too much stopping as we had covered this ground already. This was the end of another great look at Australia. We both wished we had a lot more time to explore it properly, and eagerly look forward to the next trip.