Outback Queensland, the vast area west of the state’s heavily touristed coast, is a dramatic change from the state’s lush, wet tropics. The population of tenacious farming communities is concentrated in the relatively fertile highlands along the Great Dividing Range; on the far side, expansive, empty plains slide over a hot horizon into the fringes of South Australia and the Northern Territory. The only places attracting travellers in any numbers are Longreach and the Central Highlands oasis of Carnarvon Gorge. But opportunities for exploration are immense, with precious stones, fossils, waterholes and Aboriginal art in abundance. The region has also produced two of Australia’s best-known icons: Qantas and Waltzing Matilda, first performed by Banjo Paterson in Winton.
Summers frequently hamper or prohibit travel in Outback Queensland, as searing temperatures and violent flash floods regularly isolate areas (especially in the Channel Country on the far side of the Great Dividing Range) for days or weeks on end. Even settlements on higher ground see little mercy from the rage of tropical storms; heavy rain in January 2011 lashed southeast Queensland, the floodwaters sweeping destructively through the city of Toowoomba and down into the Lockyer Valley on its way to Brisbane, resulting in devastation of property and a significant loss of life.
As a result of these tropical deluges, many tour companies, visitor centres and motels close completely between November and March, or at least during January and February. But it’s not all bad news – this water (scarce at other times of the year) revives dormant seeds and fast-growing desert flowers. During winter, expect hot days and cool, star-filled nights.
The thousand-plus-kilometre haul from the coast to Queensland’s remote southwestern corner dumps you tired and dusty on the South Australian border, with some exciting routes down the Birdsville and Strzelecki tracks or through the hostile red barrier of the Simpson Desert beyond. There are two ultimate targets: the outpost of Birdsville, with its annual horseraces, and the Dig Tree at Nappa Merrie on Cooper Creek, monument to the Burke and Wills tragedy. After crossing the fertile disc of the Darling Downs, the country withers and dries, marooning communities in isolation and hardship. Detour north through Queensland’s Central Highlands however, and you’ll find forested gorges and the Aboriginal sites at Carnarvon National Park – worth the journey alone.
North of Roma and Mitchell, Queensland’s Central Highlands consist of a broad band of weathered sandstone plateaus, thickly wooded and spectacularly sculpted into sheer cliffs and pinnacles. It’s an extraordinarily primeval landscape, and one still visibly central to Aboriginal culture, as poor pasture left the highlands relatively unscathed by European colonization. Covering a huge slice of the region, the fragmented sections of Carnarvon National Park include Carnarvon Gorge and Mount Moffatt: Carnarvon Gorge has the highest concentration of Aboriginal art and arguably the best scenery, while Mount Moffatt is harder to reach but wilder – you can’t drive directly between the two sections, though it’s possible to hike with the rangers’ consent.
Carnarvon Creek’s journey between the vertical faces of the gorge has created some magical scenery, where low cloud often blends with the cliffs, making them appear infinitely tall. Before setting off between them, scale Boolimba Bluff from the Takarakka campsite for a rare chance to see the gorge system from above; the views from the “Roof of Queensland” make the tiring 3km track worth the effort.
The superb day-walk (19km return from the ranger station) into the gorge features several intriguing side-gorges. The best of these contain the Moss Garden (3.5km), a vibrant green carpet of liverworts and ferns lapping up a spring as it seeps through the rockface, and Alijon Falls (5km), which conceal the enchanting Wards Canyon, where a remnant group of angiopteris ferns hangs close to extinction in front of a second waterfall and gorge, complete with bats and blood-red river stones.
Carnarvon’s two major Aboriginal art sites are the Art Gallery (5.4km) and Cathedral Cave (at the end of the trail, 9.3km from the Takarakka campsite), both on the gorge track, though if you keep your eyes open you’ll spot plenty more. These are Queensland’s most documented Aboriginal art sites, though the paintings themselves remain enigmatic. A rockface covered with engravings of vulvas lends a pornographic air to the Art Gallery, and other symbols include kangaroo, emu and human tracks. A long, wavy line here might represent the rainbow serpent, shaper of many Aboriginal landscapes. Overlaying the engravings are hundreds of coloured stencils, made by placing an object against the wall and spraying it with a mixture of ochre and water held in the mouth.
In addition to adults’ and children’s hands there are also artefacts, boomerangs and complex crosses formed by four arms, while goannas and mysterious net patterns at the near end of the wall have been painted with a stick. Cathedral Cave is larger, with an even greater range of designs, including seashell pendant stencils – proof that trade networks reached from here to the sea – and engravings of animal tracks and emu eggs.
Mount Moffatt is part of an open landscape of ridges and lightly wooded grassland, at the top of a plateau to the west of Carnarvon Gorge. It was here that the Kenniff Brothers murdered a policeman and station manager in 1902, events that were to lead to their being run to ground by a group of vigilantes. Years later in 1960, archeological excavations at their hideout, Kenniff Cave (closed due to instability), were the first to establish that Aboriginal occupation of Australia predated the last Ice Age.
Mount Moffatt’s attractions spread out over an extensive area. At the park’s southern entrance, the Chimneys area has some interesting sandstone pinnacles and alcoves that once housed bark burial-cylinders. Around 6km on, the road forks and the right track continues 10km to the ranger station. The left track runs 6km past Dargonelly campsite to Marlong Arch, a sandstone formation decorated with handprints and engravings. Five kilometres northeast from here, a trail leads to Kookaburra Cave, named after a weathered, bird-shaped hand stencil. A further 5km beyond the cave is Marlong Plain, a pretty expanse of blue grass surrounded by peaks, and another sandstone tower known as Lot’s Wife. Ten kilometres north of Marlong Plain, a lesser track leads to several sites associated with the Kenniff legend, including the murder scene, and the rock where they are believed to have burned the evidence. Finally, for pure scenery, head 15km due east of Marlong Plain to the Mahogany Forest, a stand of giant stringy-bark trees.
Curved throwing sticks were once found throughout the world. Several were discovered in Tutankhamun’s tomb, Hopi Native Americans once used them, and a 23,000-year-old example made from mammoth ivory was recently found in Poland. Since that time the invention of the bow and arrow superseded what Aborigines call a boomerang or karli, but their innovation of a stick that returns has kept the boomerang alive, not least in people’s imaginations – they were originally used as children’s toys but were then modified into decoys for hunting wildfowl. The non-returning types depicted in Carnarvon Gorge show how sophisticated they became as hunting weapons.
Usually made from tough acacia wood, some are hooked like a pick, while others are designed to cartwheel along the ground to break the legs of game. Thus immobilized, one animal would be killed while another could be easily tracked to meet the same fate. Besides hunting, the boomerang was also used for digging, levering or cutting, as well as for musical or ceremonial accompaniment, when pairs would be banged together. At Carnarvon Gorge, the long, gently curved boomerangs stencilled on the walls in pairs are not repetitions but portraits of two weapons with identical flight paths; if the first missed through a gust of wind, for instance, the user could immediately throw the second, correcting his aim for the conditions.
In 1860 the government of Victoria, then Australia’s richest state, decided to sponsor a lavish expedition to make the first south-to-north crossing of the continent to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Eighteen men, twenty camels (shipped, along with their handlers, from Asia) and over twenty tonnes of provisions started out from Melbourne in August, led by Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. It didn’t take long for the leaders’ personalities to cause problems, and by December, Burke had impatiently left the bulk of the expedition and supplies lagging behind and raced ahead with a handful of men to establish a base camp on Cooper Creek. Having built a stockade, Burke and Wills started north, along with two other members of their team (Gray and King), six camels, a couple of horses and food for three months. Four men remained at camp, led by William Brahe, waiting for the rest of the expedition to catch up. In fact, most of the supplies and camels were dithering halfway between Melbourne and Cooper Creek, unsure of what to do next.
As Burke and Wills failed to keep a regular diary, few details of the “rush to the Gulf” are known. They were seen by Kalkadoon Aborigines following the Corella River into the Gulf, where they found that vast salt marshes lay between them and the sea. Disappointed, they left the banks of the Bynoe (near present-day Normanton) on February 11, 1861, and headed back south. Their progress slowed by the wet season, they killed and ate the camels and horses as their food ran out. Gray died after being beaten by Burke for stealing flour; remorse was heightened when they staggered into the Cooper Creek stockade on April 21 to find that, having already waited an extra month for them to return, Brahe had decamped that morning. Too weak to follow him, they found supplies buried under a tree marked “Dig”, but failed to change the sign when they moved on, which meant that when the first rescue teams arrived on the scene, they assumed the explorers had never returned from the Gulf. Trying to walk south, the three reached the Innamincka area, where Aborigines fed them fish and nardoo (water fern) seeds, but by the time a rescue party tracked them down in September, only King was still alive. The full, sad tale of their trek is expertly told by Alan Moorehead in his classic account Cooper’s Creek, which is well worth tracking down.
The great savannahs of the Gulf of Carpentaria – described by the Dutch explorer Jan Carstensz as being full of hostile tribes – were ignored for centuries after his 1623 visit, except by Indonesians gathering sea slugs to sell to the Chinese. Interest in its potential, however, was stirred in 1841 by John Lort Stokes, a lieutenant on the Beagle (which had been graced by a young Charles Darwin on an earlier voyage), who absurdly described the coast as “Plains of Promise”.
It took Burke and Wills’ awful 1861 trek to discover that the land here was deficient in nutrients and that the black soil became a quagmire during the wet season. Too awkward to develop, the Gulf hung in limbo as settlements sprang up, staggered on for a while, then disappeared – even today few places could be described as thriving communities. Not that this should put you off visiting – with few real destinations but plenty to see, the Gulf is perfect for those who just like to travel. On the way, and only half a day’s drive from Cairns, the awesome lava tubes at Undara shouldn’t be missed, while further afield there are gemstones to be fossicked, the coast’s birdlife and exciting barramundi fishing to enjoy, and the Gulf’s extraordinary sunsets and sheer remoteness to savour.
Reached from Normanton along a 70km sealed stretch of cracked, burning saltpan, patrolled by saurus cranes and jabiru storks, KARUMBA sits near the mouth of the Norman River. The town mostly survives on prawn trawling and fishing, though a major landmark is the huge sheds storing slurry from the zinc mine near Lawn Hill Gorge; the slurry is fed through pipes to Karumba, then dried and shipped overseas for refining. Declining stocks of barramundi in the Gulf have inspired the opening of the Barramundi Discovery Centre (Yappar St), which raises fish for release into the wild. During a one-hour tour, you have the chance to hand-feed the fish and learn about their regeneration.
Central Karumba is along Yappar Street on the Norman River’s south bank, with a supermarket, café, post office, and a smattering of places to stay. Karumba Point, 10km downstream, overlooks mudflats and mangroves along the river mouth where it meets the Gulf’s open seas. It’s the nicer of the two areas and has more places to stay.
The Undara Lava Tubes are astounding, massive subterranean tunnels running in broken chambers for up to 160km beneath the scrub – most weren’t even uncovered until the 1980s, although tool sites around the cave mouths show that local Aboriginal groups knew of their existence. The tubes were created 190,000 years ago after lava flowing from the now-extinct Undara volcano followed rivers and gullies as it snaked northwest towards the Gulf. Away from the cone, the surface of these lava rivers hardened, forming insulating tubes that kept the lava inside in a liquid state and allowed it to run until the tubes were drained. Today, thick vegetation and soil have completely covered the tubes, and they’d still be hidden if some of their ceilings hadn’t collapsed, creating a way in. These entrance caves are decked in rubble and remnant pockets of thick prehistoric vegetation quite out of place among the dry scrub on the surface.
Once inside, the scale of the 52 tubes is overpowering. Up to 19m high, their glazed walls bear evidence of the terrible forces that created them – coil patterns and ledges formed by cooling lava, whirlpools where lava forged its way through rock from other flows, and “stalactites” made when solidifying lava dribbled from the ceiling. Some end in lakes, while others are blocked by lava plugs. Animal tracks in the dust indicate the regular passage of kangaroos, snakes and invertebrates, but the overall scale of the tubes tends to deaden any sounds or signs of life. Four species of microbat use some of the tubes as a maternity chamber, emerging at night en masse to feed – up to 150,000 at a time. Lying in wait (though harmless to humans) are brown tree snakes, commonly known as night tigers, which dangle from the treetops.
Heading west from Rockhampton, the Capricorn and Landsborough highways traverse the heart of central Queensland to Winton and ultimately Mount Isa. There’s a lot to see here – just a couple of hours from the coast you’ll find magical scenery atop the forested, sandstone plateau of the Blackdown Tablelands, while the town of Emerald offers seasonal farmwork, and is a gateway to the Gemfields’ sapphire mines. Continuing inland, both Barcaldine and Longreach are historically significant towns, while further west, Winton sits surrounded by a timeless, harsh orange landscape, with access to remote bush imprinted with dinosaur footprints at Lark Quarry.
West of Winton it’s 366 sealed kilometres to BOULIA along one of the most beautiful and surprisingly varied stretches of scenery in Queensland’s Outback, alternating between endless plains, lush creeks and blood-red hills. Boulia is best known for its enigmatic Min Min Light, an eerie, unexplained car-headlamp-like light reputedly seen in the bush at night. If you miss the real thing (locals maintain “you don’t go looking for it, it comes looking for you”), drop into the Min Min Encounter Centre (07 4746 3386), a 45-minute sound-and-light show where you’re directed through a series of rooms to meet automated characters depicting real-life locals, describing their close personal encounters with the lights.
Gems were first discovered in 1870 near Anakie, but until Thai buyers came onto the scene a century later operations were low-key; even today there are still solo fossickers making a living from their claims. Formed by prehistoric volcanic actions and later dispersed along waterways and covered by sediment, the zircons, rubies and especially sapphires found here lie in a layer of gravel above the clay base of ancient river beds. This layer can be up to 15m down, so gullies and dry rivers, where nature has already done some of the excavation for you, are good places to start digging.
Looking for surface gems, or specking, is best after rain, when a trained eye can see the stones sparkle in the mud. It’s erratic but certainly easier than the alternative – fossicking – which requires a pick, shovel, sieve, washtub full of water and a canvas sack before even starting (this gear can be rented at all of the fields). Cut and polished, local zircons are pale yellow, sapphires pale green or yellow to deep blue, and rubies are light pink, but when they’re covered in mud it’s hard to tell them from gravel, which is where the washing comes in: the wet gems glitter like fragments of coloured glass.
You have to be extremely enthusiastic to spend a summer on the fields, as the mercury soars, topsoil erodes and everything becomes coated in dust. The first rains bring floods as the sunbaked ground sheds water, and if you’re here at this time you’ll be treated to the sight of locals specking in the rain, dressed in Akubra hats and long Drizabone raincoats and shuffling around like mobile mushrooms. Conditions are best (and hence the fields busiest) as soon after the wet season as possible (around May), when the ground is soft and fresh pickings have been uncovered.
If this all seems like too much hard work, try a gem park such as Pat’s Gem Tourist Fossicking Park (t 07 4985 4544), just outside Sapphire, where they’ve done the digging for you and supply a bucket of wash along with all the necessary gear (around $10–15). All you have to do is sieve the wash, flip it onto the canvas and check it for stones. There’s an art to sieving and flipping, but visitors frequently find stones. Alternatively, Pat’s sells bags for $15 that include among the wash a sapphire ready for faceting (cutting). Gem parks can also value and cut stones for you. Another break from the business end of a pick is to take a mine tour and see if the professionals fare any better. In some ways they do – the chilled air 5m down is wonderful – but the main difference is one of scale rather than method or intent.
If you’re still keen you’ll need a fossicker’s licence, available from shops and gem parks, which allows digging in areas set aside for the purpose or on no-man’s-land. The $7.05 licence is valid for one month and gives you the right only to keep what you find and to camp at fossicking grounds. To “stake a claim” – which gives you temporary ownership of the land to keep others away – you need a Miner’s Right from the field officer in Emerald. This also carries obligations to restore the land to its original state and maintain it for two years after quitting the site.
Unlike many other western towns, LONGREACH, 110km west of Barcaldine and right on the Tropic of Capricorn, is more than surviving. The lynchpin for this is the ambitious Stockman’s Hall of Fame museum, but the town was also one of the first to realize the potential of tapping Queensland’s artesian water reserves for stock farming, and was the original headquarters of Qantas. Longreach’s main drag is south off the highway along Eagle Street, where you’ll find hotels, cafés, banks, a cinema screening first-release films and a supermarket.
Though Qantas (the Queensland and Northern Territories Aerial Service) officially formed at Winton, the first joy-flights and taxi service actually flew from Longreach in 1921, pioneered by Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness. Their idea – that an airline could play an important role by carrying mail and passengers, dropping supplies to remote districts and providing an emergency link into the Outback – inspired other projects such as the Flying Doctor Service. Though the company’s headquarters moved to Brisbane in 1930, Qantas maintained its offices at Longreach until after World War II – during the war US Flying Fortresses were stationed here – by which time both the company and its planes had outgrown the town.
A 180km-long run northwest from Longreach across the barren Mitchell Plains, WINTON is a real frontier town where dust devils blow tumbleweeds down the streets – a fitting backdrop for the 1800s-set film The Proposition (2004), written by Nick Cave. As Queensland’s largest cattle-trucking depot, Winton has a constant stream of road trains rumbling through, and a fair swag of history: Waltzing Matilda premiered at the North Gregory Hotel, and Qantas was founded here in 1920. The surrounding country is an eerie world of windswept plains and eroded jump-ups (flat-topped hills layered in orange, grey and red dust), opal deposits and dinosaur footprints.
Winton’s central drag is Elderslie Street, where you’ll find banks, a post office and petrol stations. From April to September, if there’s a film on, treat yourself to a session in the open-air cinema, complete with canvas seats and original projector, at the corner of Elderslie and Cobb streets behind the Wookatook store.
The first public performance of “Banjo” Paterson’s ballad Waltzing Matilda was held in April 1895 at Winton’s North Gregory Hotel, and has stirred up gossip and speculation ever since. Legend has it that Christina MacPherson told Paterson the tale of a swagman’s brush with the law at the Combo Waterhole, near Kynuna, while the poet was staying with her family at nearby Dagwood Station. Christina wrote the music to the ballad, a collaboration which so incensed Paterson’s fiancée, Sarah Riley, that she broke off their engagement. (Neither woman ever married.)
While a straightforward “translation” of the poem is easy enough – “Waltzing Matilda” was contemporary slang for tramping (carrying a bedroll or swag from place to place), “jumbuck” for a sheep, and “squatters” refers to landowners – there is some contention as to what the poem actually describes. The most obvious interpretation is of a poor tramp, hounded to death by the law, but first drafts of the poem suggest that Paterson – generally known as a romantic rather than a social commentator – originally wrote the piece about the arrest of a union leader during the shearers’ strike.
Either version would account for its popularity – it was one of four songs Australians voted for to become the national anthem in 1977, coming in second, and Aussies readily identify with an underdog who dares to confront the system.
All the major settlements along the 1000km stretch between Townsville and the Northern Territory border are mining towns, spaced so far apart that precise names are redundant: Mount Isa becomes “the Isa”, Cloncurry “the Curry”, and Charters Towers “the Towers”. It’s a shame that most people see this vast area as something to be crossed as quickly as possible – even if time is limited, Charters Towers’ century-old feel and Mount Isa’s strange setting are worth a stopover. With the freedom of your own vehicle you can explore the scenic Porcupine Gorge National Park, which is a great place to swim, and the spectacular oasis of Lawn Hill Gorge.
The Xstrata Mines complex is a land of trundling yellow mine-trucks, mountains of slag, intense activity and kilometres of noisy vibrating pipelines. Copper, silver, lead and zinc deposits are mined almost 2km down by a workforce of 1200; the rock is roughly crushed and hoisted to the surface before undergoing a second crushing, grinding and washing in flotation tanks, to separate ore from waste. Zinc is sold as it is, copper is smelted into ingots and transported to Townsville for refining, while four-tonne ingots of lead and silver mix are sent to England to be separated. Power for the mines comes from Xstrata’s own plant, with any surplus sold to the state grid.