Where the rivers run backwards
“IT’S expected to be a top of 37 degrees today … and the bush flies were up early.’’
That was the good morning greeting on the radio station in Longreach, the heart of Western Queensland.
It’s May, near the start of winter so you can expect the weather to be clear and fine.
There is also a message on the breakfast show to be on the look-out for a lost cat. Last seen near Magpie Lane.
It feels like a dream. After a 24-hour train journey from Brisbane to wake up in this wonderful bed.
It’s only the radio that snaps me back to reality.
The 1300km train journey took us through ever-changing country … from the city skyline along the east coast of Queensland to Rockhampton, then inland through the mining, farming and grazing areas of Emerald, Barcaldine and Jericho.
As evening fell the Spirit of the Outback glided into Longreach railway station. And if departures don’t hold their own sense of being as goodbyes are spoken, then arrivals are just as emotional.
There to greet us is a four-piece band. I imagine it would have been the same 100 years ago when the station was opened and the first train pulled in at the platform.
There are the sights and sounds of activity everywhere. Yet soon we are transferred by coach one to two kilometres through the darkening streets of the town.
During dinner at the Albert Park Motor Inn, Longreach mayor Ed Warren tells me they regard this town of about 3000 as the heart of the outback.
A place known for starry nights and big skies, where there is a lot of history and tradition.
It is the natural appeal of the region that makes it different. The attractions are genuine, not contrived.
The Stockmans Hall of Fame celebrates the pioneers of inland Australia while the Qantas Founders Museum recognises the beginnings of what was to go on and become one of the world’s greatest airlines.
Then there are the sunsets, they are really magnificent. And the people that are the body and soul of the landscape.
So much has been written about the outback. Few could fail to be inspired by Banjo Paterson in his epic poem Clancy of the Overflow.
And here we were, smack in the middle of his stories. The overflow is that area where the Thomson River meets the Barcoo River and becomes Coopers Creek.
It’s probably the only place in the world where two rivers run into a creek. That in turn empties in Lake Eyre, some 900km away in the centre of Australia.
Again, that is pretty unique to have a river system that runs inland and is not connected to the sea in any way.
By taking a sunset cruise on the Thomson River I learn more about the inland rivers.
The coolabah trees that line the river banks can live 500-600 years. Black kites and whistling kites nest in the branches. But be on the look-out for rainbow bee catchers and pigeons as well as short-necked turtles and the fresh-water delicacy of the area … red-claw crayfish
Longreach is 165m above sea level and it takes nine months for the river water to reach Lake Eyre. Naturally there is a lot of evaporation as the waters make their way through some of the driest areas in Australia.
The Cooper Creek in flood can be 70km wide, where we get the name “the overflow”.
When Lake Eyre does fill with water two thirds of it comes from this river system … another third from the Diamantina and Georgina system that flows down from the Mt Isa area, further north in Queensland towards the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Lake Eyre has filled six times since white man came to Australia more than 200 years ago – three times in recent years.
“I’ve been here 50 years and just love this place,’’ Ed Warren tells me. “We chip in together.
“It’s one of the best communities. That’s what comes from living in the one area. We depend on each other.
“Then again, you don’t know what the day will bring.
“There is so much to like about the region. The little country towns, such as Yaraka with a population of 18 people.
“I would encourage everyone to go there,’’ Ed says. “We even had the current prime minister Malcolm Turnbull there last year.’’
Ilfracombe, Barcaldine and Isisford are other places to visit.
Isis Downs shearing shed used to have 57 stands of shearers. It used 240-volt electricity to run the shearing machines before Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne, switched on to it as a power source.
“We hope visitors like Longreach as much as we do,’’ Ed continues. “Tourism is important to us.’’
After dinner we walk another few hundred metres into the night. There is a stillness and a quietness all around. The cockatoos and galahs have tucked their heads under their wings for the night so there are few sounds.
The occasional truck or car on the highway, the headlights spearing into the distance.
Tonight, we will be sleeping in the slab huts and the stables.
Well, I had heard about country hospitality but isn’t that stretching things a bit far, bunking down at a sheep station?
As it turns out, thoughts of bedding down in the straw of a barn couldn’t be further from the truth.
Kinnon & Co’s Outback Accommodation consists of four-star and four-and-a-half star pioneer slab huts and stables built with the area’s heritage in mind but considering the modern needs of travellers.
There is also three-and-a-half star Outback Lodges and all are self-catering.
The stables feature polished concrete floors, stable door looks, old timber gate bedheads, lamps styled like old hurricane lamps, horseshoes for coat hooks, copper wash basins copper fittings in the shower.
The slab huts have polished timber floors and wrought iron beds. All are air-conditioned and have dining area as part of the kitchen.
They sleep three by way of a queen bed and single bed – plus an extra person in the “loft’’ bed.
Then it’s time to wander across the yard, past old farm machinery to a timber deck.
After such an interesting train journey and your head spinning from so many new experiences, who could resist a long soak in a claw-foot bath tub under the stars.
The water is warm, coming from one tap as it is drawn from the Great Artesian Basin.
Then there are the recuperative powers of the minerals contained in this massive underground water source that is millions of years old.
Lie back, look up. As Banjo Paterson wrote in Clancy of the Overflow: “And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.’’
The writer was a guest of Queensland Rail and Outback Queensland Tourism