There is nothing like a road trip to awaken you to life
YOU forget how cold it can be in the Australian outback in June. You also forget how vast the distances can be.
Having worked in the Northern Territory half a lifetime ago, the memories were so good I hadn’t wanted to break the romance.
Yet I realised it was time to go back to the Top End and Central Australia. The death of a brother shook me out this feeling of not wanting to confront the changes, of wanting to keep those good times safely locked away.
Wake up! Don’t rely on what was then. Remember why you went on this trek in the first place.
Life waits for no-one.
At the same time, I wanted to fill in the dots on the map through Western Queensland. Places I had heard and read about but that was all.
A road trip from the Sunshine Coast to Mt Isa, maybe Camooweal … what could go wrong with that?
So I threw some clothes and a sleeping bag into the car, iPhone, iPad and camera … and lots of music to play.
No roadmap because there aren’t that many roads out west, are there? And Google maps would tell me all I needed to know.
Wrong. The roads are better in 2015 – much better than I expected. What surprises you – shocks you – is the lack of mobile phone coverage and internet connections.
About 50km west of Gympie, you realise that just because there is almost complete mobile coverage along the highways of Australia’s east coast, doesn’t mean that is what the rest of the country gets.
It shows just how much of a divide there is between city and the bush – that life in rural Australia can be very marginal.
I remember my old boss in the Northern Territory used to take his survival rations when he was going on a long road trip …. a bottle of Drambui and six fat cigars. He figured they would last him till the first vehicle came along.
In those days, the first traveller would always stop and help.
These days a satellite phone is handy if you are going off the beaten track. Otherwise text someone when you are leaving a town and give them an idea of when you will be at the next place that is within mobile phone coverage.
That’s the outback … out back of beyond.
There is the beauty of golden sunrises and flaming red sunsets of the outback but the reality is country people face great hardship and not just at times of flood, fire and drought.
These thoughts play on my mind while driving in the western shadow of the Great Dividing Range to Gayndah and Eidsvold, through the fertile farming country of Monto and Biloela and into the resource-rich plains of Blackwater and Emerald.
I wanted to see first hand the impact mining is making on farmland, the extent of the drought further west That in some areas was now into its 10th year, and get a closer look at the faces and places that contributed so much to the nation’s rich history and heritage.
As night falls I pull up next to a group of grey nomads parked near the railway line at Emerald – there must be 20 or so campervans, caravans and converted buses parked at different angles.
So I get some take-away roast vegetables from the service station and find a quiet place to pull off the road. Put the seat back. Grab the blanket from the back seat.
It’s good to be heading off – new places, new people.
Emerald is where you see the two cultures meet – mining and grazing. Fly-in, fly-out cabins as well as motels and caravan parks.
Livestock road trains are parked alongside those carrying minerals. Sleep comes easily.
An early start next day and driving through Jericho just as the sky starts to get that touch of pink, blue and grey of dawn.
I am in Barcaldine, just as the town is waking up. It’s a different place, a different space. Sheep country. Hardly any breeze.
The golden glow of early morning.
To stand beneath the memorial to the Tree of Knowledge was one of those moments that will forever stick in the memory.
In 1891 groups of shearers striking for better conditions would confront non-union labour arriving by rail at a gum tree near the station. A year later a manifesto was read out at the foot of the tree which became a foundation document of the Australian Labor Party.
A hundred years later the tree was found to be suffering from dieback so several cuttings were propagated.
There was a process of wood preservation and the remains – seven metres tall and two metres across – has been erected on the site beneath a huge wooden sculpture to reflect its canopy. The series of timber chimes are moved by the breeze and, at the same time, move your soul.
Inspiring by dawn’s early light, it becomes a work of art when illuminated at night.
How refreshing it was to bask in the warming sunlight on a timber seat on the railway station platform, to close your eyes and let the sun warm your eyelids and think back on those days.
Walk around this country town … the smell of fresh bread and brewed coffee at the bakery, the Radio Theatre that dates back to 1920s and the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, a tribute to working people throughout this nation of ours.
There is such contrast in the Australian bush, not just the brilliant colours at sunrise or sunset.
Then there are the country pubs where the meals can be as big as the hospitality.
In life it really can be the little things that stand out.
There is only one tap at the basin in the public toilets at Barcaldine … and it’s warm water, straight from the Great Artesian Basin.
You just hope people remember that all riches found in the ground are not minerals – that water is the lifeblood of the nation.
It’s at Barcaldine you also notice how bad drought can really be.
Cattle and sheep farmers cut their herds and flocks, keeping the best breeding stock, and looking to better prices to tide them over until rains come.
There are huge numbers of dead kangaroos by the roadside, attracted by the green shoots of grass on the shoulders of the highway.
Longreach comes as a surprise out here in these vast plains. It’s a major rural centre, home of Qantas which is celebrated with a museum that traces the airline’s history back to the original 1921 hangar.
The museum also houses a DH-61 Giant Moth biplane and an open-cockpit Avro 504K, one of the first two aircraft owned by the airline, then known as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd.
The DC-3 Airliner, probably the most recognised plane through history, sits in the shadow of a Boeing 747 and the charismatic Boeing 707 that formed the company’s first fleet of jet aircraft.
Longreach is also home to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, that tells the story of the outback. A memorial to the pioneers of the outback, from first inhabitants to those who opened the inland up and have helped make the country what it is today.
Crossing the huge flood plains from the Thomson and Darr rivers, you really start to appreciate the vast distances and sparse landscape. Yet at the same time it’s always changing.
You become aware of the most subtle shift in rocks, soil and vegetation.
At Winton there is another discovery, the Age of Dinosaurs Museum. News of another significant find has been on ABC Radio news for a day-and-a-half so I follow the novel signposts that show it is 12km off the highway.
Talk about a vision splendid – the 1800ha site is a wilderness area on a mesa donated by the owner of the surrounding property.
The museum and laboratory have been created to store and display Australia’s significant new dinosaur fossils. Quite simply, I was not prepared for the size of the collection or the extent of the dinosaur finds throughout western Queensland.
Understanding dinosaurs tells us how our world works, the climate, the environment. To know where we are going, we need to understand where we came from.
The bones and fossils found in the region show that, 110 million years ago, there was an inland sea, temperate forests and wetlands. And part of the display is a 95-million-year-old petrified branch from a conifer forest.
Meanwhile, 110km south-west of Winton is the Lark Quarry Conservation Park, where more than 3300 dinosaur footprints mark the site of the only known dinosaur stampede on Earth.
There’s a whole triangle of dinosaur sites stretching to Richmond and Hughenden.
Further north is another significant site at Lawn Hill/Boodjamulla National Park, about 200km from the Barkly Highway along mainly gravel roads.
Stopping in the town of Winton, it’s nice to get great croissants and coffee at the bakery, served by a girl from Grenoble in the French Alps.
I look outside. Not many mountains around here. We both laugh.
It’s part of the vagaries of the Australian bush, such as a line of rusting old Holden car bodies in a front yard and a sign – Dun Travelin.
At the Waltzing Matilda Centre I take notes and say I will be back in two weeks for a better look at the history of the region. An area that you could say holds the soul of Australia.
Two days later, I hear on radio that the centre has burned down.
Passing through Kynuna and McKinlay, you become aware of the level of rural activity in these parts during the early days of Australia.
The hard lives the early settlers were faced with, the mile upon mile people travelled looking for work.
Combo Waterhole is regarded as the inspiration for Waltzing Matilda, that and the part Dagworth Station played in the events that formed the basis of the song that is one of Australia’s many anthems. Then there is the Walkabout Creek Hotel at McKinlay, where Crocodile Dundee’s pub scenes were filmed.
Cloncurry, the end of the railway line, where road trains take livestock to the saleyards and ports. And minerals north and south.
Just why in this day and age have we not joined these rail links with others to create a dynamic network crossing the continent – from Bowen to Broome as well as Adelaide to Darwin?
Pull into the service station for coffee and sandwiches to take away. Two young police officers are doing the same thing … she would be about 24 years old and he must be little more than 21.
They are so fresh faced and engaging. And their beat? Cloncurry is half-way between Brisbane and Darwin … just on 1700 kilometres by road in each direction.
Driving out of town into the setting sun. Mt Isa is a little more than an hour away. Camooweal a further 190km.
Driving in to “The Isa” by night is like you have just landed on another planet with all the lights and chimneys of the mines rising dramatically out of the plains.
It’s 1600km to Darwin. It was my cousin Jacko’s tales of the Top End that inspired me to go there all those years ago.
Fishing for barramundi on the East Alligator River, Saturday afternoons at the Fannie Bay Hotel looking over Darwin Harbour, and such a heady mix of cultures built up over centuries.
But tonight I pull up at Camooweal.
Tomorrow I will duck across the border and see how much the Top End has changed since the 1970s.
Join me for Part II…