We left Cairns over the Great Dividing Range and across the southern Atherton Tablelands. Our lunch stop was at Ravenshoe; Queensland’s highest town, and also self proclaimed beard capital of Australia. We wondered what Glen Innes, NSW thought about that as they are in the centre of the Land of the Beardies as you can find out if you read about our visit in ‘The original hipster towns’.
Our destination was Undara Volcanic National Park where we were booked for a tour of the lava tubes. These were created from a volcano which erupted 90,000 years ago. As the lava flows downhill, the top of the flow exposed to the air and the bottom on the ground form a crust. The lava continues to flow through the middle and with the right geographic landscape will leave the tube behind when the eruption ceases and the lava has stopped flowing. The tubes at Undara are some of the most complete in the world and they really were fascinating to walk through. Before it was gazetted as a National Park, the tubes were on land owned by the The Collins family who still run the Undara Experience Resort on the edge of the park and manage the tours to see the tubes. In the late 80s, Gerry Collins purchased some old Queensland Rail carriages to refurbish them as the first accommodation for the resort. We’re not quite sure how he saw the link between volcanoes and trains but we enjoyed staying in one for a night. The resort also had a great bistro serving Aussie classics including Jane’s favourite, proper corned beef.
From Undara we drove south nearly 400 km, around half of it on dirt roads for one night camping in Hughenden before continuing southwest to Winton. We were keen to visit Winton as it is the birthplace of Waltzing Matilda but we discovered when we got there that it is also famous for the evidence of dinosaurs discovered in the surrounding countryside. After setting up camp we had a walk through the town centre and immediately decided that we liked Winton. The heritage buildings and sculptures in the centre make it a very attractive town. One of those buildings, The North Gregory Hotel was where Banjo Patterson first presented Waltzing Matilda, the unofficial Australian national anthem. The song is celebrated in a newly opened museum, The Waltzing Matilda Centre, which replaced the previous centre that had been destroyed in a fire in 2015. We decided to visit the next morning after a night of country music and Aussie BBQ at the Winton Hotel.
Before entering the Waltzing Matilda Centre we spent a bit of time at the Tourist Information counter in the foyer. Here we discovered, to our surprise that just 100km south was the only evidence on the planet of a dinosaur stampede – think Jurassic Park – we couldn’t miss this. Even better, you could combine a visit with a night at a bush camp in the middle of Opal mines at Opalton. We’d intended to travel on to Longreach immediately after Winton but rapidly changed our minds about our next stop.
The Waltzing Matilda Centre was nothing short of spectacular. You’re given an audio device when you go in and this interacts with the displays to automatically provide commentary and stories that bring the exhibits to life. It was very well done – a great use of technology rather than tech for tech’s sake. We learnt a lot about the song, how it’s an allegory for the shearer’s battles with their employers, the squatters, to get a living wage. This was cleverly interweaved with the history of the region; geology, industry and the local aboriginal people, The Koa. One aspect of Winton we hadn’t realised was the extent to which the film industry had used the town as a backdrop for films set in the Outback. We left determined to seek out some of the movies featured in the museum including The Proposition, written by Nick Cave. We spent a full morning in the centre and consider it to be one of the best museums we’ve visited.
Tyre valve core inserter tool – who knew
Having decided on our diversion which would take us around 250 km on dirt roads we prepared to leave Winton by pulling into a car park and releasing some of the air in our tyres. We were determined not to have a puncture after our experience on the Mereenie Loop in the Northern Territory which you can read about here. Unfortunately, our tyre deflator actually unscrewed the core from the tyre valve on one of our wheels meaning that we were very rapidly facing a flat tyre of our own making. Jane valiantly attempted an impression of the boy with his finger in the dyke but she was fighting a losing battle – our front passenger wheel was soon devoid of air. A call to a recovery service seemed our only option until a fellow traveller kindly stopped to see if the hapless poms needed any help. We didn’t even know that a ‘tyre valve core inserter tool’ existed, but he had one and helped us reassemble the valve. We could then use our air compressor to reinflate and we were on our way again. Before we left Winton, however, we stopped by a tyre garage and emerged $4 poorer but with a tyre valve core inserter of our very own. We wouldn’t be caught out like that again.
The 100km dirt road drive to Opalton was uneventful and we stopped with 10km to go to pick up firewood from the side of the road. As we arrived the series of shacks where miners had staked their claims did feel a bit eery – we were sure we could hear strains of banjo in the air. We followed makeshift signs to the campground, and when we turned into the site we were a little taken aback by how impressive it was. It was a large site, dusty, but with a fair bit of infrastructure. In the centre was a large shade shed for communal dining. A number of other buildings had been set up, some with quite sophisticated solar electricity set-ups. There were flushing toilets, and hot showers. The only condition with the hot water was that you had to light a fire under a donkey boiler out the back. We pitched up, lit a fire and settled in for an amazing night gazing at the stars with no light pollution whatsoever. All this for $2.50 per person which you paid into an honesty box. This was one of those special travelling finds we’ll remember for a long time.
In the morning after our fire heated showers, we packed up and continued the dirt road loop round for another 90km to The Dinosaur stampede at Lark Quarry. We weren’t quite sure what to expect. Would we be squinting at hard to identify rock marks trying to imagine a dino footprint? We couldn’t have been more wrong – it was magnificent. It’s hard to believe we’d not heard of this before and are sure we’re not alone. In America we reckon there would be a six lane highway heading here and a theme park and resort complex all around it. Not in Australia, its 100km down a dirt track to the nearest town, Winton, which is itself not easily accessible. The tracks themselves are essentially protected from the elements by a fancy tin shed and there’s a small café which relies on the rangers bringing supplies from Winton every few days – that’s it. However, the tracks were amazing, you could easily imagine the dinosaurs stampeding at the rivers edge 95 million years ago. Another serendipitous find and one we’d recommend to anyone whether you have a fascination with all things Jurassic or not. We wondered if Jeff Goldblum had ever paid a visit.
Our next stop was 180 km south east from Winton at Longreach. We actually travelled a further 25km to Ilfracombe as a camp site there had been recommended to us. Ilfracombe Caravan Park turned out to be a great spot, next door to the Wellshot Hotel, a 100 year old pub. Our reason for visiting Longreach is relevant to the reference to planes in this blog title, as it is home to the Qantas Founders Museum. Queensland and Northern Territory Air Services (QANTAS) can trace its origin to a meeting in Winton in 1920. At that meeting it was decided to headquarter the airline at Longreach as the railway finished there. The airline therefore grew up in Longreach making it the logical home for this fascinating museum. This was really a stop for Andy’s benefit but Jane was just as taken by the entertaining telling of the QANTAS story, including the opportunity to fly a simulator of an early aircraft.
As well as learning a lot through the superb regional towns and museums we visited, we drove long distances and got a bit of a feel for the outback environment. Hence, the only reference in our blog title we’ve not discussed yet; automobiles. The current conditions of drought in Outback Queensland were really brought home to us as we drove through the dusty landscape. We began to understand how tough the people out here were doing it and this was evident at our final Queensland stops; Augathella and Wyandra. At Augathella we found another Big Thing to have lunch at – The Big Meat Ant. We didn’t stop long, but unfortunately it didn’t seem to us that the Ant was pulling in the crowds – the intention of its installation, as you can read here.
We arrived in Wyandra in the late afternoon and set up camp in a very affordable site just off the highway and walked around to the pub for a beer. We got talking to the landlady, Mary, and it turned out she was also the campsite owner. Sadly, her husband had recently passed away and she told us how difficult it is to run an outback business and get tourists to stop in this part of Queensland. The wildlife are having a tough time too. As dusk, fell, kangaroos were everywhere. They are coming closer and closer to humans to try and find food as the outback is so dry at present. This is sadly reflected in the huge amount of roadkill you see as you drive, and the number of near misses we experienced. We spent the evening eating our dinner and having a few more beers around the campfire and thought to ourselves that we couldn’t imagine a better place to visit. It’s a shame not more people venture off the beaten track a little to see this part of the state. It would be win-win situation, visitors getting a unique experience whilst bringing much needed business to small townships like Wyandra and Augathella.
From Wyandra we drove on for a brekkie stop at Cunnamulla and eventually crossed the Queensland border into New South Wales at Barringun, 970 km West South West of Brisbane. From the Tip of Cape York we’d driven around 1150 km to Cairns, then a further 1900 km to the bottom of Queensland. It was a fabulous journey, we saw and learnt so much and continued our travels feeling privileged that we’d had the opportunity to see parts of Queensland that many people don’t get to visit. If you have the chance, a journey through Outback Queensland is well worth taking, and the locals would love you to drop in.