Ten days ago I returned from a 5874km road trip that took us through the archetypical parts of the QLD outback and up to (but not into) the Simpson desert: starting at the Gold Coast we went west to Quilpie and Birdsville, then north to Boulia and Winton, looped back south to Charleville and on to Bourke, followed by a trip to Sydney and finally a solo drive back home along the coast.
Sorting through the pictures and notes was tedious, and I'm happy that the write-up of this travel report of sorts is complete (and I'd love to travel out west again any day).
I had wanted to see the outback and/or the desert for a long time - I'm not a big traveller (so I'm not likely to just jump on a plane and Go See Things) and I intensely dislike large numbers of people in one spot (therefore I much prefer experiencing the emptiness of the outback over visiting a city).
When Barbara (ex-wife of many years ago) asked whether I had any ideas for a possibly shared vacation I suggested going West by car and (bush)camping. She agreed, but her limited number of days off meant that we wouldn't have much time to stay in any particular place. Regardless of that it was a great trip that gave me an appetite for further forays into these regions.
Here's a map of where we went, and another detail map with Austria's outline shown - that's for for my family and friends back in Europe, to give them an idea regarding Australian distances :-)
One of the things that you learn quickly in Australia is that named places on maps can be anything - ranging from bustling towns to building ruins, or even just a named but empty spot in the dirt. Lots of places shown as black dots on the maps above are stations, single houses or place names without any signs of habitation whatsoever - and even the yellow dots regularly point to abandoned non-places (Betoota for example) or places with less than 10 inhabitants (e.g. Middleton). I find this very charming - if and when I'm aware of it when planning things like overnight stops or refuelling :-)
But this bit of uncertainty is completely offset by the quality of free info material that you get from tourist information offices along the way; we came back with a good 4cm stack of stuff, some of it just a few sheets of copied paper, some glossy and occasionally fluffy in content - but all of it useful. We didn't plan on any specific sights to visit (except the edge of the Simpson and its dunes, the Charleville observatory and Quilpie's hills) and made up our daily plans pretty much exclusively based on the info that we picked up on the way.
First day: Gold Coast to Roma, purple trail, 565km
The first day was planned as an easy day, with a late start being likely and possibly a late finish, too: for this reason I had booked a motel in Roma so that we wouldn't have to rush and could also drive into the night (which we didn't have to; we arrived there at about 1900).
As expected packing things up took a while (my neighbours wondered how we'd be able to fit all the stuff in my car): camping kitchen, portaloo, eski, folding chairs+table, second spare wheel, 2x20l water, 10l petrol, tent, mats, sleeping bags, personal stuff etc. etc. In the end everything fit fairly well and I didn't have to pull out the rear seats as I had worried, and we left just before 10:00.
The drive to Brisbane and on to Toowoomba and Dalby was boring, just as expected; had a brief lunch break in Toowoomba, which seems to be a town just big enough to be bothersome. On another short break later in the afternoon, somewhere near Dulacca, we chatted with a talkative local (for example about their shopping habits: once a fortnight because of the distance to the next town, or about one of the oldest houses in the area which was built on rollers to relocate it out of the flood zone).
Second day, Roma to Lake Houdraman (Quilpie), green track, 507km
The Charleville region seems to be very bad for roos or they're stupider there than elsewhere; there were lots of roadkill (more on the developmental road west than on the Warrego Highway but not by much). And wherever there are deaders on the road, there are also huge numbers of raptors around, from kites to hawks and big wedge-tail eagles. The black spots on the next photo aren't bits of dirt on the lens, that's raptors.
The road on the photos above is still classified as "highway". At Morven we saw the first of many emus; these were grazing just next to a park and the road.
Had lunchbreak in Charleville, which is of a nice size. This being Sunday we were lucky to just squeeze in at the end of lunch time at the RSL. No more Voodoofone reception, this is now all monopoly country (Tel$tra) or altogether empty.
No more 'highway' either, now we're on a slowly narrowing "developmental road" (complete with the usual "make way for road train" signs). Barbara doesn't much like the idea of having to leave the bitumen for oncoming traffic but it'll soon become an absolute must: there is no space for two vehicles, and the more you move out of the way the fewer stones your car is going to get.
After a very relaxed afternoon trip ever westwards we're bush camping at Lake Houdraman (just outside of Quilpie) which is lovely if shallow and muddy.
Barbara hadn't been camping since a trip to France 16 years ago when Conny was two, but got back into it quickly; a slightly more relaxed budget also helps :-)
Just a very few other campers were around and we got a tip about watching the emus wading in the lake.
I think that was when the series of punctures started: first I managed to puncture a half-litre can of energy drink with a pointy lump of ice when I repacked the eski.
Third day, Quilpie to Welford National Park, orange track, 286km
Day three started with a very relaxed morning because we didn't have far to go: with fuelling opportunities and good places for staying overnight becoming more sparse the further west we got, our next stop was to be Welford National park, less than 300km away. So we refuelled and breakfasted in Quilpie which is a nice little town of 600 or so with a museum that documents the early periods of white settlement in the region (and pot-luck rocks for sale).
Afterwards we drove a bit outside of town and walked up two hills, aptly named "baldy top" and "table top". Neither is very high, but the view over the very flat countryside is great.
At baldy top just like any silly hoon I clearly had to flog the sooby up the rocky slope as far as it would go. I'm pretty sure it didn't improve the tyres any.
Not a soul around, very tranquil and nice scenery. A number of skittish horses were grazing amongst the trees.
Around noon we continued on the ever-narrowing road towards Windorah. Lots of emptiness, none of the names on the map indicates anything but ruins or isolated stations gazillions of kms off the road.
Made a brief stop at Kyabra creek, where the Fairy Martins build really alien-looking nests beneath the rest area roof.
Safe roos are good roos in my book; Safe = not in motion. The signage near Welford NP is very much in the middle of nowhere, with fairly typical distances shown. As seen elsewhere, "In the outback, a road junction is always a landmark. (...) This is just another treeless outback rest area with nothing more than a covered picnic table, an information board and a bin." Mind you, I think that's totally sufficient. Tenham, by the way, is just a station whose sole claim to fame seems to be a meteorite fall 150 years ago.
Turning right at that sign we got onto the first major stretch of dirt but it's very comfy stuff set in a wide right of way. Some roos, inquisitive and/or unfazed but no ambushes. Emus, too, of course.
After 70km of dirt we reached Welford National Park, where we camped directly next to the Barcoo river (facilities: pit toilet, great views, tranquility). The Barcoo at that point is pretty muddy and has super-slippery steep banks, but still very nice to dangle your feet in.
The Welford camping area is set in a slightly barren landscape when you face away from the river (clay pans), but there are various other types of landscape in the vicinity (dunes, water holes etc). Unfortunately a part of the national park was closed off for works for another few days and we missed one of the lookouts that I had hoped to get to.
This was a very relaxed day with a comfy amount of driving, and I don't think we saw more than two or three cars and road trains in all that day.
Day four, Welford to Birdsville, blue track, 553km
Day four made up for the leisurely day three with an early morning wake-up as this was going to be a long day. First we drove across Welford on its desert track and visited the most easterly red dune (an outlier of the Simpson dune system). Beautiful and quiet, with lots of skippies and birds around enjoying the early part of the day just like us.
Then it's 60km of more dirt into Jundah to refuel, and a hundred on bitumen into Windorah to refuel again - because there's nothing whatsoever for the next 370km. The roo on the next pictures was so very calmly looking at us that we just had to stop and take a picture...
In Windorah I continued the puncture saga by being careless with new ice for the eski: when I stabbed some big chunks with my Leatherman to make them fit, I also stabbed an unsuspecting plastic Pepsi bottle...
80km later you're greeted by a very lonely sign saying "point of interest"; we had been joking about earlier such signs that pointed out fairly pointless points of non-interest, but this one was good. Opposite the sign there's the somewhat holed Mt. Henderson, complete with big fat pointer for us clueless tourists :-)
100km out of Windora is the beginning of a further 270km of gravel, and while some of it is fine and comfy, a lot of it is not nice at all.
We stopped for a bit of lunch at Deon's lookout east of Betoota (Note: Betoota on the map = non-existent in reality), watching a couple with a caravan jury-rig a cover for their smashed rear window and enjoyed the really great view (but not the flies).
And just a little later it was our time for an impromptu stop, because of the next puncture: this time one of my 70%-worn Dunlop 200Es had decided to quit and had mostly deflated. With the car bouncing/floating over the gravel I didn't feel it immediately, but at least I got it before things fell apart completely.
So we had the fun of unpacking most of the car to get to the better spare and the tools; I had all the fun of doing the work and Barbara kept "documenting"... On goes the first spare wheel and off we were again - not quite an F1 pitstop but it didn't take us long either. (Friends of mine had strongly recommended that I carry a second spare wheel because of this particular stretch of gravel.)
You know that things are Not Good when fabricy stuff pokes out from your tyre's tread... In Birdsville that evening I learned that the tyre belt was split/broken, with a nice 10cm crack visible on the inside - which is of course unrepairable. At some point during that day we also copped two stones into the windscreen, one small chip and one larger chip with 1cm bullseye cracks. None of which made me overly happy.
Mid-afternoon we arrived in Birdsville (pop. 160 plus oodles of travellers). $220 later and I had a new (but different) tyre on my original rim, but I decided to continue with the spare as I didn't want to stress the rear diff: the new tyre is the same nominal size, but a light truck tyre, chunkier and a tad larger. My better spare was not a Dunlop 200E either, but very close in actual size. (My second spare was a 215/55, not a 215/60 like the others, and as such only meant as a next-to-last-ditch option, before the real last-ditch options = sealing spray and/or tyre repair kit, both of which I did carry as well).
We stayed overnight at the caravan park in town, which was nice but busy. This time we didn't bother with the bush camping opportunities (lots, at the eastern end of town) because every now and then a shower is a nice thing :-) Fortunately the Birdsville races were another three weeks off, so it wasn't insanely hectic - picture a town of 160 inhabitants swelling to 6000+ for a whole week of horse races, partying and general mayhem and you know why I wouldn't go anywhere near that...
After days of forgetting about it, finally we remembered in time about having a beer and I bought some pricey cans at the Birdsville pub (iconic and therefore busy). We didn't stay at the pub, though, and personally I didn't like Birdsville too much: too many people in and out. Barbara didn't mind (she said), but then I'm the reclusive one.
Day five, Birdsville to Bedourie, orange track, 263km
In the morning we took it easy and didn't rush at all. We drove out to the edge of the Simpson desert and the Big Red dune, 35km of pretty rough gravel followed by a bit of sandy track. As we weren't aiming for sunrise or sunset it was nice and quiet (just one car which drove on into the desert and another duo visiting the dune). At sunset apparently it often gets very rowdy and crowded there. One wouldn't expect it, but right next to the dune is a shallow lake.
I didn't try to drive up the dune itself (which might have worked, but the car would have dug up a lot of sand with the front bumper lip and we would have had to spend extra time reinflating the tyres afterwards). Walking up was fine, the views were great; as usual Barbara complained about the cattle being all over the country. I was slightly tempted to carry my beach wing up the dune and fly down but didn't do it in the end.
Back in town we had a late breakfast at the Birdsville bakery (which has lots of nice photos and memorials dotting the walls), and then we hit the dirt again for the day's goal, Bedourie.
Apart from a group of roos that ambushed us around 11:30 it was a pleasant drive - the silly roos normally aren't active at that time of day, and Barbara called it a "school outing". We just managed not to hit any and arrived in Bedourie (pop 140) in the very early afternoon.
Bedourie was great (in most senses, except town size; one of the signs in the region said "Over the last ten years Bedourie's population has almost doubled to 140..."). Together with Birdsville it forms the Diamantina shire, which has an area of 94000km2 and about 400 inhabitants. In stark contrast, Austria, where I'm from originally, has 83000km2 and 8 million people.
Bedourie has very nice and helpful people staffing the shire office/info centre; the town pool and spa is free (the spa is hot artesian water), the cheap council-operated caravan park is right next to that and we enjoyed ourselves greatly: after lounging in the hot spa and cold pool Barbara got herself an hour of Thai massage, I got some time for reading and relaxing and eventually we cooked dinner just before sundown.
Day six, Bedourie to Winton, green track, 581km
Replanning things on the go is fine but can lead to long days...
Originally we hadn't planned on getting past Birdsville at all, and the expectation was to spend some time there, at Quilpie or at Welford, and return more or less the same way (with a night at Charleville to go to the observatory). But it soon became obvious that none of the places was begging for a longer stay (at least as far as Barbara was concerned), and so the northern loop via Boulia/Winton/Longreach looked quite doable within Barbara's limited time budget.
The idea of having a scenic flight to Lake Eyre from Birdsville was tempting, but in the end we gave up on it; it would have been much too expensive just for the two of us, as the company only flies six-seater planes.
Our reworked plan was to spend one night in Boulia, another in Longreach and then in Charleville - but Boulia somehow didn't inspire us to stay (the town was so-so with more rundown buildings than usual, the Min-Min stuff seemed just weird, the small museum was interesting and unexpectedly snake-infested) and in the end we didn't feel like stopping so early. So we reconsidered and decided to drive on and likely camp at Middleton, which - according to the map - would have fuel and therefore couldn't be a total ghost of a place...
The drive from Boulia to Middleton was nice and Cawnpore lookout was beautiful: it's still very empty space but with interesting changes of scenery - less deserty, more jump ups - and more roos.
Middleton turned out to be minimal (two houses, a few barns and shacks, 3-5 human inhabitants plus an overweight pet pig). The one house is the pub, and there's no fuel (good that we hadn't relied on that option). But hey, it's got a solar-powered payphone - all the mod cons of civilization! :-)
Camping there would have been possible, but it didn't entice us either: basically flat red dust without a shrub or tree or anything. So, after a chat with the innkeeper lady and a beer and some food for Barbara we decided to push on into Winton despite the time of day; we knew that we'd be driving through roo time but would just take it slow and easy.
This ended up being more dangerous than I had hoped/expected. We had a few minor roo incidents and one super-close call with a big one, despire driving only 70km/h. Barbara said she never understood the need for roo bars and/or country people's reluctance to drive into the evening...until that day. (I decided that my next car will have a roo bar.)
Roos seem to prefer crossing perpendicular to the road and keep going no matter what once they're moving, so you really have extremely little time to take action when they suddenly appear from the side. The car being lit up like a christmas tree didn't make any difference whatsoever.
The starry clean sky was beautiful, however, and Winton's lights (population just under 1000) were visible from a good 30km out, really impressive. We arrived quite exhausted and just before 21:00, and I decided that for once I'd prefer spending some money on a motel over camping. We ended up getting a brand-new motel unit, which was very comfy and was worth they money.
Day seven, Winton to Isisford, blue track, 320km
The morning we spent walking around Winton, but we skipped the 'must see' stuff: I really didn't want to pay $20+/person for entry to the Waltzing Matilda museum, there's Banjo Paterson stuff already dotting the whole region (and I don't like the song much anyway). The signs near historic buildings in Winton were more enlightening.
After a nice and lazy breakfast in a big bakery, and a quick email check (wifi at the motel) we were off to Longreach. The highway to Longreach is busy and boring, and due to the very heavy traffic not in great shape.
Longreach (pop. 3000) feels pretty big after a week in very sparsely populated areas, almost too big with all the tourists around. Finally we had mobile reception again (aldimobile, no voodoofone yet). We walked through town and had lunch at a bakery (pies absolutely fresh from the oven), then considered visiting the Qantas museum but in the end I refused: much too expensive for what's on offer. Visiting the Stockman's Hall Of Fame is out of the question as well, as Barbara is unhappy with the cattle all over the country anyway.
The roos in Longreach clearly know what's good for them and prefer the local motel lawns over the Landsborough highway.
The free camping area in Longreach next to the Thompson river is known to be very busy (caravaners), and it was too early anyway; our map indicated bush camping opportunities near Isisford, and the info material picked up in Winton and Longreach also said nice things about Isisford and surrounds, so we left the Landsborough highway soon after Longreach and drove south to Isisford (pop just about 200). When we arrived there in the late Saturday afternoon we didn't get much further info as the shire office was closed - but a small mud map indicated that the bush camping area at the Oma waterhole/Barcoo river is reached by a dirt road, just 15km outside town.
So we drove there, saw that we should have paid at the shire office in town (a measly $3/night - not per person but per vehicle) and set up our tent on the river bank. This is a very nice, quiet place (except at the end of July when they have an annual fishing competition). Very unexpectedly the facilities were great; the place even has hot water showers.
There are a number of interesting national parks around Isisford (in the region between Quilpie, Blackall, Boulia and Birdsville), which I'd love to explore further on another trip.
Day eight, Isisford to Charleville, pink track, 476km
Early Sunday morning we drove into town (deposited our camping fee through the office door), and were pleasantly surprised that the cafe+museum was already open - and the museum was really good and worth the few dollars they charged. We enjoyed the exhibits, mainly about the isisfordia proto-crocodile and other local fossils, then continued on to Blackall.
Late breakfast/lunch there, then went for a soak and swim at the lovely Blackall pool+spa (hot artesian bores as in many other places in the region). Blackall is yet another place with a "border post" between civilization and the remote bush.
Mid-afternoon saw us in Tambo, but the teddy bear shop in town was already closed (to Barbara's dismay). About that time the sky went somewhat overcast, and we were worried whether the star gazing session at the Charleville observatory would be cancelled or not.
Arrived at Charleville in the late afternoon, and checked the observatory first; bit expensive but nice overall. They promised a call if the session were to be cancelled (but luckily the sky cleared), and we set up at one of the caravan parks in town (next time I'd go to the one named "Red Lizard" south of town, however). For once we didn't cook but went to the RSL for dinner - which was crowded and then some. From 21:00 to 22:00 we had the observatory session, the temperature got pretty low for the first time in weeks and we went to bed pretty tired.
Day nine, Charleville to Nyngan, orange track, 722km
The tent was very wet with condensation that morning but we packed it up early anyway and went for a lovely breakfast at a bakery in town.
After checking out the relics of Austrian(!) failed inventions in the outback (namely Albert Steiger's "vortex guns" which unsurprisingly didn't break a severe drought in 1902) we collected some more info material on Cunnamulla, the next town we'd planned to visit and headed south.
Our original plan had been to return via Cunnamulla, St. George, Goondiwindi and then back to the Gold Coast. Barbara then looked at a map of Cunnamulla which showed the distance to Sydney being only 173km more than to the GC (1063km vs 890km), and she half-joked that we might drive directly to Sydney instead. So we did just that; bought another map (Outback NSW this time) and looked for nice places to stay overnight.
17km south of Wyandra we improved our karma by saving a dog: suddenly I saw a lone dog trotting along on the road, and we stopped to check it out. It had a collar but no tag, and was really thirsty. Just as I gave it some water, a farm hand appeared from the bushes on his Kawa "Stockman" motorcycle (complete with rifle in a holder across the handlebars), and we asked each other the same question: "is this your dog?". Alas, it wasn't his or any of their farm dogs, and he recommended we take the dog back to Wyandra and leave it at the pub (the nearest other town, Cunnamulla, was a good 70km further south). We did just that and the innkeeper said she'd keep him in the backyard for the owner to reclaim.
After a brief break in Cunnumulla we checked our progress and decided to continue until Bourke at least and further on if possible (and safe). In Bourke we were a bit out of luck; we wanted to get lunch there but we were too late for the restaurants and pubs, so we just made some sandwiches in the end. The female staff at the info centre said she drives Bourke to Sydney in one day every once in a while, but that it was a long slog. We decided to continue to Nyngan and camp there.
Between Bourke and Nyngan the Mitchell highway runs in an almost perfectly straight line - for a measly 204km.
After an emu ambush (the buggers are pretty well camouflaged and almost as silly as roos when it comes to crossing roads) we arrived just at sunset and set up at a caravan park which is located directly at the Bogan riverand which had two domestic camels, donkeys and lamas.
We had a nice evening there and that was the last camping night on this trip. It was also the coldest night, much more so than out in the far west.
Day ten, Nyngan to Sydney, blue track, 655km
The last day for the two of us began with an early cooked breakfast, a bit of a drive and then a pre-lunch coffee break in Dubbo. We're no longer anywhere near the outback and it's ever-increasing levels of civilization for the remaining 450km.
Apparently there are much fewer roos around Bourke/Nyngan and on towards Sydney or they don't venture near the roads: there was next to no roadkill, much fewer worries about driving late in the day and so on. Interesting.
From Dubbo we went on the Golden Highway to Dunnedoo, then south on the Castlereagh Hwy through some highlands and hilly/lake country and finally through the Blue Mountains towards Sydney. We made a stop at Lake Windermere, which looks lovely, and also detoured briefly into the Gardens of Stone national park.
It was pretty cold, and there were some showers near Capertee. After a brief stop at the Three Sisters in Katoomba (near sunset; it was ice-cold, and the droves of tourists were more of a spectacle than the lovely scenery) we had the usual slow and tedious drive into and then through Sydney.
Day eleven I spent in Sydney with Barbara and Conny at their home.
Day twelve, Sydney to Gold Coast, green track, 946km
The last day consisted just of the usual boring trip up the Pacific Highway (except for a small side-trip near Port Macquarie, to break the boredom). I left around 10:00 after dropping Conny off at school, then got lost in the toll road maze near the Eastern Distributor and ended up on the toll road unnecessarily.
As always I was pretty happy once I had left Sydney's roads and traffic behind. Had a quick break in Coffs Harbour and arrived back home around 21:30 - and while I was unpacking, I discovered the final instalment in the puncture saga: the spare was flattening before my eyes. This turned out to be a broken steel rim (a small fracture at one of the welds on the inside leaked air).
The total trip distance was 5874km and about 550-600km of that was on dirt or gravel. Now the tyre types are in sync again, the windscreen chips are repaired, all the other car maintenance chores are taken care of and I'm already keen to revisit some of the locations and spend some more time exploring places that we bypassed this time...