Into the Outback

Sailing into Brisbane two months ago, Eric and I were appalled to see a blanket of brownish-orange smog draped over the city. Having encountered only clear blue skies elsewhere in Oz, we felt almost betrayed. Surely, Australians cared more about their environment than to allow such pollution to occur? You would have thought we were in Los Angeles! Our Brisbane friends set us straight.

“That’s not smog,” they said. “It’s dust, blown in from the Outback.”

Now, having returned from 16 days traveling the Outback in Glinda, we know what they mean. This is daunting territory: a flat expanse of dry red dirt and straw-yellow grass, blistering sun, whipping wind, maddening sand flies, and empty roads littered with the Aussie version of roadkill—dead kangaroos. The dust is pervasive. Australia is the driest continent on Earth, and to intensify matters, southern Queensland is experiencing severe drought conditions. In the areas we visited, people told us there hasn’t been a drop of rain since March. Creek beds are cracked, rivers are a mere trickle. There is not a single cloud in the sky and little shade anywhere, though amazingly, some trees and shrubs manage to survive. When the water does come, it comes with a vengeance. On those same arid stretches, flood markers indicated the rivers can rise to a meter above the road.

Glinda, Queen of the Outback

Yet despite the harsh conditions and dire warnings—“If your car breaks down in the Outback and you run out of water, you die,” one Aussie said flatly—we had a rich and fascinating time. We covered some 1200 miles, heading west via Emerald to Longreach, then looping back south through Charleville, Roma, Miles and the Bunya Mountains. (For those who want to consult their atlas, a more detailed route is at the end of this post.) In fact, only the western half of our journey would be considered true Outback, that being a general term to describe the remote, sparsely populated interior of the country. Wilderness areas close to but outside the cities are termed “the bush.”

You can witness the change in the landscape as you go. About 20 miles inland from the green coast, where the main crops are sugar cane and sweet potatoes, you start to encounter low mountains, known collectively as the Dividing Range. Descending to the west, the terrain becomes drier and browner, and the crops switch to alfalfa, sorghum, barley and corn. Only a field or two will be irrigated at a time. The alfalfa fields, especially, produce large patches of eye-catching green. Fenced cattle stations also begin to appear, though you won’t necessarily see a lot of cattle or the homesteads themselves close to the road. Only narrow dirt tracks leading off into the distance, indicated by an open gate and an unobtrusive sign, let you imagine the lives beyond. Further west, the agricultural crops give way to more cattle and a wealth of natural resources: coal, oil, natural gas and gemstones.

An agricultural station just west of the Dividing Range. Note the few puffs of cloud. Deeper into the Outback there are no clouds at all.

Our first major stop was at Carnarvon Gorge National Park, where, aside from the spectacular scenery, we were awed by the Aboriginal artwork on the sandstone walls. Estimated to be 3,500 years old, it is viewable in two places just off the main trail, which wends along a refreshingly cold creek with multiple stepstone crossings; in three days we hiked 23 miles. Today, the Aboriginal people participate in the management of the park, and an Aboriginal guide, on his way to lead a tour, stopped and gave us a warm welcome in his native tongue. But it is no secret that the European settlers in Australia treated the indigenous people horribly, murdering, raping and enslaving them and forcibly separating children from their families. Despite having arrived in Australia as long as 60,000 years ago, they did not receive full “citizenship” until 1967. All the more moving, then, to stand in front of these stenciled testaments, this human need to say, “I am real. I was here.”

Art viewing boardwalk at Carnarvon Gorge
Aboriginal stencils
A side trail at Carnarvon Gorge

Another historic stop was Barcaldine, the center of the Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891. The factions involved the graziers (sheep farmers) and both union and non-union wool shearers, and the issues included falling wool prices, unequal pay and poor working conditions. At its height, the strikers numbered as many as 9,000 men, gathered in camps throughout Queensland, and the military was sent to intervene. When 3,000 of the strikers joined a protest beneath a large gum tree outside the Barcaldine railway station, the organizers were arrested and sentenced to three years in jail. The strike fell apart, but it was not in vain. It led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party, and the shearers’ story is told at the Australian Workers Heritage Centre in Barcaldine.  

Incomprehensibly, the iconic gum tree, called “the Tree of Knowledge,” was maliciously poisoned in 2006 by an unknown culprit and died. A memorial erected in its place features the preserved remains of the tree overhung with an architectural framework of wood blades. The blades represent wool shears and mark the extent of the original branches. Lighted at night in luminous green, it is one of the more original public memorials we’ve seen. Fortunately, a cutting taken from the tree before its demise was successfully planted at the heritage centre.

The Tree of Knowledge, Barcaldine

From Barcaldine we continued west to Longreach, where Qantas Airways, founded in nearby Winton in 1920, launched Australia’s first airmail and passenger services in 1922. Touring the original hangar and the museum was fun and enlightening. Imagine the leap from indigenous people walking barefoot and Europeans plodding in horse-drawn carts to the arrival of railroads in the second half of the 19th century and flying over the Outback in the early 20th. What progress! What technology! No wonder, in so many of the Outback towns we visited, the railroad station building has been preserved and often repurposed as a local history museum in which the feats of early aviators are likewise celebrated.

Qantas – Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services

The next day we had a blast supporting another important air organization, the Royal Flying Doctors Service (RFDS), at a chicken race in Tambo. Yes, a chicken race. This zany event is staged nightly from May to October in the backyard of the Royal Carrangarra Hotel, where colorfully dyed chickens dash around a fenced track after a radio-controlled toy car with a bowl of chicken feed on the back. No, the dye doesn’t hurt the chickens nor are they starved. As Ben, the enthusiastic emcee, explained, it is natural chicken behavior to chase after their food, and we were in for an egg-citing time.

Prior to the race, and with many more “fowl” jokes, Ben auctioned off the chickens to the highest bidders among the 20 or so spectators. Eric and I “won” Pink Bits, but after four mad laps around the track, green Frankenhen took first place. The best part, however, is that half the funds raised by the auction go to the RFDS (the other half goes to the winning bidders). Founded in the Outback in 1928 using a leased plane from Qantas, the RFDS continues to provide medical, dental and mental health care to people in remote areas throughout Australia. In the two years since Ben started the race, he has sent the RFDS a total of $8,000.

And they’re off…Frankenhen, Pink Bits and Apricot
Ben makes it official…Frankenhen wins by a beak
Photo op with Pink Bits

Throughout the trip, we camped in Glinda, usually in free or low-cost community campgrounds, occasionally in a caravan park. The most memorable of the latter was on a cattle station outside Charleville, owned by Shirley and her son, Craig. Here, at the daily happy hour campfire, we learned about “damper,” Australian soda bread, which Craig baked in a Dutch oven over the coals. Served with melting butter and golden syrup (a sugar syrup which the Aussie campers assured us was far superior to maple), it was heavenly.

Craig shovels coals onto the Dutch oven
Delicious damper

So was the night sky. Far from any city lights, we attended a program presented by Greg, an amateur astronomer, with a telescope that allowed us to gaze at the moon, Saturn, Jupiter, Alpha Centauri and the Jewel Box, a brilliant star cluster in Southern Cross constellation. By day, Greg showed us the sun through a hydrogen-alpha telescope that allows you to look directly at the sun without damage to your eyes. Topping off our visit to Charleville, we watched the daily launch of a weather balloon at the airport. On this morning, two balloons, as a technician there was testing a new installation alongside the old one. Cool!

Greg and the hydrogen-alpha telescope
…through which we photographed the surface eruptions on the sun

Next came Roma, where cattle auctions are held every Tuesday and Thursday. As many as 400,000 cattle are sold here each year, and though we missed the auction days, we were able to view the empty cattle pens from the raised boardwalk at this huge facility. Earlier on the trip, we had found ourselves in the midst of a cattle drive alongside the highway, a sight we’d never seen in the western United States. Roma is also a center for the oil and natural gas drilling industry.

A cattle drive along the highway
Cattle pens at Roma

As we continued eastward the terrain began a gentle rise and grain silos appeared, as did the first tiny puffs of white cloud in the sky. For our final stretch we drove through the Bunya Mountains, stopping for several short hikes. Though the waterfalls were completely dry, there was enough water left in the riverbed to keep the park green, a welcome sight. May the rain come soon. Firefighters are battling bush fires in a number of places in Queensland, and we were saddened and dismayed to hear that the historic Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Forest, where we stayed for two nights while in Brisbane, was destroyed by a bush fire that may have been deliberately set. Sometimes I despair for our species.

Aboriginal people cut handholds in the Bunya pines to climb the trunks and reach the nuts, an important food source.
The view from 3,700′ Mt. Kiangarow in Bunya National Park

Now, back on Corroboree and reflecting on our trip, we have a clearer appreciation for what living in the Outback entails. We passed many small towns with closed shops, a deserted look and hotels for sale. We speculate that where once they were vital water and supply stops for the pioneers, modern travelers can cover longer distances without need of succour. It’s natural, then, that the residents themselves would gravitate to new jobs and a new way of life in the larger towns and enjoy the increased services. Those who stay work hard at farming, ranching, running cafés and other businesses. They create and promote tourism opportunities and have a unique sense of humor. Who wouldn’t stop in Ilfracombe to see the Machinery Mile or in Jericho to contemplate Australia’s smallest drive-in theatre?

The Mulgildie Hotel in Monto is brimful of artwork and antiques, inside and out. Artist and owner Julie is in the window.
Machinery Mile, Ilfracombe. Vintage vehicles and agricultural equipment are displayed in many Outback towns.
Jericho’s drive-in theatre has spaces for 36 cars plus walk-ins. Opened in 1969, it still shows movies once a month. The screen is at the left.

Thanks, Oz, for another great experience, and thanks to all those we met along the way for their advice and companionship. We’ll be on the road again soon.

You know you’re in Australia when a wallaby watches you hoist your backpack…
…and an emu strolls through the campground

 *Our route: Heading west from Bundaberg, we passed through Monto, Biloela, Moura, Carnarvon Gorge, Springsure, Emerald, Alpha, Jericho, Barcaldine, Ilfracombe and Longreach. Returning south and then east, we passed through Isisford, Blackall, Tambo, Charleville, Morven, Mitchell, Roma, Miles, the Bunya Mountains, Biggenden and back to Bundaberg.