We had spent a few lazy days at Longreach Waterhole on Newcastle Waters Creek, which lies twelve kilometres west of the Community of Elliott on the Stuart Highway. It is a popular spot for tourists who travel in Self Contained vehicles. Bush toilets have been provided but apart from that you are on your own
On the morning of our departure an east wind sprang up and by the time we turned off on to the Barkly Stock Route the wind was building up velocity.
The sign at the start of the Stock Route across the vast Barkly Tableland states
NO FUEL FOR 500km.
I had driven the Barkly Stock Route in 2007 and I wanted to show Judith the wonderful plains of Mitchell Grasslands. This was also going to be a day that Judith would be learning to tow the van.
And so we set off, the dogs and I out front in the Xtrail, and Jude coming on behind with the Toyota and Van. I had bought two UHF radios and we were able to communicate while driving, which helped a lot
After about 20 kilometres Jude said that she was having difficulty in driving on the rough track and I took over again from there. By now the wind was becoming a blast and we struggled on into the east over some country which could also be named Nullarbor (Null Arbor = No Trees) as it looked just like it.
I was down to 2nd gear and 50 kilometres per hour into the wind and I called Jude up and asked her to look for an open space so that we could pull over and stop for a while. She found a space near a cattle grid and we stayed there for six hours waiting for the wind to abate. No other traffic passed by in that time.
Lying there dozing with the wind curling around the open windows of the caravan and we could distinctly make out human voices, dogs barking and cattle lowing as every gust of wind was different. We called them the ghosts of the Barkly remembering the European pioneers who drove cattle across these plains to other fertile lands in Western Australia. Aboriginal people may have walked this way too, knowing where the gnamma-holes were that held precious life-giving water. Today the land is managed by vast cattle empires that make their profits for shareholders this way. From Elliott in the north and in a south-westerly direction, one cattle enterprise, AACO, owns the land for 700 kilometres as far Boulia in Western Queensland. The cattle stations employ any number of Jackeroos, Gardeners, Cooks, General Hands and Stockmen and station life is a way of life and many would say, it’s a good one.
We trundled on again at around 4pm waiting for the wind to drop at sunset, as it usually does. We passed by dead windmills aplenty and one wonders what ever happened to the windmill mechanics who used to ply their trade, upgrading and repairing windmills on stations. These days many stations have diesel pumps on their bores and some are monitored and controlled via Satellite Internet. Human hands still have to do repairs though but they are not required to ride the boundary any longer. Technology is changing how things are done, even in very remote locations.
There had been no wildlife as such around except for the ubiquitous Crow. Then I saw a wave of Australian Pratincoles crossing the path in front of me. They are such graceful birds flying in their distinct manner.
I found a clearing near a Turkey Nest Dam and we pulled up for the night. As the sun dipped below the horizon the wind dropped and it was deadly quiet except for cattle lowing in the distance. We dared not light a fire due to the dry grass conditions but we sat outside after feeding ourselves and counted satellites as they crossed the expanse of the Milky Way on such a clear night. At 5am a station vehicle rattled past the van and woke me up with a start. We had parked on a station track which had looked like it had not been used in a long time. But, there you go.
By mid-morning we had reached the Tablelands Highway and it was time to refuel with the jerry cans of petrol and diesel I had carried in the Toyota. The flies were annoying and the wind was starting to blow again. An hour later we pulled in to a wayside stop and hid on the van once again but only for two hours this time before moving on.
I try to stay clear of negativity when writing of our travels but I have to say that the Tableland Highway strip bitumen road, is the worst road I have driven in many years. It was constructed in the late 1960’s and completed in the early 1970’s. Built for the primary use of road trains to ship cattle out to markets it has suffered the consequences of little maintenance over the years and increasing heavy haulage. It was the most uncomfortable ride we have had in many years. We were more or less exhausted when we arrived at the end of the road and the Barkly Roadhouse, and despite the signs portraying a friendly atmosphere we were confronted by Backpacker Staff who knew nothing about the local environment and were just there to take the money for the roadhouse owners.
The drought is setting in and waterholes are drying up
We didn’t waste too much time in getting back on the road heading towards the Queensland Border. The shadows were casting long shapes and I started looking around for a place to camp. Just before sunset I found a Telstra Tower about 600 metres from the road and we pulled in to stay the night. Later another vehicle came in after dark and parked on the other side of the tower and kept to themselves.
Early morning heading east and we were back into the wind again. Luckily the road was not too busy. I kept on looking for old landmarks we used to visit back in the 1970’s but much of it has been overgrown and is now out of sight.
We stopped for a break at Avon Downs Rest Stop and had a look and the great big cooking pots outside the Police Station. The coppers dog came over to visit our two and even hopped into the Xtrail much to Blaise’s disgust!
Nothing much has changed at the Northern Territory/Queensland Border
Even though it was Saturday the Queensland Roadworks Department was resurfacing the Main Street of Camooweal and it was all pretty messy. But we managed to refuel at the roadhouse which still looks the same as it did in 1971. We had our lunch in the parking area and as there were water taps at hand we filled our caravan tanks feeling justified in doing so after spending more than $200 in the town.
Now we tackled the Urandangie Stock Route. Exiting the town over a cattle grid and heading due south, we enjoyed a relatively good gravel road up to the Camooweal Caves National Park, after which the condition deteriorated rapidly. The wind was still blowing but now either from the side or from the back. The track became sandy and we both had to revert to 4×4 mode. We were like this for about one hundred kilometres after which the track improved again. With the wind still blowing a gale I found a huge quarry on the side of the road and we ducked in there to get away from the blast.
Having been along the track before, I recall visiting a sinkhole a short way out from Urandangie. Now I think that, Douglas Hole, has been opened up by the quarrying.
We were able to light a fire to cook our tea after the wind died down at sunset and we sat out and counted the stars and watched the coals of the fire glow in the dark. Far off in the distance to the east we saw faint lightning.
I woke up at 3am and there was think cloud cover and fearing rain we got up and stored all our outdoor gear such as the chairs and tables and campfire utensils. Then we went back to sleep. By sunrise however the cloud had thinned and was dissipating so that I was able to take a beaut photo of it.
Driving into Urandangie we saw some campers who were sleeping rough on the outskirts of the town. Apart from the pub and historical Post Office building there wasn’t much else to the town.
Jude was in front and took the short-cut to Dajarra. This meant more gravel road but it took 18 kilometres off the distance. The first 20 kilometres was a well-made road but then it reverted to sandy stretches and we were back in 4×4 mode.
Then the wind sprang up again. Whereas the northern half of the Barkly Tableland was covered with lush Mitchell Grass the southern part is in serious drought condition. Western Queensland has seen little rain in the past four years and communities are struggling, surviving only on the passing tourist trade.
The short-cut from Urandangie to Dajarra follows in a loop position so that you start off heading south, then east and then due north. By the time we were past the Kallala Station turn-off the wind was blasting gusts and clouds of dust started rising into the air. Even the Corellas were making hard work of the wind
After a while visibility was down to a 100 metres and we motored along the stony, then sandy road trying miss large bulldust patches which dotted the surface in no particular pattern. It was a relief to reach the bitumen road again just past Ardmore Station.
At Dajarra we refuelled, had a bite to eat and I asked a local about Mrs Johnston, who had owned the Dajarra Hotel back in the 1960’s. She gave me a job cleaning the hotel back then when I landed in Dajarra with little money and no prospects. Then her husband found me a job with Zanen Roadbuilders as the strip road was being built between Mount Isa and Dajarra. I was told that as far as the local knew she was still alive and living in another part of Queensland. Soon after we set off down the road, now with a tailwind, to Bedourie.
At Boulia we found a good campsite down on the Burke River where we camped for two nights. We were able to light a fire and do our cooking outside despite the wind still persisting to blow.
We continued on our journey south and the road improved somewhat south of Boulia. Just past Marion Downs Station turn off we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn again.
Further along on the way to Bedourie we stopped at Johnsons Lookout, right on the shire boundary of Boulia and Bedourie. There is a steep bitumenised climb to the top of the mesa and toilet facilities and information boards about the area are very new. The lookout gives an impressive vista over Lake Machattie.
The Lake Machattie Area is a large tract of land in the order of nine hundred square kilometres comprising Lakes Machattie, Mipia and Koolivoo, with the surrounding Georgina River and Eyre Creek floodplains, in the arid Channel Country. The area is important as a breeding site for water birds when it rains. Freckled and Pink eared ducks use the waters as their home base whilst other birds such as Pelicans, Ibises, Spoonbils, Cormorants, Avocets and Sandpipers also visit on their migratory journeyss. Lake Koolivoo and Mipia are flooded annually and Lake Machattie seasonally. Annual rainfall out here is less than 170mm.
We stayed two nights in Bedourie and enjoyed our visits to the artesian spas in the swimming-pool complex.
As we made our way south to Birdsville the country was drying out rapidly as the grasslands had disappeared and all that was left was red Gibber stones. Farming out here is a precarious occupation.
We visited the Birdsville Clinic where Jude had participated in building a story of stone in 2005 and she had not seen it in its completed form.
Then we caught up with a friend over a cup of coffee, and after that we refuelled and drove down the Inside Track which skirts the western edge of the Diamantina River Floodplain and across part of Goyders Lagoon. I found a sheltered campsite and managed get the van in to the cramped area.
It was just about feeding time for the dogs and they were hanging around the caravan door, when a two metre long King Brown snake came sliding past the van less than three metres from me. I quickly bundled the dogs into the van and then stamped my feet on the ground as snakes pick up the vibrations and move away.
The snake slithered off into the scrub and we tracked it for a short distance to make sure it was out of harms way before we let the dogs out again.
That night I managed to get a half decent photo of Jupiter aligning with the Moon, without the aid of a tripod.
The following day we drove the Birdsville Track, which today, is a modern wide road linking Birdsville with Marree and a a steady pace saw us reach Claytons Wetlands Campground in the late afternoon. Along the way we stopped at Mungerannie Hotel and bought some food and drinks which we ate down at the artesian waterhole whilst chasing flies.
In the quiet afternoon and sitting in the shade of the van at Claytons Artesian Bore, we saw a male Emu and seven striped chicks grazing and slowly coming towards us. Our Kelpie, Blaise, barked a warning, which got the attention of the male Emu.
He steadily worked his way towards us possibly thinking that Blaise was a black fox coming to eat his offspring. Emus can dismember a dog in one swift kick. The Emu was concentrating on Blaise when I intervened by throwing s rock at it. This broke its stare and it took off in a hurry. Blaise, in the mean time, stood her ground but obeyed commands not to chase. The Emus moved on and shortly after followed by a small herd of Angas Black Cattle, grazing peacefully as they made their way to the wetlands to quench their thirst. We filled the open tub with hot artesian water and went for a dip. It was a quiet night with no traffic and we slept well
In the morning we had another soaking in the hot waters and then drove on to Marree for fuel and some take-away from the Bakery. We ate our munchies in the rotunda at the railway station where there was shaded seating.
From there we drove to Farina Ruins Campground and arrived around lunch time.
I wanted a short drive for the day before the last leg home. We spent the afternoon reading and then just before sunset we visited the cemetery upon a hill nearby. The cemetery has been restored by volunteers and the history of some of the people there has been noted on an information board.
The drive along the flank of the Flinders Ranges is always nice. We stopped at Copley for a rest and did the same at Hawker before pushing on for home. The countryside here was distinctly greener due to winter rains
And so we came to the end of our northern escape. Now a big cleanup and and rethink of what we carry in the van to get ready for the next trip, which hopefully, will be soon.
The wash up:
We had travelled 19,000km in two cars for the duration of our two and a half month holiday over a variety of road and track surfaces and had had no punctures. However, I managed to dent some of the bodywork of the Toyota on my trek along the Carson River Track in the Kimberley. Due to issues with the Toyota we traded it in on a new Isuzu MU-X which will now become the tow car. I found an old diesel Nissan Patrol on Gumtree and it is being prepared for more off-road adventures.