Australia’s Back Roads

An essay by Lorna McDonald, written in late 2016

 

I have loved the shape of Australia since my first geography lesson in a one-teacher school on the Lower Glenelg River in south western Victoria in the 1920s. With its image displayed on a large linen based map hanging on the blackboard, I attempted to draw its outline, mark the state borders, trace the chief rivers and ranges and locate capital cities. But it was in history lessons that the explorers’ trails were drawn, the trails that sometimes became roads. In my district it was Major Thomas Mitchell who in 1836 named the Glenelg River and left dotted lines on his charts that became main or back roads. Every school day I travelled one of these back roads on my pony, four miles to and from home, the first of many later traversed in each Australian state and territory, the most significant in Central Queensland where I again crossed Mitchell’s tracks.

Travel for travel’s sake has never appealed to me, the end must justify the means. Living in country New South Wales in the 1940s the many back roads led to farms, sheep stations or other country towns, the years in Sydney in the 1950s, nothing but busy thoroughfares. Half way through life I became a resident of Rockhampton with a post-graduate degree in history from the University of Queensland. The Rockhampton City Council commissioned me in 1976 to research and write the official history of Rockhampton and District. This included the whole of the Fitzroy River Basin, second only to the Murray-Darling system in Australia. With the basic task underway, I needed to travel with notebook and tape recorder through the region.

Past familiarity with back roads was ignored on one early occasion. While taking a short cut between Capella in the Central Highlands and Rubyvale in the Gemfields my career almost ended at the outset. There was no bridge over Teresa Creek on this back road, just a concrete causeway concealed by swiftly running floodwaters. Contemplating crossing in my small Holden Torana appeared hazardous, but at that moment a four-wheel-drive vehicle came into view on the opposite bank. A young woman stepped out, rolled up her jeans and walked across, water to her knees, the vehicle following slowly before pulling up beside me.

‘Not for me in this small car,’ I said. The young woman at the wheel replied,

‘You’ll be OK, change into low gear, drive slowly, keep your revs up. We’ll watch you.’

At this moment pride overcame prudence with the thought that I also grew up in the bush so if these girls could do it so could I. When my car lost its grip and began to float downstream – a terrifying moment – before the front wheels again touched concrete just in time. Pulling over on the top bank for the water to drain from the floorboards, the rueful admittance that the driver was at fault, not the back road.

There were many more back road trips before the Rockhampton history was published in 1981, but with a greater understanding of the skills required for driving on unsealed roads. Although these travels were seldom more than 300 kilometres from home, I planned well ahead, made sure my Toyota hatchback was in good condition and carried a tucker box, an Esky and plenty of water in case of a breakdown. As a public historian, some of my commissions required more time spent in city and town libraries rather than road travel, but I took time off in the early 1980s to study for my PhD at the University of Queensland, my thesis topic, ‘The History of the Beef Cattle Industry in Central Queensland, 1850s-1980s’. The Federal Government’s ‘Beef Roads’ with a car’s width of bitumen aided field research into the post-war Brigalow Development Scheme. Wandoan and Injune, where I crossed Ludwig Leichhardt’s tracks, formed my boundary in the south and then on through the beautiful Arcadia Valley to visit these twentieth century pioneers. Several were still living in tin sheds, others with newly built houses, all grateful for the ballot that gave them the opportunity to establish beef cattle properties. I experienced much wonderful hospitality, invitations to stay the night and take a drive over the property with the owner. One settler bemoaned that with the clearing of the brigalow, ‘a hundred bottle trees gone, there were no birds left, there were no marsupials, all the old carpet snakes gone’. My thesis was as much about the people who bred and grazed the new breeds of Zebu and Brahman cross cattle as the genetics of registered breeds or the difficulties of marketing the beef. Visiting the old established beef cattle properties, scanning station diaries and letters and again enjoying gracious hospitality, was the beginning of several life-long friendships.

During Australia’s bicentennial year in 1988 there was an unusual historic event in Central Queensland, a 200 kilometre walk along a route that no longer exists in total, the original road from Rockhampton to Clermont. It began in the 1860s on Canoona Road in town, followed Ridgelands Road until it branched to the Fitzroy crossing at Yaamba, then along today’s Bruce Highway to Marlborough before turning inland. I was one of about twenty colleagues who became ghosts walking a non-existent road. With an Army Reserve truck providing transport for gear and water, we camped each night in the bush, a campfire the heart of the group, my role as yarn spinner. To avoid walking the paved Bruce Highway, we crossed the Fitzroy at Redbank, forewarned by a landowner of a large crocodile in the river. Marlborough was paradise with our camp beside a rare running creek and the opportunity to wash sore and sometimes blistered feet. Rachel Henning whose brother Biddulph was the owner of Marlborough Station in the 1860s was the subject of that evening’s story.

On leaving Apis Creek Station next day our trail disappeared and we had to find our way across a rocky range, eventually emerging at Tartarus cattle station where the owner treated us to barbecued steak and beer. We were also invited to shower beneath an outside tank-stand, an unexpected luxury. That night trekkers heard the origins of Tartarus, in classic mythology ‘a deep sunless waste’. Next day our route along the Mackenzie River was more clearly defined and easier on the feet. When we stopped for lunch and a rest, one of the nearby station owners visited, no more steak, just a good story about the area’s early non-Aboriginal residents. I added information on the Aboriginal tribe, thanks to earlier assistance from Anthropologist, Peter Sutton. Our ten-day walk was finally achieved, but we had shed our ghostly forms before reaching the planned meeting place on the Dingo-Mt Flora Developmental Road. There we awaited transport back to Rockhampton.

Following two book launches in 1988, I was ready for a new challenge. This came in 1989 from the publisher Weldon Russell who invited me, and a number of other Australian historians, each to contribute a chapter to a large illustrated book titled, Journeys Into History. Divided in five main sections my given journey ‘From Roma to Mount Isa’ came within ‘The Far Horizons’ with the sub-title, ‘Pioneer Lands’. This was to be my introduction to central western Queensland, a region that I grew to know and like well in coming years. With limited time available on this trip I planned well ahead for a journey of 1,400 kilometres between Roma and Mount Isa. First I had to travel from my home base through familiar territory to Taroom, then inland on a dirt road through cleared brigalow to join the Warrego Highway at Jackson. As I strolled through Roma on a quiet Sunday afternoon, admiring the bottle tree avenues and photographing the fine colonial architecture, I pondered on the rare distinction of towns at the beginning and end of my travels being named for women, Roma for the wife of Queensland’s first Governor, Sir George Bowen and Mount Isa for a prospector’s version of Mount Ida. The longest leg of my journey, Charleville to Cloncurry, originally named for Australian explorers, most notably Thomas Mitchell, William Landsborough and Robert O’Hara Burke is known today as the Matilda Highway, named by the tourist industry for a swagman’s bedding roll. On my approach to Mount Isa on the Barkly Highway, I would pause briefly at the ghost town of Mary Kathleen, named for the wife of one of the discoverers of uranium there in 1954.

Prior to the Second World War most country roads were the responsibility of local authorities, but in 1963 the Main Roads Department adopted a road plan linking 30,000 kilometres. My travels in the inland in 1989 almost all took place on sealed roads designated as highways, yet they still were ‘beyond the black stump’. In the course of a few days I travelled from the gentle hills of Roma, crossed Major Mitchell’s Maranoa River and on through red sand and silver mulga to Charleville with its cattle stations stretching as far west as the Northern Territory border, and north to the sheep country on the Mitchell grass ‘downs’ beyond Tambo, Longreach and Winton. It was on the long drive between Winton and Cloncurry, still very much as the explorers saw it, that I first experienced the wonder of observing the curvature of the earth. There were no fences, no homesteads in sight, seldom any stock. I could see the horizon. I felt as free as air.

Each western town has its own character, usually with more old Queenslander hotels than churches. In Charleville the gracious Hotel Corones, with its stained glass windows in the bar, as elsewhere, was worth a photograph complete with two old patrons enjoying morning pots of beer. More importantly were the Flying Doctor Base and School of the Air. Blackall on the Barcoo has its statue of Jackie Howe the famous blade shearer who gave Australians their ‘bluey’ vests, and Barcaldine its Tree of Knowledge photographed in full leaf with flag flying. In Longreach I visited the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, opened the previous year, also the Qantas Museum still in the original hangar and in Winton discovered that not only did Banjo Paterson write ‘Waltzing Matilda’ in the district, but also that Qantas was founded in this small town. Such events are recent compared with the millions of years that have passed since dinosaurs left their footprints at Lark Quarry, or the thousands since Aborigines first left the first human footprints on Australian soil. My ‘Journey into History’ ended officially at Mount Isa, but on the way I visited the Royal Flying Doctor Museum at Cloncurry, site of the first base founded by John Flynn in 1928. In the hottest town in Australia, I found a cool spot under a shady tree in the park for my lunch and there met a young French couple on push bikes on their way to Darwin. When I overtook them a little later on the Barkly Highway, they waved and I replied with a toot. The landscape between Cloncurry and Mount Isa with its copper, uranium and silver, appears to have been created for the mining industry, Mount Isa itself is the only city in western Queensland. There I spent an interesting history-gathering day with the local Historical Society, despite the lack of dinosaurs. At dinner that night my hosts expressed disquiet when I told them I intended to return to Winton via Boulia. I had completed the initial part of my given task, now it was time for adventure.

With the rocky hills behind me, I set out on a winding dirt road following a creek bed just as the old bullockies had decreed. This was the top end of the Diamantina Developmental Road. About halfway along the 300 kilometres I stopped at a tiny dot on the road map called Djarra where I met some Aboriginal people. Driving alone in this remote region, my thoughts strayed to the First People and their ability to survive under such harsh conditions. Then I realised that in the wet season the winding creek would become a minor tributary of the Diamantina and much of this country would provide a feast of marsupials and fish. Arriving in Boulia, a neat small town, in the late morning I had time to take a walk, buy a sandwich and cool drink and read about the Min Min lights, a remarkable phenomenon in the Boulia district. They usually appear as a luminous fluorescent ball moving through the air, sometimes seeming to invite the traveller to follow in the manner of a mirage in air.

Driving out of Boulia with a head filled with Min Min stories, there were still 400 kilometres ahead to Winton, all but about the first 60 on unsealed road. Here I was driving between these two widely separated small towns with only the lonely Hamilton pub between. It was a clear, sunny day and apart from a couple of station utilities with cattle dogs on board crossing the road I had it to myself all the way to Winton. I turned the radio on for the ABC one o’clock news and was shocked to hear that an armed man was holding hostages in a house in Winton and police had set up road-blocks. I had been looking for adventure, but how could it happen in quiet outback Winton? At this time I was on the dusty unsealed section with heat haze ‘picking up’ distant flat-topped hills or mesas, apparently suspending them in the near-by atmosphere. Could it be related to the Min Min lights in broad daylight? By the time I crossed the Upper Diamantina River and a couple of its channels, passed the turn-off to Old Cork Station, and came ever closer to the mesas – looking so eerie in that flat terrain that my spine began to shiver – I heard the four o’clock news. The gunman had released the hostages and surrendered to Police. Winton had returned to normal. So much so that neither the people at the motel, nor the locals I met next morning, mentioned what must have been a rare incident. But neither did I mention the Min Min lights. It was on that lonely dirt road that I first met the outback full on.

Returning home via Longreach and the Capricorn Highway, I completed a total 3,000 kilometres in one week. Just one year later I travelled again to Longreach in company with two colleagues from Central Queensland University, Liz Huf and librarian, Carol Gistitin. We were on a mission to collect old station records from the district on behalf of the University Library. Professor David Myers, founder of the newly established CQU Press, had invited Liz and myself to work part-time with him in compiling a Central Queensland anthology of literature and history as its introductory publication, relevant also to this project. Towards the end of our first day in Longreach we left for an overnight visit to Rodney Downs sheep station on a black dirt road 50 kilometres between Ilfracombe and Aramac. Clouds of dust trailed our vehicle on this November day, but it takes only one downpour to convert dust to sticky black mud, impossible to negotiate as it clings to the wheels like cement and prevents them from turning. After dinner our hosts brought out the old photos and archival treasures, some lent for copying.

Following a day of appointments in and near Ilfracombe, we first called at Rothersfield on the back road between Ilfracombe and Blackall and were entertained to luncheon before viewing the photos and station memorabilia. We were expected at Portland Downs Station further along the road for afternoon tea, not the social occasion implied, simply bush hospitality. Portland Downs, at that time carrying 65,000 sheep on its 90,000 hectares, had excellent archives including valuable material for the anthology. We then had a two-hour drive on an unsealed road through Isisford to Blackall, all prime wool-growing land. We left next morning for a visit to Minnie Downs via Tambo, one of the oldest stations in the district. A virtual gold mine of station records had survived despite being stored in the attic of an old galvanised iron station store. A long ladder and much ingenuity was required to retrieve them, also so much dust that the manager’s wife invited us to shower and change before lunch. With a boot load of station record books we were soon on our way to Tambo and Highfield, a property only 25 kilometres west. Invited to stay the night, our hostess greeted us with the news that there was a king brown snake in the laundry, but a resounding shot a few minutes later assured us of safety. As both our host and hostess were addicted to history we had another late night. It was early breakfast next morning as we drove to their shearing shed to see the action before leaving for the 900 kilometre drive back to Rockhampton. We were all very tired, but pleased that we had built bridges between the central west and the Central Queensland University Library.

In March 1991 I found myself on the road to Longreach once again, this time alone. The Stockman’s Hall of Fame management had invited me to give a paper at a Women’s Forum. This was an early attempt to restore balance between the sexes and at the same time redeem the museum in feminist’s eyes. While there were no back roads trips for me on this occasion, hearing some western women’s stories led to ideas for some future project involving oral history. Meantime back home I was juggling my time between a commissioned history and the anthology. It was not until it was almost ready for printing that David Myers revealed his title, ‘Sin, Sweat and Sorrow’. He had been reading Anthony Trollope’s account of his visit to Rockhampton in 1871 and his alleged description of the town in those words. With a sub-title applied to the contents, this was a brilliant move and in part responsible for the book becoming a best seller. The chief launch took place at the University Bookshop on 10 December 1993 and, as a kind of postscript to the several local ceremonies, in April 1994 Liz Huf and I set off once more on the Capricorn Highway for one of a number of book launches being held at the Stockman’s Hall of Fame.

During the following few years Queensland’s back roads were not forgotten, but replaced by overseas flights to Britain and Norway for additional Library and oral history research that eventually produced three books, the Archer family trilogy. In 1999 I successfully applied for a writer’s grant from the Federal Government as part of its plans for the Centenary of Federation in 2001. My chosen title, ‘West of Matilda’, with field research commencing in May 2000. Travelling the sealed roads of the Matilda Highway between Cunnamulla and Winton in my Metro Mazda, ‘Little Emma’, the variety and quality of the oral history recorded was superb, ranging from old drovers’ yarns to those of ‘the flying nun’; from a sideshow man at Charleville to the top merino wool producer at the Longreach Show; from ‘women of the west’ whose stories were sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic. Again I was almost overwhelmed by offers of hospitality and the degree of friendship shown.

In planning the far western segment of travel, I was aware that it could not be undertaken in ‘Little Emma’ due to possible problems beyond my control along those isolated and unknown tracks. The generosity of Neville Callaghan of DC Motors, Rockhampton, in obtaining a near new Nissan 4 wheel-drive vehicle free of charge, solved the first difficulty. Donal McDonald, my New Zealand son, took his annual leave to accompany me, thus making it all possible. We left town in early June, travelling the Capricorn Highway through driving rain almost all the way to Barcaldine, followed a slippery back road to Barcaldine Downs Station and ripped up 5 kilometres of access road to Beaconsfield homestead where we were the embarrassed overnight guests of Max and Joanne Thomas. Next morning I was deeply mortified to see how badly we had damaged the station road. Now one day older and a good deal wiser, we took our host’s advice not to travel the shorter back road to Blackall, also phoning Ivan Oliver of Terrick Terrick Station to check on that road. Driving up to this station complex resembling a well-kept township, I recalled that the owner until the 1890s had been R.G. Casey, father of the R.G. Casey who became Governor General of Australia in 1965. Over luncheon we learned that Terrick Terrick still had 265,000 acres, running 35,000 sheep and 4,500 head of cattle.

Soon after leaving this state-of-the-art wool producer, we headed down the good secondary dirt road between Blackall and Adavale, a distance of 221 kilometres, for an overnight stay with Doug and Nell Richardson of Leopardwood Park, a few kilometres north of the township. Driving across the Gowan Range I sighted my largest mob of kangaroos ever, in the hundreds, and in the rough country, mobs of feral goats. We stopped to photograph the dingo fence after crossing a wide cattle grid. At Leopardwood Park the Richardsons dispensed typical bush hospitality and, after hearing their story of trauma at a time of accident and serious illness, put them in the category of ‘salt of the earth’. This was the first of several similar stories, though usually within Flying Doctor range. In the land of the ‘Bulla’ between Adavale and Quilpie we stopped again to photograph the wide, red dirt road bordered on both sides by grey-green mulga, my favourite type of western back road.

We drove into Quilpie about midday, a small town of about 800, home of the boulder opal and terminus of the western rail line from Charleville. I had two oral history appointments that afternoon and a phone call to confirm ten am next day with Char Speedy. Arriving on time, I stepped up to ring the doorbell and then took a step back, somersaulting to the lawn and landing on my right wrist. Struggling to my feet, I found my hand hanging at right angles and in acute pain. Mrs Speedy drove me to the tiny cottage hospital serviced by the last doctor for more than a thousand kilometres. The young female doctor told me that it was a bad break and may require a trip with the Flying Doctor to Brisbane. Thankfully she managed it under anaesthetic, though unhappy to plaster it while swollen. Four hours later I left the hospital, having been dosed with two strong painkillers. Many weeks later when I played the taped delayed interview with Char Speedy at the motel at five o’clock, my speech was as slurred as that of a drunken person. Before leaving Quilpie next morning the doctor checked my badly swollen fingers and advised me to see a doctor in Mount Isa ten days later.

We set off along the Diamantina Developmental Road for the 227 kilometres to Windorah, stopping for Don to photograph one of the brilliant red sand-hills. It had been a good wet season and although too early for wild flowers, there were plenty of shrubby bushes but very little timber. With dirt roads linking the tiny townships ahead – Betoota, Birdsville, Bedourie and Boulia – we hoped for fine weather. Ever since I had flown over the Channel Country in 1988 and crossed some of its upper channels in the following year, I longed to see the country at ground level. Approaching Windorah that wish became reality. First crossing some of the minor channels, we came to Cooper Creek, a name that immediately brought to mind the tragedy of the Burke and Wills expedition of 1861. Here, thanks to the summer rains, it was a glorious sight, the trees on the riverbanks full of screeching birds, its surface graced by quiet water birds. I had pre-booked one of Ross ‘Chumpy’ Ward’s two-bedroom cabins for three nights as we had a couple of trips to outlying stations. From this time onward, Don became an apprentice historian, taking notes, operating the tape recorder and any other task unable to be performed with my left hand. At Windorah I experienced the benefit of the Flying Doctor service myself, with Sister Ann Kidd relieving the painful pressure on my thumb by sawing through the plaster. I had hoped to meet her husband, the gravel-voiced Sandy Kidd, but he had left in his plane that morning for a distant meeting.

When we called at the garage to fill the fuel tanks before leaving Windorah, we were amazed to find a totally blind man in charge. He had his own system of dealing with credit cards and cash. At the general store next door, optimistically looking for a loaf of wholemeal bread, there was nothing but sliced white bread in the freezer. After adding this to the Esky we were on our way and several hours later lunching under a Coolabah tree beside one of the channels before moving on to Betoota on a rough road requiring detours around the occasional bog hole. Beetoota, then with a population of one, appears to have been created when God was in a bad mood. Its sole building, a pub with no beer, is surrounded by gibber desert. I would have liked to talk to the sole resident, Ziegmund Rwmienko, but we had been told,

‘He won’t open the door, he doesn’t like people knocking.’

Leaving the gibbers behind we drove past massive sand hills ranging in colour from ‘sand’ to deep red.

Birdsville. What legends this place name conjures up, especially associated with the Birdsville Track. We were now in the township and having booked in at the hotel were finding David Brook, Mayor of the Diamantina Shire, the person I was most anxious to interview, proving illusive. My apprentice solved the problem, he went to the Brooks’ home, explained my project to Mrs Brook who said the only chance of seeing him in the morning was to attend the six-a-side scratch cricket match on the town common. This was a first for the district with the ‘townies’ and ‘bushies’ competing in light-hearted style. Each player had to take his turn as batsman, bowler and fieldsman so that my interview took place in fits and starts between David Brook’s calls to the wicket or field. Before leaving this small, almost mythological settlement beside the Diamantina River, named for the flocks of birds and located between the Simpson Desert and Sturt’s Stony Desert, we took a short run down the Birdsville Track, but only as far as the South Australian border.

We were soon making good progress along the Eyre Developmental Road towards Bedourie, pulling over briefly to walk through the roofless, doorless and windowless Carcory stone homestead. A sign told the sad story, settled in 1877 by optimists it was abandoned in 1906 as both climate and land were unsuited to pastoral settlement. Not long after this melancholy history lesson we came to a barrier across the track and a sign pointing vaguely north east indicating: SIDE TRACK. We later learned that not only had Cuttaburra Creek cut the road, but also that many miles of it lay beneath Machattie Lake. We soon discovered more ‘side’ than ‘track’ for in places the faint sign of wheel tracks disappeared beneath apparently bottomless bulldust, a substance with as little grip as talcum powder. Don’s former outback experience alerted him to the dangers and so he made his own side-tracks. Imagine my surprise when our seemingly endless trail met the Diamantina Developmental Road to Bedourie. I had booked accommodation at the mud brick Royal Hotel (1880), arriving at dusk to plenty of noise from the bar, ringers and jackaroos having joined the locals for the weekend. It was a relief to be shown into a new rock-block motel complex well away from the noise. No dinner available at the pub so we took the barmaid’s advice and went to Robbie Dares’ Roadhouse, the township’s only food outlet. Both Robbie Dare and Jean Smith, licensee of the Royal Hotel, provided valuable oral history. Bedourie, head of the Shire, has a softer environment than Birdsville, with lightly timbered country and sand hills not far away.

On the road to Boulia we stopped only once to photograph one of the most literal creek names ever seen. Queensland is littered with ‘Sandy’ and ‘Oakey’ creeks and dozens more named for their number of miles by bullock wagon from this or that township. Here, on this lonely dirt road, we came to MOTORCAR BREAKDOWN CREEK, identified by a sign that told a vivid story in just three words. Plenty of food for thought and, having booked in at the Australia Hotel in Boulia, a great Sunday night barbecue provided food for the inner man (and woman). Boulia, with a population of 300 was the largest of the three remote settlements. Next morning we heard the most heartrending story of hardship and resolution from a woman who, as daughter of a kangaroo shooter and yard builder, moved with him and his wife and other children from camp to camp. Later as a married woman she worked as a shearers’ cook with four children under five in the quarters with her. Determined that her children should have the education she missed she worked day and night to send them to boarding school, surely an unsung heroine of the outback, happy that her children had turned out well.

At the fag end of the Diamantina Developmental Road we drove into Mount Isa through the back door, arriving at evening peak hour in the only city west of Matilda, one with ‘No Vacancy’ signs everywhere. On my earlier visit I had observed this to be a very multi-cultural city, confirmed now by the exotic dress of our Ethiopian hostess, the accommodation second-rate but we enjoyed the ethnic meal. I had made appointments for two days, but was delayed another while awaiting the result of the x-ray of my wrist. This was a mixed blessing as my itinerary for the project focused on Monday 26 June, the only day that Professor Michael Archer could see me at the Riversleigh fossil site between Burketown and Camooweal. Leaving the city early next morning we stopped in Cloncurry just long enough to visit the Mary Kathleen Mining Museum. Travelling north on the Burke Developmental road, alias Matilda Highway, we were now on our way to the Gulf of Carpentaria, but first an overnight stay at the Burke and Wills Roadhouse at the crossroads between Julia Creek and Gregory Downs. Accommodated in basic ‘dongas’ we enjoyed our steak, chips and salad that night on the roadhouse verandah in company with road-train drivers with interesting stories to tell in their colourful lingo.

On the road again we crossed the beautiful, wide Flinders River, the first of several to be crossed again between Normanton and Burketown. I had no pre-arranged appointments in Normanton, but we were drawn like steel to a magnet to the splendid old railway station with its arched roof over the carriageway. I asked the man in charge if he could suggest a suitable contact in the small town.

‘Stella McNab,’ he said, ‘she knows everything about Normanton, but be prepared to stay for afternoon tea. You’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t.’

She proved to be a tiny, gracious, single lady know as ‘Miss Normanton’ who told us about the glory days of trade on the Norman River, also that it was alive with crocodiles. When she invited us for afternoon tea we knew better than to plead haste. Another 70 kilometres along that flat, featureless country we reached Karumba on the southern shores of the Gulf of Carpentaria, calling first at Karumba Point, the only beach on the savannah that can be accessed by road. Standing on the beach I tried to imagine the great outline I had learned to draw long ago, the slope down here and then up to Cape York. I had pre-booked accommodation at Karumba Lodge (self catering) at the small township a little further along. It had been built in 1939 for British Empire Airways as the first overnight stop for crew and passengers of the Sunderland flying boats between Sydney and London. We dined on fish and chips at one of the picnic tables overlooking the mouth of the Norman River. Next morning I interviewed Noel Sykes who had lived there since 1962 as skipper of the marine survey boat, whose history was interspersed with vivid but unprintable details about his life that had this writer’s hair almost standing on end.

Returning to Normanton we began our journey of discovery along the Great Top Road to Burketown, first the historic tree that identifies the northernmost camp of Burke and Wills in 1861 – Camp 119. In a sense we had followed his trail all the way from Cooper Creek at Windorah. We crossed the Flinders again and the Leichhardt, stopping for lunch beside one stream alive with screeching corellas wheeling in flocks of pink and white against a cloudless blue sky. We drove into Burketown on a Saturday afternoon and were reminded of Stella McNab’s description of it as ‘the last town God made’. It had been the first town on the Gulf, established just three years after the Burke and Wills expedition. There was not a soul in sight until we walked into the bar of ‘Australia’s Greatest Outback Hotel’ to make a booking. We followed the barman upstairs to back-packer accommodation; rows of single iron bedsteads all round a three-sided balcony, with one bathroom at the end. Fortunately we were the only guests. Taking a walk around the deserted town we were impressed by the information panels detailing the town’s early history. Over a meal of barramundi in the pleasantly cool beer garden we noticed only one other table occupied so I asked the friendly chef why the town was so quiet.

‘They all go out to Escott Lodge for the weekly barbecue,’ he said.

In ‘the last town that God made’ there was no one to speak to on this Saturday evening but the barman and the chef.

We had to be on the road early next morning for the long drive to Riversleigh. The dirt road was badly cut up from summer floods and in an area where distance is measured in travel time rather than kilometres it took us two and a half hours to reach Gregory Downs, about 112 kilometres south of Burketown. We crossed the concrete causeway over the beautiful, lucid, spring-fed Gregory River with its overhanging trees and lunched beneath a shady bloodwood tree. After passing the turnoff to Lorne Hill Station the road was rough indeed. As navigator I was amazed when the marked line disappeared from the road map and after stopping to open a gate, this line was replaced by dots. I blessed our good Samaritan for the Nissan with all the needs for such a trip. It took us safely all the way to Campbell’s Camp on the Gregory River at Riversleigh, its deep green, spring-fed waters contrasted dramatically with the harsh, rocky terrain only about a hundred metres from its banks.

We had pre-booked one of the tents in an open area overlooking the river. Our accommodation included folding chairs for relaxation before the open-air meal provided by the Campbell’s Camp cook. Later we wended our way by torch light to meet Michael Archer and about 40 volunteers at their nearby camp. He warned us that the fossil site was difficult to find so we had better closely follow his vehicle about eight o’clock next morning. We dare not miss, so were seated in the Nissan beside the track well before eight o’clock. A few minutes later the vehicle whizzed by in a cloud of dust while we waited for the cavalcade. We had not been told that the volunteers travelled to the fossil site by helicopter, so there was no cavalcade. Some surveyors came to our rescue and we became ‘tail end Charlie’ until reaching the turnoff where one drew a mud map for Don. Following a fence line, no track, dodging around dry gullies and jump-ups eventually we saw the grounded helicopters. The volunteers were at work up a very steep hill, difficult for me to ascend with arm in a sling, but having made it I sat on a rock patiently waiting for a tea break. When it came, I put a microphone in front of Professor Archer, asked a couple of informed questions and he paid me the compliment of answering in detail. We witnessed the blasting of the next possible fossil site, talked to volunteers during smoke-oh, but when a party of Doomagee tribal elders came to claim Archer’s attention, it was time to depart. The several hours at the site had been an unforgettable experience that we had almost lost in a cloud of dust from Archer’s vehicle.

It was back to Campbell’s Camp to pack up, then a short drive south to cross the Gregory on a causeway so overhung with cabbage palms, pandanus, and tea-tree that we might have been in a tropical jungle. We found the dirt road to Gregory Downs, then drove east to the Burke and Wills Roadhouse on the Matilda Highway, thus ending 2,000 kilometres of dirt roads since leaving Blackall, interrupted only by sealed roads between Mount Isa and Normanton. On reaching Winton on the way home I had come full circle via the back roads and byways of the outer outback since beginning research there eight weeks earlier. Most importantly I had recorded the stories of two or three people in every overnight stop except Burketown. Back in Rockhampton, Don washed and polished the Nissan and returned it to Neville Callaghan with our sincere thanks and a bottle of whiskey.

There were book launches for ‘West of Matilda’ to attend in Winton, Longreach and Charleville in 2001, a holiday trip with four Norwegian friends in 2003 that took us from Barcaldine on the Matilda Highway to Normanton and east to the coast, but no more outback research trips. As a ‘Last Hurrah’ to Central Queensland back roads, I celebrated my birthday in 2014 travelling with family members on unsealed roads between Springsure and Tambo, Tambo and Alpha, Alpha and Clermont and finally Rubyvale in the Gemfields. Crossing the source of Mitchell’s Nogoa River inland from Tambo, I farewelled this explorer’s trails, first travelled in Victoria. The country was in drought and once we almost came to grief in bulldust. Despite this, we shared six days of fun and good fellowship.

Australia’s back roads travelled throughout a lifetime all had their environmental and man-made characteristics, but there was one aspect of those ‘West of Matilda’ that made them stand out from all others: the opportunity in 2000 to meet and talk with so many men and women throughout far western Queensland’s scattered towns, tiny townships and isolated sheep or cattle stations. This was a privilege indeed and, in hearing their stories, I was made aware that the legendary spirit of the west was alive and well despite bitter experiences that affect all from time to time. While others might blame fate, governments or particular individuals, these people revealed the abiding qualities of good humour, optimism and hope for the future. They were ‘fair dinkum’ Australians.

 

 

 

 

 

Image Credit:

Image supplied courtesy McDonald family

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