The Big Lap Part 9 - Home by Starlight

From Mt Isa we continued east along the Flinders Highway (The Overlander Way), past a monument to the local Kalkadoon Aboriginal people (who didn’t fare well at the hands of early settlers and their Native Police cohorts) and an obelisk at a spot where Burke and Wills travelled on their way north in January 1861. We didn’t stop at Cloncurry, except to re-visit the picturesque lake behind the Chinaman’s Creek Dam, and continued on to Julia Creek, the ‘Gateway to the Gulf’.

After an early lunch at an RV rest area beside the Creek, we headed for the local visitor centre and the town’s main attraction: ‘Digby’, a very cute mouse-sized critter with big eyes and sharp teeth, ambassador for the town’s dunnart conservation program. Unfortunately, being an essentially nocturnal animal who enjoys sleeping a lot, he didn’t make an appearance while we were there. So, after browsing the other displays and a quick drive around town, we hit the road for Richmond, our intended waypoint for the night, about 150km away.

We got about 100km down the road when my mobile phone “blinged” unexpectedly to announce an incoming voice message. Pulling over to take advantage of some rare mobile coverage, we were surprised to discover the message “Please call the Julia Creek police”, which we did, to learn that Elizabeth’s handbag was still back at the visitor centre where we had left it, with all our credit cards and cash. So, we u-turned and retraced the 100km back to Julia Creek, where Elizabeth and her handbag were happily re-united.

The afternoon was still relatively young and we could easily have re-fuelled and headed back to Richmond well before dark. But what we hadn’t counted on was that the pumps at the only servo in Julia Creek refuse to operate in temperatures above 35 degrees, which is just about every afternoon in these parts, and it was way past that now. With insufficient fuel on board to safely undertake the journey, we had no option but to accept the hospitality of the Julia Creek Caravan Park for the night.

Next morning, with the pumps operating, we refueled and headed off to Richmond, again. After only 50km, we peeled off to a tiny hamlet called Nelia (population 5) to see the “world’s biggest Brolga sculptures”, created in scrap metal by resident artist, Sue Tilley. They were impressive, without a doubt, but not as captivating as the pair of real live ones we saw in a field by the road on the outskirts.

Richmond is the administrative centre of a sprawling shire (26,936 sq km) that was explored by William Landsborough during his 1862 search for the missing Burke and Wills. It grew up on the banks of the Flinders River, Queensland’s longest watercourse, which flows (when it flows) for more than 1000km from its headwaters to the Gulf of Carpentaria, near Kurumba. When we arrived on this hot spring morning, however, the Flinders was nothing but a broad, sinuous sandpit that didn’t look like it had carried water in quite a while.

The area was once the bed of an ancient inland sea (about 95-120 million years ago) and is now part of the richest dinosaur fossil fields in the world. In 1995, Richmond’s old Strand Theatre was converted into ‘Kronosaurus Korner’, which claims to be the best marine fossil museum in Australia, and, from what we saw during a 2-hour visit, we are happy to grant it the title. The collection includes such iconic finds as: the skeleton of a 100-million-year-old Pliosaur; the remains of Kronosaurus queenslandicus, a predatory marine reptile found by a Harvard paleontology team in 1929; a fossilised crocodile measuring 4.25 metres; a 7-metre Plesiosaur known as Woolungasaurus; a 7m shark-like Icthyosaur; and an 80% complete Ankylosaur – all well laid out, effectively lit and thoughtfully curated.

On our way out of town we called at the local war memorial to pay our respects to Lieutenant Colonel Henry William (“Mad Harry”) Murray, VC, CMG, DSO (and Bar), DCM, the most highly decorated soldier in the Australian Army and one-time resident of Richmond, who survived the horrors of two world wars only to die of a heart attack following a car accident, at the age of 86.

Not to be outdone in the dinosaur stakes, Hughenden (also on the Flinders River, 114km to the east) is home to the Flinders Discovery Centre, where the star attraction is “Hughie”, the life-size skeletal replica of a Muttaburrasaurus, the first entire dinosaur fossil to be found in Australia (the original bones are located in the Brisbane Museum). Outside the Grand Hotel stands “Mutt”, a full bodied replica of a Muttaburrasaurus created by the Tropical Museum of Queensland and brought to Richmond in 1999. Also, the streets of Hughenden are adorned with a number of dinosaur-themed sculptures by local artists, including a life-sized scrap metal Pterosaur and an Ammonite fossil made from windmill parts.

On the morning we left Hughenden the sky was dark, lightning flashed and thunder rumbled ominously across the land. Raindrops plashed on our windscreen, all seven of them (we counted). We drove through Prairie, a main horse change depot for Cobb & Co in the 1870s and still a ‘one-horse town’, to Torrens Creek (used as an ammunition dump in 1942), where we turned due south at a signpost bearing no less than 15 destinations in that general direction, including Aramac. This was Starlight Way, so called for the legendary Captain, immortalized in Rolf Boldrewood’s ‘Robbery Under Arms’, who in turn was based on the real-life Harry Redford – worthy of a short digression.

In 1870, Harry stole several hundred head of cattle and one white bull from Bowen Downs Station (1.75 million acres), near Aramac, and drove them 1300 km through marginal desert country down the Cooper Creek to Blanche Water Station in northern South Australia where he sold them for £5000 – all up, an extraordinary achievement. However, the white bull was very distinctive and later identified, leading to Harry’s arrest and extradition to Roma for trial, which should have been a slam dunk for the prosecution – the evidence against Redford was overwhelming and the defence offered no witnesses. But the jury, so captivated by his consummate bushcraft and daring, found him ‘Not Guilty’ – a verdict that so incensed the Queensland governor that he ordered the criminal jurisdiction of the District Court at Roma be withdrawn for two years, because it was felt that the locals couldn’t be trusted to punish criminals they admired.

A little over 60km south awaited Barcaldine, the ‘birthplace’ of the Australian labour movement. In the late 1880s Barcaldine became a centre of activity in western Queensland for the organisation of shearers and rural labourers. Pastoralists, concerned about this growing assertiveness, formed the Pastoral Employers’ Association in Barcaldine in 1889, and reduced rates of pay for shearers. The response was a firming of union membership, and by early 1891 hundreds of striking shearers and rural workers were camped around Barcaldine and threatening ‘action’ if non-union workers were brought in to replace them. Mass meetings were held under the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ (a ghost gum, Eucalyptus papuana) in front of the railway station. Violent clashes between police and strikers in March 1891 led to 13 leaders being gaoled on St Helena Island in Moreton Bay. (Nearly 30 years later one was elected chairman of the shire).

Today, the town celebrates “the lives and proud heritage of ordinary working people who shaped the nation” at the Australian Workers Heritage Centre. Set amid landscaped gardens and shady trees around a bore-fed billabong, it is the only museum of its type in the country and occupied us for several hours. Also, a beautifully re-created ‘Tree of Knowledge’ (the original having been poisoned with Roundup by persons unknown in October 2006) is enshrined in an impressive sculpture known as “Barcy’s Box”, an 18-metre high cube in which 4000 suspended timbers of varying length form the tree canopy. Each May, Barcaldine celebrates the Tree of Knowledge Festival, once only a mayday parade but now a food expo and goat-racing extravaganza.

Refreshed after a couple of days’ R&R in Barcaldine, we set off east through the picturesque Drummond Range, towards Emerald. Ludwig Leichhardt traversed these Central Highlands in 1845, and the first of several pastoral runs were taken up seven years later. In 1879, Emerald became the terminus for the railway line from Rockhampton and has grown to be a prosperous service centre for the region, which includes major coal mines in the Bowen Basin and the largest sapphire gemfields in the world.

The main road into town passes the Visitor Information Centre, where we stopped to view some interesting and unusual attractions: the ‘Emerald Dragon’, a large scrap metal sculpture by local artist Jase Moore; the Centenary of Federation Mosaic Pathway, comprising 21 tiled mosaics which depict the history of the Emerald district; and a huge (10m x 7m) reproduction (reputedly the world’s largest) of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ painting, standing on a 25m steel easel. A drive through the centre of town revealed a very pleasant, tree-lined business district adjacent to the Emerald Railway Station (classified by the National Trust). On the edge of the CBD, the Emerald Botanic Gardens were the perfect venue for our picnic lunch. Established in 1987 on the banks of the Nogoa River, the 42-ha gardens showcase native plant species endemic to the region, a gigantic windmill, and the ten ‘Federation Pillars’, each commemorating a decade of the town’s history through the 20th century.

On the way out of town we detoured past the huge Fairbairn Dam. Built in 1972 (46m high and 800m long), the dam impounds Lake Maraboon with a storage capacity of 1,440,000 ML (three times larger than Sydney Harbour) that irrigates over 25% of Queensland’s cotton and has become a popular leisure haunt for the Emerald residents. It is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar spillway upgrade by Sun Water.

After overnighting at the village of Rolleston, we continued east along the Dawson Highway through several small towns that each makes their own unique contribution of the rich tapestry of the Capricorn region.

Moura (‘The Coal and Cattle Centre of the Dawson Valley’), existed before coal was discovered in the area (in the early 1960s) and has a diversified economy based on cattle, dairy and cotton. Nevertheless, its coal mining heritage is evident throughout the town, like huge bits of mining machinery used as playground equipment for the local kiddies, and a brass statue of a miner commemorating the Moura Underground No 4 Disaster of 1986 – one of three catastrophes that collectively claimed the lives of 36 miners, leading to strictly open-cut format since 1994.

The town of Banana was established in 1862 and takes its name from a dun coloured bullock (‘Banana’) used by an early pastoralist to decoy wild cattle into a holding area. A statue of said bullock stands proudly in a park at the intersection of the Dawson and Leichhardt Highways, gazing with bovine serenity at the passing traffic.

Biloela is a prosperous rural service centre with a population of over 6,000, at the junction of the Dawson and Burnett Highways. The town’s economy is driven by pastoral and agricultural enterprises (cotton, dairying, wheat, sorghum, lucerne and other grains and cereals) and by coalmines that power the Callide Power Station, which looms over the local landscape. The town also has many attractions to amuse and entertain visitors but the day was getting on and we still had many miles to go before making camp for the night. So, without pausing, we turned south and entered the “naturally beautiful” North Burnett region, with its rugged gorges, imposing ranges and scenic rural landscapes. We had begun the trip with a run down the Darling River and now, four months later, we were about to close the loop in our homeward leg by shadowing the mighty Burnett River, through Monto, Eidsvold, Mundubbera and Gayndah.

Monto is the youngest and most northern town in the North Burnett. Although settlement began in the district as early as 1850, the township did not come into existence until the 1920s as a fully planned settlement for soldiers returning from World War I. Consequently, many of the buildings in the town centre are built in an art deco style, like the elegant Town Hall at the top of Newton Street.

On the outskirts of town we called at the Historical Complex, with a wide range of artefacts, machinery and memorabilia in a pleasant garden setting. One of the most interesting exhibits is a 1/5th-scale replica of a World War II Liberator B24D Bomber nicknamed ‘Beautiful Betsy’, which flew 22 combat missions before being retired as a cargo aircraft. Her final flight left Darwin on 26 February 1945 bound for Brisbane and disappeared without trace. The crash site was eventually located in 1994 in the rugged Kroombit Tops National Park north of Monto. US and Australian army personnel recovered the crew’s remains, which are now buried at Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

We had planned to spend the last couple of days of our trip bush camping on the shore of Wuruma Dam, about 60km south of Monto. To get there, we took a scenic drive on a narrow country road that passed through the tiny village of Mulgildie. Tiny it may have been but this locale looms large in local folklore as the haunt of the infamous Mulgildie Bunyip, personified in a plate steel sculpture by artist Brett Benecke. A nearby sign gave directions to ‘Bunyip Hole’, only ten minutes from the village. Naturally, we had to go there to satisfy our curiosity, and found a tree-lined lagoon that was tranquil but ominously murky from recent stormwater. Over the years, tales have emerged of strange noises, churning water in the billabong and of cattle disappearing into the depths as they drank. Known as ‘Devil Devil’ country, Aboriginal tribes, and drovers too, could not be persuaded to camp near it.

Wuruma Dam was constructed across the Nogo River to supply irrigation and town water for the North Burnett region. It retains a reservoir of some 165,400ML that stretches over 1,630ha to a depth of 36 metres. The impoundment is well-stocked with Silver Perch and Golden Perch, Barramundi and Australian Bass, which makes it a popular spot for anglers who flock here for regular fishing competitions. As a free camp, the foreshore is also a favoured destination for campers seeking water-based recreation, like swimming, skiing, canoeing and sailing. And so, we should not have been surprised when we got there to find every man and his dog already ensconced in the designated camping area, with no space to set up Tikay that didn’t resemble a skateboard rink. This was not how we envisaged spending the last days of our wonderful trip, so we ate our picnic lunch (in bitter disappointment) and moved on.

The nearby town of Eidsvold was pleasant enough but it too lacked the kind of bush venue we had in mind. With half a mind to cut the trip short and head for home (only 400km away at this point), a quick browse on Wikicamps alerted us to the Tolderodden Conservation Park, 7km to the west on the Cracow Road. We decided to give it a go and were pleasantly surprised (and a little relieved) to find a picturesque camping area within an open forest of blue gums and Moreton Bay ash overlooking a long stretch of the Burnett River, with only one other camper in residence. This suited us very nicely and we wasted no time in setting up and sitting back to watch the sunset over the delightful riparian landscape. Over the next couple of days, half a dozen overnighters came and went but their comings and goings did not disturb our bushland reverie, intent as we were on eking out the pleasures of the Great Outdoors before returning to our lives in suburbia.

But finally the day dawned of our transit of the North Burnett towards home. While we were looking forward to getting there, we were content to tootle over the country roads and take the time to visit a couple of places along the way. At Mundubbera, we called at the Jones Weir to see the Burnett, swollen with recent rain coursing over the spillway. It was doing the same at Gayndah, where its copious waters support a thriving citrus industry that makes this town “The Orange Capital of Queensland”. It is also the state’s oldest town (settled in 1849) and we took a stroll around the town centre to admire some of its historic features, like the restored Ideraway Homestead, the Council Chambers and Town Hall, the Court House and the Grand Hotel.

Beyond Gayndah, the Isis Highway branched off to Biggenden and we followed this through sweeping pastoral landscapes below the rugged peaks of Mt Walsh, emerging at Childers on the Bruce Highway (A1). Although we were only an hour’s drive from home, we paused again to admire this charming town atop a ridge surrounded by swathes of sugar cane, avocadoes and macadamia nuts. In a sense, Childers is a kind of phoenix. Having been settled in the 1860s and well established as a service and administrative centre by the 1880s, the town was virtually wiped out by a fire in 1902 which demolished nearly all the buildings on one side of the main street. The part that survived formed the nucleus of a reconstruction around a town centre shaded by unusual Brazilian Leopard Trees, where no less than 23 buildings are listed on the Queensland Heritage Register, earning Childers the title of ‘The National Trust Town’.

Satisfied that we had squeezed every last drop of adventure out of our Big Lap, we turned for home at Hervey Bay, arriving after four months (to the very day) and 18,000km since it began – awed once again by the sheer size and beauty of our wonderful country, and exhilarated by the many pleasures of life ‘on the road’.

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