Published: August 25th 2006July 27th 2006
Heading north from Charleville the country gradually changes. We are leaving the agricultural belt of southern Queensland and heading into cattle and sheep country. For as far as the eye can see, there is only scrub and mulga.
Being Sunday, the little settlements we pass through are closed down and there is no opportunity to visit any of the small museums each has created to try and attract the tourist dollar. We lunched at Tambo on the banks of the Barcoo river (pop 370), notable for being the oldest settlement in western Queensland (1836). What we noticed most, though, was that the river was totally dry. After seven years of drought there is not even the smallest pool of water. This is the first real indication we have had of the impact of the drought which is gripping most of Australia. Everyone talks about it but most of us who live in the cities don't really understand how it affects the inland. For those of you in the UK, imagine the Thames going completely dry and you will begin to appreciate the impact.
Rather than travel all the way to Barcaldine, the next town of any note, we decided
Not so major outback road
and this was a good one. Most are only one lane. You have to pull off the road whenever you encounter another vehicle. Road trains show no mercy - they take up all the road, all the time.
to stay in the settlement of Blackall (pop 2060). Being supplied by water from the artesin basin, like Mitchell it boasted a hot spa. This time, however, the spa took the form of a full-sized olympic pool! Bliss after the strain of the last few days.
From another perspective also, Blackall was an inspired choice. The caravan park has a resident bush poet and provides a camp-oven meal each night for anyone who wants to turn up. Unbeknown to us, it has become something of a mecca for bush poetry and music and there were a couple of visiting poets and musicians there that night who all had to perform around the camp kitchen. After too much food and too much wine we stumbled off to bed - only to be roused by a heavy shower of rain during the night which slowly dripped into the tent and soaked the bottom of our bed. To stop the worst of it, we pulled a large plastic bag over the bed and went back to sleep. Fortunately the weather was warm enough next day to dry everything before we had to take off for Longreach.
Blackall is famous for two
other events. In 1892 a local shearer, Jackie Howe, sheared 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes using blade shears (hand clippers for the non-Australians). This record stood until electric shears were introduced in the 1950s.
Many of you will be familiar with the Australian expression “Beyond the black stump”, meaning something is very far away. Well, Blackall is the home of the black stump. During the 1880s, the whole of western Queensland was surveyed and a dead tree-stump in Blackall was used as the major reference point as the surveyors could rest their instruments on the stump. It was locally known as the Black Stump and the name stuck. Sadly it was subsequently destroyed in a bush fire and the site is now marked by a piece of petrified wood.
Between Blackall and Barcaldine we came across our first flock of wild emus. They are easily frightened but also extremely curious. When we first stopped the car to watch them, they took off into the bush and we thought that we had missed them but Sylvia remembered a story she had read about how the aborigines would attract emus by simulating an emu neck and head
using a specially shaped boomerang. She held her arm and hand above the car as though it were an emu puppet and made bobbing movements with her hand. Sure enough, within about 30 seconds the emus came up to the fence to see who this odd emu was. We got some good photos before they realised they had been tricked.
Barcaldine is famous as the town where the Australian Labour Party was initially formed following the shearers' strike of 1891-1894. The strikers used to meet met under what has become known as the Tree of Knowledge - a magnificent ghost gum outside Barcaldine railway station - and the Labour Party grew out of these meetings. Unfortunately, about six months ago, someone unknown poisoned the tree and it is now only a sad reflection of what it once was. Fortunately, realising the the tree would eventually die some day, the orginal tree was cloned some years ago and the resulting tree can be used to replace the one now dying. Not quite the same though, somehow.
A hundred or so kilometres west of Barcaldine is the town of Longreach, named after the extra long whip used by stockmen to
In the Outback at last
And it only took 3500kms to get here! It's a BIG country.
manage their cattle. This is the location of the Stockman's Hall of Fame, a tribute to the Outback heritage and to the people - men and women - who made it possible. Here also is the Qantas museum housed in the original hanger used by the airline. Although it is now Australia's major airline, Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Airline Service) was originally a small outback service which delivered mail, groceries and people to remote settlements and farms (called stations although no-one seems to know why).
A few kilometres before Longreach is the small settlement of Ilfracombe (pop 200). The van park here while basic had been recommended to us as being less crowded and more friendly than the parks in Longreach. Like the park in Blackall, it had a Happy Hour each day where those staying at the park get together for a few drinks, some shared food and entertainment. We found this fairly common in most of the outback van parks. It was a great way to meet other travellers and to exchange stories.
The other reason for staying at Ilfracombe was because it was at the start of the road to Isisford, the site of
one of the most significant fossil finds in Australia. In 1995, a local resident, Ian Duncan, was working on his property when he noticed what appeared to be bones in some rocks. He asked an archeologist friend to have a look at them and, after much work, the fossilised body of a crocodile was excavated.
This fossil, now known as Isisfordia Duncani, is the most primitive form of crocodilia yet recorded. It lived in this area around 95-98 million years ago. Further research suggests that the descendants of these animals were the only crocodilian survivors of the extinctions at the end of the cretaceous period, 65 million years ago, which lived through to modern times. All 23 species of crocodilians which exist today have evolved from Isisfordia Duncani.
The whole of this area is renowned among fossil researchers. A little north of Ilfracombe is a triangle formed by Richmond, Hughenden and Muttaburra where some of the largest fossils in the world have been found including a 7-metre-long bird called Muttaburrasauras Langdoni. Wombats the size of cows and huge carniverous kangaroos are some of the other unusual fossils which have been found in this region.
For those of
you familiar with the poems of Banjo Paterson (of whom more will be said in the next entry), Isisford was the home of Clancy of the Overflow. The Barcoo River, which we first encountered at Tambo, over 300 kilometres ago, also flows through here. It is still almost completely dry although there are a few waterholes which are sanctuaries for bird life. No crocodiles yet, though.
So far, I have neglected to mention that we have a third traveller with us - Skye, our budgerigar. We found her in the back garden one day being attacked by other birds and took her in to shelter her. We suspect that she was abandoned by one of the local breeders as she has rather deformed feet and would not be able to be sold. Usually we would have left her with one of our children to be looked after while we are away but this time that wasn't possible. I suspect she is now one of the best travelled budgies in Australia. I mention this now as we finally saw wild budgerigars while were visiting Isisford. (Sylvia: Our budgie Skye, sex indeterminate, is lovely aquamarine and cobalt blue with white and
grey colours interspersed. We saw the real thing on the creek. They are noisy green parrots, mate for life and are smaller than their mutant cousins. Research shows that budgies were taken to Europe and other areas overseas in the 1800s where breeders were able to find many colour combinations other than their “natural” colours. Skye's colour combination was developed in Belgium.)
There are more photos below