This weekend was my first trip to the Gulf of Carpentaria with two events in the tiny town of Gregory demanding my attention, the Gregory Downs Jockey Club’s annual meet on Saturday and the Gregory Canoe Challenge on Sunday, the so-called “saddle and paddle” weekend.
There’s two ways of getting there, the “short” way about 307km with 200km of dirt road, or the long way by bitumen via Cloncurry, about 450km, which was the way I took. This photo was taken on the highway to Cloncurry early Saturday morning. I had a quick job to do in Cloncurry where the Queensland Country Women’s Association were meeting.
Once finished in Cloncurry it was up north to the Gulf via the Burke Development Road which ends up in Normanton and Karumba. I’d never been up this way before. About 60km north of Cloncurry is the ghost settlement of Quamby. They still have a rodeo here but “the pub in the scrub” is derelict.
About 100km north of Cloncurry is Dismal Creek, which is not as bad as it sounds. I’ve been unable to find out how it got its name. My initial feeling was that it was named by Burke and Wills on their trek north (or perhaps south when despondency really started to kick in) but I can find no evidence to back that up. The Queensland Place Names Register was no help.
About 180km north of Cloncurry is the Four Ways junction which links Julia Creek, Cloncurry, Normanton and Burketown (via Gregory). At the Four Ways is one of the few roadhouses that makes the map of Australia, the Burke and Wills Roadhouse, a memorable name I would have been familiar with as a child looking at the world atlas.
The attached licenced Bull Bar “dedicated to riding bulls, throwing bulls, catching bulls and talking bull shit” (as a wall sign says) has these two blasts from the past. But payphones are not just historic antiquities here, they are necessities with no mobile coverage north of Cloncurry.
The country becomes scrubbier as we head west on the Wills Development Road to Gregory, about 150km from Four Ways.
When John Lort Stokes came exploring in these parts in 1841, he got excited about the prospect of civilisation in what he called the Plains of Promise whose “whose pleasing appearance prompted him to foretell the spread of ‘many christian hamlets’ throughout the area.” They are still waiting for the hamlets, christian or otherwise.
Finally on to Gregory, which used to be called Gregory Downs until 2013. I don’t know about the turtles but the flowing water is the main reason to visit here. There’s not much else except a pub, general store and a racecourse. There was a school which closed down some years ago.
First stop was the annual Gregory Downs Jockey Club races. Despite the remoteness of the location there was a big crowd present, people up for the canoe races, weekenders from Mount Isa, everyone from Burketown and Doomadgee and all the surrounding stations.
The six races on the sand were enjoyed by all with many close finishes.
Everyone dressed up for the occasion and the fashions on the field gave the judges a hard time.
Some enjoyed the day more than others, but pretty much everyone had a good time at Gregory Downs.
When the races finished it was time for a quick libation at the Gregory Downs Hotel Motel.
The pub was quiet thanks to the races taking all their custom.
There was time for a quick check down by the river where the 43km marathon canoe race was due to finish on Sunday. The Gregory Canoe Classic attracts long distance paddlers from across Australia to its dangerous rapids.
The Gregory Downs sunset in the clouds was impressive. Then it was time to head back to the track to get a feed from the race club before dragging out the swag for a warm night’s sleep.
Early in the morning, I drove 43km down the Camooweal road to The Knobbies where the canoe race starts.
Near the start is Carnage Leap, the first of many rapids expected to make inroads on the field.
But most of the excellent competitors I saw handled Carnage Leap in their stride. That was the point I had to leave the Canoe Classic, worried as I was about running out of petrol in a remote area. I said goodbye to the Gregory and set off back to Mount Isa.
It was time for the long road home via the so-called short cut. This is the “main road” between Camooweal and Burketown. Not exactly a highway and about 150km of bone-jarring dirt before you get to the main road to Mount Isa. But that’s where the adventure ends.