Three weeks on the road in North West Queensland

trip3As the editor of the North West Star my patch is enormous. Centred in Mount Isa, it covers a region from the NT border east to Hughenden and from the Gulf of Carpentaria south to Birdsville, a huge area covering 14 local councils and almost half a million square kilometres. It is the size of Spain (Isa is our Madrid) but with a population of less than 50,000 people. I’ve been lucky to get around a lot of it but even by my standards these last three weeks have been hectic, with several big journeys bookended by two one-thousand-click trips, for 5000km in the car in three weeks.

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It started with the Easter races at Boulia. As in previous Easters I began with a drive down to Bedourie to catch up with friends. It is past Boulia, 500km from Mount Isa, on a road parallel to the border and surprisingly all bitumen, though the Mount Isa-Boulia stretch is almost entirely one lane only.

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I stopped at the Vaughan Johnson lookout at the border of the Boulia and Diamantina shires to enjoy the amazing view east over the Channel Country. The colours always change up here but this was as brown as I’ve ever seen the view. There is water in the Lake Eyre Basin thanks to flooding further north but little has made it to this part of the system.

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The effect of upstream water is confirmed at Bedourie. The roads south to Birdsville and east to Windorah are shut due to flooding. There is an alternative rocky route to Birdsville via Lake Machattie but I’m not keen on that bonejarring experience.

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I’m content to drive 20km south of Bedourie to Cluny property and admire the normally empty Kings Creek in full flow though it has hardly rained in Bedourie this year. Kings Creek is part of the Georgina River system and all this water came from the far north west of Queensland and the NT.

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On Saturday it was up 200km to Boulia to cover their annual race meet followed by a 300km drive back to Mount Isa that afternoon. It was important to get home before dark as cattle wander the unfenced road at night and give off no reflection. I’m keen on this Indian system to give them glow horns in the dark.

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On Easter Sunday I went out to Rigby Falls, a waterhole and waterfall about 50km towards Cloncurry and then another 20km on rugged tracks. It was a beautiful drive though there was little water remaining at Rigby after recent rains.

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Having gotten the Tuesday paper out of the way early Easter Monday, I had time in the afternoon for more local exploration, to East Leichhardt Dam, a reserve supply for Cloncurry Shire, and admire a lovely waterhole near the Dam itself.

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The following Saturday it was back to the races, this time Maxwelton, 350km east of Isa. The Maxi bush races are famous around the district but didn’t happen last year due to a bumpy track failing to pass muster. The locals came along anyway, dressed in their finery and had a great day out with footraces replacing the four-legged variety.

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Maxi race president Bill Needham plays the fanfare twice with each race, once to announce the horses in the ring before the race, and secondly to announce correct weight. Maxi races were broke and dying a few years ago when Needham and a new committee took over to save it. Needham admits they knew nothing about racing but they knew how important the annual meet is to social interaction in an isolated district.

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On Monday it was more equestrian sport, this time 320km up to the Gulf to the campdraft at the dot on the map called Burke & Wills Junction. I wouldn’t normally drive that far for a campdraft but this one doubled up as the national championships decider, a rare honour for a place that boasts just one building – the Burke and Wills Junction roadhouse, with nothing 200km in any distance.

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At the gala dinner that evening caterers from Cloncurry did a remarkable job to feed 300 people from a mobile kitchen hired from the Outback College of Hospitality. They brought in 150 serves of 300g steak, 150 serves of 200g barramundi, 30kgs of potatoes, 10kg of cherry tomatoes, 30kgs of prawns and 5kg of smoked salmon and made 25kg of coleslaw and pumpkin salad in heat of 36 degrees outside and 46 degrees in the mobile kitchen. I slept off dinner in the car that night and drove back to Mount Isa on Tuesday.

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I was back in Cloncurry on Thursday for a parliamentary hearing into the high costs of regional airfares. One reason I do so much driving is that flying in the bush is outrageously expensive, a hot-button issue in our region. At Cloncurry the federal Senate committee heard from local councils and industry groups and later that day returned to Mount Isa to hear the horrendous experience of locals who have forked out $20,000 and more to fly to see sick family members or get their kids to sporting events on the coast.

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On Friday I was on the road again, this time to Julia Creek for their annual Dirt N Dust triathlon festival, which I’ve written about before. It’s a great weekend with plenty going on. But this year I was unprepared for the enormous amount of flies and bugs. They are in abundance after recent rains and were a pest at Maxwelton (though not at Burke & Wills where there was tree cover). This photo of bugs in the light at the arena does not do justice to their extraordinary numbers, and made life very difficult.

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Bugs or no bugs the tri goes on and on Saturday morning we headed 30km out for the start at Eastern Creek. The bikes are taken out in enormous cattle trucks and the competitors, organisers and media are bussed to the start.

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The fun starts with a 800m soupy swim (though it can get quite deep and cold) in the creek. Visibility zero, but flies in the billions. Crocs? Well this is a Gulf river system so maybe one or two but they’ll be freshies who might give you a nip if you get too close not fearsome salties who enjoy the taste of person.

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Then the 30km bike ride back to town. Usually they are battling a headwind but this year there is no breeze. The only thing they have to contend with is media crouched in the grass or on the middle of the road looking for that perfect low level heat haze shot (I got one I’m happy with).

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Finally it’s back to town for an energy-sapping three laps of the main street in a 5km run to finish the triathlon. Afterwards everyone shrugs off the active wear and rocks a suit or a fabulous dress at the Artesian Express races at Julia Creek’s McIntyre Park, holding the richest race in the region.

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I headed back to Mount Isa on Sunday and after filing my Julia Creek stories I had time to head 20km out of town to explore the trails and climb the hills at the Heywood Granite Mine.

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This abandoned mine is full of red granite boulders not unlike the more well-known structures at Karlu Karlu – the Devils Marbles.

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Two days later it was another 300km round trip. The destination was Dajarra, half way to Boulia. Here the Cloncurry Shire Council was holding its monthly meeting and also officially opened the small town’s new cenotaph which honours Dajarra’s Indigenous First World War digger Peter Craigie. Peter’s family came down from Mount Isa to celebrate the day, a week ahead of Anzac Day.

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The final trip was on Thurday, a lazy 500km to Winton. About half way from Mount Isa is the tiny township of McKinlay. In the centre of town is a statue to John McKinlay, Scottish-born cattle grazier, and leader of the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition, one of the search parties for the Burke and Wills expedition in 1861. McKinlay discovered a river nearby, also named for him and the town briefly prospered with a goldrush in the 1870s. Today its main claim to fame is the Walkabout Creek Hotel, used for filming Crocodile Dundee.

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My destination was Winton for the three-day Way Out West festival. The main street was closed to traffic with a music stage across the road from the town’s North Gregory Hotel. The hotel famously heard the first rendition of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda (though its genesis was inspired by Combo Waterhole, 160kms across the border in McKinlay Shire).

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In a break in events I drove 20km out of Winton to the sparse Bladensburg National Park with its grassy plains, clay pans and mesas, river red gums and gidgee woodlands. The National Park conserves 84,900ha of Mitchell Grass Downs and Channel Country, including unique birdlife, plants and animals. Impressive flat-topped plateaus and residual sandstone ranges provide a scenic backdrop to vast grassland plains, river flats, and rocky scarps.

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The Koa People consider Bladensburg part of their traditional country, and it is also important to the Maiawali and Karuwali People. At Skull Hole inside the Park the Native Police and associate posse massacred two hundred Aboriginal people. Norwegian scientist Carl Lumholtz recalled how he in about 1882-84 was shown “a large number of skulls of natives who had been shot by the black police” some years earlier. In 1901 P. H. F Mackay wrote an article to The Queenslander about a massacre at the Skull Hole on Mistake Creek citing property manager Hazelton Brock as a witness and participant who classified the incident as “the Massacre of the Blacks”.

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I camped the night at Pelican Waterhole, site of the original township of Winton next to the Western River. The town was moved a kilometre away to its current location on higher ground due to frequent flooding.

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The centrepiece of the weekend was the opening of the new $23m Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton. The old visitor information centre and museum was burned to the ground in June 2015 though the statue of Banjo survived the blaze. The Governor-General and Premier of Queensland came on Friday to officially open the new building. I watched that ceremony but could not hang around Winton for the rest of the festival. It was back on the road for a final 500km to Mount Isa and some well deserved time on the couch.

The full itinerary for the three weeks:

Easter Mount Isa – Boulia – Bedourie 1100km return (plus side trips)

Easter Sunday Rigby Falls 120km return

Easter Monday East Leichhardt Dam 100km return

Saturday, April 7 Mount Isa to Maxwelton 700km return

Monday-Tuesday April 9-10 Mount Isa to Burke & Wills Junction 640km return

Thursday April 12 Mount Isa to Cloncurry 250km return

Weekend April 13-15 Mount Isa to Julia Creek 520km return

Sunday April 15 Heywood Granite Mine 50km return

Tuesday April 17 Mount to Isa to Dajarra 320km return

Thursday-Friday April 19-20 Mount Isa to Winton 1100km return (including side trips).

Total 4900km.

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