A winter of North West Queensland festivals

Winter is by the far the best time of year in North West Queensland. The weather is glorious and there is a never-ending catalogue of great events to get to. This is my record of travelling around the region over nine weekends of the winter of 2018 in our part of the world.winter1

First up was the 2018 Birdsville Big Red Bash. Named for the Big Red sand dune where I took this photo, the festival brings 6000 people to the middle of the Simpson Desert for a three-day party with a host of musical talents all enjoying playing in a vastly different environment to normal. John Farnham topped this year’s bill but I was more interested in seeing the likes of The Angels, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Black Sorrows and Kate Ceberano.


Among the fun to be had apart from listening to the music was this 2000-strong world record attempt on the Nutbush City Limits dance. Needing to get 90% success rate through the five-minute dance, this extraordinary dust raising phenomenon was judged by a Guinness Book of Records rep and easily beat the previous best by around 1500 people.


A couple of days later at least 1500 of the Bash revellers joined me 200km up the road for the Bedourie Camel Races, the first of three weekends of camel racing in western Queensland.


It being Bedourie, it wasn’t just about camels. There were all sorts of competitions: damper-making, mini golf, running, Bedourie camp oven-throwing and wood chop – where the sparks were flying and the sunglasses proved to be handy personal protective equipment.


The following weekend the camel action moved on to Boulia, 200km north of Bedourie, 300km south of Mount Isa. This is acknowledged as the biggest of the camel weekends and while the other events satisfy themselves with 400m races, Boulia sends the camels on a 1500m trek.


Like Bedourie, Boulia has its own fun events between races. In its case it is the camel tagging. People enter the arena, attempt to put a tag onto the camel, race back to the start line then race back to untag the camel, all against the clock. It is as chaotic and as funny as it sounds.


While on the following weekend the festival of the camel moved to Winton, I decided it was time for another sport and went to Quamby, 50km north of Cloncurry for its annual rodeo. Quamby is an old-style traditional rodeo which makes it very popular with locals who will camp there overnight.


Quamby has an anything-goes mentality which has a tendency to infuriate sensitive souls in the city who pontificate from 2000km away about how terrible it is to animals. The reality is that humans usually come out the worse in most Quamby confrontations, much to the delight of the crowd.


Another weekend, another rodeo. This one in Cloncurry is much more professional – the annual Merry Muster is the third biggest rodeo in Australia after Mount Isa and Warwick. Always held the first weekend in August, it is a great lead-up to Isa’s own rodeo week.


Isa’s rodeo is now a five-day festival starting with the street parade and markets on the Wednesday night which attracts thousands into the street. Then on the Thursday is the Mailman Express named for local legend Wally Mailman where non-thoroughbred horses race against the clock, while thousands more pack the race track.


The highlight is the three-day rodeo at Buchanan Park with action starting on Friday morning and going through until Sunday afternoon in front of packed crowds at every session. The open bull ride is the classic event where riders try to last eight seconds aboard a thousand kilograms of mean beast. The 60th anniversary rodeo finished up Sunday night with a concert in the main arena.


Another weekend later, another rodeo and another concert. This was the Gulf Frontier Days festival at Gregory, 350km north-west of Mount Isa. The weekend features Australia’s only Indigenous rodeo and then some of the country’s best Aboriginal acts and artists feature in concert such as Yothu Yindi, Shellie Morris and the incomparable Archie Roach (pictured).


By now we are up to the last weekend in August and it is the border town of Camooweal’s turn to have a festival, the Drover’s Festival. The festival celebrates the dying art of droving cattle across the land by horse, a skill mostly lost to the trucking industry. The first night of the festival features a parade on the main street as well as the chaotic Mailman race (pictured) where teams of four race around town carrying out tasks including carrying the mail and drinking a beer at the pub. On Saturday the action moves to the Drovers Camp for bronco branding and a concert and the day also features Camooweal’s annual race meet.


In September and the action moves back to Birdsville for the annual two-day Birdsville Races with 6000 people in attendance in the middle of the Simpson Desert. The running of the Cup on Saturday is worth $40,000, the richest race in rural Queensland, attracting the best regional jockeys from across the state. I wrote about my experience there last year here.


The ninth and final weekend of events is in Cloncurry. Called Beat the Heat it is a new festival designed to take place in the off-year of Winton’s biennial Outback Festival. It takes advantage of existing events such as the Cloncurry Spring Races and adds a few new touches to bring in the crowd. Friday night held a street party with a free concert headlined by Kasey Chambers. A highlight was the mine cart race, a bit like Camooweal’s Mailman with teams dragging a cart around a course taking on challenges along the way such as eating plates of hot curry. Curry beat the heat indeed, and a lot of laughs to end a fun weekend in a fun winter in the North West.


A closer look at Alice Springs


Over the last few posts I’ve documented my trip to the Territory in June. It was deeply enjoyable especially getting to the Top End where I’d never been before. I had been to Alice Springs before in 2002 so I was keen to renew acquaintance and stay with a good friend, who was shocked when I reminded him he had just moved there when I came calling 16 years ago. It was good to be back in the middle of Australia and re-experience Alice’s unique aura.


Alice Springs has an impressive geography in the middle of the Macdonnell Ranges. The place has its own geological event named for it, the Alice Springs Orogeny, 150 million years of tectonic mountain building that created the Ranges and the Uluru/Kata Tjuta formation 450km south-west. Seen here is Mount Gillen to the south of town as seen from Billy Goat Hill in the centre of town.


Above is the view north from Billy Goat Hill over the town centre and Anzac Hill beyond. Billy Goat Hill as the name suggests is where goats were herded in the past. Known as Akeyulerre in Arrernte language, it was a special place for local Indigenous people though it is now mostly derelict.


This is the view from Anzac Hill looking south over the town and Heavitree Gap, the southern entrance to town. The outsized glass building on the left is the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. The four-storey $18 million courthouse opened in 2016 and has divided local opinion especially over the public/private agreement between the government and Sitzler Construction.


Like most memorials in Australia, Anzac Hill is strong in remembrance of Australian action in overseas wars, especially the First World War. There is, however, a glaring omission in local conflict. The first European expeditions in the 1860s and 1870s came across groups of Aborigines, but these meetings were fleeting. The first cattle reached Alice Springs in 1872 and Europeans established pastoral stations. Once settlers moved in, increased contact with original inhabitants was inevitable. The consequences were monumental and devastating for the Aborigines, and the effects are still felt.


An easy 4km walk north along the river from the centre of town is the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, the birthplace of the township. The Overland Telegraph route followed John McDouall Stuart’s 1862 trek across Australia south to north. The station was established in 1871 along with 11 others to relay messages between Darwin and Adelaide and link with an underwater cable network to London. More modern facilities were established in the new township of Stuart in 1932 at Railway Tce and Parson St and the Station ceased operation. The town was later renamed Alice Springs after Alice Todd, wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs, Sir Charles Todd.


This is the view from the Telegraph Station to Trig Hill. As the name suggests, the hill was used by ordnance surveyors to map the region.


The view back to the Telegraph Station from the top of Trig Hill.


A little further past Trig Hill is this small cemetery. There are three gravestones in the cemetery and two more are buried in a secondary enclosure.


Ernie Bradshaw died from tuberculosis aged 27. He arrived from Melbourne six months earlier hoping this dry country would improve his health. Ernest Flint, who worked on the Overland Telegraph line, died here aged 33 and was the first person buried here.


The Todd River is usually dry and despite no permanent waterholes it supports a wide range of plants. In the rare event rain falls and the river fills up it heads south through Heavitree Gap for up to 140km before disappearing into the Simpson Desert. River flows are quickly soaked up by the parched landscape and what is not evaporated filters through the soil and rocks to recharge the groundwater basin.


On Friday evening I joined my friend on his ritual end of week climb up Mt Gillen. I was glad of the company. The un-formalised and un-signposted route required local knowledge and some headlights for the tricky trip back down in the dark.


My iphone did not do justice to the twilight views from the top of Mt Gillen.


Alice Springs is a town like no other in the outback, a cultural as well as physical oasis. The town has a thriving art and social scene and a constant influx of young creative visitors. It also means that overseas acts such as Irish singer Mary Coughlan are prepared to break holidays to perform here – by happy coincidence on the weekend I was there. She played with her regular guitarist and a local talented bassist at the best pub in Central Australia – Monte’s. A great night in the middle of everywhere

On to Kata Tjuta and Uluru

The morning after my visit to Kings Canyon, it was back on the road south – three hours to Yulara. Yulara is the township near Uluru and the home of Ayers Rock Resort which was booked out when I arrived (the reason why I later ended up camping at Curtain Springs 180km away). I stocked up at the supermarket and from the town lookout saw Uluru gleaming in the distance 25km away. But a closer visit to the Rock would have to wait till later in the day.


First I was heading 50km west still within the same national park to Kata Tjuta. I stopped at the viewing area 15km out to get my first good look at the ancient red rock formations though they looked more brown at this distance.


But red they were as confirmed at closer range. Kata Tjuta is a Pitjantjatjara phrase meaning “many heads”, and that image too looked more obvious a couple of kilometres out. The largest of the domes, Mt Olga (hence the old European name for the entire range “the Olgas”) is 546m above the surrounding plain and 198m higher than Uluru.


Mount Olga was named in 1872 by Ernest Giles, in honour of Queen Olga of Württemberg (daughter of Tsar Nicholas I). On her 25th wedding anniversary in 1871 she and her husband, King Charles I of Württemberg, named Giles’s expedition funder Ferdinand Mueller a baron and the now “von Mueller” wanted to repay the compliment.


This part of Central Australia is in the Amadeus Basin, formed 800 million years ago. Around 550 million years ago, an event known as the Woodroffe Thrust lifted rocks northward and when they eventually eroded they created the deposit called the Mount Currie Conglomerate. Uluru and Kata Tjuṯa are made of sediment originating in this Mount Currie Conglomerate and both have a chemical composition similar to granite.


The Pitjantjatjara and fellow traditional owners the Yankunytjatjara people knew these rocks for thousands of years before they were renamed for obscure German royalty. They still hold the ancestral dreaming law known as Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa has many deep, complex meanings and refers to the period when ancestral beings created the world.



Most of the dreaming law is not accessible to outsiders. One legend surrounds the great snake king Wanambi, who lives on the summit of Kata Tjuṯa and only comes down during the dry season. His breath could transform a breeze into a hurricane in order to punish those who did evil deeds.


There are two major walks in Kata Tjuta and I did both that day. The first, the Valley of the Winds walk is a full 7.4km circuit of the rocks, which guide books say takes four hours but I did in an hour and a half.


The second walk is the Walpa Gorge Walk which takes you deep into the structure. Walpa (windy) Gorge is a desert refuge for plants and animals and the track gently rises to an ephemeral stream, passing rare plants and ending at a grove of spearwood.


The walk gives visitors a close-up glimpse of the amazing sheer walls of granite. And no matter how warm it is in the Territory sun, it gets chilly in the shadows.


This is the view looking out from Walpa Gorge.


On completion of the second walk I drove back to Uluru. I’d last been here in 2002 and was keen to renew acquaintance though I would do things differently this time. I’ve written how I did the climb in 2002 though later admitted this was the wrong thing to do, ignoring the wishes of traditional owners. The day I returned was too windy and park rangers closed the climb anyway. A wise decision as my memory of that climb (especially the way down) was that it was deeply treacherous and dangerous and one false move would end in certain death.


The local Anangu, Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluru which has no known meaning. On 19 July 1873, surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named the Rock in honour of Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. In 1993, it was renamed “Ayers Rock / Uluru” and became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to “Uluru / Ayers Rock” on November 6, 2002. While the resort retains the name Ayers Rock, it is fading from common use as Uluru becomes the generally accepted name.


Uluru is a 10km diameter inselberg which means “island mountain” in German. Inselbergs are prominent isolated hills that rise abruptly from lowlands in a hot, dry region. Uluru is also often referred to as a monolith, although this is term is avoided by geologists as ambiguous. I parked my car along the Mala Walk (named for the rufous hare-wallaby) and before I did the full 10km circuit of the rock, I stopped to admire the artwork embedded in the rock along the Mala Walk illustrating the stories of the Tjukurpa. Traditionally Indigenous people made paint from natural minerals, mixed with water or sometimes animal fat. Colours most commonly used were red, yellow, orange, white, grey and black.


Uluru rock is composed of arkose, a coarse-grained sandstone rich in the mineral feldspar. The sandy sediment, which hardened to form arkose, was eroded from high mountains composed largely of granite. Over 500 million years ago the newly-formed Petermann Ranges were similar in size to the Himalayas but eroded quickly without plant cover. The sand that became the arkose sandstone of Uluru was dumped at the bottom of the mountain range. As geologist Dr Marita Bradshaw puts it “Uluru is almost just shedding of granite.”


From a distance, Uluru looks smooth and featureless. But up close its face is weather-beaten – pitted with holes and gashes, ribs, valleys and caves.


Scientists debate the formation of the caves at Uluru. Some say they begin with water lying in dimples in the rock when the weathering process forms a hollow and gradually ‘eats’ backward and upward into the rock until it becomes a cave. Others say the high caves on the southern side of Uluru may have begun by water soaking in when the plain surface was at a higher level and again the weathering process could again eat upward and backward to form a cave. The spaced high caves on the north-eastern and western faces may have begun by the flaking process and honeycombed out by wind and water over time.


As I returned to the Malu Walk on completion of the 10km circuit, the evening sun poured tantalising shadows on the rocks. Uluru’s flaky surface results from the chemical decay of minerals.


Mutitjulu Waterhole is one of Uluru’s many hidden gems.


This was the cave where the old people sat and the cave’s ceiling is blackened by fires. Here they told stories and kept their spears and tools and cooked up malu (kangaroo) the younger people would bring them.


On completion of the walk I timed my drive out of the park to coincide with sunset. Uluru’s sunset car park was heaving with tourists but a little further along the road you could stop (legally) and quietly enjoy the magnificent rock change colour as it reflected the fading sunlight.