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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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).


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.


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”.


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.


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.


A visit to Paronella Park

park15I’d driven the road from Townsville to Cairns once before in 2013 but at that time I’d not heard of Paronella Park. I headed up that way again in 2017 and in the intervening years I’d heard multiple times Paronella Park was worth a visit and had won many tourism awards. So I added it to my itinerary between Cardwell and Innisfail. The park is not new, it has been open since 1935. As I drove north I saw many billboards advertising its charms and wondered why I didn’t notice it before. Or was it simply clever marketing in the last few years that had raised its profile?


There is no doubting Paronella Park is an extraordinary place with an extraordinary story. Situated at Mena Creek it is a 15km detour from the Bruce Highway, 200km south of Cairns.  I parked on the south side of the creek at a lookout admiring Mena Creek Falls. It was the dry season so not at its most spectacular but sitting pretty right next door was Paronella Park in all its glory.


The Park is approached by a swing bridge which looks down on the creek below and part of the ornate park. The park was a pre-war dream of a Spanish immigrant named José Paronella who wanted to build a Castilian castle in the Australian tropics. Paronella was born in February 1887 in La Vall de Santa Creu, a small village in Catalonia. On five hectares of virgin scrub beside Mena Falls he built a park in his name with a castle, picnic area by the falls, tennis courts, bridges, a tunnel, and covered it with 7500 tropical plants and trees that is now a lush rainforest.


José Paronella’s father tended olives for local farmers and his grandmother’s tales of “romantic Spanish castles” and the “nobleza” profoundly influenced José’s later dreams.  As a young man, he moved from Catalonia to Cairns in 1913. For 11 years he worked hard, cutting sugar cane then purchasing, improving, and reselling cane farms. By 1921 he was an Australian citizen and a wealthy man. Paronella received an extortion letter from The Black Hand demanding £500. The Black Hand had been established in Sydney and Melbourne, and was making inroads into the Italian communities in Innisfail with many murders, bombings, and blackmails. Paronella was susceptible to extortion as he had been involved in tax evasion. In 1924 he returned to Spain under a false name intending to marry Matilda Soler, his betrothed before coming to Australia. But Matilda had found another man so he married Matilda’s younger sister Margarita instead. He took Margarita back to Australia where the couple worked hard together to continued to build their fortune. They also had two children Teresa and Joe (Jr).

park16José first saw his park in 1914 but it wasn’t until 1929 he was in a position to buy it which he did for £120. Immediately he got to work building his pleasure gardens and reception centre for public enjoyment. Paronella was strongly influenced by the Moorish architecture and gardens of Spain, and the design of Villa gardens visited during his European honeymoon. He also admired the work of Antonio Gaudi, and created garden elements inspired by those in the Alcazar Garden in Seville and the Botanic Gardens in Madrid.


The earliest structure, the Grand Staircase, was built to facilitate the carrying of the river sand to make the concrete. The steep structure has reminders of past floods. The two brown tiles about half way up represent the 1996 flood level (lower) and 1967 and 1994 (upper). Near the top is a third tile representing the huge height of the 1946 flood.


After building a house for themselves, the Paronellas started on the castle and accompanying lookout towers and pillars. Apart from the stone house, all of the structures were constructed of poured, reinforced concrete from old railway track. The concrete was covered with a clay and cement plaster put on by hand, leaving their fingerprints as a reminder.


It took six years to open the park but the buzz was growing at the scale of what they were doing. In 1933 the Brisbane Sunday Mail reported what the “pleasant-faced Spaniard” was up to in the Deep North. The paper was impressed but struggled to avoid racist overtones. “Joe Paronella. An amazing fellow of 47 and with none of the swagger the world has pinned to his race.”  But it did ask him the question why he put so much effort into it: “It is because I wish to do something. I make my money in (the) sugar industry and in selling my farm. I travel and see the world twice. Never do I see any place as beautiful as Queensland.”


Paronella did much of the work himself. He also employed a canecutter who had worked as a carpenter in Malta and the canecutter’s nephew to work on the project full-time. He used many unemployed men who had arrived in Innisfail and exchanged food and shelter for labour. In 1935, the Park was officially opened to the public. Queensland governor Leslie Wilson was at a conference in Innisfail and visited the new park. Wilson was impressed and told journalists “Paronella has created a place of beauty which will be a great attraction to visitors in the future. His buildings are of unique design. The Park is a credit to North Queensland. It is absolutely remarkable to see what one enterprising man can do.” Access to Mena Creek from Innisfail had improved and the park was immediately popular. It boomed during the war years as thousands of American servicemen descended on the park with plenty of money to spend.


The theatre showed movies every Saturday night. And when they removed the canvas chairs from the Hall it was transformed into a favourite venue for dances and parties. The highlight of the ballroom was a myriad reflector, a great ball covered with 1270 tiny mirrors, suspended from the ceiling. Its pink and blue spotlights of pink and blue shone on the reflector from the corners of the hall and when rotated slowly, it produced a coloured snowflake effect around the room. Upstairs was the Paronella Museum housing coins, pistols, dolls and samples of North Queensland timbers. Evidence remains of the disastrous fire that swept through the Park and destroyed the hall and cafe in 1979. The Park was closed for years, but was slowly revived despite further damage caused by cyclones and floods.


The tunnel of love was built in 1932-1933. The reinforced concrete structure provided a short cut to the fernery. It was closed in 1993 for safety reasons. The closure has allowed the colony of little bent-wing bats to grow from 40 to 500.park10

Paronella planted these majestic rows of Queensland kauri pines (Agathis robusta) in 1933. They can live for a thousand years. Paronella planted over 7000 trees and the whole park was threaded by pathways, bridges and avenues. He also built a shaded orchid and fern house for Margarita to tend exotic plants.


An astonishing feature of the park is a hydroelectric power station, the first in North Queensland. Installed in 1933 it worked using gravity according to Paronella’s own design. Water falls nine metres into the turbines where were coupled with DC generator.  A belt-driven governor controlled the speed and changed the angle of water flow to maintain constant rotation speed. Paronella used the station to power the park though he had to change it to AC after the 1946 floods. The system, along with the entire park, was destroyed after cyclone Larry in 2006 but the current owners restored it with the help of a German company specialising in old hydro systems. Up and running again since 2010, it continues to power the entire park and also supplies the grid.


Two years after repairing from the significant damage of the 1946 floods, José died of cancer, leaving Margarita, Teresa, and Joe, to carry on. Teresa married and moved to Brisbane while. Joe married Val in 1952, and they had two sons, Joe (José) and Kerry. Floods, renovations and maintenance kept the family busy after Margarita died in 1967 and son Joe in 1972, Val found it too hard and sold up in 1977. The park was closed after the 1979 fire. Mark and Judy Evans purchased the Park in 1993 and began a plan to put the Park back on the map. They see the Park as a work of art, and work on maintaining and preserving, rather than rebuilding.

No native title in Brisbane


In 2017 a long running Brisbane legal battle was ended with “good news for developers”. Two separate cases for native title over the city of Brisbane were finally defeated at appeal in the Supreme Court. As someone with property in the Brisbane area, it should be good news for me personally, though it’s a decision I greet with sadness.

In 2004 I bought an apartment in Wooloowin – more properly Lutwyche, though the difference between the two is one of property values. I was aware of the difference between Lutwyche and Wooloowin, and chose to call my address the latter, but I was unaware and unconcerned about the history of the land on which it stands or any native title aspect of my strata title.

Yet Aboriginal people used to live in this area in large numbers. A 1930 Brisbane Courier article on Lutwyche noted that “blacks” used to frequent the area in large numbers camping on the Kedron Brook and holding corroborees in the area. Though the Courier couldn’t avoid judgement: “no little trouble was caused the earlier white residents by these even earlier residents. For sheer devilment a party of blacks would sometimes gather around the doorstep of a house, singing and making the night a tragedy by their music; while if they knew that the master of the house was away they would sometimes force an entrance and demand food and tobacco.”

No mention was made about the trouble the early white residents caused to those “even earlier residents”, a tragedy even greater that the music. It is a tragedy ongoing with the Turrbul and the neighbouring Yugara now having their native title appeal claim to Brisbane denied by the Full Court of the Federal Court. The Turrbul or Brisbane tribe owned the country as far north as the North Pine River, south to the Logan River, and inland to Moggill Creek. The Yuraga or Jagera populated a wide area from Brisbane to the ranges at Toowoomba.

The Turrbal people lodged their original claim in 1998 and the Yugara people in 2011. The combined claim area covered the bulk of the Brisbane metropolitan area. It didn’t help there were two separate claims but they both failed this year.

In a judgement handed down July 25, Justices John Reeves, Michael Barker and Richard White dismissed separate appeals filed by Desmond Sandy, Ruth James and Pearl Sandy on behalf of the Yugara-Yugarapul People and by Maroochy Barambah for the Turrbal People. The State of Queensland, Commonwealth of Australia and the Moreton Bay Regional Council were respondents in the Yugara action, lodged in April 2015, and the State of Queensland, Commonwealth of Australia and the Yugara group were defendants in the Turrbal appeal, filed in August 2016..

The Turrbal People claimed they were direct descendants of an Indigenous man called the Duke of York in the early settlement days while the Yugara said the Turrbal People were a sub-group of the Yugara. In 2015 Justice Christopher Jessup found the Yugara had not demonstrated that any of their ancestors were present in the claim area at sovereignty and the Turrbal People had failed to prove they were descended from the Duke of York.

The findings ended any hope of any native title over Brisbane, as the Appeals Court agreed with Jessup neither the Turrbul nor the Yugara People could demonstrate they were biological descendants of those who lived here “at sovereignty’ or a society who had continued to observe traditional laws and customs. While the Court acknowledged settler actions likely contributed to this interruption of connection, there was “longstanding authority” in finding that the “explanation of forced removal … is not directly relevant to the continuity finding”.

As Clayton Utz lawyers said the decision brought “certainty for infrastructure proponents and other developers” in Brisbane however it doesn’t mean those proponents and developers can ignore Aboriginal interests.

All land users have a duty of care to take reasonable and practicable measures to avoid harm to Aboriginal cultural heritage, regardless of native title. Compliance with the “cultural heritage duty of care” typically requires consultation with the applicable “Aboriginal party”.  Where there are no current registered native title holders or claimants for an area, the Aboriginal party will be the claimant for the last of the registered claims over the area to have failed. Ordinarily, a former registered claimant will be replaced by a new registered claimant over the same area but the negative determination over Brisbane means the current Aboriginal parties (Turrbul and Yugara) cannot be replaced.

The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act 2003 (Qld) provides for Aboriginal parties who aged and die to be succeeded by the members of their old native title claim groups.  How this succession will work in practice if the old claim group becomes become dysfunctional ‒ is an emerging issue. As Clayton Utz says “legislative, judicial or policy guidance will be required.”

That aside, the determination shows, as the lawyers involved in the Mabo case have said the bar is set too high on native title. As the Westender noted after the original 2015 trial, the Brisbane determination indicates the high level of difficulty involved in proving an ongoing connection between the native title claimants and the land since sovereignty, especially where there has been widespread urbanisation or agricultural development.

Combo Waterhole and Waltzing Matilda

combo7Combo Waterhole is a refreshing change even in the driest times, a pleasant place to camp by a billabong and wait while your billy boils. Situated 7km south of Kynuna, between Cloncurry and Winton, there is a short trip off the bitumen of the Landsborough Highway to some interpretative signs and a walking track to the waterhole, which in the wet season is one of many channels of the Diamantina River.combo2What little water there is kept in place by stone overshots installed on Dagworth Station in the 1890s. Teams of labourers used horses, drays and baskets to cart in stone and soil laid in tightly packed rows strengthened by keystones. The water has become a haven for wildlife that thrives under the shade of its coolibah trees.combo1It’s not known if Banjo Paterson witnessed the building of these overshots when he visited Dagworth in 1895 with his fiance Sarah Riley but it was another tale of that visit that has remained strong in the Australian imagination. Paterson, then 31, practised as a solicitor, but had also started a writing career. From 1885, he began submitting and having poetry published in The Bulletin.combo3His fiance Sarah was a friend of Christina Macpherson, sister of station owner Bob Macpherson. Christina was a talented musician and while there Paterson heard her play on her zither a “catchy, whimsical, haunting tune that deserves words to keep it alive”. Christina was playing the Scottish tune called Bonnie Wood O’ Craigielea. She heard it at the races in Victoria that year and the catchy tune stuck in her head. Now Paterson set about composing words to Australianise the song combining two local legends for the purpose.combo5One day he and Bob Macpherson and Banjo stopped at the Combo Waterhole where they found the remains of a recently slaughtered sheep killed by a swagman. The incident reminded Macpherson that a year earlier Dagworth had been through a bitter shearers’ strike (one of many in the 1890s). As Macpherson planned to start shearing with non-union labour, unionists used the cover of nightfall and gunfire to set the woolshed alight, killing around 140 sheep. When police investigated the suicide of Samuel “French” Hoffmeister who shot himself at the strikers’ camp a day later, they found a burned letter which linked him with the woolshed fire.combo6The second legend was of a trooper pursuing a man who had killed an Aboriginal youth, who stumbled on a swagman who thought the trooper was looking for him because he’d killed a sheep for food. The swagman tried to escape but drowned in a waterhole. The name for Paterson’s new ditty came to him when he and Macpherson found a swagman on the road and Macpherson said “that’s what they call waltzing matilda”.combo5


The song was first performed at the North Gregory Hotel in Winton. It was an instant success that soon swept across Australia, becoming the favourite song of Australian troops fighting in the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. The song became associated with Winton and its tourist centre (now being rebuilt after fire) is named the Waltzing Matilda Centre.  But the song was born at Combo Waterhole, 160km further to the north.


A trip to the Birdsville Races

The first thing noticeable as you arrive into Birdsville is the planes. There must have been hundreds parked at the airport of every size and dimension and from all parts of Australia.
The second noticeable thing just outside the airport was the steam. It is arising from the artesian bore piping water up from the Great Artesian Basin.  The bore was drilled in 1961 and has a water temperature of just below boiling point. A series of cooling tubes and a parallel plate heat exchanger brings the temperature down.

birdsville1bSituated on the eastern fringe of the Simpson Desert, the area around Birdsville was the home of the Wangkangurru-Yarluyandi people. The first Europeans came in 1844 when SA Survey-General and explorer Charles Sturt led expeditions to the area. Burke and Wills‘ Camp 76 was also in the region on their return trek in 1860-1. The township of Birdsville grew out of the colonial need to create a customs post between South Australia and Queensland. Before the days of motorised transport Afghan cameleers brought supplies up the Birdsville Track. But today was all about horses. The 135th running of the Birdsville Cup.

They came from all parts with the town of 200 swelling to 6500 for the weekend. I have been to Birdsville many times before (most recently to the 2017 Big Red Bash) but this was my first time here for the races. The main street was set up with market and food stalls.

Before the races the place to meet was the Birdsville Hotel. They came dressed in all kinds of costumes.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has an association with Birdsville having visited twice since 2015 to check out the town’s internet and mobile capability. He wasn’t there today but a mechanical bull named in his honour was there.

The pub was the site of the Calcutta for the races. A Calcutta is an open auction where each horse goes to the highest bidder. The practice originated with the Colonial British (of course) in Calcutta, India.

As a photographer I’m always on the lookout for colourful costumes or groups so not surprisingly my eye was drawn to these guys. I asked them where they were from. “Orange,” they replied. “Of course,” I said and they laughed. “You serious?” I said doubting them. But indeed, they came from Orange, NSW. 











The Birdsville Bakery is a little bit away from the action across the town oval. But it is always worth a visit for its famous camel pies. Permanently parked out the front is Onslo the VW Beetle.  It was owned by author and journalist Kelly Theobald, who was killed in a car crash on the Birdsville Track in 2015, aged just 27.

As I headed back across the oval, a plane came in overhead with distinctive RAAF markings. I knew exactly who it was. Earlier I had bumped into the Diamantina Mayor Geoff Morton but he was in a rush and couldn’t stop to talk to me. When I picked up my media pass I was told why, the Governor General of Australia Peter Cosgrove was expected in town at 11am. And here just a minute or two after 11 was his plane.

I walked back to the airport, conveniently located in the middle of town, just opposite the pub and saw Cosgrove come off the plane with his wife to be greeted by Mayor Morton. They were quickly whisked away on a tour of town. 

That tour probably included a visit inside the pub at some stage. William Blair built the Birdsville Hotel in 1884 and its weathered sandstone walls have been there almost as long as the races. The hotel is heritage-listed as one of three surviving masonry buildings in Birdsville and is a rare surviving late 19th century outback hotel.

One of the other two (along with the courthouse) is the ruins of the 1883-vintage Royal Hotel. Though only a year older than the Birdsville Hotel, it has suffered more from the ravages of time. From 1923 to 1937, the building was leased by the Rev John Flynn’s Presbyterian Australian Inland Mission as its first bush nursing home and Alfred Traeger installed one of his first bush pedal radio stations there. Afterwards it was used as a residence, then abandoned before it partially collapsed.

Continuing to seek out colourful groups, these three ladies were happy to have their photo taken, “Girls Trip in Progress”. Someone later told me the Birdsville Races was a “schoolies for the over 50s” and the evidence for that was everywhere.

Like all schoolies they needed holiday accommodation and tent cities were set up at every vantage point.

Having completed my tour of the town, it was time to head to the races. The racecourse is a few kilometres south of the town across the Diamantina River, which is part of the endorheic Lake Eyre Basin. We’ve had hardly any rain for six months in western and north west Queensland so I was surprised to see how much permanent water was still in the river. The river attracts the bird life and explains how the town got its name.

The entrance to the track was THE place to get your photo taken, or in my case, to take your photos.

The set up was impressive for a bush race meeting and the 6500 punters were catered for with ease. Needless to say it was full of colourfully-dressed characters from all over Australia like these “Dust Angels” from Brisbane. Behind them is the “Black Tower”, the communications and media centre at the meet. The Black Tower is, in typical inverted Aussie bush style, white.

Believe it or not, there was actual horse racing at the Birdsville Races. Two days of it on Friday and Saturday. I got there for the Saturday and this is Race 1 with Mount Isa jockey Dan Ballard storming home to win on Nuncius.

As well as the novelty outfits there were many people dressed up in proper attire. The fashions on the field attracted big prizes and were hotly contested by women, men, couples and even families.

The Governor-General came along to watch the fashions and as he did so, he handed out a medal to a young girl watching on. I asked him what that was about. He said it was the Governor General’s medal and it was a random decision to give it to that girl. He had never met her before but must have liked her smile.

I didn’t have any medals to hand out but these two ladies were my favourite: Christine the Angel and Peta the Devil, both from Melbourne. Like the GG it was a random choice, but it reminds me of this scene in Full Metal Jacket. “I think I was trying to say something about the duality of man, sir “. 

After a big day at the track, it was time for the 135th running of the Birdsville Cup. Victory went to Roma horse Fast Fella ridden by Rockhampton jockey Adrian Coome.

And the GG was on hand to present the gleaming gold trophy to winning Roma trainer Craig Smith. While they celebrated it was time for me to bid adieu to Birdsville for another year.

A trip to Lake Julius

My newspaper the North West Star covers an enormous territory, almost a half a million square kilometres of North West Queensland. As editor I’ve set myself the task of seeing as much of that territory as possible in my time here, a not inconsiderable task given it is an area larger than Spain but with very few people and very few serviceable roads.julius1To get to many places you need a four wheel drive, a bit of planning and a sense of adventure because if you do get into strife, the options for help may not be there with very little traffic and no mobile reception. The picture above is barely 25kms from Mount Isa, after leaving the highway and heading north on the dirt road to Lake Julius and Kajabbi. Every time I drive from Isa to Cloncurry I see the turn-off but until this Saturday, I’d never taken it.julius2The winter dry season terrain is red with pockets of green. There’s not much traffic but you see it well in advance thanks to the large amount of dust any vehicle raises, rising like a plume 20m into the air above. One particular plume went higher still and when I got up close I found it was a slow-moving cattle truck. I had to wait ages for an opportunity to overtake it as the dust it raised made the view ahead negligible and dangerous.julius3After 70km up the dirt road, I came to this junction signpost. The kilometres are wrong in both direction. It’s 70km to the highway then another 20km to Isa while it’s at least 50km to Kajabbi.  In any case my destination was Lake Julius and that one was accurate. The Dam was 14km away to the left.julius4Looking at the road in that direction it was clear some climbing into the hills lay ahead.julius5Lake Julius is carved out of the Leichhardt River and there is not much water in that river at this time of year. None at all in fact. The trip to the Dam heads over the causeway of the river here as it winds its way north to empty into the Gulf (well, it does in summer anyway).julius6Above is the view from the middle of the causeway looking at the river south towards to the dam. It’s empty now but locals say it doesn’t take much rain to fill and when it does the workers at the Dam are cut off, sometimes for weeks or more, with access only from the air.julius8Finally I got to the house which overlooked the dam. It was a private house but it had access to visitors, picnic tables and a lookout with a great vista over the dam.julius7And what a view. Julius Dam is located at the junction of Paroo Creek and the Leichhardt River, 70 kms north-east of Mount Isa. There may not be any water in the Leichhardt upstream but here there was plenty dammed in. As of the latest figures provided by the Mount Isa Water Board (August 14, 2017) Lake Julius is 87.9% full. Sometimes the dam is well over 100 percent full and the water rushes over the top. That would be a sight to behold although difficult to capture without air transport as the access road is cut off.julius9Lake Julius is a human-made dam. It was built at the height of the Joh Bjelke-Petersen construction era in the mid to late 1970s and opened on October 8, 1978. julius10Lake Julius has a full supply capacity of 127,000 megalitres, a surface area of 1255 hectares with an average depth of 8.9 metres.  The concrete multiple arch and buttress structure is unique in Queensland.julius11I walked from the lookout down to the boat ramp. Lake Julius supplies several mines in the region via the Mount Isa Water Board and North West Queensland Water Pipeline Company, which pipes water from the Dam to their customers. It also acts as a back-up supply for Lake Moondarra as a supply of Mount Isa town water but its distance from town makes it expensive to pump outside times of drought. The state government is now providing money to use a solar pump to get the water to town more cheaply.julius12Assuming the Dam is not overflowing, it is a perfect spot for boating and recreational fishing. It’s also miles from anywhere so you’ll likely have the wilderness of the lake to yourself.julius13This map shows the many channels of the lake formed by the Dam.

julius14The dam cost $30 million at the time and was financed by the Mount Isa City Council with assistance from Mount Isa Mines. According to the Canberra Times, April 30 1977, the council were still $6m short and could face bankruptcy if they didn’t get the extra money from the federal government. The feds eventually came to the party.julius15This is the view looking downstream as the Leichhardt makes its way to the Gulf of Carpentaria past Augustus Downs station. The road leading up to the dam is visible centre left.julius16I drove back to the junction and believing the sign I thought Kajabbi was just 32km north and set off in that direction. One of the many hilltops in this region (though likely not this one) is Battle Mountain, scene of the Kalkadoon people’s last stand against settlers and native police in 1884. The rough terrain meant their independence lasted longer than most but the might of European Snyder weapons was eventually too powerful.julius17I got to 32km but where Kajabbi should have been according to the sign all there was was a cattle outstation. I drove further north a while until I got to an unmarked junction and not willing to gamble further I drove back to Mount Isa. Kajabbi will have to wait for another trip.

Saving the Great Artesian Basin

gab-mapOne of Australia’s greatest hidden gifts to the life that colonised it is an enormous water resource far below the ground. Spanning four states and territories over a fifth of the continent and continuing out into the Gulf of Carpentaria it is the Great Artesian Basin, and is the largest and deepest artesian water basin in the world. In some places it does resemble a basin, but it is mostly solid rock with water stored in the pores.

The GAB’s water is ancient, falling as rain or leaks from rivers west of the Great Dividing Range over a million years ago. That water takes a slow journey of one to five metres a year percolating through cracks in sandstone sheets (aquifers) held together under pressure from the impermeable stones (aquitards) above and beneath. As well as heading roughly west the water also trickles down under gravity.

Over time water is stored in vast quantities. It emerges to the ground naturally under pressure through springs and geological faults. Native plants and animals relied on springs in parched landscapes, particularly in the south-west where the Basin is shallower. Humans arrived on the continent 50,000 years ago and quickly fanned out to every corner. It is likely they swiftly found this precious resource. Burial sites 20,000 years old showed evidence of trading posts alongside artesian springs. Use of bore water dramatically increased with the arrival of Europeans into central Australia.

The first bore in 1878 found water 53m below the surface at Killara in north-west New South Wales. Within ten years, substantial finds were made at Cunnamulla and especially Barcaldine, both in Queensland. The Barcaldine bore pumped 700,000 litres a day unleashing a drilling boom and pastoral settlement in the central west. By 1900 there were more than 500 bores in the Basin thought it wasn’t easy to find water and not all were successful.

Enough reliable water was pumped out to support 120 towns and hundreds of properties in Outback Australia. Initially the pastoral industries took the most water but more recently water release by oil and gas has caught up. Mining of copper, uranium, coal, bauxite and opals also depends on water, much of it artesian, while tourist spas are also an intensive user of Basin water.

Human activity will unlikely ever dry up the Basin. In 120 years of bores about 0.1 percent of the total water was extracted from the Basin. But what it has done is lower the pressure declining the flow of water, sometimes by 80%. A third of bores have stopped flowing altogether. The springs have been severely damaged by excavation, stock and humans while exotic pests degrade the area around springs.  Early bore technology was flawed too with many leaking and most were uncontrolled in their discharge of water, and 95% of the water ended up into open drains.

Diminishing flow was recognised as early as 1912 when New South Wales introduced licensing of bores and eventually vested groundwater to the state. They also brought in bore construction standards. In 1990 governments agreed on a Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative (GABSI) to cap and pipe bores. Across Australia capping programs rehabilitated free-flowing bores and replaced drains with pipes but the majority of the 3000 uncontrolled bores and 34,000km of open drains remain in place.

A Strategic Management Plan was put in place in 2000 and agreed by the Council Of Australian Governments.  But just like the Murray Darling (river) Basin plan,  the issue of licences and multiple jurisdictions means the issue is inescapably political. The jury remains out on the impact of the extraction of large use of water for mining, especially coal seam gas mining.  Graziers have to be convinced capping and piping will help them decrease their operating costs as well as increasing the pressure of the water and the reliability of its supply.

In Queensland the GAB is managed by a 10-year-plan which expires in June this year. Queensland’s government wants to cap and pipe all its uncapped bores and bore drains in the next 10-year cycle. It is, as the government policy maker I spoke to told me, “an aspirational target” but it helps show the state is serious about the problem. The new draft plan (now out for community consultation) allows for action if a licence holder fails to comply with conditions.

There are estimated to be more than 25,000 bores tapping the Queensland GAB, taking 315,000 ML a year. A diagram from the draft plan I saw at a Mount Isa community meeting showed that in 2016 around 90,400 ML was accounted for in losses through seepage and evaporation from uncontrolled bores and open bore drains. This exceeds the amount extracted by stock and domestic of 66,000 ML and the oil and gas industries 64,000 ML with other uses accounting for 93,000 ML.

Since 1989 almost 1000 bores have been rehabilitated under government-funded program but an estimated one in five uncapped bores in Queensland remain untreated while 28% of bore drains have yet to be replaced with pipelines. Under the plan all stock and domestic water users will be required to deliver water through water-tight delivery systems by the time the plan expires in 2027. Stock and domestic licences that permit free flowing bores or bore drains will require a bore management plan outlining what steps will be taken to deliver a water-tight delivery system.

The future of the Great Artesian Basin is exciting if it is managed properly. GAB water has a future as an energy source. Birdsville already has a geothermal power plant and other towns such as Winton are looking to copy it. It will make water available for future development and social and cultural activities that depend on water, including for the aspirations of Indigenous peoples in native title areas. It is crucial it is not destroyed in the same way humans are destroying Australia’s other natural wonder: the Great Barrier Reef.