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.


Mount Isa to Brisbane via Blackall

In November I drove from Mount Isa to Brisbane via Winton. A few weeks later I was back down the same road heading back to Brisbane for Christmas, again taking two days to do the 1900km drive, but this time stopping at Blackall overnight. This first photo is of the Blue Heeler Hotel in Kynuna, 160km north of Winton. The historic little timber building can trace its existence back to the 1880s when it was a Cobb and Co post. Thirsty travellers still seek out its wares, though it was shut as I drove past mid-morning.


After a long stretch of flat country south of Cloncurry it was good to see some hills again north of Winton. These mesa-like structures remind me of the American west.


Recent rains means there is plenty of grass so the cattle are well fed and fat again in the West. The two to three year drought was broken by heavy falls across the region.


A brief glimpse of the Boeing 747 at the Qantas Founders Museum as I drove past Longreach. The Museum tells the story of the founders of Qantas and the 747 is pride of place. All Qantas Boeing 747-400 aircraft carry the word “Longreach” as part of the livery as well as their city name, signifying the “long reach” of the aircraft and the town where Qantas commenced operations.


Just 27km east of Longreach is Ilfracombe. This tiny town is home to the 100-year-old Wellshot Hotel, one of the most famous pubs in the outback (I stayed a raucous night there in 2002) and also the Ilfracombe Machinery and Heritage Museum which has artifacts dotted along the side of the road, known as The Great Machinery Mile. The Museum is home to everything from standing engines to earthmoving machinery and illustrates the evolution of the pastoral and transport industries.


About halfway between Longreach and Barcaldine I stumbled upon the appropriately named Christmas Creek. I felt very festive in this part of Tinseltown.


I spent the night in Blackall which at 900km to Mount Isa and 1000km to Brisbane is the closest town to the halfway mark. Blackall is the biggest town in the central west, developed on the sheep’s back. I visited the Woolscour, too late for the last tour of the day but I was able to roam the grounds for free. The Woolscour operated commercially from 1908 to 1978 and was restored in 1989 by the Blackall Historical Woolscour Association. The plant has the only intact steam-powered wool washing plant left in Australia.


Blackall’s association with wool is underscored by Australia’s most famous shearer Jackie Howe. In 1892 at a property outside Blackall, Howe shore a record of 321 sheep in 7 hours 40 minutes. A memorial statue is located outside Blackall’s Universal Garden Centre in Shamrock St. Inside is a gallery, with a historic display, relating to Howe and local history. Howe was a committed trade unionist and active during the shearer strikes of 1891 and 1894. After he died in 1920, Queensland Premier T. J. Ryan wrote a telegram to Howe’s widow, “I have lost a true and trusted friend and Labor has lost a champion”.


There wasn’t much water in the evocatively named Barcoo River when I went to check it out in Blackall. The first white explorer in the region, Sir Thomas Mitchell, gave it a different name when he arrived in 1846, calling it the Victoria, after Britain’s monarch. This was because Mitchell thought the north-flowing stream might be a “river leading to India”, in other words, cross the northern part of the continent before emptying into the Indian Ocean as the “Victoria River” already named in the Northern Territory. Mitchell’s second-in-command Edmund Kennedy later followed the course of the river, finding it turned abruptly south-west and ending up in the Lake Eyre Basin. Kennedy renamed it the Aboriginal word Barcoo.


I was greeted by a moody and beautiful dawn the following morning as I set off south on the second half of my journey down the Landsborough Highway.


About halfway between Blackall and Tambo I crossed the Wild Dog Barrier Fence. The fence was built in the 1880s to keep dingoes out of the south-east part of the continent to protect the sheep flocks of southern Queensland. It is one of the longest structures in the world and is the world’s longest fence. It stretches 5614 km east to west from Jimbour on the Darling Downs near Dalby ending west of Eyre peninsula on the Nullarbor Plain at Nundroo, South Australia. It has not been completely successful at keeping out the dingoes but is still regularly maintained.


After 12 hours of driving I arrived in Brisbane. I was reminded again that evening of the festive season as I walked down the Queen St Mall right in to the middle of a Christmas pageant and parade. I didn’t hang around with the Gingerbread Man and the elves for long being very thirsty after two days in the saddle and very much ready to “bend the arm”. Cheers.


Next stop Mackay

After my day on GKI, I drove north the following morning from Rockhampton to Mackay, where I was booked into another motel.There is 300km of nothing much between Rocky and Sarina, which sits on the edge of Mackay canefield belt. At Sarina I detoured inland through the canefields then up in the ranges to Eungella Chalet. I stopped here the last time I did this run but it was raining. Though the clouds threatened again today, it cleared by the time I got to the top of the range and enjoyed a great view down to the valley below as I had lunch in the Chalet.


After a short walk in the local National Park, I drove the 70km down below and into Mackay. After checking in, I drove across the Pioneer River and up through Mackay’s northern beach suburbs until I hit Slade Point. It was yet another spot named by  Captain James Cook in 1770 after Sir Thomas Slade, Surveyor to the Navy 1755-71. This is the view north to Dolphin’s Head.mackay2

I expected to see some heavy industry around here as the home of two coal ports at Hay Point (seen in the left of the image below) and Dalrymple Bay, but I was more surprised to find a 73 hectare reserve, Slade Point Reserve. I went for a long walk in the Reserve, first hugging the shore with good views from Lamberts Lookout and then inland through the dunes.mackay3

As afternoon turned to evening I drove south back to town, detouring through Mackay Marina which glistened in the late sunshine.mackay4

The following day I had to get to Airlie Beach which was less than two hours away. So there was time for a detour back to Cape Hillsborough National Park. Again, this was another spot I visited last time but its beauty demands repeat visits. The beach was empty on a cloudy morning and I came too late to see the kangaroos feeding at dawn.mackay5

Unlike last time the tide was out so I was able to the full walk circuit of the Cape by walking along the rocks before finding the path up the hill. At low tide Wedge Island is linked to the mainland via a causeway but signs recommend you only head out there on a falling tide and I didn’t want to take the risk of being stranded out there for six hours. I was content to admire the view of the island from one of the lookouts on the Andrews Point 5.2km walk.mackay6

This is the view from the south of the Cape at Turtle Point looking south across Shoal Point to Belmunda.mackay7

The walk affords many gorgeous views of the beaches below at Cape Hillsborough. I’m back in the vicinity at New Year’s Eve and looking forward to checking out the other walks at this beautiful place.mackay8

Noosa to Capricorn Coast

After my day in Noosa, it was up early for the six hour drive to Rockhampton and the Capricorn Coast. In the past I would done this drive straight up the Bruce Hwy but after checking out Google Maps I decided on a slight detour that was actually a short cut. That meant diverting west after Gympie to the Wide Bay highway and north via Woolooga and Biggenden and picking up the highway again between Childers and Gin Gin. First stop was the Rusty Ute cafe in Woolooga. Its owners were rock and roll fans and the cafe is laid out with musical paraphernalia and even a small stage. I asked the owners about it and they said they wanted to attract musicians to play there on weekends. Did I know of any, they asked. I didn’t, but if you are keen on a country gig in lovely surrounds 40km north-west of Gympie, the Rusty Ute would love to hear from you.rocky1

Then it was on past some pretty country and very little traffic (with a short gravel road section) near Biggenden. The photo below is of the granite outcrop of Mount Walsh which has its own National Park.rocky2

I arrived in Rockhampton around lunchtime, checked into a motel and then drove another 40km to Yeppoon, the biggest town on the Capricorn Coast. Yeppoon has a relaxed and confident air about it. Hard to believe the town suffered considerable damage less than two years ago in Tropical Cyclone Marcia.rocky3

Directly behind the main street is Yeppoon beach which stretches for 1.4km from the low intertidal rocks at Spring Head south to the mouth of Ross Creek, where there is a small breakwater. Erosion has plagued the beach and it is backed by a seawall. High tide goes all the way to the seawall. The beach is protected from waves by the Keppel Island group, and waves average only half a metre. This view below stretches south to the Keppel Island ferry at Rosslyn Bay Harbour. But that is tomorrow’s fun.


After lunch in Yeppoon I head south along the tourist drive to Bluff Point. Starting from the beach there is an enjoyable 2.5km walk that goes over Bluff Point with great views along the way.


This view is from the top of Bluff Point looking north to Rosslyn Bay. Further north still is Byfield National Park behind Yeppoon where smoke from a bushfire can be seen.


This view from Bluff Point is to the south to Mulambin Beach, Mulambin Creek and another bushfire this time near the Flat Top Ranges near the Fitzroy River estuary.  I drove back to Rockhampton hoping to enjoy the view from the top of Mount Archer which dominates the town. Frustratingly the road to the summit was closed to repair damage from TC Marcia. rocky7

Brisbane to Noosa

After a couple of weeks in Brisbane, I had a week to get back to Mount Isa and meandered my way up the coast. I didn’t go far on the first day – just a leisurely 150km to Noosa. First stop was the lookout at White Horse Mountain, named for the wild brumbies that used to roam the area. The lookout is just off the Bruce Highway about 20km north of Caboolture. The track to the lookout is a steep 700m walk from the carpark but offers fantastic views in every direction, south to Brisbane, east to Bribie Island and the coast, north to the Sunshine Coast and (shown below), west to the beautiful Glasshouse Mountains. James Cook so named the mountains as he sailed north in 1770 because their shape reminded him of the huge glass furnaces (glasshouses) in his native Yorkshire.


Next stop was a detour to Buderim, the one part of the Sunshine Coast on the commanding heights of Buderim Mountain. Buderim is the Kabi Kabi word for hairpin honeysuckle which grew abundantly here. There are terrific views here 180m below to the coast at Mooloolaba.noosa2

At Buderim there was an important stop at Vandy’s Garage. I didn’t need any mechanical repairs or fuel, which is just as well as Vandy’s has long since stopped being a Garage. Today it is home to a cool coffee shop and the beverage there went down well.noosa3

Replenished it was on to my digs for the night, a motel in Noosaville. The motel was only a block or two from the Noosa River and I wasted no time in soaking in the relaxing sights and having lunch by the foreshore. The river begins in the Great Sandy National Park and winds its way south to fill up Lake Cootharaba then Lake Cooroibah, and onto Tewantin before emptying into the Pacific at Noosa Heads. Noosa Heads is exclusive but Noosaville has a more accessible charm and a lovely esplanade along the river.noosa4

After lunch I walked the 3km or so to Noosa Heads passing many channels of the river. Stand up paddles were everywhere as were pricey-looking apartments and even pricier boats.noosa5

After a short mingling with the plutocrats on Hastings Street, I headed on east towards Noosa National Park, passing the busy Noosa Main Beach looking out on the North Shore. The rare north-facing beach makes it one of the Pacific coast’s safest and it is too far south to be infested by nasty marine stingers.noosa6

The National Park begins another 2km to the east. The track to the headlands is beautiful with fantastic views to hidden coves along the way. Though it has been a National Park since 1939 it almost succumbed to a pro-development lobby in 1962.  The Park provides an important refuge for native wildlife including the koala, glossy black-cockatoo, ground parrot and wallum froglet. This photo was taken at Dolphin Point looking towards Tea Tree Bay.


I walked to the end of the track to the headlands at Hell’s Gates then trampled south to the beautiful surf beach at Alexandria Bay. The Bay is famous as a nudist beach though it is illegal and police charge people for “offending“. There was just one older gentleman displaying his baubles as I walked down (and I steadfastly remained legally decent) but clad or not, it is a beautiful place to, ahem, hang out.  I walked back to town via the almost empty Alexandria Bay and Tanglewood Tracks to end what was another delightful day in that paradise some folk call Queensland.noosa8

Mount Isa to Brisbane via Winton

Earlier this month I took two days to drive to Brisbane from Mount Isa. I started late on the first day so only drove five hours to Winton before doing the big leg of 1400km on the second day. Distances are enormous in Queensland. This road sign is just south of Cloncurry – and I had already travelled 130km from Mount Isa before hitting this sign. The sign is on the start of the Landsborough Highway heading south before linking up with the Warrego Hwy at Morven and then on to Brisbane.


The clouds gathered as I drove south into the flat agricultural country of McKinlay Shire. It’s about 350km from Cloncurry to Winton and there are only two tiny settlements along the way at McKinlay and Kynuna.nov2

I landed in Winton late afternoon. Banjo Patterson wrote Australia’s unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda (and it is far more enjoyable listening than the strident and pompous dirge that is the official anthem) in 1895 while staying at a station near Winton. This monument to Patterson and his song is outside what used to be the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton which burned down on June 18, 2015 (my birthday as it happens, though I was far from the scene at the time). Winton Shire Council have plans to rebuild the centre at a cost of $20 million.


But the most iconic building in Winton is the North Gregory Hotel. This is the fourth building on this site and like the Waltzing Matilda Centre fire has played a big part in its history. The first North Gregory Hotel opened in 1879 and it hosted the first live performance of Waltzing Matilda in 1895. The building was demolished in 1900 but the second building was destroyed by fire in 1915. The third one was also lost to fire in 1946 and the current building was erected in art deco style in 1955 by the Council which instructed management to run the hotel “on first class lines”.nov9

The main street has other imposing buildings such as the heritage-listed Corfield and Fitzmaurice building. This general store was opened in 1878 serving the local population until 1987. It is now partly the home of Combo Crafts selling homemade arts and crafts while the remainder of the building is a museum promoting Winton’s dinosaur heritage.nov12

I drove around 20km out of town to have a quick look at the bleak but compelling Bladensburg National Park. The park has flat-topped mesas and plateaus, residual sandstone ranges, vast grassland plains and river flats but you need a 4WD (which I didn’t have) to explore its more interesting sections.


I did drive down the River Gum Route and saw the intriguing “Cragg’s Grave”. Richard Cragg was a mail contractor who died on December 30, 1888, aged 46. The cause of his death is unknown, although it is believed he was accidently poisoned. Cragg came to Winton from Manchester in England, with his wife and seven children. Some of his descendants still live in the Winton area.nov8

I came back to town in time for beer o’clock and sampled a beverage at the brightly decorated Tattersalls Hotel which was home to a handful of patrons watching the cricket on TV.nov5

The following morning it was up on the road early, around 5am, before first light as I had 1400km and a likely 14-15 hour drive to Brisbane ahead of me. This photo was taken on the road leaving Winton.nov10

About 20km south of Winton is the Australian Age of Dinosaurs museum . It was too early for it to be open but I have been there before. The museum is 10km off the highway up in the hills (known as the “Jump Up”) overlooking town. The idea for the museum came after local farmer David Elliot found a dinosaur fossil in 1999. It turned out to be a giant femur from a Cretaceous sauropod that roamed the Winton area 95 million years ago. More finds followed and Elliot opened up a museum to show off the ancient local wildlife.


Two hours later I arrived in Longreach where I stopped for breakfast and a crucial cup of coffee. I’ve been to Longreach many times before but I always enjoy stopping here. All the main streets, such as Duck St, are named for birds found in the area.nov6

I didn’t take too many photos on the long drive that followed but I did have to stop near Blackall and take a photo of these drovers moving cattle along the stock routes by the side of the highway. The stock routes are known as Queensland’s Long Paddock and while it is rare now for cattle to be transported this way (trucks are usually the go) they still form an important supplementary food source during drought times.nov11

Just like the previous day, this one ended with a beer. This one was in Brisbane, having arrived to my place north of the city around 7.30pm – 14 and a half hours after leaving Winton. Cheers!nov13

Crocodiles at Lake Moondarra

14712475_10153706560932757_6242102373686916556_oIt’s the nature of our job in the news industry that means working weekends are a regular fact of life. But though my working hours are not social I do have a pact with myself to try and keep Sunday afternoon sacrosanct and take one of the many wonderful bush walking opportunities we have in the North West.

Of late I have been trying out many trails around Lake Moondarra and the area never ceases to lift my spirits.

Lake Moondarra is an artificial lake on the Leichhardt River, 16 km downstream from Mount Isa, providing water to the city and the nearby mines.

The dam was built in 1956 and in 1961 it became Lake Moondarra, from the Kalkadoon name meaning “plenty of rain also thunder”.

There are some great views above the lake, if you’re willing to scramble through occasional rough country, and there is nothing better than finding a new track along one of the lake’s many nooks and crannies. The birdlife is wonderful to watch and I never cease to achieve a feeling of tranquility within minutes of walking there.

Until now, that is.

In last Saturday’s paper we showed the photo of a large crocodile seen sunning itself on the banks of the lake. I always knew there were crocodiles at Moondarra but in the past the thought of them never bothered me. I knew them to be freshwater crocs (Crocodylus johnstoni) , not the fearsome saltwater maneaters (Crocodylus porosus) seen further north. But this photo we published on Saturday put the wind up me.

This croc was over 2m metres long and although an expert told us it was indeed a freshie and not a more dangerous saltie, it still looking intimidating to me.

To my untrained eyes the distinguishing mark of nobbly necks made little difference, all I could see was a large monster with eyes trained away from the water, apparently searching for careless newspaper editors distracted by staring at pelicans it could drag into the water and feast on for a large meal (though like clowns, I suspect I taste funny).

An expert we consulted told us they were harmless if left alone, but added a chilling rider: “If approached, there is a risk of been bitten like entering a yard with a dog.”

Though these crocs were likely on the far shore of the Lake I noticed myself keeping a healthy distance from the shoreline on Sunday. I was tempted to climb a hill to get further away but got myself in knots worrying about snake season. Perhaps I should stay home and read a book.

Nah, I’ll get over it, Lake Moondarra remains an enchanting place.