Overnight stays: Workman’s Beach Camping Ground, Agnes Water (2 nights); Dawson River Rest Area, Moura; Sandstone Park, Carnarvon Gorge (2 nights); Kellow Castle, Emerald; Barcoo River Recreation Area, Blackall (2 nights); Crawford Creek Rest Area, Winton; Prairie Hotel, Prairie
Fresh off Fraser and still buzzing from our amazing day four-wheel-driving, we arrived back on the mainland, keen to get some last beach spots in before the crocs and stingers kick in. There were a bunch of places we wanted to visit between where we were and Rockhampton, so we started with the southernmost – Burrum Heads.
We were told about Burrum from a couple wandering by and admiring our Evans Head setup all those weeks/months ago. They mentioned it was a similar arrangement, and given our setup at Evans’ was our favourite in NSW, we would bunker down for a few days of fishing and swimming.
The clouds loomed overhead and when we arrived into the reasonably small town we quickly realised it was school holidays in QLD, and the van park on the river was chockas. It also didn’t look anywhere near as appealing as Evans Head, so we decided to keep on keepin’ on, Bargara-bound.
Not far from Bundaberg, a place funded by Farrer boys, we shot into the cute town of Bargara. The drive was great – soil redder than Sunny Coast’s Ginger Factory, and more sugar cane than the eye could see. Bargara ticked all the boxes; small, friendly, clean, van park near the water; except the water looked terrible, unswimmable. It looked almost as bad as the eastern beach of Fraser – it seems the heavy swells and winds over the past few months have taken their toll on this part of the world, and the beach water is dirtier than a night with Stormy Daniels.
And so we continued our way north, content on not settling for a second-rate stay.
Eventually we darted off the highway quite a way, to the northernmost safe swimming points of Agnes Water and Seventeen Seventy. The day eventuated as our biggest driving day of the trip to-date, covering over 300km.
We found an awesome campsite just off Workmans Beach, with good sized sites and a legendary Ranger, so we settled in for two nights.
When we hit the beach we were a little disappointed and stupidly surprised to find the same stirred up water we’d been trying to escape. It was swimmable, just. All the same we had a good sand session and went for a spider walk to check out all the local beaches just prior to sunset.
While watching the Swans take the local derby on our final night, Liv and I were given a brilliant display of Loz’s theatrics. The campsite was pretty buggy, and as Loz ventured inside the van she allowed a moth the size of Queensland in with her, which began and continued to torment her and she ran up and down the van, screaming like a child on a ride for the first time. Eventually I was able to neutralise the situation with a full can of bug spray – some call me Chuck Norris.
Akubra missing home
Done with the unsatisfactory beaches, nervous about the forthcoming week’s shady forecast, and knowing that a bad day driving is still more interesting than Gladstone, Rockhampton and Mackay combined, we agreed we’d take the party inland for a few days. We also knew that my schoolmate, Rhys, lived in Emerald, and we were keen to catch up. So we turned left and started our inland journey, with our first target a day or two away; Carnarvon Gorge.
For our first night we made it about halfway to Carnarvon, just outside the left-behind town of Moura, hit hard when coal prices started to skyrocket in the early 20-teens. It was a good little stopover, on a river with a nice playground. We parked up just near another young family, whom we got to know over the next few days as we continued in the same direction.
As nomads it’s almost your duty to stop for a coffee break and playground at every town you pass through. And so it was on our customary stop at Rolleston that we again ran into the family we’d spotted the night prior, the Nimmos, and started to get to know them. They were also on their way around Oz, but this was their second stint in five years, impressive. They have three kids, but only two have done a lap, so they wanted to create new memories with their now full family, and they’d only just started from the Gold Coast a few days earlier.
The drive into Carnarvon is slow and spectacular. It was much greener than we expected, and with cattle grazing in the foreground, and steep cliffs in the background, we enjoyed every metre.
Our first port of call was for a dip at the Rock Pool; a refreshing oasis full of turtles and bliss on a beautiful hot, cloudless, inland day.
From there we found our campsite for a couple of nights, on top of the gorge with 360′ views at Sandstone Park. This place was incredibly special, and an absolute highlight of the Wombatical. The breathtaking views, cool breeze, kangaroos, space, and serenity of the place were just perfect.
With a flurry of free firewood on-hand, our priority became getting a campfire going before sundown, just to top off the awesomeness of this absolute gem. Once the sun was down, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere, we could see more stars than a Hollywood plastic surgeon – for us city folk who live our lives surrounded by unnatural light, there’s just something so special about seeing so many stars.
Choosing which walk to do at Carnarvon Gorge is easier than choosing between a schnitzel and pasta at a country pub, as it’s one simple return walk through the gorge; you just decide how far you can manage. There are a bunch of notables to check out along the way, of which we managed to see four – Moss Garden, Ampitheatre, Wards Gorge, and Rock Art. The first three were great and noticeably cooler diverts from the main walking track; and the rock art was a total disappointment. The track was pretty flat and easy to navigate, so our return journey, despite taking us about six hours, was just over 13km – our longest trek to-date, and well over our self-imposed 10km limit, set after our gruelling Grand High Tops hike in the Warrumbungles. Liv walked a super impressive 5km or so by herself, and was a little trooper the whole day, dressed as a unicorn.
Along the way we again ran into the Nimmos, who were somehow managing to encourage and carry three kids along the long trek. There they told us about Karijini in WA, and how it’s an absolute must-do, that makes unforgettable places like Carnarvon, forgettable.
Another swim to finish at the Rock Pool, followed by campfire beers back at the greatest campsite.
That night, with Loz’s Agnes moth episode still fresh, she called it a night from the fire, and went into the WomBatmobile to prepare for bed. When she turned on the light her nightmare began to unfold… She spotted about a dozen tiny spiders, together on the ceiling, almost transparent and seemingly fresh as daisies. Time for ol’ C.Norris to rescue this damsel in distress. I sprayed and squashed all I could, while spiders continued to sprawl from the vent in the roof, easing their way down on their virgin webs, like abseil hall-of-famers. This was starting to get out of control, with an endless supply of spiders appearing through the cracks. Loz started to speculate that they were ‘freshies’, recently hatched and trying to find their way into the universe. I quickly tried to shut that speculation down, suggesting that perhaps they were just a micro breed of spider, and there was nothing to worry about, as it looked like I’d managed the last of them… until…
Just as that time Guy Sebastian stole Australian Idol from Nollsy, the big show big mumma surprised us with the scariest of entries, dropping in from the ceiling, Loz screaming in the corner and me spraying the can like a teenage virgin spraying his armpits on his first date. I don’t want to over-exaggerate, but this black spider was bigger and hairier than Jesus, and could make an entrance with more impact than a drag queen at a country pub. It was terrifying!
With more spray on than an albino at a beach party, this mumma spider wasn’t going to lie down immediately, and bolted under the bed. Despite my persistent comforting that she was long dead, Loz would not sleep until she had proof. So I spent the next 15 minutes trying to uncover a spider that I hoped had finally rolled over. Thankfully she had and we found her.
Needless to say we slept light that night.
Backtracking is annoying. Wherever possible we like to see things different, even if it is a different road with basically the same outlook. We have backtracked a few times on this trip, mostly because of pre-arranged deadlines, but we avoid it when we can.
Carnarvon is one way in, one way out, and with no interest in anything south, we backtracked further, about 100km, through Rolleston, on towards Emerald, to catch up with Rhys and his lovely wife, Sam.
They recently purchased a beautiful old Queenslander that they’re fixing up while they live in the impressive granny flat out the back. With plenty of room for an army we gave the WomBatmobile a rest (which was well welcomed after the spider fiasco) for a night and bunkered down with them after a lovely schnitzel at the Maraboon Tavern, catching up with Rhys and getting to know Sam, whom we’d never met.
We liked Emerald – it was big enough to house a BCF, small enough not to house a Bunnings, and flatter than the WomBatmobile’s battery after a night watching endless episodes of The West Wing. We would’ve liked to have seen Lake Maraboon, but unfortunately we missed the turn on our way into town, and by the time we realised, we agreed it was on the maybe pile. Rhys highlighted that we didn’t miss too much – a big dam, good if you have a boat, which we don’t.
Our original inland intent was to hit the gorge, then Emerald, and turn right back towards the coast, popping out somewhere above Mackay. But after a few discussions with the Nimmos and Kellows, and the fact that the coastal weather was still foul, we turned left from Emerald instead, and continued West, destined for the Dinosaur Trail.
Our goal for the day was to get halfway to Longreach, where we’d pull into a free-camp somewhere on the side of the road.
We passed halfway pretty quickly, and agreed to keep going, perhaps reaching Longreach in a day if we continued to travel well. Along the way Loz pointed out how good it would be to go to country races somewhere this year, in a random place. She Googled upcoming Queensland country races; Sunshine Coast, Julia Creek, Rockhampton, and a bunch of other towns we hadn’t heard of – bummer.
Tree of Knowledge
We stopped in Balcadine for a sandwich at the now dead Tree of Knowledge, apparently the meeting point for a bunch of wool growers in the 1800s to discuss work conditions, which led to the birth of unionism and The Labor Party in Australia. Perhaps the fact that the tree is now dead is a sign of things to come for the unions 🤞🏻.
On our way out of town, towards Longreach, Loz spotted a sign for Blackall. I’d never heard of Blackall but it rang a bell for Loz – it was one of the random towns hosting a race day, she was sure of it. So we pulled over, confirmed it was so, and turned left again, now Blackall-bound to the south, ready to hit the races the following day.
Blackall is a shithole.
The recent rains had turned the dusty ground into mud thicker than John Howard’s eyebrows, there were more flies on my face than people in the entire town, and the town’s water supply, ‘the sweetest most delicious water in the world’ from the world’s largest Artesian Bore, smelt like rotten egg. I’m not talking about a feint smell of egg white if you put your nose up to the water; I’m talking Iceland-esq the most pungent sustained smell barely bearable – hold your breath in the shower to avoid vomiting, and don’t even think about standing over the sink while the washing up fills – the worst.
But we were committed; there were races to be raced, so as long as we didn’t drink the egg water, we might just make it through the weekend. That is, assuming the old WomBatmobile makes it out of the oozing mud, as deep as the shit AMP are in for charging for services never provided.
With our best available attire on, including a fashions of the field fascinator from the local op-shop to top it off, we were on our way to the country races.
Blackall Racecourse is so minor you can’t even find it on Google – I didn’t even know that was a thing anymore. The track is dirt, the pavilion is a shed, and the locals can’t get enough of it, being he biggest social event on the local calendar.
The recent rain has caused havoc, and we had discovered at the newsagent that morning that the first race had been pushed back an hour to allow the track to dry out a little. But this mud was stickier than a CBA customer, sucked in through Dollarmites at a young age. As 2:30pm rolled over, the revised start time, the officials announced that they were now reversing the order of the races – Race 5 would now be Race 1, 4 would be 2 etc. No idea why they did that, but whatever. And they delayed the start a further 40 minutes. Only in the country does this sort of thing happen 😆.
Some lovely Grey Nomads who were our distant neighbours at the mud site, Ken and Sandra, spotted us when they arrived and sat with us for the arvo, sharing hot tips and coming up equally as short.
The bookies knew country racing as well as anyone, knowing that anything could happen. So they had every horse at about the same shortish, unfair price, regardless of its form – again, only in the country. We had a hot tip passed onto us from our new friend, Dan Nimmo, from an owner. I threw some money on for him and matched his bet, but it’s now a week on and I reckon that horse is still running 🐎.
But the beers were cold and cheap, and the feeling of cheering your horse/donkey home is always fun. We had a ripping day and satisfied our craving for remote racing.
When we woke, we couldn’t wait to get on the road, away from this muddy, eggy and fly-blown shithole. Our arms were sore from waving the Aussie Salute all day at the races, and we just wanted to go – it didn’t matter what was left behind, everything’s replaceable. So we started driving.
The quickest way to Longreach was to double back through Barcaldine. But we didn’t want to backtrack, and the dead Tree of Knowledge was about as inspiring as wanting to live in Blackall, on egg-water. We worked out a scenic route through Isisford – similar distance and all tar, but apparently a lot slower, perfect.
As a 53 metre road-train screamed past us at 110 clicks on the single-lane road we quickly realised why this was ‘the slow way’ to Longreach. Cattle grids, droving herds, and blind crests (forcing you to creep up to them slowly, in case a road train comes over the hill, forcing you onto the mud) made for a slow and steady cruise.
It appears the halfway point of Isisford was confused by the US Army and wiped out with ISIS, as we saw not a single sign of life in the town.
We also travelled well over 100km without seeing a single car or any sign of life. In fact we saw more snakes (2) and vultures (1 – amazing seeing the massive scavenger struggle slowly off the roadkill as we approached) than people.
It was one of the best drives of the trip so far. Not only did it get us out of Blackall, but the remoteness, wildlife, and general adrenalin/fear of not knowing if a road train was going to challenge us, added up to a memorable 140km or so.
Approaching Longreach we spotted the two only reasons to visit: The Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and The Qantas Founders Museum.
Stockman’s Hall of Fame
This was an interesting museum, providing insight into life as a stockman. There were a bunch of different sections, including features on indigenous stockman, women in the bush, and the a Royal Flying Doctors. Most of the features were interactive, which is great, especially for kids, and if you knew nothing of the country you could probably spend half a day there. But we were done and dusted in an hour, ready to roll.
Qantas Founders Museum
This was pretty much a waste of time. I had expected a solid interactive history of QANTAS, but it was just a bunch of reading on the guys who started he company, in this part of the world. There was bigger-all interactivity, and basically nothing for kids. We were in and out in well under an hour, and keen to keep going west, with the only reasons for visiting Longreach done in two hours.
The Dinosaur Trail
After a day driving the slow way from Blackall, and visiting two museums, we were astounded that we ended up spending the night just shy of Winton – what a mcmassive day!
We were now on the start of The Dinosaur Trail – Australia’s Dinosaur capital.
The Age of Dinosaurs museum
After a night on the side of the road, not daring to step outside for the thousands of flies that seemed to have intensified since Blackall, we cruised across to The Age of Dinosaurs museum. We didn’t know much about it, but had heard Winton was the capital of the Trail, so we couldn’t pass it by.
The story of this place is interesting: a farmer found some bones while grazing his sheep only 20 years ago, and then they started discovering more and more fossils from a hundred million years ago. Incredible really. The museum has stacks of the found fossils on display, and the staff are as passionate as George Foreman selling jaffle on a slight angle. They are also very knowledgeable which really adds to the experience.
The ones that got away
For days I had been tossing up whether we head out to Lark Quarry or not. It displays real footprints from the only recorded dinosaur stampede in the world. Pretty amazing when you think about it. But the 120km return trip on gravel road was the unknown in the WomBatmobile. That, and the fact that we were done with the flies that just weren’t going away. They were so bad you just avoided being outside at all costs.
After the Age of Dinosaurs, we agreed that the combo of gravel, flies, and the fact that we already felt dinosaured out, meant we were happy enough to skip it.
The other Winton attraction is the Waltzing Matilda Centre, which is titled so because Banjo Patterson apparently penned the infamous Aussie anthem in the area. Sadly the centre burned down a few years ago, and they’ve been rebuilding it ever since. We were a week early for the grand reopening which has now become The Winton Festival, drawing 10,000 punters to town and some big name Aussie bands including a child-defining band for me, TheLiving End.
Flinders Discovery Centre
A hundred or two kilometres up the road, at Hughenden, we dropped in to the Flinders Discover Centre, one of the better rated area attractions. It was pretty good, especially given entry cost about 10% of all the others we’d visited over the past days. It was interactive, interesting, and had areas for kids. Again, an hour was more than enough time for us, and we were well and truly museumed and dinosaured out, ready to get back on the coast, away from the flies. Speaking of which, we purchase some game-changing fly nets in Winton. I hope they’ve stocked up for the 10,000 pending guests…
We drove as Far East as the sun would allow, eventually pulling in behind a great pub in the tiny town of Prairie. Sadly the pub was closed as the owner was away (only in the country), but it was a comfortable stop for a night before our biggest day of driving. Tom, the legendary publican opened bright and early the next morning in time for Loz to grab us a couple of coffees for the road and admire the brilliant old pub.
That night, gagging for a long shower, coastal swim, and no flies, we booked an apartment on Hamilton Islamd for two days time. If there was ever motivation to get back, that was it.
At 3pm the following day, 560km and 8 hours after leaving Prairie, we arrived at Airlie Beach, with the wonderful coastal breeze on our cheeks. We could comfortably wander outside again and suck in as many big breaths as we liked, with minimal risk of eating a fly.
Our outback adventure was awesome. We managed a huge amount of kilometres, attractions and activities in less than two weeks. Liv was an absolute trooper traveller, barely whinging the entire time.