Overnight stays: L.D Lucey Memorial Park, Mount Garnet (3 nights); Cumberland Chimney, Georgetown; Lawn Hill National Park, Lawn Hill (2 nights); Sunset Top Tourist Park, Mount Isa (2 nights)
Bob Katter once famously said he’d walk “backwards from Bourke” if there were any gay people living in his outback electorate of Kennedy. Living in inner-city Sydney, where a same-sex couple is as common as a new mad-Katter quote, we were sceptical of such claims, so we started our way west to explore (and possibly offer ol’ Bobby a lift), just as Burke & Wills did way back when.
We had done a little research about what existed between Cairns and Uluru, and the safe answer kept coming up as ‘distance’, heaps of it. Given we’re beach people, this would then become an opportunity to get some much needed kms under our belt, and check out the main must-dos along the way.
Innot Hot Springs
First box to be ticked was the hot springs, on the Artesian trail that the grey nomads chase and love.
Our experience with natural thermals is mixed… We had our first spring bath years ago in either Vanuatu or Thailand, can’t remember which one, but probably Vanuatu as it’s volcanic. Wherever it was, it was great. Next, and our most memorable was in Iceland, where I got too close to the volcanic mud, and burnt the shit out of both feet, giving me three weeks of bed rest (no work, woohoo), and scars I still have today to remind me.
With this in the back of my mind, I was a little more cautious in testing the ground and water this time. First step, cold water; second dip, cold water; third, cold. What the hell is this stitch up of a place?! I quickly wrote it off as a faux pa, until Loz cried out from a distance that she’d found a warm puddle, pew pew.
And so it was, that along the river bed, you couldn’t pick what was going to freeze and what was going to burn your feet. But we eventually found a couple of puddles just right and relaxed in the sand, while the volcano underneath gave us an infinite warm bath.
Mount Garnet Races & Rodeo
Now freshly bathed in egg water, we continued west with the goal of pulling in somewhere short of Undara Lava Tubes for an overnight free camp.
Along the way we noticed a huge commotion to the left, just on the edge of Mount Garnet. There were caravans sprawled along the roadside and you could feel the atmosphere; something big was happening and we needed to be a part of it.
We pulled in to ask a few questions, already knowing we were staying whatever it was, and were informed it was the annual Mount Garnet Races & Rodeo long weekend.
This is what this year is all about, we thought. No plans, floating with the wind, and living every moment. So we bought our all-inclusive wristbands and soon found a spot to plot ourselves for three three days of raw, unfiltered country Queensland.
Once setup we purchased some firewood, and completed our camp, all but trackside for the following day’s race meet.
A long way from Surry Hills
Now, Loz and I both grew up in the country, so we assumed we’d fit in fine and there was nothing we hadn’t seen or heard before we couldn’t handle. But it’s been a lifetime since those days, and our sheltered inner-city lifestyle was about as obvious as Bill Shorten pretending he can manage the economy. I thought my hat might do the trick, but it didn’t appear to cut the mustard.
It was closing on 6pm by the time we were setup with the campfire, and I’d already heard Khe Sahn three times since I started chopping wood. Now it’s an absolute anthem, and I don’t want to take anything away from it, but come on! And so this would become our theme over the remainder of the weekend – a dick measuring contest of who could play their country and Aussie classics the loudest and most frequent, with us drowning in the middle of a musical orgy.
The atmosphere was incredible, and as country as it gets. P-platers through to retirees, swearing every second word (often more), getting rugby league drunk, and somehow backing up and doing it all again the next day.
We were lucky enough to experience Queensland country races a few weeks prior in the rotten-egg town of Blackall, which was a great day backing loser after loser.
Mount Garnet races were next level, joined by 1,500 punters (about 100 at Blackall) on a turf track with a golf course in the middle (genius). We were sure to back a few winners as our country luck had to change. We couldn’t have been more wrong, not even backing a single place all day. Maybe it’s time to give up?
Despite our luck, we had a top day sinking tinnies and embracing our country origins.
At night we couldn’t have felt more old… While cowboys and cowgirls carried on drinking, singing, “yeah the boys”ing, and making all sorts of odd sounds, Loz and I had a Scrabble battle for the ages under our awning while Livvy slept like a wombat, haha.
On the twenty-fifth run of ‘Hey, mumma rock me’, we called it a night, ready for the rodeo the next morning.
Mothers Day fail
So Mothers Day falls on a Sunday in May. I had seen some ads on tv promoting it so assumed it was the first Sunday of the month. Liv and I got some special gifts for Loz a few days prior and surprised her on Sunday morning. She was as happy as a straight man in Kennedy and extended the Mothers Day love with an early morning call to her mum.You could imagine how surprised Deb was when she was wished a loud and proud “Happy Mothers Day”, only to inform us we were a week early!Oh well, twice the surprise for the perfect mother Loz 😀.
The rodeo DJ absolutely killed it. From 9am to 9pm he or she laid down the bangers, one after the other. From Rednex’ Cotton Eye Joe to Metallica’s Enter Sandman, there was plenty for everyone, us included.
This was a proper rodeo, all twelve hours of it. My prior rodeo experience has been at the bull-riding Finals in Tamworth’s Country Music Week, where the whole program, is lucky to last a few hours. Somehow, this thing went all day and all night, but was never boring. And the best thing was that people just came and went as they pleased. We managed about 6-7 hours in-total, which is a shiteload of rodeo.
Apart from the music, the highlight was definitely the bull-riding, as it always is. It is truly scary stuff, watching these dudes put their life on the line every time they jump on a wild bull, trying to hang on for what sounds like a measly eight seconds. And that’s not where the excitement stops… Once the cowboy is bucked, the Rodeo Clowns step in to steer the bull away from the floppy recovering athlete on the ground, and they literally save their lives, every time, putting their own bodies and lives on the line.
A couple of scary moments eventuated when the clowns were bucked over the fences, one deeming a clown unfit for further participation.
There were also entertaining moments when bulls refused to be told what to do, staying in the arena and threatening to change at any moment. Truly heart-pumping stuff, and I could only imagine how much it would get the rodeo clowns going.
Undara Lava Tubes
It’s sometimes funny where you learn things…
At the beginning of the Wombatical we bought Liv an Australia for Kids book that she could use to track our progress and better understand all the places we’re seeing and experiencing. With our nightly reading focus on Queensland over the past couple of months we discovered an attraction we hadn’t previously heard of: The Undara Lava Tubes.
Hundreds of thousands of years ago (basically yesterday) much of Australia’s Outback was volcanoes. Not the spectacular kind you get in the Pacific, Indonesia or Iceland, but long unsexy volcanoes, ready to burst.
About 190,000 years ago the Undara Volcano spilled lava further than any other volcano in history, spanning 160km. That’s a bloody long way, even for a reverse-walking rogue pollie!
As the lava steered through the river bed for about a year (yep, this volcano erupted for four times longer than Kevin Rudd’s second prime ministership), it began to cool, thus forming these remarkable cylinder tubes. They look like caves, but knowing they have formed from lava is pretty impressive.
Our tour guide, let’s call him Steve (can’t remember his name), was the best guide of anything we’ve been to yet. Knowledgeable, entertaining, and passionate – this can really make or break your impression of an attraction, and it did.
On our bus ride back to the main base we spotted a few wild emus, which we think are the first wild ones we’ve seen on the trip so far, but not the last. Watching them run and shake their tail feathers is pretty entertaining 😀.
Just over a week prior to hitting the Outback, we spent some time and a small fortune replacing our house batteries, and fixing things so the car alternator would charge the batteries while the engine is running. At first it worked a treat, and we were stoked…
Until it stopped working again, hundreds of kms from any notable town 😡. We knew we had some big driving days ahead of us, which meant the fridge would likely have to be turned off and we’d have little to no power at the beginning and end of each day. Sure, we could pull into free camps at the end of each day and put the generator on for an hour or so. But that not only pisses off your neighbours and ruins the relaxed vibe, but it also only just gives you enough power to sneeze through the night and turn a light on 😤.
So we were stuck… Our next major destination was Lawn Hill National Park, about 1,000km away, with nothing but shit towns along the way. We didn’t want to have to stay in nothing towns while the only mechanic/auto electrician/plumber/chef in town attempted to fix our problem, so we decided to suck it up in the meantime, and try our luck in Isa or Alice, the biggest towns for thousands of kms.
Driving in the Outback is a combination of relaxing, easy, challenging, scenic, boring, and terrifying. There can be surprising amounts of green and colour (especially bright red rocks), beautiful and incredible large prey and scavenger birds, snakes, goannas, emus (and a new bird we hadn’t seen before, somewhere between an emu and a seagull – we thought we might’ve seen a new cross-breeding experiment in-action and titled them seamus), and long straight flat infinite roads. The most terrifying part is when the road narrows to single lane for several kms, often up and over crests, where you have to drive with such caution in case a 53m four-carriage road-train is screaming over the same hill in the opposite direction, forcing you onto the dirt with your heart racing at 200bpm.
But with speed limits ranging from 110km/h to 130km/h you can really knock some distance over in short amounts of time. So much so that we smashed out 710km from Georgetown to Lawn Hill in a four-stop day.
When we first ventured into inland Queensland on The Dinosaur Trail a few weeks earlier, I started to run calculations on our fuel efficiency. This is important, especially when you get to remote Australia where fuel is few and far between, and marked up higher than AMP’s fee-for-nothing services. I had calculated our average mileage as 5.8km per litre of diesel, or 17L per 100km. All driving since that point has been based on that calculation, so we know when and where to fill up. The WomBatmobile holds 80L (75 officially), and at this point in time we carried an extra 20L jerry-can, giving us a total of 100L, or 580km to a (combined) tank.
The famous Burke & Wills Roadhouse is exactly 483km from Georgetown, where we last filled the tank and jerry. So I picked this as the next best place to fuel up, giving us a safe 100km (17%) buffer to allow for any headwinds etc.
About 100km out from the roadhouse I noticed our fuel gauge at a lower than expected level. Assuming it would sort itself out, we continued, with no Plan B or alternative options available at this point (we had already emptied the jerry at our last stop).
With 40km to go the fuel light came on, shit!
Now there are many things that life throws your way to create stress – economic cycles, natural disasters, war, and famine. But there is no more stressful environment than a confined space in the middle of nowhere when you’re running out of fuel, fast. Blame games start getting thrown around more liberally than tax-cuts, and you can feel the tension pulsating. Every 10km the side-of-the-road signs update you with how far you’re going to have to walk without dignity when you run out; the distance between each sign seemingly eternal and exponential.
We reran a thousand scenarios of not only what had happened, but what to do next, as we eventually nuetralled into the roadhouse and breathed a massive sigh of relief.
In the end we put it down to a miscalculation somewhere along the way, while we put exactly 100L back into the motorhome and jerry-can. And we decided then and there that we would now fill up at every opportunity, as my maths was somehow wrong. Human error is a safe bet, and this is the only time it’ll happen on the trip…
In Dundee’s footsteps
To Lawn Hill or not to Lawn Hill is a question many travellers ask themselves and others when driving through Queensland’s Outback. There’s at least 100km of dirt to get in (each way), whichever way you come at it, and road conditions can vary based on season, amount of traffic, and when it was last graded. The internet provides few answers to any of these questions, so you really just need to take a punt if you’re going to do it. My schoolmate, Pat, and his wife Kylie, who once lived close by, sang praises of it, claiming it not to be missed. So we took our chances, scrapping our ‘no dirt’ rule for the moment.
Google told us the 100km gravel road from Gregory to Lawn Hill would take 3.5hrs. That’s pretty slow going, but that would get us in around dusk, which should be fine. We’d already traveled over 600km for the day, so what was another 100km of dirt?
It was actually a pretty decent drive, which we knocked over in 1.5hrs. 95% of the gravel was good, and the rest we just took slowly to be safe. Petrified of running out of fuel, we also refilled at Adels Grove at $1.87 a litre (average price at this point had been <$1.40pL) – lucky for those tax cuts, hey!
Lawn Hill Gorge
You know you’re in the Outback when there’s a snake chilling under the toilet cubicle and no one bats an eyelid, they simply count it as occupied and take the next available cubicle. This wasn’t quite enough for Loz to call quits on using he toilet block again, putting her brave face on to set the right example for Liv. It wasn’t until the following morning, when another snake slithered past her on her way to the loo that she threw the towel in, and fair enough too 🐍.
Lawn Hill is all about the canoeing. Easing through the stillness of water just after sunrise is something burnt into our memories, hopefully forever. It is truly breathtaking, as the gorge steeps on either side of you, while you paddle through the almost fluro green water, not knowing what lies beneath, but it’s probably a crocodile (only a freshie) 🐊.
As the sun starts to shine through the gorgeous gorge, bringing the red cliffs to life, it’s easy to understand why many travellers list this place as one of the best in the country.
On the rocks beyond the complex lily pads sit fluorescent purple-winged wrens, and turtles, warming the blood for another perfect day in remote paradise.
And when we reached the end, we simply lifted the canoe out and trawled it on-ground another 50m, only to drop it in again, into the just as impressive upper gorge, separated by cascades.
Our return journey took two hours, which was just enough to soak up the magic of this place on water. And with nearly no one in sight, getting on the water early was a square pizza game-changer.
Swimming with crocs
Freshwater Crocodiles won’t attack humans. But they’re still crocodiles, and are f^*king scary! They are known to live in the waters of Lawn Hill, but people seem to swim without a care in the world.
I’ll be honest. It was bloody hot, and I was busting for a swim. But sharing the water with crocs, regardless of them not known to attack humans, is a petrifying concept to me.
I decided I’d only swim to break the sweat if there were others in the water, so dragged Loz and Liv along as spectators, Loz certain it would be the last time she’d see me alive.
After hiking a couple of kms we found no one swimming at the waterfall, and sure we were in snake city, we hustled back to camp where we fund a few Grey Nomads chilling in the water there. I wasn’t sure if they’d come to accept death or if I was just being a paranoid pussy, so I tentatively waded in as the perfect temperature murky water cooled my body. Once I was in it became easier to relax, and it was a perfect swim.
Not unlike the Warrumbungles in NSW, Lawn Hill is far from any town, and therefore unnatural light. This makes it ideal for stargazing, of which Loz and I spent much of the nights partaking in. I’ve said it before and will say it again, but stars like this are a luxury when you live in the city 🌟.
Our next major destination was Uluru, still so far away. And given the enormous distances that we knew we had to cover over the coming days/weeks, we started taking our gravel confidence to new levels, overstating the WomBatmobile’s ability to handle tough driving. Sure, it managed 100km of graded dirt without drama, but we started to think we could somehow part the seas and drive this thing to Tokyo.
From Lawn Hill, you can reach a little town of Camooweal, just shy of he NT border, via gravel, in just 276km. Pretty tempting when the alternative (sealed, via Mount Isa) is a whopping 730km! “We’ll just take it really slow, even if it takes a whole day”, we agreed. How bad can it be?
It took a day or so, but we finally came to our senses, agreeing that the 500km backtrack was necessary for three reasons:
1. If we popped a tyre I reckon it’d take me a day to replace it, as I’m about as hands-on as Steve Smith in the ball-tampering atrocity.
2. If there are creek crossings, we’re buggered, and would have to backtrack even further than if we chose the long way.
3. We’re driving a bloody 2WD 4.5t motorhome, idiots!
Going through Isa would also allow us to get the battery issue fixed soone, and give us a decent base to stay if required.
Refuelling the nightmare
The distance from Adels Grove to Cloncurry is 419km. This was to be a piece of piss given our full-tank range was somewhere between 480km and 580km. We’ll make it in with at least 60km to spare, refuel, and continue towards Mount Isa.
It happened again 😞.
Somehow, the fuel gauge started dropping faster than CBA executives, and we were in the exact same state as a few days prior, with the fuel light reminding us of our pending breakdown 40km out of Cloncurry.
At this point my ‘human error’ was forgiven, and we decided something was amiss. Bad fuel? Something mechanical? Lightning had stricken twice and the thick layer of stress again filled the air.
But again, we rolled into the bowser with nothing in the tank, knowing full well this could not possibly happen again. And we were going to get the vehicle checked in Isa.
Our mileage appeared to be jumping around like a bull with something tied around its’ nuts. The drive from Cloncurry to Isa came in at 6.7km per litre, some of our best efficiency yet. How the hell are we meant to plan for this?!
So we booked the WomBatmobile in for a checkup, and to fix the battery issues, again, and decided to use Isa as a base to stock up on food, water, and patience.
With the vehicle at the doctors we set the tent up as a base for the day, but ran out of things to do pretty quickly, so headed into town to check things out. To be honest it’s not much of a town, except it is unique in that the mines are literally on its doorstep. It feels like the furnace (or whatever it’s called) is next door to Bunnings, it’s that close.
I called in to check on the car to find an originally baffled mechanic who dabbled in auto-electronics, unable to find the source of the problem. This was shitty as it was Friday and we didn’t want to have to stick around for the weekend if we could avoid it, while they readdressed the car on Monday.
Thankfully I received the phone call dreams are made of around 3pm and picked up the WomBatmobile, ready to take on the world again. The mechanic informed me that he couldn’t find anything on the mileage front, but highlighted that the open-air roads with strong headwinds in The Outback are notorious fuel guzzlers. What also gave me confidence was that Loz’s parent had experienced similar fuel anxieties when they were in these parts years ago. So we put it down to winds (and at 130km/h the WomBatmobile is revving at 4,000rpm). Now we know to assume 400km is the new 580km, and we also have another 20L spare jerry-can for emergencies only.
Ready to rock
Full of battery, fuel, water, and confidence we were now finally ready to leave Queensland, Territory-bound.
We never did get to see Mr Katter on his backwards stroll, nor did we meet Dame Edna or Bob Down in the streets, but we did learn all sorts of new phrases, words, and the fact that Outback Queensland exceeded all our expectations 👏🏻.