16 Oct 2022 BIRDSVILLE ROAD TRIP
Every indication, when I left home on October 7, was that the weather wouldn’t pause the trip, though in the two or three preceding weeks, this seemed a real possibility. Because of the departure time of the Saturday flight to Longreach, I overnighted at the airport. The road trip was scheduled to start on the 10th, giving me a weekend at home with Simon & Nicole, except that Nicole was absent on business and due to return on the 9th. Because they did the driving, I insisted on paying for the fuel. Very generously, they let me sit in the front, ignoring my readiness to sit in the back. The great attraction about this trip was the series of firsts that it guaranteed. That there was a bonus first was more than one could ask for. It happened before we got to Winton in the form of a large mob of cattle grazing by the side of the road. It looked as if the drovers had set up camp here, more likely they were having a break. None of us had seen the like.
We were heading for Boulia. Ever since reading about the Middleton hotel on the ABC website two years ago, I longed to see it. The pub is 170 kilometres from Winton and over 190 kilometres from Boulia, where we stayed the night. Conventionally, one could say that it is in the middle of nowhere, except that it is in glorious country. It is older than the Birdsville hotel and must be one of the most rudimentary pubs in Australia. It is a simple unadorned timber structure, small, with a sparse interior. We had a toasted sandwich for lunch. I loved the place. I didn’t mind that it was basic indoors and unkempt outside, though I may have found the toilets a challenge. The land from Winton to Boulia and beyond, indeed much of western Queensland, was covered by the shallow Eromanga Sea some 110 million years ago, resulting in the mesas, topped by harder rocks with eroded slopes beneath them, which were particularly evident between Winton and Middleton.
Boulia bills itself as the home of the min min light. In my view it is a rather annoying bate for tourism. The name Boulia resonates with me because of where it is and hearing it on the weather forecast. After checking in at our motel, we went to the Visitor Information Centre to hear the min min story, which was brilliantly presented and unexpectedly entertaining. It was told in a sequence of elaborate sets, where we sat or stood, to hear life-sized mannequins narrating a well-written script. All the voices were good. The last set had seating at a lookout from where, as night fell, we could see a truck’s headlights illuminating a road. The view morphed into the interior of a bus, the driver, the last of the mannequins, turning round in his seat to tell us about the min min. We were positioned on a revolve, and as it turned, the view changed, showing the road ahead, lit by the bus’s headlamps, the driver now a dark outline, then the vast night sky and finally, of course, the min min. A very ambitious and impressive presentation to find in such a remote and small community.
One of the sights to which we were directed in Boulia was a lone Waddi tree, a species of acacia and one of Australia’s rarest plants. A plantation grows a little way out of town, which is balanced by another, a similar distance from Birdsville. The Boulia plantation was so sparse, that it didn’t look sustainable, which puzzled me as to the tree’s viability. Signs along the route draw attention to places of interest. The lookouts were the most rewarding, starting with the intriguingly named Cawnpore lookout between Middleton and Boulia, and an even more spectacular lookout between Boulia and Bedourie, over the flood plains. Beyond Bedourie we started to see yellow sand dunes, initially few and far between, but the nearer we got to Birdsville, the closer together the dunes became. A crossing over a full Eyre Creek was notable for a pelican floating in the water. The Waddi tree plantation near Birdsville was much more extensive than the one outside Boulia and was marked by a sign in a turn-off, which we passed because we needed to check in at the hotel ahead of our 4.30 tour of the town and sunset at Big Red.
The name Birdsville is so magnetic that, when first seen as a line of low buildings dominated by a water and communications towers and the power station, it overshadows the impact of its physical appearance. Once one registers at the hotel, among the best known in the country, the legend starts to spring to life. And as one slowly drives along its streets, passing the school, the health centre, the police station, noting how unexpectedly huge and far from town the race course is, and reflecting on how far away is the nearest town, the place’s fundamental and hazardous remoteness, Birdsville’s very essence, is perceived in all its majestic scale. At 30 plus metres high, Big Red, 35 kilometres west of the town, is the tallest of the roughly 1,140 parallel dunes in the Simpson Desert. As Nicole in my view rightly said, we should have arrived half an hour earlier to see the dune in proper daylight. Dinner at the hotel lived up to my hopes. Our trip coincided with the end of the tourism season. An unforeseeable consequence was the unavailability of breakfast at our accommodation in Birdsville and Windorah. Instead, I made do with a mug of tea in the hotel’s bar, the fourth or fifth that the barman had made in the two years he had worked there. We decided to make the Waddi trees our first stop. Before we saw the sign on the previous day, we had driven for several kilometres through Waddi tree terrain. The sign provided all the information needed to solve the sustainability puzzle. Over a million Waddi trees grew within a 100 square kilometre area of where we stood.
The first thing we did on returning to Birdsville was drive to the South Australian border. We then explored a park created by first nation people. I watched a great egret and wood ducks in a neighbouring, small, heavily vegetated pond. We went to the bakery for some lunch. They were closing the next day and only had a limited selection of pies. While waiting for the information centre to open, we walked to the extensive lagoon which is watered by the Diamantina river. We had driven over the river on our tour of the town, impressed by the volume of water. The opposite bank of the lagoon formed a spit of land, beyond which flowed the river, incredibly wide where the spit terminated. At the information centre, we watched a recently made video about the lived history of Birdsville and the surrounding country, which included interviews with locals past and present and interesting accounts of life on the cattle and sheep stations. On returning to the hotel, I had another mug of tea in the bar, with a similar comment from a different barman. Simon and I had a before dinner beer in the bar, an obligation I was relieved to fulfill.
More than half the road from Birdsville to Windorah is unsealed, its surface far rougher than the brief unsealed section of the road from Bedourie. We continued to travel through haphazard dune country. At times the interval between dunes was such, that I thought we had left them behind. To add to the confusion, there were ridges of red, rocky earth scattered amongst the dunes. Hoping to make up for not having breakfast we took the turn off to the Betoota hotel and a spot of lunch. The publican was not at the bar when we arrived. I stood at the entrance to an adjoining room, occupied by a number of kelpie pups, one of which followed me back to the bar and promptly peed on the floor. At this point the publican appeared. He had sold his last food to a road train driver. We bought some drinks and left. As we drew near to Windorah, a storm was brewing. Before checking in at the hotel, we bought a sandwich at the café next to the petrol station. The accommodation was surprisingly neat and comfortable, a new steel cabin furnished with easy chairs and a table next to the bed, ending in a shower room. As the storm was about to break, we agreed to check conditions in an hour with the intention of driving to Windorah’s own famous red sand dune. The wind howled, the thunder roared, the lightening flashed and the rain bucketed down. We convened at the appointed time, the storm having left town, and travelled the short distance to the dune. We drove to the top of Big Red. We parked at the bottom of its Windorahn counterpart, which is less than half as high. I managed the stiff climb with relative ease and even proceeded to a higher fold some distance beyond. The sand here is said to be redder than Big Red, which I didn’t see in proper daylight, so am in no position to confirm.
The road between Windorah and Longreach is fully sealed, but we took the road to Quilpie in order to drive across the Cooper Creek bridge. Like the Diamantina, the creek was full. A little downstream, where it broadened, some pelicans were resting on the bank. Having definitely left Windorah, our first stop was Jundah, the home of Barcoo Shire Council. We pulled in at the service station which is owned and operated by the council. I ordered a full breakfast, proclaiming to the young woman who took my order, that I would eat my breakfast, even if Simon and Nicole drove away. Instead of assuring me that she would see to it that I was reunited with them, she told me that if I was stuck in Jundah, she had plenty of work for me to do. Nicole was relieved to hear that the road beyond Stonehenge was open, because it was closed at the start of the week. Indeed, Simon made quite a splash as he recurringly drove through water covering dips in the road. We could see rain ahead as we neared Longreach and after we got back, there was a short, sharp storm.
Some of the places where we stayed or filled up at, had just over 100 inhabitants. None had over 400. Both Diamantina Shire, which covers 95,000 sq km and Barcoo Shire, which covers 62,000 sq km, have fewer than 300 inhabitants. Holland, which covers 41,500 sq km, has 16.9 million inhabitants.
The firsts for all of us were the Middleton Hotel, Boulia, Bedourie, Birdsville, Betoota, Windorah and Jundah. None of us had seen such a profusion of wild flowers in this part of the world, or so much standing water in the landscape other than during flooding (which I have not experienced out west), or flowing water in the culverts. Consequently, we saw plenty of stock instead of hardly any and quite a few emus as we drove, including adults with young. We also saw brolgas. And in Bedourie of all places, I was thrilled to find camels – a domesticated pair kept in the hotel grounds.
I put it down to days spent intensely absorbing the characteristics of the unfolding channel country, but until now, I hadn’t realised how frequently and radically the vegetation cover changes in the outback, from an almost barren plain, to one filled with long grass and shrubs, or light or dense tree cover or a mixture of both. Earth, rock strewn or sand slopes may be sparsely vegetated or covered in a mixture of shrubs and lush spinifex. All it took for the scene to be transformed was a slight crest in the road.