Discovering the history and mystery of the Australian outback
As our tiny plane bumped its way onto the tarmac, I immediately felt a sense of being very far away from everywhere. We had flown over a thousand kilometres of nothingness, albeit green and lush after some much-needed recent rains, into the centre of Queensland, or what is otherwise known as outback Australia.
With two thirds of Australians living in capital cities, most of which hug the vast coastline of the world’s only island continent, the outback can be a mystery. Many have never visited, nor have the desire to do so. Yet, for Australians and visitors alike, a visit to the outback can be a voyage of immeasurable discovery, revealing a history and a present which is both surprising and endlessly fascinating. City dwellers often only hear stories in the media of devastating droughts, flooding rains, lost livestock, heartbreak and hardship – but never get to hear the tales first-hand, and understand how the outback communities contribute to the lives and prosperity of all Australians.
My jaunt into the outback, visiting the Queensland towns of Longreach, Barcaldine and Winton, opened my eyes to the state’s diverse geological, paleontological, pastoral and political past and present. Despite a lineage leading to the tiny town of Barcaldine (population 1,500) I had only visited a few times, and knew some, but not all, of the contributions this town, and the region, had made to the Australian nation.
Longreach – the heart of outback Queensland
Flying into the town of Longreach, 620 kilometres west of Rockhampton, takes you right into the centre of the golden triangle of outback Queensland towns. Settled in the late 1800s and built on a rich pastoral history, Longreach is a bustling outback town. It is home to the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, which charts the region’s pioneering history, full of tales of the sheep and cattle industries which so defined the nation’s early years of white settlement. It is a good place to start your discovery tour of the outback, learning about the stockmen who tended the livestock on outback cattle stations, as well as the shearers who travelled throughout the region, shearing the sheep on each station they visited. There are also stories of the brave and stoic pioneering women, who not only fed and watered their families and visiting labourers, but who dealt with unimaginable hardships in an unforgiving landscape. There is also acknowledgement of the original inhabitants of the land, the Aboriginal people, who provided invaluable knowledge and experience of living in this inhospitable environment, although not always treated with the respect they deserved.
Longreach is also the birthplace of Australia’s national airline – QANTAS – the Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services, which began in the town in 1920. The Qantas Founders Museum tells the story of Hudson Fysh and Paul McGuiness, two war veterans, who raised funds from wealthy graziers to establish an air service for the remote outback region, which was virtually without roads and bridges at the time, and, being subject to flooding in the wet season, was in great need of a more reliable form of transport.
Outback education in Australia represents the largest classroom in the world, and you can visit the Longreach School of Distance Education to gain some understanding of what school is like for the hundreds of children living on properties scattered throughout the region, for whom a ‘virtual’ classroom is their ‘norm’.
No visit to the outback is complete without experiencing life on a station, as well as some traditional country entertainment and hospitality, and there are a few options. Local tour operator Outback Pioneers, is the creation of the Kinnon family, who have been living in the area for decades, and started the business to diversify into tourism during the punishing years of drought. As well as running a cafe and outback store in town, Outback Pioneers offers a range of experiences, such as a ride in a Cobb & Co Stagecoach, a visit to an outback station, and a cruise on a paddlewheeler on the Thomson River, followed by a traditional stockman’s campfire dinner with sound and light picture show. Another operator is Outback Aussie Tours which offers a Drover’s Sunset Cruise, followed by dinner and entertainment under the stars. The traditional outback ‘tucker’ of damper and tea are guaranteed to be on the menu!
If you want to experience what life would have been like for the outback pioneers, with a little bit of luxury thrown in, then a stay at Saltbush Retreat‘s pioneer slab huts or homestead stables will tick your box. With the added novelty of an outdoor deck featuring claw-foot baths, it is a unique accommodation experience.
Barcaldine – birthplace of the Australian Labor Party
A little over an hour’s drive from Longreach, Barcaldine is known as the garden city of the west. Fed by the waters of the Great Artesian Basin, the largest and deepest in the world, covering over 1.5 million square kilometres, the town is alive with greenery, attracting flocks of white cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets who flood the skies with their endless chirping.
Barcaldine has a rich working class history, showcased in the Australian Workers’ Heritage Centre. The town was the scene of the Great Shearers’ Strike in 1891, in which shearers rebelled against graziers’ efforts to destroy rural unions. Strike meetings were often held under a ghost gum in the centre of town, which became known as the Tree of Knowledge. The same tree was the location for the reading of the Labour Party manifesto which led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party. The tree, which was maliciously poisoned in 2006, is now adorned with a spectacular timber canopy, ensuring its legacy will endure forever.
I have the dubious honour of being connected to the fateful shearers’ strike of 1891, as my great-grandfather, Peter Joseph Dobbin, was falsely accused of being involved, and sentenced to jail for four years. In a heartbreaking twist, the land he had won in a government ballot was also taken from him. The story goes that he was travelling on the Clermont to Barcaldine road, on his way to visit his girlfriend, when he was arrested, suspected of carrying a note (which was never found) to the strike leaders. He claims that the police sergeant who arrested him fancied his girlfriend and it was an act of jealousy and revenge. He was sent to jail in Rockhampton and his girlfriend waited, marrying him on his release, so I guess love prevailed in the end!
There are many other attractions to keep you occupied in Barcaldine, including the Between the Bougainvilleas Heritage Trail, which highlights the town’s rich and colourful history. You can also visit the working property of Dunraven on the Barcaldine Tag Along Tours, during which 6th generation owners Roberta and Peter will share stories of their sheep and cattle station, which has been owned by the same family for 100 years. Of course, there are a proliferation of pubs to visit on the main street too! Barcaldine’s Aboriginal history can be unravelled at the soon to be launched Barcy Base Camp currently consisting of a great eating spot, called the Ridgee Didge Cafe, owned and operated by local Cheryl Thompson.
Now, where to stay? There are motels and pubs, but if you are looking for something different, why not stay in the cosy and convenient Kenilworth Cottage in town, or for an authentic outback experience, head out to Shandonvale Station, a 45 minute drive north of Barcaldine, where you can get hands-on at a working cattle property while sleeping in the comfort of the converted shearers’ shed. Now that’s the real ‘Straya!
Winton – the home of dinosaurs and opals!
A two-drive west of Longreach will take you to the Dinosaur Capital of Australia – Winton.
The prehistoric landscape will transport you to a time, around 100 million years ago, when these giant beasts walked the earth and there are plenty of opportunities to unearth their stories.
The Australian Age of Dinosaurs, about a 30 minute drive east of Winton, has the world’s largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils. You can walk in the path of these giant creatures, discovering their habitat and imagining what they would have been like. If you want to experience the entire fossil talk and canyon walk, allow a minimum of three hours for your visit.
If that has whetted your appetite for these magnificent creatures, then you can head out to the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument at Lark Quarry, about two hours’ drive south west of Winton, to see the world’s only recorded evidence of a dinosaur stampede.
As well as prehistoric creatures, Winton is famous for being the location of the first public performance of that quintessential Aussie bush ballad, Waltzing Matilda, in 1895. Written by Banjo Paterson, who penned the lyrics set to the music of a Scottish marching band tune, while he was staying at nearby Dagworth Station, Waltzing Matilda was first performed in the North Gregory Hotel. You can see the exact spot, in the Daphne Mayo Dining Room. The story of the song and outback life, are showcased in the Waltzing Matilda Centre.
Winton is also in Boulder Opal territory, and there are plenty of opportunities to see and buy the stunning gemstones, which are the second most valuable opals in the world, after the Black Opals. You can experience opal mining on the Opal Walk Tour which leads into the Royal Open Air Theatre, one of only two original open-air theatres still operating in Australia. Sometimes called the ‘Hollywood of the Outback’ for the number of films shot in the area, Winton hosts the Vision Splendid Film Festival each year.
Sadly, after five days of adventure our outback odyssey had come to an end, and we still hadn’t ticked off everything on our list of things to see and do. We came away with a new appreciation of the bush and the need for us city slickers to support those who are preserving our heritage, while also providing us with much of the economic prosperity we take for granted. We noted the plethora of festivals, race days, commemorative events and other activities that are on constant rotation in these outback towns and vowed to return to enjoy another truly authentic travel experience!
If you enjoyed this article please feel free to like, comment and share on social media. If you would like more of the same, contact me to schedule a time to discuss how I can help you to create the life of your dreams through travel, or collaborate on similar projects. You can also Subscribe to the Conversations. If you’d like to check out some of our great travel products, head to the Evvoke shop here.