Exploring Aussie's outback towns
Vast tracts of glowing ochre wilderness, glorious sunrises and sunsets over some of the widest horizons on earth, and the kind of colourful characters you never dreamed existed outside a Crocodile Dundee movie.
Yet some of the outback's best surprises are the fascinating little towns with a host of attractions all their own. And there are none so inviting, and so easily accessible, as a series of towns along one slim ribbon of road in western Queensland.
Now striving to become the major centre for outback tourism, these towns are doing all they can to send out the clarion call: go west young man (and woman) - and discover what lies in wait.
It's creepy and it's kooky, mysterious and spooky - Boulia's main claim to fame is as the home of the mysterious Min Min, an eerie light that suddenly appears, glows, fades and then disappears again.
No one knows what it is. Could it be evil spirits, ghosts, UFOs, or, perhaps more plausibly, sparks from geophysical elements in the earth or phosphorescence in marshes? Whatever it is, Boulia makes great capital of it.
The town is billed as the home of one of Australia's greatest supernatural mysteries and has the Min Min Encounter Centre devoted to showing visitors what happens, with talking life-size mannequins, animatronics and all sorts of technical effects. It's so popular, you now need to book in advance.
Also in town is a beautifully preserved old home that is the Stonehouse Museum, run by the resident curator, "Dinosaur" Dick Suter, a man known as a colossus in the fossil world.
With Boulia sitting on the bed of what was, 100 million years ago, an ancient inland sea, it's now a rich source of marine fossils - despite being so far from the ocean. Suter, a self-taught palaeontologist, has a huge display and loves talking to visitors about them.
Where Boulia is 300 kilometres south of Mount Isa, and 1200 kilometres west of Rockhampton, on the Burke River.
Stay Desert Sands Motel.
Don't miss Having a look at all the camels around town. Boulia's annual camel races in July each year are dubbed "the Melbourne Cup of camel racing".
With so much to do and see at and around Winton, its wide streets heaving with pubs and festooned with bougainvillea, it's a firm favourite of many visitors.
The main attraction is its Waltzing Matilda Centre, a living love letter to the old swagmen of the outback who drifted around, picking up shearing work and carrying all their belongings in their swag - as well as Red Jack, a woman dressed as a man for nearly 20 years. With a sound-and-light show, recorded voices of swaggies telling their stories and a hologram display, it's an entrancing experience.
The old Royal Theatre offers another hearty dose of nostalgia, with regular picture shows of old-time newsreels, films of musicals and scenes from Popeye, all enjoyed in the open air from deckchairs.
Winton is also the dinosaur capital of Australia, with Lark Quarry displaying more than 3000 fossilised footprints on the silt ground, the largest collection of dinosaur tracks in the world - and the only recorded evidence of a dinosaur stampede. This was the inspiration for the stampede scene in the movie Jurassic Park.
Nearby is the Australian Age of Dinosaurs centre, home to the world's largest collection of dinosaur fossils, and the biggest fossil-preparation lab in the southern hemisphere.
Where Winton is 360 kilometres east of Boulia, and 860 kilometres west of Rockhampton.
Stay Boulder Opal Motor Inn, boulderopalmotorinn.com.au.
Don't miss Dinner at the Tattersalls Hotel, the gorgeous old 1885 pub on the corner with its wide verandah filled with tables, and a chat with colourful publican Paul Nielsen.
One of the great must-sees of the outback is the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame at Longreach. An elegant A$12.5 million complex with a wonderfully authentic corrugated tin roof, it tells the story amazingly well of our rich history of explorers, convicts and settlers, all pioneers battling the tyrannies of distance, the harshness of the land and plagues of everything from dingoes and locusts to mice.
It has well-ordered displays, films and computer-generated talks about every facet of outback life, from how the cattle stations worked and the great contribution of Aboriginal stockmen, to the kind of food available and the hats that were worn. There are also regular demonstrations of bush skills that have to be seen to be believed.
You can step back in time, too, at the live show of old outback life put on daily at the Kinnon & Co. Station Store in the main street, as well as go for its replica Cobb & Co stagecoach "gallop thru the scrub".
It's exhilarating to cling on to your seat in the coach as the four horses race along and clouds of dust billow up all around.
More relaxing is the riverboat dinner cruise along the Thomson River, as whistling kites perch on the coolibah trees fringing the river and then glide slowly above, and the tiny heads of turtles pop out of the water all around. After the sun sets, the boat turns its lights to the riverbank to watch the animals.
Where Longreach is 180 kilometres south-east of Winton, 700 kilometres west of Rockhampton.
Stay Abajaz Motor Inn, abajazmotorinn.com.au.
Don't miss The Qantas Founders Museum, which commemorates the founding of the airline. It has a jumbo jet and an old Boeing 707 - which you can sit at the controls of and go for a walk along the wing.
Move over Black Caviar! The racing hero of Barcaldine is Thunder, a legendary champion of ... goat-racing. It might sound odd, but at least once a year the race that stops the nation, er, town is one made up of a series of goats pulling little billy-carts driven by a bunch of kids.
When you think about it, why not? Goats are the animals that helped settle the outback after all, pulling wagons, carting wood and manure, eating anything and everything, supplying milk and, at the end of the day - well, the end of their day - meat. They've also provided great sport for the working classes.
And towns don't come any more working class than Barcaldine, the site of the Great Shearer's Strike of 1891, which proved a watershed in the fight to better the nation's working conditions. It led to the creation of the world's first labour party, and is now marked by the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, the nation's only commemoration of the history of the working man and woman.
There's also a massive monument around the ghost gum where the strikers' meetings were held, called "the tree of knowledge", which now has a massive A$5 million timber sculpture hanging over its position in homage - the original tree was poisoned in 2006 in a mystery that still endures to this day.
Where Barcaldine is 100 kilometres east of Longreach, 600 kilometres west of Rockhampton.
Stay Barcaldine Country Motor Inn, barcaldinecountrymotorinn.com.au.
Don't miss A trip to discover the area's Dreamtime and Heritage Trail with Artesian Country Tours, run by larger-than-life character Tom Lockie. Another keen goat-racer, he has one of the biggest stables in Australia and is dubbed the Bart Cummings of goat racing.
Blackall, formerly a big sheep centre and the site of the original Black Stump, is known for its 1908 woolscour - a steam-driven wool-washing plant, using the hot water from an artesian bore nearby, to remove dirt, dead skin, grass and anything else that became tangled in the wool before it parted company with the sheep.
It was actually the only woolscour in the world to have shearing sheds attached, so it was pretty much a one-stop sheep-shear shop; and just try saying that after a beer or three.
The scour continued operation until 1978 and, in 1988, both the wood and tin building and the steam engine were restored by volunteers. It's a fascinating glimpse into our golden age of wool, at a time when we had around 35 times more sheep than people.
Where Blackall is 100 kilometres south of Barcaldine, 520 kilometres west of Rockhampton.
Stay Barcoo Hotel.
Don't miss A long, leisurely soak in the hot artesian spa at the aquatic centre, for the bargain price of A$3.
Isisford was once the haunt of one of the first crocodiles on earth and today the town has an old picture theatre converted into a fabulous museum that houses a life-size replica of his skeleton.
The oldest crocodile ever discovered is now named Isisfordia, in honour of the place and, at 95 million to 98 million years old, he's now considered the granddaddy of all the crocodiles that followed.
It also has the Isis Downs Shearing Shed - the largest in Australia. The 50-stand semi-circular shed was made in England, shipped here and then built in 1914 by the same company that put up the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
And for a relaxing bevvy, the historic Clancy's Overflow Hotel is being gradually restored into a classic outback pub by a Dutchman who saw it for sale on the internet and fell in love with it.
Where Isisford is 110 kilometres west of Blackall, 720 kilometres west of Rockhampton.
Stay Clancy's Overflow Hotel, clancyshotel.com.au.
Don't miss The great fishing, especially for yellowbelly, on the tranquil coolibah-lined banks of the Barcoo River.
Sydney Morning Herald