|Trip Length: 4 days Total Distance: 1812 km Road Conditions: All sealed roads|
Travel a few kilometres to the west of any coastal town or city and some would have it that you are in the Outback. It doesn't really come that easy, as the real Outback starts a hundred or so kilometres west of the Great Dividing Range. And, you'll also know when you're in the Outback. Fewer vehicles, friendlier people (although some will test you out with their dry sense of humour), colder beer, gidgea trees and Mitchell grass - and longer distances between drinks.
Probably, once you have arrived at the Matilda Highway, you're well and truly in the Outback and your Akubra doesn't look out of place, the RM's almost make you look like a wealthy station owner, and you're even talking slower, dropping the 'g's', and walking with a pronounced bushman's gait.
Welcome to the Matilda Highway, a fully sealed 1812 kilometre stretch of road from the New South Wales border, all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
This is one road which most definitely leads to adventure, and a different one each day.
The highway can be completed in as little of 24 hours, but that's one heck of a drive and you'll be missing out on the 'real Outback'... that is, the people, the attractions and natural sites.
Four days is a comfortable drive, depending on how long you stay in each town.
Just be wary of certain sections which are unfenced. Also avoid travelling around sunset or at night, as kangaroos and cattle also occasionally like to share your side of the road- sometimes both sides...
Between Cloncurry and Karumba there are some narrow stretches which means you and a road train cannot possibly be on the same strip of bitumen, at the same time. Best advice is to slow down, keeping the right hand side wheels on the bitumen and thereby demonstrating courtesy (and some wisdom) to oncoming heavy traffic.
Check the byways along the route, where plenty of side-trips add much to the overall Outback experience.
|Barringun to Cunnamulla||1 hr 15 mins||119 kms|
|Cunnamulla to Charleville||2 hrs 17 mins||199 kms|
|Charleville to Blackall||3 hrs 27 mins||301 kms|
|Blackall to Barcaldine||1 hr 14 mins||108 kms|
|Barcaldine to Longreach||1 hr 23 mins||107 kms|
|Longreach to Winton||1 hr 45 mins||179 kms|
|Winton to Cloncurry||3 hrs 56 mins||349 kms|
|Cloncurry to Normanton||4 hrs 18 mins||382 kms|
|Normanton to Karumba||45 mins||71 kms|
Goodbye New South Wales. Hello Queensland.
With a population of just four, don't expect a tumultuous reception.
The once thriving NSW border town of Barringun, was so alive that there were two police stations. One on the southern side of the border and the other, with Queensland constabulary, just a stone's throw away.
Tattersalls Hotel is one of the few buildings which still stands. Fuel is available in the township, along with refreshments and meals at the hotel.
The next major settlement is Cunnamulla, 119 km to the north.
Just south of Cunnamulla check out the dwarf-like red sand dunes, adorned with pines. If the travels are after good winter rainfalls, then have the camera at the ready for a landscape ablaze with wildflowers.
Cunnamulla, a country town full of outback traditions provides enough good reasons to expand the itinerary, and linger a while.
This is a general service town, with all the facilities that a traveller requires.
Visit the Cunnamulla railway station, which is one of only two totally covered platforms in Queensland.
Historical sites range from the Bicentennial Museum and Old Masonic Lodge, to the Robber's Tree - the latter which was a short term sanctuary for Joseph Wells, who bungled an attempt to rob the town branch of the Queensland National Bank.
The tree still lives. Sadly, Wells didn't. He was the last man in Queensland to be hanged for 'robbery under arms'. Check out the tree when in town.
Side trips are recommended, taking in Eulo (home of the World Famous Lizard Races), the Mud Springs and the opal fields of Yowah.
When all is done, back to the Matilda Highway again and this time head for Wyandra, 97 km to the north.
The highway follows the route of the railway and it’s the railway system which actually decided where towns would be created.
Wyandra was once a major water stop for steam engines which hauled wool and sheep to the marketplace.
There are some great examples of early architecture and many of these have helped create a self-guide heritage trail. A booklet to guide you through the town is available at the Power House Museum.
What else? Well you could visit Wyandra Beach, a sandy stretch of waterway, which the locals say is not bad for fishing.
Charleville is 100 km ahead.
Charleville is a town which needs some serious attention- at least a couple of days.
This place has a history featuring the early cameleers, Cobb & Co and Qantas.
It is the centre for the largest School of Distance Education and home base for the work of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Before leaving Charleville, experience the Cosmos Centre, a small observatory which introduces you to the world beyond.
Have a farewell drink at the historic and rather opulent Corones Hotel before heading north to Augathella or a byway to Quilpie and its opal fields.
Augathella is 84 km northbound. The Mighty Meat Ants are synonymous with Augathella. You’ll come across them in one form or another. Either, as they take to the field during the footy season in the winter months, or by way of the town’s logo. Just try to avoid them if taking a picnic.
The pub in this town is the central social hang-out, a good place to hear of the exploits of the family of Kenniff’s - two of the town’s sons who, once out of short pants, did everything to help them grow into infamous bushrangers.
On a more cultural note, local artists and artisans show off their latest creations at the Main Street located Boadicea Arts and Crafts.
Give Slim a spin on the cd and singalong to his ‘Augathella Fella’ as you head out of town along the Matilda Highway. Next stop - Tambo.
Tambo is 119 km north of Augathella and without a bushranger to hang their hats on the townsfolk came up with a brilliant attention getter. Teddies! Tambo Teddies were created during the years of low wool prices, drought and little future on the horizon for the townsfolk.
Sheep and wool form the nucleus of most conversations in and around Tambo. Oh, and the weather, too.
A side trip recommended for 4WD enthusiasts is out to Salvator Rosa National Park. If time is against such a trip, settle for a stroll along the banks of the Barcoo, and do the Coolibah Walk. Take along the necessaries for a bush picnic.
In the Spring season, if there’s been a good winter rainfall, the wildflowers are a knock-out.
You may wonder why Tambo’s Carrangarra Hotel should prefix its name with ‘Royal’. It appears that a member of ‘that’ family spent a night at the hotel and from then on, use of the Royal warrant has been in order.
Finish the visit with a cool refreshing drink and you’re ready to face the next 101 km and the ‘big smoke’ of the Central West - Blackall.
101 km north of Tambo, around an hour's drive, and you arrive at the 'home of the original black stump'. Heed not what other State's may claim, as the locals from early identities such as Jackie Howe, through to latter day residents, steadfastly stick to the belief that the Thistle Street located stump (just behind the State School) is the genuine article.
By the way, Jackie Howe once owned one of Blackall's pub. Also, by appointment only, check out the early history of sheep in the central west at Alice Downs Station.
If you're still scratching your head bout this fellow called Jackie Howe, don't ask the obvious, - instead read on. It was in 1892 that Jackie (a gun shearer) set a world record by shearing 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes. He held that record for 58 years an even then it was done with machine shears. Don't listen to the knockers who will say that sheep were smaller in those days. And certainly don't even suggest that when in Blackall.
We again greet the Barcoo River, which flows close to the town. Just keep count of the number of times you cross the Barcoo, as local legend has it that after the tenth crossing, you're here to stay!
Who says that only the coastal strip has theme parks and major attractions? There's a not to be missed attraction in this town. It's the Historic Blackall Woolscour, brought back to life by locals to become a major tourist attraction. Whilst it's open throughout the year, 'steam-up' is usually restricted to those months from May to September.
Blackall was to have the first artesian bore in the central west, only to be beaten to the punch by Barcaldine, just 109 km further along the Matilda Highway and they still haven't quite forgiven Barcy for that episode of treachery.
The feeling is quite mutual, so best not to discuss one town, when in the other.
Barcaldine is the town which makes for a great 'pub crawl', although obviously not if you're driving.
There are some six pubs, all on the same side of the street and each has a tremendous link with 19th century architecture. Photographically, they are terrific.
The town has a few other surprises. The big one being the memorial to Australian workers. It's the Australian Worker's Heritage Centre. Set on five acres, this centre should keep you interested for a good couple of hours - or longer.
Barcy has had strong links with workers, and the union movement. It all started in 1891 with a long running shearers' strike, a conflict which came to a head when striking shearers gathered under the shade of a giant Ghost Gum to air their grievances.
Those meetings also gave birth to the Australian Labor Party, whilst the graziers started their own political group, which was to eventually become the National Party. By the way, the tree, having undergone surgery by a tree doctor, is still alive and well.
After a few hours in Barcaldine you come to realise that the locals have really been giving a pretty thorough history lesson. The lesson continues just 80 km up the highway, at Ilfracombe.
If you're travelling between late August through early September, and if there has been a good rainfall, the floral landscapes are spectacular.
Hit the road Jack! 80 kms ahead, Ilfracombe awaits.
Now, in some States roadsides become giant litter bins, with the landscape adorned with everything from fast food wraps to discarded Holden utes. But, not in Ilfracombe, where old tractors, disused farm equipment and things rural have been neatly laid out to rest, forming a virtual open-air street museum. Something for free!
The collection started in the 80s, first with the building of a replica station homestead. Locals really got into the spirit of things historical and wonderful heritage pieces began to appear, until today the museum precinct runs the full length of the main street.
Wander around the town and check out the Wellshot Hotel which has a Back To The Bush live show during the tourist season; the corrugated-iron Langenbaker Cottage; and the Post Office, the latter claiming to have Australia’s first motorised mail service.
The town’s hotel still bars the original name of this town, named after Wellshot Station, a sheep property which had another claim to fame. It was the world’s largest sheep station, with a sheep population of 460,000. Try counting them and you’ve overcome any signs of insomnia.
The wool capital of the west, Longreach, is just 15 minutes along the Matilda Highway. Or alternatively consider including a side trip to Isisford on the way. Camping is free along the Barcoo at the weir and the Oma waterhole.
27 km back at Ilfracombe most of our latter-day travellers are unaware of what lies ahead. Longreach.
The town of Longreach really came into prominence in 1988 when the Queen, opened the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame. It is world famous and warrants much more than just a casual glance. It is a total package of the Outback rolled into one brilliant display.
Adding life to this western Queensland town are a number of other first-class attractions, namely the Qantas Founders Museum (with its own decommissioned Boeing 747 Jet as its centrepiece), the School of Distance Education (one of the largest classrooms in the world), the Longreach Pastoral College (do a guided tour), the Longreach Power House Museum (with a potpourri of parochialism) and the Longreach Arts and Cultural Centre (in the old Ambulance Station, where locals display their arts and crafts).
What's all this fuss about Qantas in an outback town. Put simply, this is where the international airline grew up. Conceived in Cloncurry, born in Winton and grew up in Longreach.
Since the world has discovered Longreach, the locals have discovered tourism. They have even put their Thomson River to work, with regular cruising programs. Tour operators offer a range of touring experiences,- some to 'dinky-di' working cattle and sheep properties.
Being a service town of some note, it's here where supplies can be replenished.
Then, you're ready to take on another stretch of the Martilda Highway, 179 km to Winton and let's face it, over the next two-hours you should become word perfect with Waltzing Matilda.
If you happen to be in Longreach in : April, for Easter in the Outback. May, for the Longreach Agricultural Show and the Drivers' Reunion.
It's virtually impossible to arrive in Winton and not be humming, or singing 'Once a Jolly Swagman et al', as after all, it is our national song and it was here at the original North Gregory Hotel where Banjo Paterson first publicly performed Waltzing Matilda.
There have been four North Gregory Hotels each one, bar the current building, having burned to the ground.
The first public airing of the song was in the days when the town was known as Pelican Waterhole. A name-change was decreed by the local postmaster, who probably suffered RSI as a result of printing all those 16- letters whenever he issued a document. The 6-letters which make up Winton not only saved his wrist from permanent damage, but also made obvious petty cash savings with ink and his collection of quills.
Not only is Banjo's song the best known piece of Australiana on the world stage but it also gave rise to the world's only centre dedicated to a song. The Waltzing Matilda Centre gives plenty of reasons to puff up the chest with a degree of pride.
In town, and in holiday season, the town's local open-air picture theatre (The Royal) screens latest releases. It can get a little chilly, so bring the canvas seats together and canoodle, just for old times sake.
This is the town where Qantas was born. The first general meeting of the airline was held at the Winton Club.
You are in opal country, with Opalton 124 km along an unsealed road. It's worth a visit if you are into colour. Formed over millions of years, Queensland boulder opal is only one of the remnants from another age. Out at Lark Quarry Conservation Park to the south-west of Winton, tour groups get to view the world's most amazing evidence of a dinosaur stampede.
This visit can be coordinated with a tour of Carisbrook Station, where US President Lyndon B Johnson did an emergency landing in the 'Swoose' during WWII.
Around September, in each odd-year, one of Australia's best organised festivals takes to the streets,- music, bush poetry, through to such competitive events as the Dunny Derby. Who was it who said there's no culture out in these parts?
As with the rest of the Matilda Highway, the trip onto Cloncurry is sealed but in parts, unfenced. This means that apart from sharing the highway with other ‘explorers’ and road trains and kangaroos, you’ll come across resident cattle which also claim use of the road. The landscape is undulating and open Downs country.
Some 80 kilometres north of Winton you’ll pass through Ayrshire Hills, an ancient weathered formation which looks very much like the mesas from a spaghetti western.
Kynuna itself is backed by isolated mesas to the west of the town.
The turnoff to the Combo Waterhole, (the inspiration for Banjo's Waltzing Matilda) is 153 km north of Winton and 16 km east of Kynuna, off the Landsborough Highway (Matilda Highway).
Cloncurry is one of the most interesting outback towns and definitely deserves extended time for exploration - not of the mineral kind, more so in heritage mode.
Mining has played a key role in the development and growth of the town. A bloke called Ernest Henry is responsible for its very existence. In 1867 he discovered copper and through until this day, copper mining remains a major player in the growth of Cloncurry.
That's along with numerous allied mining services through to grazing and transport. By the way, tours of the Ernest Henry mine are available.
Also a visit to John Flynn Place is a must for a history lesson on the early days of Royal Flying Doctors.
Whilst the Matilda Highway does not actually go through Mount Isa, it would be senseless being so close and not include a visit to the nation's inland city, for tours of the huge mining complex. Consider plotting this one on your itinerary.
Back on the Matilda Highway and heading from Cloncurry to Normanton drivers need to 'have their wits' about them. Whilst the road is sealed, it does have some narrow sections.
This means that when approaching road trains or heavy vehicles, it's advisable to slow down and move off the bitumen, whilst leaving the right hand wheels on the road surface to retain traction and avoid bogging.
Remember too, in these parts you'll occasionally be sharing the road with kangaroos, emus and perhaps straying cattle.
The vista changes from ghost gums midst Rocky country and you'll also come across 'mini skyscrapers' built by termites.
This is a good stretch of road, extending the 71 km to Karumba, a town right on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Although, it seems to take the longest of any previous part of the highway. That's all to do with the excitement of reaching the 'end of the road' and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
There's a choice of accommodation, from motels to camping grounds. It's very location also makes it an obvious place to go for a 'feed' of seafood including that for which it is most noted, prawns.
Visit one of the bars at night and you?re sure to run into somebody from the prawn trawling fleet. These are not the times or the places that one gets cheeky or over smart, remembering that there are some who have just come on shore after lengthy periods at sea,- looking for a bit of dust-up.
Around Karumba it's relatively flat country, but it's the birdlife which excites. Most times, Saurus cranes (similar to a brolga) are in abundance.
Congratulations for making the full length of the Matilda Highway.
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