A self-confessed urbanite finds all sorts of revelations beneath the red dust on her first outback adventure in Central West Queensland.
“And they’re off! C’mon girls get out there,” yells race caller and publican Ben Casey as he lifts the gate. On the third and final loop of the track it’s ‘Apricot’ in the lead, but in the dying seconds, feisty ‘Bluey,’ wrinkly legs pistoning and wattles wobbling, comes up on the outside and takes it by a breast. The crowd, a mix of older travellers, international backpackers and family holidaymakers applaud, and the happy winner tips her beer to Bluey the chook, now feasting on her prize of fresh mealy worms.
Ben Casey’s chicken races at The Royal Carrangarra Hotel in Tambo are just one of a multitude of quirky events Central Western Queensland seems to revel in, I’m discovering. A latte-loving, deeply committed urbanite, I’m exploring Queensland’s central west, around 1000kms out of my comfort zone. At home, I can walk to Brisbane’s CBD and have more than a dozen cafes, restaurants and bars within a kilometre, as well as all my essential services (eyebrow technician, independent bottle shop, nail bar etc). Despite being a well-seasoned global nomad, I’ve never been west of Warwick, or indeed barely made it out of any of Australia’s larger cities, mainly because the outback of my imagination is a lonely and desolate place; vast, sun-baked and featureless, remote and uncivilised. Yet, I have to admit to myself as I now sit in a beer garden with a frosty ale and my new best friends, grey nomads Keith and Wanda, my preconceptions are being smashed left, right and centre.
The first is the outback roads. The anxiety-inducing vision of me trying to negotiate rutted bulldust covered roads in an unfamiliar 4WD is thankfully incorrect. The roads are sealed and well-maintained, transporting a steady convoy of caravans and campers, 4WDs and everyday cars.
And far from flat and featureless, the central western Queensland scenery is diverse and beautiful. There are flat-topped mesas I learn are called ‘jump ups’ rising from plains of Mitchell grass, jagged hills covered in spiky trees blooming with hardy wildflowers and deep gorges carved from prehistoric waterways. Water, in fact played a huge part in the geography of this region as it was once covered by the vast Eromanga sea, leaving behind a treasure trove of marine fossils. And of course, there are the dinosaurs.
At Lark Quarry Conservation Park south west of Winton is the world’s only preserved evidence of a dinosaur stampede. Around 95 million years ago the guide tells us, herds of small two-legged dinosaurs came to drink at the lake when a huge carnivorous theropod set off a stampede, resulting in a panicked mass of footprints in the mud as the smaller dinosaurs ran for their lives. The footprints were preserved under sandy sediment which compressed to rock over millions of years. The tracks were first discovered in the 1960s but remained a well-known local secret until scientists visited in 1971.
The rich history in Central West Queensland is also a surprise.. In Longreach, the biggest town in the region, the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre details the impressive achievements of our early outback pioneers. Longreach was also where QANTAS was founded and is home to the QANTAS Outback Founders Museum. Winton, meanwhile was where poet Banjo Paterson penned Australia’s unofficial anthem, Waltzing Matilda In 1895.
The most unexpected of my preconceptions to be blown away however is around art and culture; things I’d somehow imagined belonged solely to our urban centres. Winton’s new Waltzing Matilda Centre, designed by acclaimed Cox Architects after fire decimated the original building in 2015 is not only the first museum in Australia dedicated to a song, but showcases an enviable collection in the Outback Regional Gallery.
Then there’s the 28 murals of tiny Tambo, and Blackall – a town that’s earned the moniker ‘The Art Capital of the Outback’ with an outdoor sculpture trail including the much photographed ‘Roly Poly’ as well as a collection of murals by local artist Bob Wilson (who also paints miniatures on cigarette papers!). North east of Aramac there are sculptures on the road to Lake Dunn and Ranges Valley depicting aspects of outback life by local artist Milynda Rogers.
The Outback’s love of film is also alive too. Not only is Winton the host of Australia’s most remote film festival, the nine-day Vision Splendid at the end of June each year but it is guardian of one of Australia’s last open-air cinemas, The Royal, built in 1918. Barcaldine meanwhile has The Radio Picture Theatre, a classic Art Nouveau movie theatre, with the original canvas seating and painted screen façade while tiny Jericho (population 100) is home to the smallest and oldest operating drive- in theatre in the country. Then there is a packed calendar of events all across the region, from Barcaldine’s Tree of Knowledge Festival, to racing carnivals, music festivals, markets and more.
One expectation that turns out to be true however is the red dust. The further west I head, the deeper in colour it becomes and it gets everywhere, including, I’m surprised to find, between my toes despite thick socks and my new serious bushwalking shoes.
Of all my outback experiences though, it’s days close that make the most lasting memories. I’ve seen sunsets from Santorini to Santa Monica and there is nothing, nothing that even comes close to the grand production that is a bush sunset. Each late afternoon I head to a high point to watch the colours change from a muted pale pink to burning, blazing orange or park myself near water holes to watch the chaos as screeching mobs of galahs hand over to the bats as dusk falls, the sky starts to fill with a million stars and I sip my Chardonnay and wonder what the poor city folk are doing.