Opals at the end of the line
Quilpie, Queensland. What a great address.
The name Quilpie is based on an Aboriginal word for Stone Curlew, the bird with the wrong-way-bending knees and the disquieting wail. I had no qualms about Quilpie: I knew I'd like the place. It's full of opals – the 'jewel of the Outback' and my birthstone; it's further into the Outback than Charleville; and it begins with Q. Place names don't come much cooler. Once I was there, I loved the quirky life-size silhouettes in the median strip in Brolga Street; buying postcards from the electrical shop and putting air in the tyres at the hardware shop; and seeing more different kinds of birds at a lake no one's ever heard of than any of the supposedly brilliant bird-watching locations along our route. Quilpie Shire's 'brand' is based on the opal's colours, by the way.
Sitting on the Bulloo River, Quilpie is not far short of 1000 kilometres west of Brisbane. Grazing and mining are the main economic activities of the town which was established with the railway in 1917. Deposits of oil and gas are extensive, as is boulder opal. As the name implies, the opal is attached to, and has to be separated from, rock (see top of page); whereas opal at Coober Pedy and Lightning Ridge in New South Wales occurs in clay. A notable visitor to Quilpie was Amy Johnson, who made a forced landing in low mulga in May 1930 on her way to Brisbane after her record-breaking* flight from London to Darwin.
The Westlander train runs twice weekly to Charleville but you have to connect to Quilpie by coach. The train used to divide at Charleville, and there were branches to Cunnamulla and to Quilpie, aboard the 'Flying Flea'. Until 1994, that is. Now all you can do is you wander nostaligically around the end of the line. The Outback Mail Run Tour is the way to get further these days. You can join the postie as he delivers to ten remote cattle and sheep stations, an almost 400-km round trip, twice a week.
We had a day to 'do' Quilpie. Naturally, after coffee, our first stop was the opal shop, where we spent time as well as money. Usually when you go shopping with something very specific in mind – and I may be addressing mostly women now – you don't find it. It's just the way of the world. But on this day I did. I didn't want a large opal: when all is said and done – and yes, predictably – I prefer diamonds. However, I thought it might be nice to have a small, dark, teardrop-shaped opal. And there it was. My friend acquired some large rocks (top of page) and I got a thing of beauty and wonder only slightly bigger than a grain of rice.
Next up was the Bulloo River Walk. Here we saw evidence of the erosive powers of a normally quiescent Outback river; detected the queer signature smell of the Gudgee tree; and heard the cheeping of White-plumed Honeyeaters all around us.
I enjoyed our river walk. The Bulloo is an isolated, or closed, drainage system. It isn't part of the Murray-Darling system or the Lake Eyre Basin: instead, it flows into several ephemeral lakes that are blocked by low hills from reaching other systems. Quilpie gets its water supply from artesian bores, so washing and showering were accompanied once again by the less than delightful smell of hydrogen sulphide, as at Charleville and Kilcowera. Never take a shower in this water wearing jewellery: it will soon become discoloured.
A few kilometres further out of town to the east is Lake Houdraman. Set among shady river gums, Houdraman is covered at certain times of year with thousands of cream waterlilies, but not now. The birdlife was a delight, however: egrets, Yellow-billed Spoonbills, Masked Lapwings, pellies, several ducks, among which the smart Pink-eared deserves special mention, and Zebra Finches.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we headed out of town on the Toompine Road to the Baldy Top lookout; except that we went a little further, to Table Top, which we'd had a tip-off was better. And it was. Neither of the red-rocked outcrops looks particularly high, but the 360-degree view from the top was stunning.
We were happy to eat again in the Quilpie Hotel – known to locals as The Brick, and in the process of being revamped as the Quilpie Heritage Inn – and chat to the man in charge, Rob McConachy, who tonight told us about polocrosse, which is like polo but uses a small net on a stick, like lacrosse.
Good things unquestionably do come to an end, and tomorrow we were leaving for Windorah. Just one or two more snaps of quite delightful Quilpie.
* She didn't break Bert Hinkler's record time but she was the first woman to fly the distance solo.
This post was last updated on 9 July 2013