Outback: Tibooburra to Quilpie
We were up very early, and at TJ's Roadhouse getting a flask filled with coffee soon after they opened at 7. I mentioned quietly to the lady that we were leaving town. I felt I ought to tell someone, just in case...
It's about 55 km from Tibooburra to the Warri Gate on the Queensland border. There had been no more rain and my friend was quietly confident the track was firm enough. But to say we proceeded with caution is an understatement. The road was still closed and we were taking a risk. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service makes it very clear in their Sturt National Park brochure:
'Please note: driving on a closed road can lead to heavy penalties. Approximately $1100 fine per axle from road authorities plus additional fines from NSW National Parks and Wildlife if driving on a closed road within a National Park or Reserve.'
And, if we were to write off the car, our insurance would be invalidated.
It took us an hour and a half to cover those 55 km, but not just because of the state of the road and our extreme wariness (slower than 25 km/h on the worst stretches), but because there was entertainment along the way.
This wasn't a serious fight but a rough and tumble between young males. Boxing is important practice for when they're dominant males in the mob and have to defend their domain. Had we been driving faster, we would have disturbed them sooner and not seen as much action. There were hundreds of roos about, all of them alive thankfully.
The landscape was... a bit grim. But always interesting. And I was just so relieved to have escaped. We were almost at the border. In the meantime, a couple of signs of note. Silver City refers to Broken Hill, a silver mining town towards the southern end of this road that cuts through Outback New South Wales from border (QLD) to border (Vic). The second sign was particularly exciting.
The Lake Eyre Basin drains a huge arid area in parts of four states. It has no outlet into an ocean: water that flows in intermittent rivers feeding Lake Eyre – the lowest point of the Basin at 16 metres below sea level – disappears by seepage or evaporation. Lake Eyre is an ephemeral lake, fed by creeks on slightly higher ground or sand ridges that drain any rainfall into the depression. Waterbirds gather on this type of lake to feed on invertebrates in the shallow water. As the water recedes, grasses spring up on the lake bed, providing more food for the birds. Eventually everything dries out completely, the birds leave and the flat becomes a dusty clay pan.
Soon after the signs we spotted our first rabbit in the Outback. Considering so many kilometres of fence have been constructed over the years to keep them out, or in, depending on your location, where have they all been up till now?
It was a relief to see the inevitable plethora of signs up ahead – the border. I have never been so pleased to get back into Queensland. I think the emus were waiting to make a dash through the open gate. The Wild Dog Destruction Board needs rebranding. Whenever I see the word 'shall', I think of Cinderella: 'You shall go to the ball.' And I never understand why fine-threatening signs say 'not exceeding' whatever the amount is, which makes it sound like it won't be so bad. If I wanted to scare people into action, I'd put up a sign saying, 'Anyone leaving this gate open will be heavily fined' – and leave them guessing. And was there a secret camera somewhere; otherwise how could anyone possible know who'd left the gate open when people pass by here once a fortnight?
Now we were fairly close to the Channel Country which I was very excited about. I wanted to see for myself the dry channels that fill only after sporadic rains. At such times we wouldn't be able to drive anywhere near here, of course. The landscape was changing, as ever. And then we started to cross the channels. They were shallow, almost imperceptible in places. You could have missed them as easy as blink, if you didn't know what you were looking for. I find them fascinating because they're a remnant of water flow and drainage patterns in ancient times on this continent. Rivers weren't deeply incised: they flowed slowly over a low gradient and fanned out into a wide, braided channel. In Queensland's arid west it is only in exceptionally wet years that rivers have sufficient flow in their upper reaches to enable them to even reach Lake Eyre. After big summer rainfall in 2010, Cooper Creek reached the Lake for the first time for 20 years.
This is my favourite pic of the whole trip.
There were still 'stony rolling plains', and to our right the ridges of the extensive Grey Range, which had been there almost from the border and stretches to halfway between Thargomindah and Eromanga.
We left unsealed roads behind at midday, a few kilometres short of Noccundra, where there is just a hotel. We stopped for yet another far too milky Outback coffee, talked to some fellow travellers, and admired the Galahs, whose pink never fails to impress. In these parts, you just have to have your own light aircraft parked in the yard. I notice quite a few of them have crashed lately, so don't plan too much for a ripe old age, eh?
By now, Quilpie didn't seem so far away, and we could drive faster on the Cooper Developmental Road, where we saw our first dingo. I think it might have been a cross – its legs weren't long enough for a purebred. And the oil wells were part of the scenery: we say nodding donkeys; you say pumpjacks. We stopped at Ginniapapa Creek for lunch. Apart from five million flies – it's hard to eat a sandwich while wearing a fly net – the only sign of wildlife was a Willie Wagtail.
Eromanga makes a strong claim, and has the signpost to 'prove' it, complete with Nankeen Kestrel.
The town might lend weight to the argument if it referred to its being at the 'pole of inaccessibility' – defined in Wiki as 'a location that is the most challenging to reach owing to its remoteness from geographical features that could provide access. Often it refers to the most distant point from the coastline.' Compared to places we'd been already, Eromanga didn't seem particularly remote. And Wiki claims that Papunya in the Northern Territory is the closest town to either of two furthest points from coast in Australia. Towns on tourist trails love to claim that they're the beef or navy bean or opal capital, or that they're the gateway to the Outback or the Channel Country, or the largest this or the highest that.
There were a lot more cows as we got nearer to Quilpie…
And one of these right by the roadside.
By the time we were close, the sun was going down behind us. By the time we'd checked into the Heritage Inn on Brolga Street it was almost time for dinner.