Out of the Outback: Longreach to Carnarvon Gorge
I was keen to put a big town behind us. Leaving Longreach, however, meant we'd soon no longer be in the Outback, rather the next phase of our journey. East equals civilisation, and my feelings were mixed. When we left it was 7am, 4 degrees C, and we still didn't know how to make sure our vehicle was weed seed free on leaving an Outback town. Onward.
The route to Carnarvon Gorge had been a matter of debate. The easiest, and quickest way seemed to be to take the Landsborough Highway to Barcaldine, and then the Capricorn Highway almost due east, via Alpha, to Emerald, then south. Weeks ago I'd had a plan to visit Bimblebox, northwest of Alpha, but I soon realised I didn't have sufficient time for a detour or a look around the Nature Refuge. I need to pay them a longer visit and be of some use while I'm there.
My friend was keen to steer well clear of main roads: we'd developed a taste for driving alone. Extensive, tedious roadworks between Longreach and Barcaldine would have been enough to make anyone head south where the Landsborough right-angles. But not till we'd picked up a coffee. Although we were still on the Highway, there was much less traffic, and no roos, alive or dead. When you haven't seen any for a while, but you feel you should have, dead tree stumps, low-lying shrubs and ant hills all start to resemble kangaroos. The landscape looked like this. Wet Rocky Creek was just as dry as Dry Rocky Creek.
Somewhere we had to turn off left, heading for an almost non-existent place called Evora. In this part of the world the names on maps don't belong to settlements but just a single property or station. We tried to cut a corner off by turning just south of Mellew, but ended up, after going so far along a narrow, barely-there track through paddocks, in front of a locked gate and a 'Private' sign. Back to the Landsborough for another few kilometres. The 'road' to Evora was represented on the map by longer dashes so we were more hopeful.
We were not to pass another car for several hours.
Paddocks gave way to woodland, creeks and sandy soils. Dismal Creek wasn't at all: it was most pleasant and dappled, but dry, of course. We stoppped for a breakfast bite; a pull-off area wasn't necessary.
At Yalleroi the track passed through someone's backyard. There were barking dogs in cages and one or two random cows, but no humans: I felt slightly uneasy. We were supposed to cross the Blackall-Jericho Road at this point, but if we did, it wasn't obvious. Dismal Creek turned out to have many tributary channels, but not a drop in any of them. The trees were taller by now and there was a greater variety. To the right there was no undergrowth or lower branches and cattle were scattered about: to the left there was grass, low-growing shrubs and no cows; but seemingly nothing to stop them crossing the road. Curious. A property named Neverfail lent its name to the track: in this land of tell-it-like-it-is names, we drove on confidently. And imagine our excitement when we actually came to a junction – with a signpost! This was the Alpha-Tambo Road, and red on the map, no less, though still dashed.
The road was sealed in stretches, but 26 kilometres south of the junction, just before Killarney Park, we had to turn east again, joining the Dawson Developmental Road. We could see a ridge in the far-off distance. Was this our first glimpse of the westernmost Carnarvon ranges?
From the turn-off it was 246 kilometres to Springsure, and then another 174 to our destination. Off road, you often feel as if you're making good progress but turns out you've barely moved on the map. Stretches of the Dawson Developmental Road were fast, but others, especially nearer Springsure, were rutted. As ever, there were interesting things along the way, not least the signs.
We were no longer in the Outback, but don't ask me at what point we ceased to be so. This is a subject to which I will have to return. The area felt very remote: by early afternoon we hadn't seen a car for three and three-quarter hours, the longest period of our trip. Castlevale's status made me cross, momentarily, despite my beautiful surroundings on a now perfect day weatherwise. It reminded me that nature refuges are clearly not protected – from mining companies at any rate – otherwise we wouldn't be fighting for the future of Bimblebox, would we?
The further east we drove, the more dramatic became the sandstone cliff-edge to our right. We concluded it must be the northern edge of Carnarvon National Park.
We were in bottle tree county, and came upon the largest we'd ever seen. It was spectacular: see car for scale (below). We saw it at 13.20 on 19 June 2013, 3409 kilometres into our Outback journey: my friend wished to record it thus in the trip notebook.
We stopped for a picnic lunch in the Bay of Biscay Swamp. It was a bit ordinary, almost hot and there were more than a few flies. But more bottle trees, and more impressive names, including Semper Idem, Latin for 'always the same'. I love mountains named after abstract concepts.
There was still a long way to go. We'd been advised to reach Carnarvon Gorge before nightfall, so we couldn't hang about. Fortunately, about 40 kilometres short of Springsure the road was sealed so we could speed up. We would have driven down the Gregory Highway from Emerald to Springsure had we taken the more obvious route from Longreach. Coming our way, Springsure is where the Dawson Developmental Road graduates to become the Dawson Highway.
It was 70 kilometres to Rolleston, where we had to fill up with diesel and let the Carnarvon Gorge Wilderness Lodge know whether we were going to make it in time for dinner. It was 41 kilometres down the Carnarvon Developmental Road to the turning for the National Park, and then a further 43, half of which were unsealed. We were cutting it fine, for both light and food.
As we got nearer, a fine day was bowing out with a wonderful sunset over towering cliffs at the entrance to the Gorge. There was no time to stop, although I was later to bemoan the fact I'd missed it photographically.
We'd been 11 hours on the road. Our pre-dinner beer was as welcome as the thought of two days out of the car walking some fine scenery.