Outback 2: Brisbane to Springsure, the Leichhardt way
As I write, it is barely 12 hours since we returned from the best road trip ever: 5668 kilometres over 16 days; three states; iconic Outback towns and serious desert; plans changed by circumstance or desire; almost 1800 photographs, and those are just mine. Driving back into Brisbane along the Ipswich Road, I felt hemmed in on the busy arterial road. Re-adjustment to big-city life will take a few days. I take to the keyboard to relive magic moments.
One of the finest was that in which, after months of planning, we hit the road the first morning. It was 9 August at 06.15, and we were 15 minutes behind schedule, having had to refit fridge and boxes in the back of the Landie. It was a still clear morning, the rising sun blinding in the rear-view mirror, mist pockets low-lying in the Lockyer Valley. The first roo roadkill was sooner than expected, this side of Toowoomba. And still the roadwork continues on the long climb up on to the Range, nearly four years after the Flood.
The Warrego Highway may pass more or less through the centre of Toowoomba but there were no obvious coffee shops open en route. Being creatures of habit, we breakfasted at the 'bottle tree stop' in Oakey, as we did last year. Flask coffee, fruit salad, muesli – and an unexpected hazard.
Being rather fixated with Prussian explorer of Australia, Ludwig Leichhardt, I'd decided the first day's route would include the eponymous Highway. Then I stumbled upon this website, created by the explorer's devotees in Oz, that enabled the transformation of our journey into a pilgrimage.
Leichhardt visited Jondaryan station in spring 1844 as he began his search for an overland route to Port Essington (near present-day Darwin). Waiting for him there was John Gilbert, an ornithologist eager to join the expedition. In those days Jondaryan was no more than a handful of slab huts (and several hundred head of cattle), but a large woolshed had been completed by 1861 to serve enterprising sheep farmers on the Darling Downs. The 80-metre-long shed accommodated 52 blade shearers, and was then converted to house 36 shearing stands in 1892. Now it is part of the Jondaryan Woolshed Open Air Working Museum (signposted off the Warrego Highway), and if you're heading out west with more time than we had, this fascinating recreation of the life and times in the largest pastoral empire in Queensland is a must-see. The Tea and Damper Shed, engaging goats, the Woolshed itself and myriad pieces of machinery were a delight. My friend spotted a Red-rumped Parrot (we think).
Incidentally, I'm sure the Jondaryan coal stockpile has grown since we passed by last year.
Leichhardt struggled through what Queensland premier Samuel Griffith later called 'horrible brigalow' scrub, before heading northwest somewhere between Chinchilla and Miles. We travelled a straight, straight road for Miles, where we too turned north, at midday. The Warrego's extensive roadworks had become tedious, so the Leichhardt Highway was even more welcome. The landscape from thereon was far from spectacular, however: what we thought might be brigalow still borders the road, although 4.5 million hectares of the stuff east of Taroom were cleared in the 1960s.
By early November 1844 Leichhardt was getting worried about food supplies. He sent two men home, killed a small bullock, and waited for thin strips of the meat to dry in a camp by a string of waterholes he called Dried-beef Creek, east of Wandoan (formerly Juandah). The town's industry today is based on wheat and cattle, and an enormous silo dwarfs everything around it. As we filled up with diesel, it was surprisingly hot.
The culmination of my pilgrimage was Taroom, where Leichhardt named the Dawson River and blazed a tree, as he was in the habit of doing on his escapades. The Coolibah dominates the town's main street.
Leichhardt and Gilbert rode to the top of what was then Bonners Knob but is now known as Gilbert's Lookout in honour of the naturalist, who was allegedly speared by an Aboriginal during a night attack on the expedition's camp near the Gulf of Carpentaria in June 1845. He was 33. At last I could look out over the exact same vista – give or take a few vegetational changes – that my favourite explorer had contemplated almost 200 years before me. Road trips don't come much more exciting than this. A picnic lunch prolonged the experience.
I began what became one of the trip's photographic themes (below). Back on the road, we spotted the first Great Bustard, and then pressed on to the Fitzroy Developmental Road. At this point Leichhardt turned left, to what he named Lake Murphy. If I'd been sure there was water in it, I might have been persuaded to detour, but we still had a long drive ahead.
Our first off-road foray was a rough and bumpy one, for more than 100 kilometres. We came across no one: Brisbane already seemed way off. The vegetation became more interesting, reflecting ever-changing country. Neither were there many passing cars on the Dawson Highway, reached at 16:05. From then on I was driving into a setting sun, not helpful for roo-spotting. 'The sun's been a pain all day', my friend declared. There was little road kill, which was a good sign. And several more Great Bustards: how haughty they look.
We were staying that night in Springsure, 66 kilometres south of Emerald, in a motel not far from the Virgin Rock. Bizarrely, this cliff face is alleged to have resembled the Virgin Mary cradling her baby, Jesus. Years of erosion have apparently removed any similarity. At night the rock face is illuminated in orange, which is rather strange, not to mention baffling.
We had driven 771 kilometres, and been travelling for 11 hours and 37 minutes. We drove up and down a bit trying to locate the Springsure Overlander Motel, and finally asked a man with a drink in his hand for directions. He pointed and replied, 'Half a beer from here.'
Far, far stranger things awaited us in the Outback.