Outback 2: the Min Min will find you
Over dinner at Daphne's in Winton, we were having fun identifying a new bird: was it a Red-rumped Parrot? I had my doubts. Suddenly an enthusiastic birder from a nearby table was giving us the benefit of her opinion. It was definitely that parrot, she confirmed. The Aussies are a helpful bunch: if you're lost, bogged, flooded or cycloned, they'll do whatever they can for you. But every now and again it's not appropriate to interrupt, and this was one of those occasions. She did, however, tell us about Pelican Waterhole, on the Boulia road just out of town.
I must just add a titbit (no, not a tidbit) to the Winton vs Longreach contest. Winton has a bakery that opens at 06:00. And they sell croissants. Winton is preferable to Longreach in the bakery stakes.
Pelican Waterhole exhibited the peculiarities of Australian signage. From the highway, it was quite clear. Off we went and soon came to a three-way junction: to the right it said Old Town; the other two were signless. 'Old Town' didn't suggest water to me, so I continued straight on. Then another junction; two choices this time. Didn't have a clue, so hung a left. There was no sign of a creek or waterhole anywhere: we were well and truly lost. Fortunately, there was still a mobile signal, and the man at the North Gregory knew where Pelican Hole was. 'Oh, you should have taken the road for the old town,' he explained. Of course. Stupidly, we made too much noise as we got out of the car by the waterhole and the pellies took flight as we spotted them. The pelicans of Wynnum may get used to people, but not out here, unsurprisingly.
Beyond the point where the Kennedy Development Way splits off the Cloncurry road, it is straight and empty. The only trees are those lining creeks.
The road got narrower, and we had to take care on the crests. We made good time. I was excited about the sign that meant we were back in the Channel Country.
The region of Southwest Queensland known as the Channel Country covers 1.3 million square kilometres. The name derives from a network of riverbeds and creeks coursing through relatively flat terrain consisting of easily eroded, mainly clay soils. The braided channels are in the flood plains of the Georgina, Burke, Mulligan, Wills, Hamilton, Diamantina, Thomson and Barcoo rivers that become the Eyre Creek and Cooper Creek further south.
The weather in this part of Queensland is highly variable and seasonal. Winters (June to August) are generally dry, while summers are humid, with monsoonal rains. When rain comes, it is intermittent and often heavy, so the streams and creeks flow in short bursts, followed by long periods of drought. Between flows, water collects in pools, billabongs and deeper channels and these are a key element in maintaining the ecosystems. Some waterholes are permanent. They are critical to the survival of the rich diversity of wildlife and the grazing industry. The Channel Country supports more than 50 ecosystems, including Coolibah woodlands, sand plains and vast dune fields, all of which are adapted to infrequent rainfall, great deluges and a parching evaporation rate.
The gentle gradient of the Channel Country's topography means that flood waters slow down, spread out and divide into thousands of channelettes. This process is known as anabranching. When there is sufficient rainfall, the channels fill up and overflow on to the land. Sometimes flood waters do not recede for weeks. Occasionally, well-watered rivers of the region drain as far as Lake Eyre, but usually they dry out well before they get there as a result of evaporation and absorption into the ground.
A defining feature of the waterways of the Channel Country is their high turbidity. This is the result of sparse vegetation cover (to anchor the soil), a slow flow rate, and easily eroded clay soils. Turbidity is a measure of water clarity or murkiness. During periods of high turbidity little light penetrates the water so algal growth is low and occurs only at the channel edges.
Animal and plant communities of the region have adapted their survival to short bursts of plentiful rainfall. A female kangaroo, for example, produces young in rapid succession after rain. At such times, she may have a young joey at heel as well as a smaller one in her pouch and a fertilised egg at an early stage of development. (With thanks for this information to The Outback Way – Landscape profile info panel by the roadside.)
Soon after, we passed by the appositely named Castle Hill, and then a similarly rocky outcrop that marked the furthest north we would get on this trip – 22° 12' 20.3" S.
Middleton is roughly halfway between Winton and Boulia, as you might expect. It has a famous hotel, but that's about all. It used to be one of nine Cobb & Co changing stations between the two towns. The company had a reputation for reliability and speed when carrying mail and passengers into the back country, and this depended on horses being frequently changed and rested. They reared their own breed of horses, and their drivers were skilled and knowledgeable about their routes. Cobb & Co first came through Middleton in 1865. The Hotel offered passengers food, drinks and the opportunity for a few hours' rest.
How could such a small place offer so many photo ops?
We couldn't drive on without popping into the Hotel to say hello. Picture a man running a bar for too long in the middle of nowhere but not being able to imagine an alternative; a bloke more Aussie than the most stereotypical character you could create. A Dutch couple on a three-month tour of Oz were served toasted sandwiches by a woman who appeared silently from the back. The city gal in me asked for a juice but made do with Coke. Then three blokes travelling arrived and the banter level trebled. Every customer here is a traveller, of course. They had wives with them, I think… The landlord told us everything in Birdsville would be overpriced; the Dutch had just had a Min Min Encounter. We got back on the road.
Now we really were in the middle of the GAFA – the Great Australian F**k All. This term was introduced to me by a long-haul-pilot friend who looked down upon it often from a great height. I have to take issue with him, however. There is frequently something of interest on the road in the Outback. The landscape is ever-changing. You just need to know how to look at it. In the meantime, distant landmarks dissolved into mirages.
Then suddenly, a waterhole, although for one cow it was too late. How can any cattle survive out here? Gradually, we entered the land of tabletops. Roughly 30 kilometres beyond Middleton is Cawnpore Lookout, and yet another lunch with a view.
By now we were time-pressured. Still 120 kilometres to Boulia. We had to slow down for these…
…and for these extraordinary Brolgas, with their unique red skullcaps.
We had to be in Boulia for half past three, for this:
There used to be a hotel 100 kilometres east of Boulia on the Winton road. The Min Min Hotel. It burned down some 40 years after it was built, in the 1880s. People have since reported strange hovering lights in the Hotel graveyard. Thousands of similar lights have been seen across the region. They appear to have a will of their own; advancing on the viewer, then retreating, but always out of reach.
Weird lights are reported all over the world, of course. Many explanations are proferred, usually with a supernatural element. Certainly none of them are scientific, so far. But a man in Victoria has a novel idea. Based on the fact that some creatures emit a bioluminescence, he believes that Barn Owls may be responsible for the Min Min lights. Especially as the lights are often observed above fence posts and branches in trees.
Many characteristics are attributed to the Min Min. It bounces across paddocks; it is inquisitive; it expands and contracts, as if breathing; there is total silence; it flows like mercury; it will follow if you run; it can stop and disappear in an instant; it glides as if waltzing.
There is one thing that all who have experienced it seem to agree on, however. You don't go looking for the Min Min. There is no point. It will find you, if it wants to.
The Min Min Encounter in the visitor information centre in Boulia reminded me of Disney World. It employs animatronics, sound and lighting to great effect. It consists of a series of stories related by them that knows. Those who have come across the Min Min after a long day on the road or in the paddock; those living in remote homesteads; those who embellish stories in a bar for anyone who will listen; those who thought they were losing their minds… until they heard about the others.
We saw it twice.