Outback 2: Springsure to Longreach (not Winton)
In the Outback even the best-made plans go awry. We never envisaged this for the start of day 2.
We hadn't slashed it on the stony Fitzroy Developemental Road: a screw left somewhere along yesterday's 800-odd kilometres was the culprit. Today was Sunday: Springsure's tyre specialists were closed. Although we had two spare tyres, we carried only one spare wheel (for weight and storage reasons), which my friend fitted quickly. He was concerned we should repair the damaged tyre as soon as possible, thus restoring a spare wheel. The consensus among the lads getting ready for work (in the mines?) in the motel car park was that we should head for Emerald, 66 clicks up the road. Springsure's Outback Tyres was not open.
But first, a couple of Springsure snaps.
Oh, and this is the Virgin and child, of which I spoke yesterday.
The country along the Gregory Highway is lovely – golden grass and rocky outcrops – but marred somewhat by this.
After breakfast en route, the search for a tyre repairer was prioritised. Emerald is about 265 kilometres west of Rockhampton and sits on the Nogoa River, a tributary of the Fitzroy, and just south of the Tropic. It's a big and bustly service and administrative centre for the Central Highlands Region, but it's friendly, with a magnificent station and a good cup of coffee just across the road (and west a bit).
The first service station didn't know where to fix a tyre, but on the forecourt I struck up conversation with a family I felt were local. They had lived for years in Alpha – west along the Capricorn Highway – but were now based in Rocky and had been visiting their son in Emerald. They rang him, and another, trying to locate help for us. Turns out, they knew a friend of mine who owns a nature refuge in the Galilee Basin. They had two big dogs in cages in the back of their ute. One was an Irish Wolfhound-Lab cross, and the other was a mean-looking brute of large and solid bulk. I was suddenly aware of a hovering man stage left: it took him two attempts to interrupt my conversation with the woman.
'Youse get 'im fer pigg'n?' he said, with a nod towards the brute.
'Nah, he only needs look at a pig', she replied, and carried on explaining to me that, if we could reach Alpha, Tilson's garage would be sure to fix our tyre.
I thanked her profusely, but I doubted Tilson's would be open for anything but fuel on a Sunday. So I rang another friend, who has spent a lot of time at the aforementioned nature refuge, and knows a lot of people in Alpha. She looked up Tilson's number for me. I was able to confirm we could get the job done. We had until 4 o'clock, well probably 3.30.
There were 163 kilometres to go, but the travel planner had proposed several activities between Emerald and Alpha. We continued according to plan, trying to put punctures out of mind.
It so happened that this weekend was Anakie Festival of Gems. C'mon, you must have heard of it? Sapphires are mined in The Gemfields; rather messily, we concluded from the mounds of earth and equipment bits left over from digging. My friend was after rock samples; I love jewellery. First, we went to the Festival…
…where I learned that sapphires are sometimes green, and rubies are really sapphires. We drove on to Sapphire and Rubyvale, where, despite smart welcome signs, the overall look is definitely shanty – with liberal splashes of humour.
In Rubyvale the Gem Gallery is in a class all its own.
Peter Brown came a-fossicking in the 1970s, a boom time in the Gemfields. With wife Eileen, he opened the Gallery in a renovated miner's hut, in 1988, the same year as the first Gemfest was held. They moved the Gallery to Main Street seven years ago and also run a cafe and holiday apartments. They have garnered tourism awards and RACQ recommendations, but their sapphires are a labour of love. Peter still mines and cuts the gems around which their jewellery is designed and crafted. I am now the proud owner of a gorgeous pair of sapphire stud earrings. My friend got a bag of gravel from the 'pulsator'. You don't really need to go anywhere else for your sapphires, dahling. I loved Rubyvale.
We were rushing back to the Capricorn Highway – needing some mileage on the clock PDQ – when we realised we were crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. Little has been made of this fact locally (there's a sign behind the overgrowth in the picture below), but we get quite excited about major latitudinal circles.
During my Galilee trip in April, I drove over the beautiful Drummond Range: I remembered it was coloured purple. The Range runs north-south roughly halfway between Emerald and Alpha, and 9 km west of Boguntungan (great name) is the Drummond Lookout. Another day; another lunch with a view. The highway and the railway crisscross their way up and over the hills.
Soon after lunch we entered the Lake Eyre catchment. Is this another definition of the Outback? It was beautiful country, but some of the trees looked dry and grey, as if only just hanging on. A few bottle trees looked dead, but maybe they'd shut down operations until the next rains.
As we'd chatted to people in The Gemfields, they'd been fairly unanimous in their belief that we should not attempt to reach Winton that day: there was not enough daylight left, they said, for such a distance. So, while the tyre was mended in Alpha, I found alternative accommodation in Longreach, 180 kilometres nearer, and delayed our arrival at the North Gregory Hotel, Winton. As well as the roo danger, I wanted to be able to enjoy what would be a new (to us) section of the Landsborough Highway.
We still had to put our foot down. The road was straight. There was, however, a distraction in Barcaldine, where the Labor Party was founded following the shearers' strike in 1891. The Tree of Knowledge, under which the strikers met, was poisoned with Roundup in 2006, but its Ghostly remains form part of an impressive commemorative landmark. Late afternoon sun cast a warm glow over Barcaldine's main drag.
Beyond Barcaldine the sun was blinding, and the number of dead roos disturbing, especially by the creeks. We had a near miss and immediately witnessed someone else's. At one point we pulled over until the sun dipped below the horizon: neither of us could see, to drive or scan for wildlife. We'd been given good advice not to continue further.
Like last year, we were in Longreach on a Sunday evening when eating options are few. The Eagle's Nest Bar & Grill – in Eagle Street, natch – came to our rescue again. As we ordered a beer at the bar, the Irish waitress exclaimed, 'You're English? What on earth are you doing in Longreach?' Hmm.