Outback 2: Winton, finally
A thought occurred to my friend in the service station the morning of day 3. How can you tell how far west you are in Queensland? By the price of diesel. The ouch factor.
Longreach felt nicely familiar this time around. Eagle Street's beautification is complete and it's looking good. But we had another grim motel experience; and there wasn't a bakery open at 07:50 on a Monday morning. We were leaving Longreach by 8, with fleeting glimpses of pellies as we crossed the long bridge over the Thomson's channels. No stopping for great reflections.
The road to Winton – and dinosaur country – is mostly as straight as an arrow through largely treeless plains. Sheep walked in line to waterholes, and road trains trundled over milky-watered creeks.
This is the Desert Channels region, a 'largely unmodified environment' said the info-board in the rest area where we stopped for breakkie. DCQ covers 510,000 square kilometres – about a third of the state, but with only 14,500 inhabitants – and includes the Queensland section of the Lake Eyre Basin. It's a government-endorsed region; a community-based, not-for-profit group that develops projects to maintain 'vibrant, healthy and sustainable landscapes, ecosystems, communities and industries'. Their resource management plan, Protecting Our Assets (those assets being land, water, biodiversity and community), lists the major issues they have to contend with. No surprise to see weeds and feral animals at the top of the list, with vegetation management, grazing pressure, water management, land degradation, and 'viability and economics'. There was a regional weed guide in the car park.
The advantage of our day-late drive to Winton was that we could visit the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum without backtracking. It's built atop a jump-up 23 kilometres from Winton, off the highway and along an unsealed side road, the final climb of which is not for trailers or caravans. There is an area where you can leave them at the bottom. There's a great view and the architecture is pretty special, too, and very much in sympathy with the landscape.
The Museum has two of three stages completed. One is a Fossil Preparation Laboratory where you can watch technicians painstakingly restoring, consolidating and storing dinosaur bones. This opened in 2009. The other is the Reception Centre where a Collections Room displays fossil specimens of a giant plant-eating sauropod (Matilda), and a theropod (Banjo), the largest predator ever found in Australia, as well as reconstructions of both creatures. A video describes the story of Australia's fossil finds, starting with the discovery in 1999 of a large thigh bone by David Elliott who was mustering sheep on his property near Winton. The Reception Centre opened a couple of years ago, and has the obligatory cafe and shop. The final stage of construction will provide a natural history museum. You can tour one or other of the current facilities, or both. We chose the Collections Room. There's more info here.
We drove into Winton and out again, along the Jundah Road, heading for Bladensburg National Park. I'd read about a lookout. Only a few kilometres south of Winton, this seemed like an afternoon-sized expedition. The Park has flat-topped sandstone hills, rocky outcrops, grassy plains and river flats, as well as an interesting pastoral history.
Bladensburg homestead was one of the first sheep stations in the Winton area. First we visited the wool shed, followed by a picnic lunch by a dry creek. The homestead recreates a good feel of the place in the early 1900s, and there's interesting information about flooding in the Channel Country. Lots of corrugated outhouses kept me happy. The verandah overlooked a fabulous plain.
There are a couple of drives in the National Park. We decided on Scrammy Drive, named after a boundary rider, Scrammy Jack, who lived – and died – alone in a simple hut with a horse yard. One of his hands was mangled by a wagon wheel, earning him the nickname. The 40-kilometre drive crosses black soil plains, grassland and channels before climbing a jump-up to a gorge and then the Scrammy Lookout. A 4WD is essential: there should be more warning about a rocky section that could wreck an axle easily. The view from the top was breathtaking and almost worth buying an off-roader.
Many Outback towns have a famous hotel, and we were staying in one of them. The North Gregory opened its doors in 1879, when the district of Winton was known as Gregory North. The Hotel's greatest claim to fame is probably that, in 1895, Waltzing Matilda was performed in public here for the first time. One problem with iconic Outback hotels is that they frequently burn down, and the North Gregory is no exception: in 1899, 1916 and 1946. The current version opened in 1955. There's an art deco feel to the public rooms, and I liked the place a lot. The first night, in the Daphne Mayo Dining Room no less, we ate the best fish and chips in a long time. A very long time.
In a motel car park in Springsure, I had learned from a Winton-born lad about the fierce competition between his home town and Longreach. Think Manchester and Liverpool; or Cairns and Townsville. He told me that the Waltzing Matilda Centre – the only attraction in the world dedicated to a song – is, in fact, much more than that, and far superior to the Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach. I'm sorry, mate, I didn't go. As with restaurants that feel the need to display photos of their food outside, I just wasn't impressed by the pictures on the exterior or the entrance lobby. And I find it hard to believe it could be better than the Hall of Fame, where I could easily have spent a couple of days immersed in stacks of fascinating info and brilliant displays.
This chap also told me that the origins of Australia's national airline were not in Longreach, and that the Qantas Museum should be in Winton. The North Gregory claims to have been the place where, in the 1920s, locals met to discuss the founding of an outback airline. You're getting an idea of the rivalry, right? I dread to think what happens when the Longreach Thomson Tigers are away to the Winton Devils (NRL).
I liked Winton. In the same way as I liked Windorah. Maybe it's the W. Winton has less than half the number of inhabitants as Longreach – just saying – and, as far as I could make out, most things happen in Elderslie Street.
Dinosaurs are big in Winton. And there were more on the agenda the next day.