Outback 2: The remote and beautiful Diamantina
The Min Min aside, Boulia is probably best known for its camel racing, in July. Camels were first introduced to Australia, South Australia, in the 1860s, to be used as pack animals and for riding by explorers and settlers. They were brought by Afghan and Indian traders. When cars and trucks became popular after World War 1, the 'Afghans', as the traders were collectively known, went home, and many camels were left to roam the continent's interior, thus joining Australia's long list of problem ferals. An extensive culling programme had to be implemented in 2013. You can read all about caring for your camels if you pop into Birdsville Bakery for a cuppa and a pie.
Even after years, it still seems highly improbable to me to spot a camel in the Australian landscape.
Boulia is a last outpost of civilisation before even more remote country stretching west to the border with Northern Territory and beyond. It has an extremely broad main drag, Herbert Street, that was never even slightly busy while we were there. We stayed in the Desert Sands Motel, which I would recommend. It was good value, comfortable and pleasantly garden-filled. I didn't take many photographs of Boulia for some reason, except for cloud phenomena, an Outback sunset, the windmill, Galahs, and the notice on the door of the Min Min Store that I didn't see as I entered one cold early-morning. I was politely asked to remove my hood, and felt like a rebellious teen.
Both nights in Boulia we ate at the Australian Hotel ('the pub'). We walked down Herbert to the sound of hundreds of Galahs loudly getting ready to roost. Like pubs all over Australia, this one offered a special every night that was well worth considering; they are usually well cooked and great value. And the 'cask' (box) wine was passable. Watching the locals was a lot more fun than the food, however, this being the place in town to hang out.
The Shire of Diamantina is as far west as you can get in Central West Queensland. There are only about 350 inhabitants but between 10,000 and 100,000 cattle, depending on the season. It does not include Boulia, but Boulia is the best place from which to visit Diamantina National Park in a day. It's only 183 km from the town, compared with a slog from Winton (306 km away) or Windorah (350 km). You can camp at a couple of places but there are no facilities apart from toilets, and there's no fuel. The Diamantina Visitors' Guide claims it is among Australia's top 10 national parks, as defined by the WWF. It is a remote area, however, and is not accessible via sealed roads. The route from Boulia will take you at least two hours of not particularly comfortable driving. There are deceptive bends on some creek-bed crossings where you can easily lose control if you don't cut your speed.
But the Park has one feature at least that is truly remarkable and worth the effort.
On the morning we set out, we had read storm and deluge warnings for eastern Australia. We could see the edge of a huge frontal system, complete with mackerel cloud. Since we were heading southeast, we were gaining on it for a couple of hours before it receded.
I haven't said a lot about the volume of road kill on this trip. You see all kinds of creatures that have met their maker in a violent collision with the bull bars on a wagon or a monster road train. On this gory morning not far from Boulia, several birds of prey were waiting to resume their feast of emu. Unfortunately one of them had not quite got out of the way in time himself, but not of us I hasten to add. Whereas you see lots of warning signs in the more populated areas back east about kangaroos or koalas or cassowaries, there are no wildlife warning signs in the Outback. The slaughter on the roads and tracks is just a fact of life and death in a harsh world.
Just as well I'd checked at Boulia Visitors' Centre exactly where the turn off the Kennedy Developmental Road was, because it wasn't signposted Diamantina National Park! Springvale is a property about 100 kilometres from the road and 30 before the Park entrance. We stopped on the Tropic of Capricorn again, for old times' sake, and had a near miss with a family of roos. Mum looked anxious as Dad and joey only just got out of the way in time. We'd been temporarily distracted by some horses, but neither driver nor navigator can afford to lose concentration for a moment, even when roos aren't expected to be about. If there's one thing Outback travel has taught us it is that not all kangaroos rest between 10 and 3!
Once in the Park, we stopped at Gum Hole camping area, which is on Whistling Duck Creek. In a short space of time we saw perfectly camouflaged Spinifex Pigeons and Budgerigars, Diamond Doves and several White-necked Herons.
When you haven't got time to see everything, you have to make difficult choices. We decided against the 90-kilometre Warracoota Circuit Drive – which I believe would have included dune country as well as Lake Constance – in favour of Janet's Leap Lookout and Hunter's Gorge. But first there was the Ranger's office, including an information room, in the old homestead of the Diamantina Lakes pastoral station, first established in 1875, then much later purchased by the Queensland Government and gazetted as a National Park in 1993. It was destocked by 1998. Below is 'Diamantina Lakes': now I understand the use of inverted commas on many maps.
In 2001 this solar remote area power supply (RAPS) replaced a generator system. The 104 solar panels and 60 batteries provide all the power for the National Park.
In the information room there were many quotations from Alice Monkton Duncan-Kemp (1901-1988), a writer who grew up at Mooraberrie, a cattle property south of Diamantina. Her observations are evocative and insightful. These passages were written in 1933:
All the wealth and beauty of plant-life faded, almost into oblivion… Waterholes and rivers, that two years ago were yellow swirling foam-flecked rapids, were drying rapidly. August came and waned; October and November passed over with no usual break of thunderstorms. Christmas was ushered in with an icy spell. Summer passed and winter drew on. We almost gave up hope, for rain seemed as far off as ever.
With a roar the waters race down the larger channels, leaping into smaller channels and creeks and out on to the flats and grasslands. Slowing down their force, the waters creep and then seep across the country…
From the ranger's office we drove 12 kilometres or so to Janet's Leap Lookout. Another quote had set the scene for this location, by a J I Barry in 2007.
My recollection is that no rain was falling on Diamantina Lakes, but Dave raced over from his quarters and said, 'If you want to see a phenomenon, grab your binoculars and get up to the homestead. The Diamantina is coming through The Gates.' …once in flood, it plunges through Hunters Gorge a raging torrent and fills to overflowing the five channels sweeping out over the plains, devouring everything in sight. I gazed in awe. In an incredibly short space of time, none of the yards, not even a fence post, was visible.
The so-called Diamantina Gates are created by kilometre-wide narrows between the Goyder Range (Hunter's Gorge) and the Hamilton Range (Janet's Leap). The Diamantina River's braided channels are squeezed through this gap, and floodwaters funnelled to an impressive depth. As you approach the view point, the contrast between the arid lifeless landscape to the right and the Coolabah-filled lower country to the left, was breathtaking. Again I use that word. Not to mention the water-filled channels within the trees.
Below is Janet's Leap itself, but we weren't allowed to look out from there – or throw ourselves off, presumably as Janet once did. The pyramidal hill in the distance is known as Moses' Cone, which stockmen used as a point of reference as they herded their animals across channels and bush.
We retraced our steps and went round to the other side of the Gates, Hunter's Gorge. There we found another of Diamantina's many waterholes, Mundawerra, attended by hundreds of nattering Little Corellas and several pelicans. Behind it was Mount Mary, which is in the middle of the gorge. At first the pelicans were scattered and gliding peacefully or resting, but soon a group of them put on an intriguing display of synchronised fishing. We had never witnessed this before.
We hadn't seen reptiles or any other animals of the region who are specially adapted to intermittent water and unforgiving surroundings: they tend to be rather retiring, the mice-like kowaris, kultarrs or bilbies. But the extraordinary landscape – and the birds – had more than made up for the lack of other wildlife.
I realise that this landscape is not everyone's idea of beauty. It's a million miles from picture-postcard pretty. Photographs do inadequate justice to the scale of the country and depth of colour beneath an at-times merciless sun. But I tell you, it has a power of attraction, a pulling power, that is hard to articulate. It generates a quietude; a separation from day-to-day angst and first-world preoccupations; a potion of perspective I'd like to bottle and inhale three times a day. I've only been back a week and a half, but I'd happily pack up for a return tomorrow.
After a late lunch at the waterhole we already had to think about heading back to Boulia, across the bumpy gibber plains. By the time we got back, briefly, on to the Kennedy, we were almost dreaming of bitumen.
This post was last edited on 7 November 2016