Outback 3 Duncan Dunnart and the Moon Rocks
It was early morning in Cloncurry, the 'Friendly Heart of Outback Queensland'.
Cloncurry was deemed the state's friendliest town in 2013, hence its slogan. 'The Curry' is rich in history: it saw the foundation of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in 1928, and was the destination of the first Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service flight. The original Qantas hangar is still in use. Cloncurry lies 400 kilometres south of the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the Cloncurry River and at the junction of the Flinders and Matilda highways. Explorer Robert O'Hara Burke named the River after his cousin Elizabeth Cloncurry, who lived in his home county of Galway.
Six years after Burke and Wills, Ernest Henry came this way looking for grazing land in 1867. Instead he found large deposits of copper: his Great Australia Mine is still in operation today. Gold deposits were found too, in 1908, at Mount Quamby, 50 km northwest of Cloncurry. (How many place names in Queensland begin with Q? Just a thought.) The pastoral industry was also of great importance to the town, and Cloncurry had the biggest sale yards in the state's northwest. They are now mainly used for tick dipping (which, in English, means dipping your cattle to rid them of ticks).
We had woken early and were on the road – the Flinders Highway, which goes all the way to Townsville – by 07:15. There were many birds about: two flocks of Galahs, one by the roadside and one in a paddock; a gathering of Little Corellas by the road; three Brolgas; and a pair of stately Australian Bustards.
I was driving along an open road, but there was more and more roadkill, and I was reluctant to do even 80 km/hr. About 30 kilometres or so before Julia Creek we crossed the Gillat River Channels. They reminded me of Cooper Creek and my favourite Channel Country in southwest Queensland, but these channels flow northwards across the Gulf Country to the Gulf itself: I wish now that I'd paid them more attention, although they were dry and indistinguishable from hundreds of others.
We reached Julia Creek by 09:00. Dunnart feeding-time wasn't for another hour, so we wandered down the main street and bought croissants and coffee. As usual, you can learn a lot about a town from its shop fronts.
Award-winning Julia Creek Visitor Information Centre is an attraction in its own right. In modern, well-designed units there are many audio-visual displays on the history of the town and what it's like to live in Julia Creek and the wider area of McKinley Shire today. One video featured a large number of locals vehemently denying that Julia Creek was named after the great love of Robert Burke's life, Julia Matthews, star of 'light theatre' in Melbourne. Burke and Wills never even came through McKinley Shire, they protested. I don't know why they're so worked up: it only took me a few moments to determine that, in fact, the town was named by the first settlers here, the McIntyre brothers, Duncan* and Donald, after family members.
The biggest draw At the Creek is undoutedly the Dunnart, an extremely small, nocturnal, insect-eating marsupial with sharp teeth and a pointy snout. 'They're lean, mean and rarely seen.' There are several species of Dunnart, including a Julia Creek Dunnart, found only on the Mitchell Grass plains of northwest Queensland and believed to be extinct until 1992, when a few were found locally, since when the tiny creature has been classed as Endangered. So, for the purposes of entertaining tourists, enter the Fat-tailed Dunnart. His name was Duncan. I have never seen such a tiny thing move so fast: he was a blur. I think he had ADHD. He couldn't even finish his breakfast of a few grubs at one go, but kept rushing off, then coming back and eating another morsel. His feet were unimaginably small. Apologies for the blurring, either because of poor light or fast-moving critter.
It's 400 kilometres from Cloncurry to Hughenden, where we were staying that night, so we couldn't hang around. Next up was Richmond, home of Moon Rocks and giant marine fossils, and 150 kilometres beyond, across flat plains. The Flinders was straight for such long stretches it disappeared into mirage, as did the country to either side. Occasionally a monster would charge out of the mirage. The number of dead roos was alarming and appalling.
We spent an inordinate amount of time in Richmond looking for naturally occurring Moon Rocks, as opposed to those gathered for show. It was a fruitless search. This is what I learned about them from Kronosaurus Corner, 'Australia's premier marine fossil museum'.
These round objects are a common and conspicuous feature of the region. They range from the size of a golf ball to boulders weighing several tonnes, and are found throughout the black soil of the Rolling Downs country. The nodules are concretions that formed by the accumulation of limestone cement (calcium carbonate) within mud on an ancient sea floor. They formed by chemical processes within the sediment and are not water-worn.
Under isotropic conditions – meaning the mud had the same physical properties in all directions – the nodules [more often than not] formed spherical shapes… Although the nodules themselves are not fossils, they can, and often do, contain fossils – especially shells – which are also composed of calcium carbonate. The shells formed a nucleus around which further accumulation of carbonate occurred.
Our first stop in Richmond was the aforementioned Kronosaurus Corner, where there are some truly remarkable collections of bones painstakingly placed to recreate the skeletons of mainly marine creatures but also a couple of dinosaurs. If you're wondering why you've never heard much about fossil finds or dinosaurs in Australia, or perhaps only recently, you'll find a useful fact sheet here.
Below is a short-necked pliosaur, a marine reptile with powerful flippers and tail that was the largest predator in the inland sea once covering the vast plains of what is now Outback Queensland. This complete Richmond Pliosaur was found on Marathon Station near Richmond in 1990. It wasn't an easy subject to photograph.
You can go fossil hunting at a couple of sites northwest of town: details from Kronosaurus Corner.
We asked at the information desk where we could find Moon Rocks lying around in their natural state. A sixty-four thousand dollar question, apparently. We were directed hither and thither, but failed to find what we were looking for.
We went to eat our lunch by the manmade lake in Richmond, Lake Fred Tritton. I'm sure the former mayor deserved to have a lake named after him, but it is not a nice name for a lake. There were more carefully arranged Moon Rocks and a number of interesting birds. Moon Rocks that had been perfectly placed were ceasing to be of interest, but we were fast giving up hope of finding the real thing in situ.
We had another 112 kilometres to go to Hughenden. My friend had spotted a highlighted route to the north of the Flinders Highway, a tourist route called the Basalt Byway. We thought it would be a nice little detour to round off the day. I now know we should have started this trek from Hughenden rather than Marathon, for that is what it turned out to be. From the town there's a 95 km circuit through 'rolling landscapes of basalt walls and deep valleys', with excellent lookouts. We chose a 113 kilometre long-way-round extension to get to that circuit, but the state of the track precluded good progress. Eventually, we had to give up for lack of time, cut back to the Highway, and hence into Hughenden. So we missed the scenery and the viewpoints altogether, but the drive had been challenging, my friend had opened and closed many farm gates, and we came across naturally occurring Moon Rocks, which made life worthwhile. The ones by the track had probably been collected together there, but I'm sure they had been found close by and therefore qualified us to claim mission accomplished. By the time we were almost at the Highway the landscape was pretty empty of everything.
* The brothers were explorers as well as pastoralists. Duncan found what he believed to be traces of Ludwig Leichhardt's last expedition, namely two blazed trees and a couple of very old horses. That was in 1864, 16 years after Leichhardt went missing. Duncan lead an expedition to the Gulf to search for him. At Bourketown Duncan learned of 'half-castes' living with Aborigines: their birth dates would have coincided with Leichhardt's expedition being in the region, if he'd followed the route he said he would.
This post was last edited on 29 November 2015