Outback 3 A tale of the unexpected
If you're heading into northwest Queensland from the Plenty Highway (NT), say for Mt Isa, you don't cross the border just beyond Tobermorey Station, where the Plenty Highway becomes the Donohue. Four kilometres west of Tobermorey you take the Urandangie-Tobermorey Road. Within 12 kilometres, the track is running parallel to the border, although you can't see the fence for vegetation. Another 12 km or so north, not far from Manners Creek Station, the track veers northwest, away from the border, towards Shank Creek. It only returns to it – and finally crosses it – 20-something kilometres further on.
Half an hour up the road from Tobermorey we noticed the Cauliflower Gums – our name, since we haven't the vaguest clue what they are. (If you know, please tell in the comments box below.) When we got out of the car, the excited chattering of birds breakfasting on the flowers was all around. There were large flitting flocks of Masked Woodswallows, a difficult subject to photograph. We could also hear doves and Zebra Finches.
Soon the vegetation changed; we came across the first bulldust hole in a while; and cows were still eating Australia.
The border crossing – 50 km from Tobermorey and 49 km from Urandangie – was the usual rather shabby affair, complete with recycled signs and spelling mistake. This marked the start of the final stage of our Outback trip, as well as the return to our home state, and so a certain amount of ceremony was due: photographs of us with a foot in each state, etc, etc. We had breakfast, disturbed only by a single fly. It would have been warm but for a chill wind.
Urandangie is one of Queensland's remotest towns and sits on the Georgina River, a major contributor to the Channel Country (along with the Diamantina and Cooper Creek). The tree-lined river bed is obvious from miles off in an otherwise empty landscape. No expense has been spared on the signage. We'd never seen the Georgina before: needless to say, there was ne'er a drop of water to be seen. But that didn't seem to deter several Rainbow Bee-eaters, stunningly beautiful birds.
It was obvious from the outset that Urandangie has a sense of humour. The names of the Georgina's many channels were similarly roughly painted on old car bonnets: Sally's Crossing, Bill Murphy Crossing, Tricky Crossing… and then, further into town.
So, does Urandangie have an 'E' or not?
We stopped at the Dangi Pub – the Urandangie Hotel – for a drink, and soon got chatting to owner Pam Forster. She moved here from Victoria seven years ago, loves the heat, and has no desire to go back. We shared the love of the Outback. My friend went out to the car for his camera and when he came back I'd disappeared, invited to go with Pam behind the bar. I had no idea where I was going, or why, as she led the way out back. A man stood in the kitchen, but we weren't introduced. For a fleeting moment I wondered if he was a weirdo, and quickly followed Pam outside.
There in the yard were several roos, most of the them joeys. My jaw dropped. Pam explained to me that the local Indigenous people eat a lot of bush tucker and, when they kill an adult kangaroo, they sometimes find a joey in a pouch. They bring the joeys to Pam. The first one, Chaddy, arrived five years ago: he's a lot bigger now. She tries to encourage her charges back into the wild; leaves open gates to freedom. But they come back. Life is just too comfortable at the Dangi. The babes are bottle-fed every four hours, including through the night, in Pam's bed.
Warning: lots of super furry marsupials coming up…
Suddenly Pam plonked Sienna in my arms and handed me a tiny bottle. Cue rock-a-baby mode, and a ridiculous grin.
Indigenous peoples have long crossed this region from the Northern Territory to Queensland. The town was founded in 1885 on the Georgina stock route, used by drovers on their way to the railhead at Dajarra to the east. During the droving months – from March/April to November/December – as many as 100 mobs of cattle came through Urandangie, also a stop-off point for travellers from The Isa to The Alice. By 1920 there was a general store, and eventually there were two stores, two hotels, a post office and a police station. The town held sports days and race meetings. As seems inevitable in Outback town histories, one of the hotels burned down. Today, Urandangie is a mostly Indigenous community. The pub is the community hub and there is a small school.
Once Pam knew of my friend's interest in rocks, she drew us a map to take us back up the road to Rocky Hole, which we would never have come across otherwise. Not only were there what looked like out-of-place white rocks, there was a waterhole. There was water in the Georgina, after all. And a White-necked Heron. We called into the Dangi quickly on the way back through to tell Pam that the rocks were limestone.
The approach of a road train along a deserted dusty dirt track is a daunting prospect once you've had your windscreen cracked a few times by flying gravel. We pull right over out of their way and stop dead. The timing of the final photograph in a sequence is a challenge: the truck has to be bearing down on us but not half-passed in a blur. Practice makes perfect.
Further north up the Urandangie Road, the landscape became emptier and even rather desolate. No stand-alone tree, nor fallen fence post. I'd like to get my hands on the drongo who chucked the can out of his window.
At one point the GPS tracker showed us going one way (pink in the image, left), while on the map it went another (brown dashed), each forming two sides of a rectangle. This is always a tad alarming, especially in country lacking notable landmarks and with no evidence of a parting of the ways. You can't do much other than keep going when you find yourself unexpectedly off-piste. And it was by no means the first time this had happened on an Outback trip. Sure enough, we were eventually re-united with the map track.
About 20 km beyond this little bit of excitement – by No 16 Bore to be precise – we really had no idea which way to go. The right-hand route looked slightly more well-used, so we tried that first. Only by going right a bit did it become obvious from our satellite-plotted course on the iPad Hema map that we should have gone left. The cows by the waterhole were bemused by our coming and going, and approached tentatively as we sat studying the map. I think they hoped we had hay bales in the back.
Wisdom after the event revealed it was Mount Isa to the right and Camooweal to the left, but long-distance dotted lines on a map aren't always easy to follow. Some people wonder why we love the Outback so.
There was nothing much for quite a while, but the combination of emptiness and isolation is spectacular. It's hard to articulate why. When there's nothing in front of you and nothing behind; you're way beyond the range of the two-way radio; and, without clouds above or much detail at ground level, you're probably as close to being in a void as you'll ever be. At some point where the blue above a non-existent line meets the brown below it you are merely a lonely dot.
We hadn't seen either of these scenes for a while.
Camooweal Caves National Park is southeast of Camooweal, the turn-off about 12 kilometres from town on the Urandangie Road. We weren't at all sure whereabouts the access road would be: older maps show more routes through the Park than there turned out to be. This looked like a fairly new entrance.
Once upon a time I think there was greater access, but health and safety concerns have led to visitors being restricted to one small part. There are many sinkholes, you see. They are evidence of an extensive system of dolomite caves, which are unique in Queensland, and secondly only to the karst system of the Nullarbor Plain. Here we're on the Barkly Tableland, consisting of dolomite beds laid down beneath a shallow sea 550 million years ago. The fact that dolomite is less soluble (than limestone) in rainwater, and this is a low-rainfall region, makes this cave system even more remarkable. The sinkholes were not spotted until aerial photographs of the Queensland part of the Tableland was studied in the 1970s.
The fractured rocks at the top of the Great Nowranie Cave, which is 18 metres deep, show how water dissolves the dolomite and opens up cracks. During the wet season, water gushes down the holes into the caves and continually reshapes them. Seasonal flash flooding is the reason that stalactites and stalagmites never get a chance to grow. We don't know where the underground water ends up, but surface water flows to Nowranie Creek and then the Georgina River.
You might just stumble upon a sink hole – and into it – in the Eucalypt and Mitchell Grass landscape if you were allowed to wander willy-nilly. You are therefore limited to a 220-metre-return track to the Great Nowranie Cave, and the 70-metre-return walk to the Little Nowranie Cave, which is much smaller. So, don't go to this National Park for a challenging hike. The public are not allowed into the Caves at all, but in 2014 a new viewing platform was constructed overlooking the Great Nowranie Cave.
Afterwards, we visited Nowranie Waterhole, an oasis of calm in the warm late afternoon sun. Many Little Corellas were sitting silently together in the one tree: then, by means of squawked signals, they reconvened in a tree on the opposite bank of the Creek. Black-winged Stilts were almost indistinguishable in the shallows.
We drove the last few kilometres into Camooweal to the strains of Busby Marou singing 'Luck', of course (see Outback 3 Route Revisions, June 2015). We quickly checked into the Post Office Hotel and unloaded our bags, before grabbing a beer and sitting on the veranda, watching the world go by on the Barkly Highway. After supper, the bar was rowdy as the Cowboys were being beaten by the Rabbitohs despite some fine kicking from JT. We could barely hear ourselves think as we tried to decide how much time to devote to Mt Isa the next day.
This post was last edited on 14 October 2016