Visit the north Queensland Outback, a starkly beautiful part of the country with reminders of our prehistoric and historic heritage.
Mention north Qld and most people think of Cairns, the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. West of here, however, the north Qld outback draws increasing numbers of visitors, and for good reason. Find out why on this route which travels from Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria down to Mount Isa, Richmond, Winton and Longreach… Plus, we put together 7 beautiful images from this carvanning itinerary, have a peek.
First port of call is Karumba, on the mouth of the Norman River more than 2000km from Brisbane. The township is surrounded by floodplains and wetlands that extend inland for 30km and are home to saltwater crocodiles and a wide variety of bird species. It’s a major commercial fishing port and the prawning capital of Australia.
The place is also well known for its great recreational fishing, with anglers travelling far and wide in pursuit of huge barramundi.The Barramundi Discovery Centre, run by the Gulf Barramundi Restocking Association (a group of local volunteers), breeds the southern Gulf strain of barramundi for several local shires and other clients, and is well worth visiting to find out more about this fascinating species. You can adopt your very own hatchling, with a proper certificate and regular updates on its progress!
Karumba has developed quite indiscriminately since it was first settled in the 1870s, and is not particularly attractive as towns go. But people visit for the unique surroundings rather than finely honed architecture, and as such it’s a memorable destination. In the tourist high season, things can get quite busy here.
Some six-and-a-half hours’ drive south-west of Karumba is the next destination, Mount Isa. The area controlled by the local council measures 43,000sq km – larger than the Netherlands or Switzerland and slightly smaller than Denmark – which makes it the largest city in the world in the eyes of partisan supporters who conveniently overlook larger municipal areas such as Kalgoorlie-Boulder (more than 95,000sq km).
Still, things are big in “the Isa”, a mining city that boasts the world’s largest output of silver and lead and one of the largest for copper and zinc. It has one of Australia’s largest underground mines, and a vertigo-inducing 270m lead smelter stack that towers over the surroundings. It all began in 1923, when John Campbell Miles stumbled upon a large silver-lead seam while he was prospecting for gold along the Leichhardt River. Though large, the seam was low grade and required industrial-scale mining that was provided by Mount Isa Mines (MIM) from 1924 onwards.
You can get a feel for what it’s like to be a miner by visiting the Hard Times Mine, a make-believe mine built for tourists who get put through the whole experience. You’re even encouraged to handle a drill! The Isa Experience Gallery is an interactive multimedia encounter that does a wonderful job of bringing the indigenous and white histories of this highly multicultural city to life. And if it’s natural attractions you’re after, then head for Outback Park, a beautifully landscaped area with native plantings, a lagoon and several quiet and peaceful spots in which to enjoy a picnic.
More: Caravanning Mount Isa
The next destination is Richmond, halfway between Mount Isa and Townsville on the banks of the Flinders River. It’s a very attractive outback town, a veritable oasis with beautiful, lush gardens and parks, and plentiful bougainvilleas that provide a riot of colour. Richmond was part of an inland sea 98-114 million years ago, and the area has yielded many important marine fossils.
You can bone up on them in Kronosaurus Korner, which houses a prime example of a 100-million-year-old pliosaur (a carnivorous relative of the plesiosaur) discovered near the town in 1989. The most complete pliosaur skeleton ever found, the famous Kronosaurus queenslandicus, was unearthed north of Richmond in 1932 and spirited out of the country by palaeontologists from Harvard University. It was 12m long with a 3m head, more than twice as large as the skull of a Tyrannosaurus rex. If you want to try some fossil-hunting of your own, ask for a map to some of the fossicking sites nearby where you can find shark’s teeth, fish bones and various shells.
From Richmond head to Winton, a ‘real outback’ town with a rich and colourful history, including connections with Waltzing Matilda and Qantas. It was at Dagworth Station near here that Banjo Paterson in 1895 wrote the words to a tune that Christina Macpherson had adapted from a Celtic folk tune, The Craigeelee – and the rest, as they say, is history. To this day, bush poetry is a major feature of the town’s famous Outback Festival held every two years.
The Waltzing Matilda Centre here is well worth a visit, not only because it’s the world’s only tourist attraction devoted to a song. It adopts a modern-day approach with interactive displays, including a sound-and-light show in the Billabong Courtyard. The attached Qantilda Museum recreates the area’s history from Aboriginal times through the pioneering era of the 1870s. You can also listen to the voice of Sir Hudson Fysh, one of the co-founders of Qantas. Australia’s first airline – the world’s second-oldest still operating under its original name (KLM is the oldest) – held its initial board meeting in the Winton Club on February 21, 1921.
Qantas also has strong links to the next stop, Longreach, which was the airline’s first operational base in 1922. The town is home to the Qantas Founders Outback Museum (QFOM) and the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame.The QFOM is the only place in the world where you can tour two fully equipped passenger jet aircraft: a decommissioned 747-200 and a 707, both donated by Qantas. Take a wing-walking tour, climb down into the cargo bays and sit in the pilot’s seat. There are several other planes and models on display, and you can walk around the original Qantas hangar.
The Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre has drawn more than one million visitors since it opened 20 years ago. There are themed galleries dedicated to explorers, stockmen, pastoralists and Aboriginal heritage. Take your time here, because there is just so much to see.