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Up and Down the River

Western Queensland Road Trip #19 St George

It’s easy to fall in love with a place when the locals share their passion for their home.

One afternoon we joined skipper and tour guide Brett on a Sandytown River Cruise along the Balonne River. We were hardly settled in our seats before he started his commentary in praise of his town and its beautiful river.

We sailed upstream from the Jack Taylor weir towards Beardmore Dam, past flood markers indicating the river’s record levels. Large homes set far above the high water mark looked down over enviable water views.

Like the other guests on our tour we’d brought some treats to enjoy on the boat, but I was far too busy looking for the wildlife Brett pointed out.

Welcome swallows darted to and fro in front of the boat and whistling kites soared gracefully overhead. Sulphur crested cockatoos perched high in the treetops and royal spoonbills watched us gliding by.

We weren’t the only people enjoying the river on this sunny afternoon. Younger children swam and splashed in the shallows while their older and more adventurous siblings paddled canoes further out. Speedboats raced past, towing skilful water skiers in their wake.

As afternoon gave way to evening it was time to turn round and sail back to town. The colour of the water deepened and the clouds reflected the brilliance of the sun as it set behind the trees.

Once more Brett declared his love for the river. “We’re so lucky to have it. I never tire of seeing the river in all its different forms.” And we were lucky that Brett shared the river with us.

 

All or Nothing

Western Queensland Road Trip #18 St George

After seeing seeing little more than puddles in several outback rivers, the broad expanse of the Balonne River at St George was an unexpected surprise. Tall river gums lined the river banks and the almost cloudless sky above was reflected in the water flowing slowly towards the weir.

With the sun nearing the horizon we set off along the Riverbank Walkway, a two kilometre track on the town side of the river. As the shadows lengthened and the tree trunks glowed in the light of early evening, a little cruise boat carrying tourists passed by.

There were plenty of locals enjoying the river too, with cyclists, walkers and even two horseback riders on the track. We mentioned our surprise at the volume of water in the river to a lady walking her dog and she explained. “The dam wall upstream needs repairs so all the water has been let out of Lake Kajarabie into the river. It’s being held back by the weir, but the situation is very worrying. This is all the water we have. If it runs out, there is no more.”

Even before the sun had set over the water the moon rose into the clear night sky. We stayed until it was almost dark, taking in the beauty of the river and the bush.

The next day we drove out to Beardmore Dam to see for ourselves. That lady was right. The dam wall, which usually holds back up to 81 000 mega-litres of water, could clearly be seen and the lake was as dry as those rivers we’d seen elsewhere.

Like the people of St George, we could only hope that rain would fall again to replenish the river and the lake.

Post Script: After recent heavy rain in the St George area, Beardmore Dam filled in less than two weeks and is now at 99.98% capacity. The Balonne River broke its banks, reaching a peak of more than 12 metres but no homes in St George were inundated.

Join Jo for more Monday Walks

Follow The Locals

Western Queensland Road Trip #15

We always figure if the locals are eating in a restaurant the food must be good but in the outback this theory doesn’t always apply.

Charleville’s most popular dining style is al fresco, next to the airport runway.

In Cunnamulla the school oval comes highly recommended. Dozens of galahs join the roos every evening.

Emus aren’t too fussy about the quality of their surroundings.

Honeyeaters have a favourite place where they like to hang out.

white plumed honeyeater

Some locals like to dine with a partner,

galahs

corellas

whistling ducks

while others aren’t keen on sharing, especially when they’re on the lookout for a tasty treat.

kookaburra

Australian Darter

They don’t need to be told twice to eat their greens,

Mallee ringneck parrot

especially if the restaurant is right on the water.

domesticated geese

Some are in too much of a hurry to say where they’re going. Maybe they don’t want to be on the menu!

green ground beetle

 

Hills of Sand

Western Queensland Road Trip #14 Cunnamulla

In the heat of mid-morning there’s very little movement in the bush. Every now and then an unseen bird calls to its mate but it’s the constant hum of insects that dominates.

On the edge of town, a line of red sand hills rises up out of the trees. From a distance they don’t seem high, but the slope is steeper than it looks. Climbing up proves to be a challenge as the fine red sand moves constantly beneath our feet.

Once at the top our effort is rewarded. Cunnamulla’s buildings are just visible through the hardy mulga scrub and the Warrego River sparkles like a silver-backed serpent in the distance.

A small mob of kangaroos rests in a shady spot and they watch us watching them. They stop feeding on the sparse ground cover, lifting their heads to catch our scent. One seems to decide we’re no threat; he returns to his grazing and the others follow his lead.

For a while we copy the kangaroos, finding a cool place to sit and enjoy the view. And when it’s time to leave, the descent is much easier than going up.

Join Jo for Monday Walks

Small Town, Big Walk!

Western Queensland Road Trip #13 Eulo

With a population of just 48, the outback town of Eulo might be small in numbers but it has plenty of personality. And you can easily explore all the sights on foot, from one end of town to the other.

On the corner where the Adventure Way enters town and becomes Leo Street, you’re greeted by a giant lizard who’s seen better days. It’s a relic of the famous Eulo Lizard Races, held annually for 30 years up to 2000.

Nearby stands a memorial connected to the lizard races which, at first glance, appears quite ordinary. But the dedication to champion racing cockroach “Destructo” tells of his unfortunate demise at the peak of his career.

While lizards and cockroaches might reside in Eulo now, huge diprotodons, ancestors of today’s wombats and koalas, lived here during the Pleistocene Epoch up to 2.5 million years ago. The largest of Australia’s megafauna, the plant-eating diprotodon weighed as much as 2.8 tonnes.

The historic Eulo Police Cells are a reminder of days not so long ago. Built in 1923 to replace the original jail cells, which were destroyed by termites, these tiny rooms would have been uncomfortable for those unlucky to be imprisoned in the heat of summer.

Opposite the old police cells on Leo Street is the Eulo Queen Hotel, named for Isabel Robinson who moved to the town with her second husband Richard Robinson in 1886. Together they owned a general store and a butcher’s shop as well as the local hotel, and Isabel added to her fortune by acquiring opals from local miners. Her reputation as the Eulo Queen was enhanced by her habit of “entertaining” the hotel’s patrons while her husband conveniently looked the other way.

No such entertainment is available at the hotel today but enjoying a cool drink while seated on one of the hotel’s unique bar stools is a refreshing alternative.

Further along the street is an unusual structure you wouldn’t expect to find in the outback – an Anderson air raid shelter, built during the second World War to protect residents in case of attack by Japanese forces. The decision to build an air raid shelter was made by the government of the time, as Eulo was a crucial communication link between Darwin and Sydney. It was made long enough to fit up to 50 people, but luckily the need to protect the townspeople never eventuated.

The Japanese may never have attacked but there have been other times when Eulo’s residents have needed protection. When flooding rains come the Paroo River quickly breaks its banks, closing the highway and isolating those on either side. A modified truck has long been used to negotiate floodwaters, carrying both people and goods. Five years ago when the old flood truck was replaced with a modern version, it took up residence in a place of honour next to the store in recognition of its service to the community.

There’s no chance of the bridge over the river going underwater during the current prolonged drought.

Past the bridge, Leo Street once again becomes the Adventure Way and heads further west – time to stop walking and get back in your car!

Join Jo for Monday Walks

Where Water Flows

Western Queensland Road Trip #12 

In front of the visitor centre in Cunnamulla, crystal clear water sparkles in the sunlight as it tumbles from a pipe into a small storage pool. Drawn from an underground source far below the surface of the earth, the water first fell to earth as rainfall two million years ago.

The water comes from the Great Artesian Basin, the largest and deepest underground reservoir in the world. It covers one-fifth of subterranean Australia – 1,700,000 square kilometres beneath four Australian states and territories. In some places up to 3,000 metres deep, the basin has a capacity 130,000 times greater than Sydney Harbour. For people who live in inland Australia, this is often their only source of fresh water.

While it’s not possible to see the Great Artesian Basin, a journey through the Artesian Time Tunnel inside Cunnamulla’s visitor centre is a fascinating alternative. Going more than 100 million years back in time, the adventure begins in an old opal mine lift. The screen counts back through the centuries in a flash before the doors open to reveal an underground landscape of ancient sandstone, complete with fossils of dinosaurs and other creatures who lived in the area at that time.

Further along the tunnel sits an old opal miner, who comes alive to tell stories of life on the opal fields of western Queensland. Beyond the tunnel, displays explain how the Great Artesian Basin has enabled outback towns to flourish.

To access fresh water supply from the basin, most towns have a bore. Wells are drilled down into the earth until the aquifer is reached. Often the pressure of the water is enough to bring it to the surface, without the need for pumps. At first the water was allowed to flow freely, but now the supply is controlled. The bore at Eulo, 69 kilometres west of Cunnamulla, draws water from a depth of 223 metres. It’s hot and often smells of sulphur, but the residents are grateful to have a regular supply.

It’s not only outback towns who rely on the water. Farmers on the vast cattle properties of the west use the valuable resource for their stock. Bores like the one at Paddabilla provide welcome relief for cattle and other animals.

In some places, water from the Great Artesian Basin rises naturally to the earth’s surface. Where a weakness or fault occurs in the rock layers, the natural pressure of the trapped water forces it upwards, sometimes with tremendous energy.

In the Eulo region, a group of mud springs brings life to the desert. Even when no water flows, moisture in the soil allows plants and wildlife to flourish. A ring of flotsam around the spring shows how far the flow can extend.

In a landscape where every drop is precious, the water of the Great Artesian Basin is an asset treasured beyond measure.