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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.

River Walk

Western Queensland Road Trip #11 Cunnamulla

For much of the day, the harsh light of the outback is almost blinding, bleaching the landscape of its colour. A few hours later, in the softer light of late afternoon, nature’s hues become richer and more mellow.

When we first see the Warrego River at Cunnamulla late in the day, we can’t help noting the contrast with the Maranoa River in Mitchell. After recent heavy rainfall further north, the river flows deep and full. It’s the perfect time to enjoy Riverwalk, a 1.6 km track beside the Warrego.

Surprisingly, the path leads at first away from the river to the flood plains beyond its banks. Floodwater still pools in some gullies, but where it has evaporated thick dark mud is all that remains.

Baked hard by the relentless heat of the sun, the mud shrinks as it dries leaving deep crazy-paved cracks overlaid with the tracks left by passing animals. Tiny specks of green remind us that water is all that is needed for life to regenerate.

In the quiet of this afternoon, there’s not a lot of wildlife around. A long-necked turtle, secure inside his shell, refuses to greet us and even the meat ants are nowhere to be seen around their huge mounded nest. If we banged hard enough they would rush out in defence of the nest, but that would be asking for trouble so we leave them in peace.

In this flat landscape even the slightest elevation gives a sense of distance. From a raised viewing platform, it’s easy to see where the flood plain gives way to the mulga scrub native to this part of western Queensland.

Eventually we arrive at the river bank. With the sun behind us and much lower in the sky, the shadows of the majestic red river gums along the bank stretch out over the water.

A lone pelican drifts lazily with the current while a large egret stands motionless, probably on the lookout for his dinner. A whistling kite soars gracefully overhead and, although we can hear the raucous calls of cockatoos settling in the trees, we see only a feather fallen to the ground.

We reach the end of the path as the sun sets. The sky begins to fade from blue to gold, before turning that fiery red typical of the end of day in the outback.

The sun drops below the horizon in minutes, but its glow remains for a time. The last rays of light burnish the river gums and light our way back across the bridge into town.

The river puts on one last display, creating a mirror image of the sky above before all the colour of the outback is lost in complete darkness.

Join Jo for Monday Walks

 

Outback History

Western Queensland Road Trip #7 Charleville

The small town of Charleville, established when the first hotel was built in 1865, now has a population of around 3,500 people. Despite its isolated location in outback Queensland, Charleville has a rich history full of intriguing personalities and interesting places.

The building now known as the Charleville Historic House Museum has stood on Alfred Street since 1887. Originally the town’s first bank, it was also a boarding house before being purchased by the local Historical Society in the 1970s.

In the main room, the vault once used by the bank to store money now holds precious documents and records. The museum is full to the brim with dozens of items once used in everyday life, while outside is a collection of vehicles and machines from bygone times.

Two more relics of the past stand proudly at the Graham Andrews Parklands on the Mitchell Highway.

The Steiger Vortex Guns are two of six built in 1902 in Brisbane on the orders of the Government Meteorologist Clement Wragge. He’d heard about the guns being used in Austria to prevent hailstorms in wine growing areas. By firing ammunition into clouds, storms were dispersed. Vibrations in the clouds also caused rain to fall and Clement hoped similar guns might be used to break a long running drought in outback Queensland. He brought his guns to Charleville and, on 26 September 1902, ten shots from each cannon were fired into the sky. Sadly the experiment was a failure – no rain fell in Charleville that day.

The Charleville base of the Royal Flying Doctor Service is located further along the Mitchell Highway at the airport. Founded by the Reverend John Flynn, the Royal Flying Doctor Service has provided medical care to those living in outback Australia since 1928.

At the Visitor Centre, videos explain the history of the service and dramatic recordings bring to life the first hand experiences of patients and their families. Displays of historic medical equipment and radio technology are compared with 21st century methods of health care in the outback.

The hangar used by the Royal Flying Doctor Service dates from 1943. It was built as part of the occupation of Charleville Airport by the United States 45th Air Base Group, 43rd Bombardment Group, 63rd and 65th Bomb Squadrons and the 8th Material Squadron during the Second World War. From 1942 to 1943 more than 3,500 US servicemen lived at the top secret site, which was used to store and maintain American B-17 Bombers. Most of the structures built to cater for the servicemen are long gone, but the foundations of mess halls and shower blocks remain as evidence of the war time activities in this remote posting.

Many of those American servicemen would have enjoyed themselves at the Saturday night dances at the Hotel Corones. Built by Greek migrant Harry Corones in the 1920s, the hotel was famous for its luxurious interiors – marble floors, beautiful furniture and a grand staircase leading to the first floor where the accommodation included ensuite bathrooms, a rare luxury otherwise not seen outside of Brisbane.

An afternoon tour of the hotel tells the story of Harry’s rise from penniless immigrant to successful business man and visionary. Visitors can order a drink at the bar, once the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and climb the silky oak staircase to the rooms where dignitaries including Princess Alexandra, performer Gracie Fields and Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam have stayed. The tour ends in the dining room with an afternoon tea of scones, jam and cream.

A stroll along the Wadyanana Pathway on the banks of the Warrego River soon works off that delicious afternoon tea. Charleville is located on traditional Bidjara lands and the pathway, designed by local Bidjara residents, tells the story of Mundagudda, the Rainbow Serpent.

It’s also a timely reminder that this land was occupied long before that first hotel was built in 1865.

Join Jo for Monday Walks

Staring Into Space

Western Queensland Road Trip #6 Charleville

Have you ever stared into the night sky and wondered what’s out there, or imagined what life would be like as an astronaut? You’ll find the answers to these questions and more at the Charleville Cosmos Centre and Observatory.

Charleville is more than 750 km from the coast and, with a population of less than 3,500 and very little light pollution, it’s the perfect site for a space observatory. Appropriately located on Milky Way Road, the Cosmos Centre comprises an indoor exhibition and café and an outdoor observatory, where telescopes operate during the day and at night.

Enter the Cosmos shuttle and you are instantly transported to the world of an astronaut, where eating, drinking and even using the bathroom are challenges in a weightless environment. Videos show footage of astronauts working in space, from the first moon landing to recent residents of the International Space Station.

During an astronomy talk, a Cosmos guide passes round pieces of a billion year old meteorite and explains how space junk falls back to Earth after passing through its atmosphere.

Quirky facts make the idea of living in outer space seem very attractive.

At the outdoor observatory a daytime visit starts with a talk about the sun, detailing fascinating facts about its small stature compared with more distant stars, its composition and life span.

The sliding roof of the observatory is pushed back just enough to give the solar telescope a clear view of the sun. It appears in the telescope’s eyepiece as a huge red ball, and what look like fine red hairs sticking out from the edge are massive solar flares. A tiny black dot in the middle is a sunspot ten times larger than Earth.

For more amazing celestial views, return to the Cosmos Centre after dark for an evening presentation. Guides with a passion for astronomy lead you on a journey through the Milky Way and beyond, using large Meade telescopes to see distant diamond star clusters and planets. Any constellations visible above the horizon are identified and described.

While the thought of stars being many light years distant is hard to comprehend, our nearest neighbour the Moon seems relatively close. Viewed through one of the powerful telescopes, the detail on the Moon’s surface is so clear you can almost imagine yourself as one of those astronauts you’ve learned about earlier in the day.

After spending a few hours at the Cosmos Centre, a visit to the International Space Station might well be added to your bucket list.

 

Back From The Brink

Western Queensland Road Trip #5 Charleville

Everyone is familiar with Australia’s native animals the koala and the kangaroo. But you may not have heard of another of our favourites, the bilby.

Bilbies are desert-dwelling nocturnal marsupials. Once their habitat covered more than 70% of Australia but with the importation of foxes, rabbits and cats their numbers have declined to the point where they have been declared a vulnerable species. In western Queensland, there are fewer than 600 bilbies living in the wild.

In an effort to prevent the extinction of bilbies, the Save the Bilby Fund was established in 1999. The fund’s ongoing vision is to preserve and protect bilbies by developing a captive breeding program and creating a predator free zone within Currawinya National Park where mature bilbies can be released and monitored.

The fund’s home base is the Charleville Bilby Experience at the historic Charleville Railway Station.

Displays explain the bilbies’ life cycle, behaviour and diet. They are excellent diggers and construct several long burrows close to each other. Like many Australian native animals they are marsupials; their young live in a pouch. Similar to wombats, a bilby’s pouch opens at the back. This prevents dirt from going in when the bilby is digging.

A full size model depicts the predator proof fence constructed at Currawinya.

The main attraction at the centre is the nocturnal house, where bilbies can be seen in an enclosure replicating their natural desert environment. Only a couple of these swift moving animals are on show at any time. Their appearance is distinctive, with silky fur, large ears and a long white tipped tail. As they dart around logs in the darkened enclosure, they’re little more than a blur – it’s difficult to capture a clear image.

With the help of the Save the Bilby Fund, these endearing creatures should be able to stay one step ahead of extinction.

Not a Drop

Western Queensland Road Trip #4 Mitchell

There must have been good rainfall in western Queensland in the first half of 1846.

When the explorer Thomas Mitchell passed through that autumn on his fourth expedition, he found lush green pastures and bushland filled with wild life. The river flowing through the area was teeming with fish while birds were plentiful in the trees on its banks.

Mitchell named the river Maranoa, an aboriginal word meaning “duck egg”. His journal entries made much of the abundance of fresh food, which was a welcome addition to his expedition party’s diet.

When we visited Mitchell’s campsite on the Maranoa River 173 years later, the scene was very different. After six months with no rain, the bush was tinder dry and the river’s course was only recognisable by the wide expanse of water worn pebbles between the tree-lined banks.

The town of Mitchell, named after the explorer, is located downstream from where he set up camp. Where the bridge into town passed over the river, pools of water reflecting the bright blue sky were all that remained of the Maranoa.

The Neil Turner Weir, on the northern side of Mitchell, was built on the river in 1984 to store water for irrigation, aquatic sports and fishing.

With not a drop of water to be seen, there was no chance of a swim let alone a risk of flash flooding.

A local farmer we met summed it up in typically succinct outback style. “We’ve had no rain since November. It’s diabolical.”

Since our visit rain has fallen, but not enough to break the drought. Thomas Mitchell would not find fish on his dinner plate if he came to western Queensland now.