I don't know why I'm so reluctant to document or write about trips; do and see and sponge up experiences and enjoy: yes, absolutely. photograph stuff and write up: not really. So it's no surprise that I've been back a full week already before writing this, and haven't got too many photos to show.
Anyway, to the story: this year I booked three weeks of vacation in one go, with the aim to hit the roads and dirt tracks westwards and see what I can see and wander around until I run out of time or energy. One tentative aim or pivot point, so to speak was to be Cameron Corner, where the borders of Queensland, NSW and South Australia meet in one spot.
This was my second trip into outback territory; the previous trip two years ago was a bit rushed (because Barbara didn't have much vacation time a/v) and this time I wanted to take it a bit easier, follow-up on a few of the ideas and infos that we had collected then and revisit a spot or two. Except this time I'd be totally by myself.
Why visit the dusty, dry, bleak country side? I don't know why but I do love the wide open empty spaces. Leaning back in a comfy camping chair at night and watching the whole hemisphere of stars is great. Standing on a dune or one of the knolly hills and seeing lots of green or red nothing around you is a great feeling, too.
July 17 was my last workday before the vacation, and the 18th and 19th I spent relaxing and preparing stuff; the car (subaru forester) had been given a set of sturdier tyres (yokohama g012 ats), the new-but-broken 20l water canister was replaced, the new-but-misdesigned water bag (msr dromedary 10l) got its leaky spout fixed with rtv sealant, I prepped my nook reader with lots of good stuff, and my drifta camp kitchen with lots of other good stuff; I baked two big loaves of rye bread - and replaced the broken portaloo that I had carted around for about 5 years, unused; the top plastic had cracked completely (maybe it felt unappreciated and useless and committed suicide?).
I left around 0900 and after a quick side-trip to the camping shop (replacement water canister).
I had already packed the car on sunday night, with two spare wheels, snatch and tow straps and spade, portaloo and popup tent, down sleeping bag, mat and tent, drifta kitchen box, rucksack with mostly warm clothes and stuff, a sack of fresh+dry food, a 40l eski with meat, cheese, eggs and vegies, 30l extra fuel (in two canisters), 54l of water (in three bags and two canisters), a small bag of Li-Po batteries and rc charger (for recharging my mobile phone, the nook reader and my nice custom camping light, and a tarp with some poles (for extended stays anywhere too sunny or too rainy).
The plan had been to take the scenic route via Killarney and the Granite Belt, but as it had snowed quite a bit there just two days earlier I ditched that idea and went straight from the Gold Coast - Beaudesert - Boonah - Warwick - Goondiwindi - Nindigully. Here's a track and map of Monday's travel, about 520km on asphalt.
Just past the great dividing range I thought that the exhaust started being a bit noisier than usual. The weather was good (the forecast only so-so) with a max of about 20°C and just a few clouds. Around 1610 the first groups of kangaroos were starting to make the road unsafe, I slowed down quite a bit and reached the Nindigully Hotel around 1700.
There's a pretty nice freebie camping area behind that pub, right on the banks of the Moonie River. There were quite a few grey nomads with their caravans; I believe that I was the only person travelling light, ie. car and tent. Nindigully consists of about three more houses besides the pub - but very unexpectedly it had very good Telstra reception. So I put up my tent, snacked a little and went for a beer (pub visit #1). A fairly cold night followed, but my old and trusty down sleeping bag made it very comfy indeed.
I skipped breakfast and got going early: St. George - Cunnamulla - Eulo - Currawinya National Park. In Cunnamulla I had a late lunch and coffee, and collected a new set of visitor brochures from the excellent info centre there. West of cunnamulla the interesting animals started to show up on and around the road: I saw two horses (no idea whether wild or not), lots of goats, a small pig and lots of both live and dead roos.
Just after Eulo the asphalt ends, and I had about 60km of red dirt and gravelly bits to go. Camped at Corni Paroo in the northern part of the Currawinya National Park. There was nobody there, and likely not a soul in that part of the park altogether. It's a slightly eerie feeling when you know you're the only human in a 30km+ radius.
I setup camp, cooked dinner and enjoyed the sunset (saw my first echidna outside of a zoo), then went for a long evening walk and eventually settled down for a bit of stargazing. Unfortunately the stars started to show a haze pretty soon, and during the night there were a few showers. Rain is pretty bad news for travel in this kind of country.
The track and map shows that I travelled about 480km that day.
The plan was to stay two nights in Currawinya, so I lazed around into the morning; experimented a bit with my Katadyn water filter (not that I needed to use it) and otherwise warily observed the darkening clouds around me. Just after lunch the park ranger dropped by and we had a brief chat: he said the southern parts of the park had alreayd gotten soaked badly and recommended I move my car and tent to higher ground.
Which I hurriedly did: at 1400 the tent was back up in the new location (near the site entrance, less scenic but higher), the storm gusts were already hitting me, and at 1415 things got quite wet very quickly. I spent most of the afternoon lounging in my car reading (was too lazy/too late to put the big tarp up).
It was absolutely amazing how quickly the tiniest bit of rain turns the rock-hard packed red ground into soapy slippery bog of the worst kind. You step onto what looks solid ground and instantly you carry around 5cm of mud plateau soles on your shoes...
Just after sunset a couple arrived with a pop-top caravan that was mud-caked up to the roof; quite clearly the road from Eulo had turned very bad.
Otherwise the night was wet and rainy (outside) but comfy (inside) and I was very glad to have followed the ranger's advice (except for the hassle of urgently re-pitching a tent in windy conditions just before a storm...).
The morning was pretty cold and foggy, but thankfully dry. I decided to catch up on last night's missed dinner with a bigger breakfast. Very enjoyable, but the fog didn't lift and the remaining clouds didn't exactly cause me euphoria.
So I packed up and left for Hungerford, 60km to the south at the border of the national park (and the QLD-NSW border, too). Those 60km were not fun: wet, deep, mud. While I didn't bog the car I felt that it could have happened quite a few times. The caked mud on the car doesn't look like much in the last two photos, but in reality it was pretty substantial.
The ranger had recommended Hungerford as a stopover point, having a council-run cheap campground, and after the mudfest on the road I had pretty much decided that i'd stay a night - and nature totally concurred: all roads south and to Thargomindah were closed by the time I arrived.
The remainder of the day I spent wandering around, doing a quick bit of laundry and relaxing. The evening I spent sitting next to a fire chatting with a travelling couple from victoria, who introduced me to Henry Lawson and his bleak but funny description of Hungerford. While it did rain again later that night, the evening was very enjoyable.
More rain overnight meant the roads south were still closed, so I spent another day and night in Hungerford. Doing what? Well, reading, dozing, cooking, wandering around the town, and chatting to some locals and fellow travellers.
Hungerford had a population of 9 permanent inhabitants when I arrived, and 8 when I left: that Friday I helped some others with lifting the oldest resident (95 years) back onto his bed and eventually onto a Flying Doctors' plane for airlifting to Broken Hill hospital.
The rest of the day was uneventful, with dry weather and quite relaxing. In the evening I enjoyed a chat with two grey nomads from down south who were staying a week each in their favourite spots, and cooked my steak on their barrel stove.
Saturday morning dawned dry and sunny, and I packed up. There must be something about this region and dogs and me: two years ago we got to rescue a wandering dog near wyandra, this time I got to play "puppy express".
Mog, the dog fence maintainer in Hungerford asked me if I could take one of his puppies to Wanaaring and drop it off at the hotel there. As I was going that way anyway naturally I agreed. The 8 week old puppy didn't really like sitting in her box on the floor, so I had her sleeping in my lap for the 100km trip.
It was a bit muddy in places still (especially around Wanaaring) but no big deal. The puppy's new owners were happy to see her, and I drove on westwards as planned:
Hungerford - Wanaaring - Sturt National Park (eastern end, just before Tibooburra).
Fortunately the Cut Line to Tibooburra was open by that time, so the extra day spent in Hungerford was absolutely not wasted. By Saturday my car's exhaust was definitely louder than normal, but not too bad yet.
The drive west on the Cut Line was very scenic and enjoyable: mostly a wide single/dual lane of dirt or gravel, in places just a pair of ruts, frequently dipping and rising over small humps and dunes. I think I saw three or four other cars on that 210km stretch of dirt (and no towns or any buildings whatsoever, of course).
Here is the map of Saturday's travel, about 310km on dirt.
Just before sunset I arrived at the eastern end of the Sturt National Park and prepped my camp at the Mt. Wood campsite. There was just one other person there, but he was a bit kooky. The NSW national parks department does a really nice job: camping is cheap at $5/night/person, and you get toilets, free gas barbecues and burners, and untreated rain water tanks too. Pretty luxurious!
After a quick bite I took a long stroll in the area, which was much greener than I had expected: lots of succulents and all other kinds of plants, from soft to spiny. The soil there was mostly gibber (stony, pebbly desert) and the tent pegs definitely needed help from the hammer. But the night was nice, if cold.
My original plan had been to stay at Mt. Wood for two nights, then drive into Tibooburra on monday to see if there was any kind of mechanic available for a bit of help with the exhaust. However, on Sunday morning I decided that Mt. Wood was too boring (and too windy) to spend another day there and packed up: instead I'd drive the 100km Gorge Loop Road for sightseeing, then move on to either Cameron Corner or Ft. Grey (still within the Sturt National Park).
The Gorge Loop Road was really nice, if cold and windy and full of kangaroos at 0830. I did a nice quick 4.5km hike to Mt. Wood, an insular peak about 120m above the surrounding countryside. Very nice, very quiet and relaxing but really really windy on top so I didn't stay long :-)
In Tibooburra I had lunch and coffee, then left towards Cameron Corner. On the way there you drive across the Waka clay pan.
Fortunately I didn't press on but stopped at the Ft. Grey campsite, which was lovely - much nicer than Mt. Wood. Just one other person there, and I think I heard or saw maybe two cars all day (except in Tibooburra itself).
After pitching my tent I had a quick snack. Rye bread is great stuff: I cut the second loaf exactly one week after having baked it and it was still great.
Then I went for a 7km arvo hike: across Lake Pinaroo to the "Sturt Tree". Not a soul around, and the view was extremely nice. Luckily the weather had turned dry and ok (if windy) by Saturday, so things were very enjoyable.
The track and map shows that I travelled about 170km on dirt.
At 0600 the stars were wonderful (but I was cold, leaving my comfy sleeping bag for a pee). At 0800 the temperature was 4°C and I had halfway completed my packup, looking at a glorious morning with blue sky, sun and no clouds.
The trip to Cameron Corner was a bit rutted and corrugated, and the corner itself was really boring and touristy. I had a quick coffee, refuelled and took just two pictures before flee^Wleaving westwards.
The drive to Merty Merty and the Strzelecki Track was interesting and really scenic, but very corrugated: dune up, dune down, dune up, down, oh a hidden corner rattle...up and down. I liked it, and didn't have too much company (just three other cars from the corner). The corrugations were bad enough to shake my phone off its holder repeatedly, and/or sending it into landscape mode.
Just before Merty Merty the others stopped at the turnoff to the old strzelecki track, while I pushed on towards the new 'track', and which I certainly won't do again: the new Strzelecki track is no track but more like an unsealed motorway, very very boring, wide and well graded, fast but slightly rutty in places, and somewhat busy with trucks because of the oil and gas at Moomba. Next time I'll definitely take the old track; the new one is terminally boring.
Upside: at Moomba you even have Telstra reception (for a few kilometers, ie. just one cell but still). The countryside itself is somewhat interesting, but cluttered with way too many 'no public access' access roads to gazillions of wells.
From Moomba to Innamincka things turn a bit rougher very quickly, less sand and more gibber. As it wasn't late yet I decided not to stay near Innamincka but to go on back east towards Queensland. Unfortunately I missed the Burke and Wills Dig Tree near the border (where you are allowed to camp), and continued on towards Noccundra. After the border that road becomes the "Adventure Way" aka Bulloo Developmental Road, which is mostly asphalt - very comfy after days of dirt :-)
Naturally that road is not all asphalt; exactly on the one dirt stretch with lots of bull dust I happened to be stuck behind two road trains...cough cough and zero vis.
Just before sunset (just as planned/hoped) I turned off the road at Noccundra, which today consists of just the Noccundra Pub, a generator, a toilet and shower block and a few sheds. Opposite it is the Wilson River, with a magnificent free camping area (and you are allowed to fish there, too). I really loved it. The river banks were busy with campers and caravaners, but not too busy as there is lots of space. After lunch I had two beers at the pub (pub visit #2) and listened to all kinds of stories there.
It was a long day, I travelled 650 km (and about 480km of that were on dirt), but strangely it wasn't overly exhausting and rather pleasant all in all (except the disappointingly boring Strzelecki motorway).
On Tuesday morning my plans looked like this: first drive north-north-east to Quilpie and stay there overnight, then go on to revisit Welford National Park; but plans rarely remain unmodified.
On the way, while refuelling at Eromanga, I decided that it was early enough in the day and that I'd bypass Quilpie and go straight to Welford N.P. (another 250km from Quilpie). The exhaust hadn't gotten any worse over the last days so I didn't feel it needed repairing overly urgently.
The drive was nice; I find the Bulloo and Diamantina Developmental Roads really scenic, but they seem to be big roo graveyards, too: two years ago it was really bad, likely because it had been pretty wet; this year I only saw a few big raptors and much less roadkill. (Much less cattle, too.)
I had a quick snack at the Kyabra Creek waterhole, which looked a bit less lush than two years ago. The turn-off towards Welford National Park was a surprise: some of that road had been sealed in the last two years, and most of it was regraded and regravelled. ok, fine, I won't argue against a bit more comfort.
But the big and very unpleasant surprise was the park setup itself: the QLD parks dept had closed the one campsite that I had wanted to stay at (consulting my old brochures from two years ago), AND changed the setup to "pre-booked e-ticket only, NO drive-in customers" - which is plain stupid in an area where the nearest mobile/net reception is 250km+ away.
I was so angry about that stupid change that I decided to leave straightaway; sure, I might have stayed nevertheless and argued the case with a ranger (if one would show up) - after all I'm quite happy to pay the small camping fee - but I figured that if the gov't doesn't want my business I'll take it elsewhere. (The other lesson learned, of course, is to not trust any older brochures but to recheck everything before leaving home. The third lesson is that every now and then camping in a small village or bush/river bank, e.g. outside of Eulo or Isisford, is a perfectly sane alternative to the national parks - and has the advantage of possible human contact.)
So I just drove out northwards on the desert/dune track (with a quick stop to take some new photos and panoramas on that dune), and continued on to Jundah (for some fuel and an ice cream). Judah is a nice little town, but I figured I'd rather go a bit further and decided to continue on to Stonehenge (about 70km) and whatever camping possibilities it might offer. I had seen Jundah two years ago, but not Stonehenge.
In Stonehenge the council had reorganized/remade the camp ground recently, and while a bit gravelly and windy it was quite nice with very welcome facilities. The girl running the community centre (where you pay your camping fee) asked me why I use my vacation time to come to a cold place like this when I could go to all kinds of "nice and warm places" instead. We chatted a bit but eventually agreed to disagree :-)
Stonehenge is another one of those tiny places stubbornly clinging to life somehow, and I learned later that they've got a whopping 21 people living in town.
The Stonehenge Hotel (pub visit #3) was very enjoyable and I had a good chat with the publican family and some of the locals (and a few beers too many on an empty stomach).
The day ended thus nicely if not as or where originally planned; travel distance was 570 km (most of which was on asphalt).
A good night's sleep later I was more or less ready to wind up my trip: travelling all by myself turned out to be a bit less fun than I had hoped and a bit more stressful, too (what with having to always drive myself, the need to take extra care with everything when away from civilisation etc. etc.).
The opportunities for a bit of human interaction in the three villages that I stayed at were perfectly spaced time-wise, welcome and positive: a bit of emptiness and solitude, travel on, then meet and talk to people, repeat...
But overall I'd had enough for this trip, I didn't feel the urgent need to visit any of the other national parks in the vicinity (Diamantina is waiting for another trip, as it's really really remote; Idalia will happen at some time, and Carnarvon Gorge is a bit too touristy for my liking and annoyingly limited wrt. camping).
At around 0900 I had a coffee at the community centre, and then hit the road - first another 220km of dirt because I chose the back roads 'directly' towards Blackall (I really didn't want to travel through Longreach). This was very interesting country, usually close to the Barcoo river or its tributary creeks.
Lots of kangaroos and a few goats. In that area it seemed to me that the black roos are less stupid than the big grey and red ones: none of the smaller blacks that I saw showed any tendencies towards suicidal dashes along or onto the road, whereas the bigger reds and greys were much more unpredictable. That morning I once spent a good two minutes at walking pace behind a mob of big roos, because they had decided that hopping along on the track, in front of my car was better than going anywhere else (and there was a fence on one side that I didn't want to scare them into).
I got to Blackall just after noon, and I had a bit of lunch and coffee; then decided to go straight on home: with the sick exhaust I figured it would be better to cruise in quietly during the night rather than during the workday traffic.
At 1430 I made my last emergeny braking manoeuvre of the trip (or so I thought), as some roos were in the wrong time zone and decided the Landsborough Highway was a good place to browse. Not nearly as annoying but quite notable was the amount of caravan traffic: I think about 75% of all northbound traffic on the Landsborough Hwy was caravans. Weird.
Dusk saw me west of Roma, driving ridiculously carefully and slowly: cruise control set at 75 and right foot above the brake pedal. There was no heavy traffic that I could attach myself to, leech-like. But all that concentration and worry was totally wasted and I saw just one roo in that area - and one fox just outside of Roma which left the road post-haste.
A bit later I realized that my headlights were adjusted badly (much too high), and stopped to fix that - twice - because naturally I lowered them way too much on the first try...
The real last emergeny braking exercise was at 2228, near Dalby: a silly grey roo first jumped out of the bushes onto the road, and after I had managed to stop without hitting it, simply sat down in the middle of the road in front of my car. After calming down I passed it in the other lane.
Just after 0115 in the morning, and about 1350km later, I arrived home safely. Ten days, total distance 4214 km.