On the map the drive to Queensland looked boring. More tarmac up to Three Ways then turn right at Tennant Creek and continue along the highway to the border, snooze city. We looked for an alternative and found a route through the Davenport Ranges including a section of the Binns Track and then maybe an exit to the highway in the north along a private station road. On the map this detour looked tiny, like a drive to the shops and back, so it was with a degree of dismay we came upon a sign that indicated our campsite was a whole 160km away turning it into a 340km drive on corrugated dirt roads, oh well, still better than the highway! On our way to our spot for the night at the Old Police Station Waterhole we stopped in at Epenarra Station for initially some petrol which then turned into some travel advice, some lunch, and having some local indigenous kids play with my hair. There is something joyous in coming upon what looks like a shed on Google and finding friendly locals and good food in literally the middle of nowhere.
We set up camp much earlier than normal because we made reasonable time so we put on our swimmers and made our way down the sketchy track to the waterhole which contained water that wasn’t freezing. We spent a couple of hours swimming around and enjoying the huge numbers of birds flying around the banks and as the sun set went back to the van and started on a tasty dinner of bugs. Well…it was meant to be curry but by the time I’d finished cooking there were so many insects in it the ratio was definitely swinging the way of the bugs. The next morning rather than driving back out the way we came in we decided to take the 32km Frew River 4WD track through the National Park. It was a nice drive, a lot of the reviews online said it was challenging but there were only two hills where I had to move a couple of rocks and jump out to give Matt directions, the rest was a nice stony track through the, well I guess they used to be mountains but they were eroded to the point of being low lying mounds. Spinifex grass and ghost gums dotted the landscape and occasional lizards ran across in front of the van, it was quite, beautiful and looked like we were the only ones to drive the track in a long while.
Back at the station we tucked into a slice of moist chocolate cake and worked out a plan for the next few weeks in Queensland, we’d initially planned on meeting my sister in Rockhampton but the flights and timing didn’t work out so we had a bit more time to play with than we had thought we would. I was sad not to catch up with family but excited to see a bit more of outback Queensland. With permission from the station owners we got back in the van and continued up to the highway, turning left and making the long drive across to our first stop in the Sunshine State in Camooweal. The highlight of the sleepy town was the campground, a number of free sites nestled along the most beautiful waterlily filled waterhole. We went to sleep listening to the weird trumpeting call of brolgas.
The next morning it was hot, 30 degrees at 7am hot which only means that it would be pushing 40 when the sun got higher. We filled up with fuel and left the town in our dust continuing down the highway for 40km until we came upon a man waving with disturbing enthusiasm at the side of the road. We pulled over and he ran up to us explaining that their coaster bus had a tyre blow out and would we be able to help? Keen to assist a fellow traveller we went and looked at the bus and what was left of the tyre. Matt asked the guy if he had a spare, he said no, Matt then looked under the back of the bus and found that they did have a spare (which the couple didn’t know about) but the tyre looked like it hadn’t been replaced since the bus had been built (1970). Matt then went about trying to get the spare down while I talked to the woman and discovered that they were also from Tasmania! How good! Unfortunately they were missing part of the mechanism to get the spare down so that wasn’t going to be an option and we decided the best course of action would be to get them to Mt Isa and arrange for either a tow truck to pick up the van or a tyre person to go out and fix it. We hailed down another couple of cars to see if anyone had a spare seat, they didn’t so we ended up driving the woman the 130km to Mt Isa lying in the back of the van, the bloke had a slightly more comfortable ride sitting in the boot/back of a 4WD containing a family travelling from the NT. We reunited them in the town and went to find lunch.
Because it was so hot, and we had arrived much later than we’d intended to due to the flat tyre issue we didn’t end up seeing very much of Mt Isa. Just the visitors centre, the main lookout, and then the local pool where we hid for 2 hours and partook in our first shower in longer than I’d like to say. From what we saw of it though it was a pretty interesting town, I couldn’t get over that they had a massive mine in the CBD, it was pretty surreal. We decided to keep travelling and set up for the night in the fascinating ghost town of Mary Kathleen. In 1954 a significant uranium deposit was discovered by local prospectors following a trail of radioactive boulders, the mining licence was sold to Rio Tinto Mining which created Mary Kathleen Uranium Ltd and the architect designed service town for the large mine. The life in the small community seems to have been ideal with nice houses rented at a cheap cost, no bills for the tenants, and local pool, cinema, school and hospital. We drove in and explored the remnants of streets, gutters, roundabouts and foundations. Here and there was an abandoned front yard filled with flowers, scattered power poles and other various pieces of town infrastructure. By far the weirdest thing we saw was a bloke in a caravan with a full karaoke set up singing a number of songs at full volume, fortunately he was really good.
The next morning we woke up and drove to the mine site to explore. The building slabs in this area were much bigger and more industrial looking, there was also a lot more left. It was interesting that there was such a lack of rehabilitation, Matt and I were able to walk up to the open cut mine and over the tailings and even though the last ore was removed nearly 50 years ago it was very obvious where everything was. The pit was the highlight with the vibrant blue waters and towering cut cliffs it was impressive and slightly vertigo inducing. After we’d finished poking around we took a weird track back to the highway which lead us into a private mine road, we only discovered what it was after we drove out past all of the no entry signs. Because it was another boiling hot day we ended up spending most of it in the car driving to Julia Creek. We stopped briefly in Cloncurry to visit the bakery and have a quick walk around town but there wasn’t much to see or do so we kept moving. Julia Creek Caravan Park is on the bucket list for a lot of travellers because of the fancy baths but it was another stinking hot day so we opted for a free entry to the community pool and floating around there until dinner time.
That night after dinner we ended up hanging out with our fabulous neighbours and having a good chat, unbelievably karaoke guy from Mary Kathleen had followed us to Julia Creek and completed an hour long performance for the caravan park.
Camooweal Billabong – Such a well set out free camp on the edge of the river. Beautiful birds, waterlilies, and considerate fellow campers. $Free – 8/10.
Mary Kathleen Town – I doubt that there is a more interesting campsite in Australia and I can’t recommend visiting enough even if you just pop into explore and don’t stay the night. The area is huge and hundreds of people would be able to camp there with reasonable space. $Free – 9/10.
Julia Creek Caravan Park – Not an amazing unpowered area as there was next to no shade and not many sites but the amenities block was really clean, owners were lovely, free access to the community pool, and the washing machine didn’t put stains or more dirt on our clothes so definitely worth the stop. $28pn – 7/10.