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Longreach to Karumba

...in the footsteps of Burke & Wills

sunny 38 °C
View Sam Smart in World War II & Back to Oz on SteveJD's travel map.

For those who do not know their Australian history, Burke and Wills, in a party of 19, attempted to cross Australia from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria. Part way through the journey, it was decided to speed up the trip by splitting the party up into group of seven who would press on, with the remainder to await their return. Burke & Wills and two other men made the last attempt and reached Normanton but adverse conditions prevented them from actually pressing on to the gulf and so, just, failed in their bid. On the return journey, six of the seven of the men who had broken away to press on to the gulf died, including Burke and Wills.

In the last blog, we had stopped at Cunnamulla and I omitted to mention that this was the start of the Matilda Way which we followed all the way to Normanton where the Savannah Way forms a T junction. The Savannah Way runs from Broome to Cairns and our original plans would have had us travelling nearly all of this road until just west of Cairns where we broke off to head north.

Back to where we were - Longreach (the name derives from the site on the 'long reach' of the Thomson River). By this stage, the weather was fine and getting towards very hot, so it was doubly enjoyable to visit the Qantas Founders Museum. This was fascinating just for the evolution of air travel but especially so with the history of this particular airline. Two airmen after World War I decided that they would like to form an airline in Australia. Unfortunately their backer died and with his death, his estate withdrew his pledge. At this time, plans were afoot for a great race from Britain and the organisers asked the two airmen, Hudson Fysh and Paul McGinness to travel from Longreach to Darwin in order to establish suitable landing sites. This task they performed in a Model T Ford! Several years ago, this feat was repeated with the participants attempting to do everything as Fysh and McGinness had done. In the museum there was an excellent film of the recent expedition, intercut with film from the first attempt. It would appear that both expeditions were beset with some disagreements. After this adventure, Fysh and his companions were able to form an airline, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service => Q.A.N.T.A.S. => Qantas Empire Airways => Qantas. Sadly, McGinness and Fysh had a falling out and McGinness walked away and ended his days in Perth - two people attended his funeral, a sad ending.

The first aircraft used by Qantas was an ex-air force Avro 504K Dyak, carrying only one passenger who, apparently boarded in Charleville but the flight being logged as commencing in Longreach. Both towns lay claim to hosting the first commercial flight by Qantas.

Outside the museum there was a selection of aircraft which had seen service with Qantas, a Catalina (not actually ex-Qantas but they used the type and it was 'hijacked' during WWII for secret flights to and from Asia), a good old DC3, a Boeing 707 and a Boeing 747.


Just down the road is the Stockmen's Hall of Fame. We had planned on lunching there but their main restaurant was closed and their cafe had little to offer, so we returned to the Qantas Museum (enjoying our first sighting of brolgas on the way), which had an excellent restaurant and while we ate, we watched models of some of the older aircraft which had been used by Qantas, 'fly' around on a system circling the inside of the museum and overlapping the shop and restaurant.


After our meal, we returned to the Stockmen's Hall of Fame and enjoyed the rest of the day going around this. Our first port of call was the section dealing with Aboriginal stockmen who continue to form the backbone of the cattle industry, although much of their work has now been mechanised with motor bikes, quad bikes and helicopters all in use. The next section dealt with the Pioneers, as noted before, a truly hardy bunch. We then looked at typical items from Outback properties through the years before getting into a section covering the Royal Flying Doctor Service (including a suspended RFDS aircraft) - a really interesting history and an ongoing service. The last main section was about the stock workers, black and white, and their working life. The final room was an interesting little art gallery leading into a small garden area where we saw a few kangaroos and, on our way out a visit from three emus.


It would have been good to have had the time to visit Starlight's Lookout, said to be one of the areas frequented by Australia's best known cattle-duffer (rustler). Captain Starlight was really Harry Readford who had been a stockman until he and two others stole 1.000 head of cattle which they drove from north Queensland into South Australia. He was caught and tried but was found not guilty as the jury were so impressed by his achievement! How Australian. On our way out, we stopped to admire the handsome railway station. It would seem that funds have been made available for maintenance of such buildings as several others that we saw were also in very good condition.


Our route along the Matilda Way then took us towards Winton (named in 1876 by the then postmaster, after his home town in Dorset) through endless grassy plains until about 10km before Winton we saw a sign to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs. Off we went and found ourselves driving up a steep and winding unsealed road until we reached the top of the range that we had seen from below. This turned out to be a fascinating place and we and one lady were the only ones on a tour to see the original bones of three dinosaurs (actually one therapod and two different sauropods) which have only ever, and only recently, been found in Australia. Our guide was a personable young chap who clearly loved his job and was full of interesting information.


Winton apparently lays claim to being the place where Banjo Patterson wrote the famous song, "Waltzing Matilda". Unfortunately, most of Winton, including the Waltzing Matilda Centre appeared to be closed or undergoing renovation so we did not stay. As we headed towards Winton, we travelled through mainly very flat terrain but here and there would come across an isolated outcrop which relieved the monotony. A little further on, at a place called Kynuna (I have been unable to find the derivation of this name but would assume that it is of Aboriginal origin), we dropped into the Blue Heeler pub (Australia's oldest continuously licensed inn) where we were served by a comely young Parisian who made up for the limited, so-so food! In the pub, the walls of which were covered with signatures of the famous and the unknown, we found a framed story of a local legend which claims that "Waltzing Matilda" was inspired by the suicide of a local shearer. Just along the road, in McKinlay, we came across the Crocodile Dundee pub, as featured in the original film. The truck outside was also used by 'Mick Dundee' in the film. McKinlay was named after the nearby McKinlay River which in turn was named after its European (well, Scottish) discoverer, John McKinlay. On the edge of town was a somewhat derelict house, something we have seen quite often. It is rather sad that these old buildings are left to moulder - at least, it would appear so!


As we came closer to Cloncurry, the grassy plains gave way to red soil, a few trees and fields of red termite mounds. Burke (of Burke & Wills fame), named the Cloncurry River after his cousin, Lady Cloncurry, and in due course, the town adopted the name. We had left booking Cloncurry until a few weeks before getting there and found the place had been booked out! We did find one room (expensive of course) but only for one night. As a result we didn't see much of the town, rather a pity as it was one of those places mentioned in "A Town Like Alice" that we had both wanted to explore and put in context (the book and films are favourites of ours).


On our way to Karumba, we stopped at a rest area and saw our first zebra finches but, inconveniently, perched on wiring behind the toilets! As we drove on, the anthills changed in colour from red to a grey brown colour. We had a break at the Burke & Wills Roadhouse which was very pleasant and, as with one earlier, with flocks of apostlebirds. The chap who served us was an Argentinian on a working visa - I am fascinated to find the different nationalities working here when, a few years ago, I don't think Australia would have been on their radar.


We drove on over some rather bumpy roads with quite a few very narrow bridges - thankfully no road trains on this stretch. On reaching Normanton (town on the Norman River in good old Anglo-Saxon style), we had lunch at the Purple Pub where a number of very amiable Aborigines wandered through wishing us 'G'day'. Shortly after leaving Normanton, we drove through some wetlands where we saw our first ever Sarus Cranes - very similar to brolgas to our eyes - and further on we came across a watery area to the side of the road which was packed with brolgas, a great sight.


Finally, after a long and hot drive, we reached Karumba (thought to be the Aboriginal name for the place where the Norman River flows into the Gulf of Carpentaria. We checked in and found our cabin where we cooled off a bit before taking a gentle stroll to the Gulf of Carpentaria itself where we got some decent sunset shots, although some clouds would have helped!


Posted by SteveJD 02:51 Archived in Australia

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Enjoyed your blog. We were in Longreach in October. We asked at the Info centre if the Waltzing Matilda centre was open and were told it wasn't re-opening until 2018, so didn't make the trek to Winton, sounds like a good decision after reading your blog.

by balhannahrise

Just saw your from England, so I guess you didn't know that the Waltzing Matilda centre was partially destroyed by fire a couple of years ago and some of the original items were lost in the fire.

Reply: - We didn't know until we got there but I am surprised that the centre is still being promoted in tourism literature!

by balhannahrise

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