Longreach to Winton via Mystery Road

longreach-winton-mystery road
Apex Park outside Longreach (photo by Bob Wilson)

From Hughenden: No 3 in an outback adventure series

So we’re driving into Longreach from Barcaldine, a journey rarely punctuated by a bend in the road, when snippets of a song jump into my head.

“I dunno why they call it Longreach, it doesn’t seem that far to me,” goes the line from one of Mick O’Halloran’s songs.   .

Unlike much of the outback, at least you know when you’re coming into Longreach, 1,175 kms north-west of Brisbane, because of the unmistakable landmark which is the Qantas Founders’ Museum. We found our way to the town information centre and paid $6 for the privilege of camping for two nights at Apex Park, 4 kms west. The photo doesn’t quite do justice to the sight of 90 or so caravans, fifth-wheelers, slide-ons, camper trailers, A-vans, converted buses and the occasional tent, squatting in the dust alongside the Thompson River.

There’s a barbecue and covered picnic tables, flushing toilets and it’s only five minutes from town. But we were all a bit too close together for comfort and there were irritants like drifting smoke from camp fires, the grumble of generators, the untimely crowing of feral roosters and the bloody flies! I’ve been on a quest for a pair of his and hers fly swatters but so far on this trip they’ve been out of stock everywhere we looked.

I could not help noticing how many more vans there were in the morning, implying that some arrived late (or early), as it the habit of the lesser crested grey nomad, nabbing the best sites. I’m not suggesting they do it to avoid paying $3 – nobody’s that much of a tight arse.

Apex Park is reached via the Landsborough Highway west of Longreach across a series of bridges forming a long causeway across the Thompson River flood plain. The Thompson is a 3,500km long inland river that runs across channel country into Lake Eyre. While Longreach, like other western Queensland towns, has relatively low rainfall (average 450mm a year) floods are common because the many tributaries of the Thompson join and spread during heavy rain. The causeway’s 16 interlinked bridges stretch 24 kms across the flood plain, one effort to minimise flooding in the town.

We drove to the other side of Longreach for a late afternoon walk through Iningai Nature Reserve. Named after the traditional owners, this example of Mitchell Grass Downs country along the Thompson River has been allowed to regenerate since goats left it a dusty desert in 1950. There’s a fine example of a Coolibah tree, under which one can pose for the inevitable photo. The reserve is touted as a bird watcher’s paradise but we didn’t see many, maybe because night was gathering fast. Tip for bushwalkers – always carry a torch.

Onwards to the town seeking to claim the crown of South Australia’s Quorn as the country’s best known outdoor sound stage. Major films like Mystery Road and Goldstone were filmed in the Winton district. We were in Winton primarily to enjoy the Outback Film Festival, established in 2013 after the successful premiere of the aforementioned Mystery Road, starring Aaron Pedersen as a surly black cowboy detective. Some 400 people packed in to Winton’s famous open air theatre for the event, which remains the main venue for the film festival. Some films are also shown in a theatre at Winton’s rebuilt Waltzing Matilda Centre.

We saw some great films in the four days we were in Winton including Mystery Road, Sweet Country, Brothers’ Nest (starring Shane and Clayton Nicholson), documentaries (Night Parrot, Black Panther Woman and Backtrack Boys stand out), and a gory sci-fi film, Upgrade, which was a last minute replacement for That’s not my Dog.

If you get bored with the show you just look up, let your eyes adjust and take in nature’s starry, starry night. When Upgrade finished about 10.20 we were heading to bed but noticed that comedian Lawrence Mooney was doing an R18 late show at the North Gregory Hotel. Mooney came out in character as PM Malcolm Turnbull and wasted no time establishing the tone with a few swear words.

“Are there any kids here?” he asked. “If there are, f*** them off because this is an adults-only show.”

Mooney’s sharp satirical sword spared no-one; Millennials and Gen Xers copped it, so too the Greens, Labor and a few Senators singled out for special mention. Two people walked out when he made a joke about farmers and suicide and one heckler in the front row kept up such a running commentary Mooney resorted to telling her to shut the f*** up. You attend late night comedy shows at your own risk.

Grey nomads also copped a spray, although they were so under-represented in the Monday night audience there was little risk someone would take offence at his suggestion that serial killers should stop preying on backpackers and focus on grey nomads instead “because nobody cares”.

The telling part near the end of his show was Mooney asking the audience of 30-40 people how many actually lived in Winton. One woman raised her hand only to say she used to live in Winton but had moved away.

I had vague ambitions about driving out to Middleton, where Mystery Road was shot, until I figured out it was a 360km round-trip. Every place of interest around here is at least two hours’ drive away.

The Outback Film Festival, A Vision Splendid, is a bold project for a small outback community to sustain. It deserves to be supported (and you can still find time to go fossicking or dinosaur spotting).

On Wednesday night we got glammed up and went to the 100th Anniversary celebrations of the Royal Open Air Theatre, which included dinner and a special screening of the silent film classic, The Sentimental Bloke.

It meant skipping the spectacular sunsets you so often see in the flat country spreading west, but there are sure to be more as we head north to Hughenden and the Gulf country.

The alert among you will observe that this was posted on Thursday, as we’re going bush and will be out of WIFI range for a few days. I’m off to buy some block ice as our caravan fridge decided to cark it (Aussie expression meaning it died). After our visits to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach and Barcaldine’s Australian Heritage Centre, which tell stories of the hard life of country people in the 1800s, getting by without a fridge for a few weeks is no great hardship (as long as you don’t forget to buy the ice-Ed.)

 

 

 

 

 

Does a six-week outback trip make you a grey nomad

(No 1 in a series of six)

The last thing packed into the 12ft caravan we call The Tardis was a heavy duty doona, an essential item considering we’re heading west, to Charleville and beyond. Night temperatures out west at this time of year vary from -2 to 6 degrees. The days will be beautiful, though – sunny and still. I’m looking forward to the blazing starry nights.

The ubiquitous Grey Nomads, many of them temporarily migrated from Victoria, have Queensland all worked out. In the spirit of the Canadian ‘Snow Birds’, who winter over in New Mexico and Arizona, they are escaping the unforgiving cold of places like Ballarat, Bendigo and Melbourne for the stable sunny climes of west and north Queensland.

Likewise, Queenslanders tend to head south and west when the seriously humid part of summer starts.

The first thing you find when trying to research this elusive subject is that reliable data on grey nomads is hard to find.

A Sydney Morning Herald report last year surmised that grey nomad numbers had doubled in the previous three years. The latest official Tourism Research Australia figures show that caravan and camping nights are up 13 per cent on the previous year, to 11.78 million nights.

A more reliable way to get a sense of potential grey nomad numbers is to look at caravan and camper van registrations. They totalled almost 500,000 in 2017. Caravans led the way by a long margin (450,564), with 47,775 camper vans. States with the most registered caravans were Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, each in six figures. NSW led Queensland and Victoria in camper van registrations.

Of course, these figures do not suggest that all of these vans are on Australian roads every day of the year. As caravan owners know too well, these expensive bedrooms on wheels sit in garages and carports 80% of the time. As many of you know, the old Coromal or Windsor van that has ‘done the lap’ twice is now sitting out the back, semi-permanent accommodation for a family member. It could be the adult son (between share houses), the adult daughter (between marriages) or Mum, who can still live by herself but needs a loved one checking in quite often.

Nevertheless, the call of the wild still drives tens of thousands of Aussies around the eastern seaboard or trekking across the outback. All they need is a reliable person to mind the house and pets (or take the pets with them). Or they may have sold the house to fund the road rig.

Research by Professor Jenny Onyx of University of Technology Sydney cited an estimate by the Bureau of Tourism Research that in a single year Australian retirees undertook 200,000 caravan trips of six weeks’ duration or more. The same source speculated that these numbers were set to increase greatly as more baby boomers retire.

Let’s be clear about the term Grey Nomad – it means a person of at least 60 years of age, retired and often pursuing domestic travel as a way of life. While the size of some caravans and road rigs would cause you to think otherwise, the demographic is not wealthy, often eking out stays in free camps waiting for the next pension payment.

Prof. Onyx also did research on the North American phenomenon known as ‘Snow Birds’ – North Americans who choose to winter in warmer American states like Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.

Prof. Onyx says that 220,000 retirees moved to Phoenix Arizona in the winter of 1993-1994, of which one third lived in what North Americans call RV Parks (dedicated resorts for recreational vehicles). All of which is a long way from the Aussie grey nomad, camped down by a billabong with a solar panel, a portaloo and/or a generator.

PhD student Rod Caldicott from Southern Cross University identified a growing problem for caravanners who stay on the road for extended periods. He said that while there was a 257% increase in caravan registrations between 1995 and 2005, the short and long-term capacity of caravan parks was on the decrease. Caldicott chose Tweed Shire for a case study, concluding that tent sites in the shire’s 27 tourist parks had declined by 64% since the 1970s and the number of ensuite cabins correspondingly increased. Annual caravan sites have fallen 12% between 1970 and 2010.

The advent of fly-in fly-out workers has increased demand for permanent and semi-permanent accommodation.

It’s not unusual to stay at an outback caravan park and find the washing lines full of overalls and high-vis vests.

There are a few unwritten rules if you are going to be on the road with a caravan for months at a time. The first of these is to take a break from driving every two hours. And the driving ought to be shared. It’s hard work.

The next rule is to set a constant speed – 90kmh is good, and keep a steady eye on the road behind you.

Extendable side mirrors are good, but a CB radio is better. Paint your UHF channel on the back of the van so the road train that’s following can call in: “10-4 Ned & Mary, B-triple right behind you and about to pass.”

SMH writer Sue Williams raised the common conflict between grey nomads (who seem to prefer 70kmh) and the road trains on freight deadlines. She quoted truck driver and Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls trucking company boss Heather Jones.

Jones says she was driving a triple road train with a 70-tonne load along a highway when she came up behind a grey nomad caravan that drove at 30km/h, then 80km/h, then 30km/h. Then it stopped dead.

“It turned out they’d stopped to take a photo of a Sturt’s desert pea flower,” she says. “But they seemed to have no idea that a massive truck was behind them that takes a while to stop.”

Our photograph this week, which I’ve used before, shows our road rig next to a cattle road train. It does make you think.

We were in an auto electrician’s shop recently having a new car aerial fitted to the Ford Territory (this is a virtue signal to show we have upgraded from the green wagon in the photo). While chatting to the young fellow who fitted the new aerial, the conversation fell to reversing cameras. The Ford has one, but it’s not much use once the van is hooked up. It turns out we could buy a monitoring camera for the caravan as well. This means you could have as good a view of the road behind as the road ahead.

Or we could do what most Grey Nomads do. The husband (usually) starts backing the rig into the designated camping site. The wife (usually), stands at the back and waves her arms to indicate keep coming, keep coming, and stop! (I prefer ‘left hand down’, ‘right hand down’ etc in dulcet tones while conversing through the open car window- ‘the wife’) We’re looking forward to this jaunt – west to Charleville, then north to Winton, Hughenden and on then to Coastal north Queensland before turning for home via Townsville (go the Cowboys!) and points South. We have star-gazing, the Winton film festival, national parks, hiking, bird watching and an ongoing scrabble tournament on our to-do list.

Somewhere along the way, we’ll do what all travellers should do – schedule do-nothing days. Throw the laundry in a commercial washing machine and assign the husband to peg it out when the time comes. Sit out in the sun and read a book; take a nanna nap…

This would be the day when hubby cooks dinner, right?