Back in 2009 during the Best Job in the World I flew from Hamilton Island to the centre of Queensland’s Outback and a fascinating town called Longreach. I was there to take part in a charity drive known as Angel Flight’s Outback Trailblazer. I had such a good time I swore I’d return.
My Afritrex expedition in 2008 saw me travel overland circumnavigating Africa in my trusty Land Rover, Colonel Mustard. Since then I’ve brought him out to join me in Brisbane so it was about he time he stretched his legs again on the open road.
We hit the road together at 4am winding our way out of the city confines. The motorway to Toowoomba was beautifully quiet as we climbed over the Great Dividing Range that lifts us 700m above sea level. I’d never driven this way before and as the road passed across the Darling Downs the sun was just starting to show its head across the fog-lined valleys. It reminded me of those cool autumnal mornings back in the UK.
The drive out to Barcaldine, my destination for the night, tracks for over a 1000kms through Queensland’s Outback. I love driving huge distances, watching the landscape and agriculture change, stopping off to chat with the locals and counting down the distance to the finish line. 14 hours and 1,123 kms later the sun dropped behind the horizon, I pulled into the Iron Bark Pub car park to be greeted by a gaggle of Trailblazers already enjoying ‘a cold one’.
Ten days of Outback adventures lay ahead for around 40 vehicles, decked out in the sponsors’ livery and all on a mission to drive around 2,500kms on the “twelve river run” around Queensland’s outback. With 100 people from all walks of life taking part it was set to be a great fundraiser with a whole load of laughs along the way. Angel Flights Patron is Tanya Kernahan, one of Australia’s famous country singers. She launched this year’s event in Barcaldine with the cars all lined up outside the Tree of Knowledge
Over the next seven days we headed through some of the most stunning Outback scenery. Long open stretches of dust-funnelling dirt road, vast expanses of low bush trailing off into the distance, the occasional mud track and lots of tarmac extending to infinity. No two days were the same.
Since the official end to the Big Dry, Australia’s ten year drought, the Outback has transformed from a red dust bowl into a succulent green landscape severed by creeks and rivers. The wildlife has come out to play too with Emus and Kangaroos bounding along the edge of roads, racing for cover at the last minute. It’s only when you get up high you see the distances and the scale of this space. Life is everywhere.
The daily format for the Trailblazer involves early starts, a short drive before a filling breakfast, another drive to our location for lunch and an afternoon drive in time for dinner! Drive, eat, drive, eat. Each of the towns we stop at have something very unique about them. Some are famous for their opals, some for their cattle, some for the most recent flood and some like Toompine, for their population of 4. Yes 4 people!
We meet some of the most hospitable people I’ve met in Queensland on the trip. School groups turn out to feed us, the local lawn bowls club to host competitions and the police even get involved with an impromptue road block. You see these communities don’t have a huge amount of traffic passing through them, apart from the occasional road train (at up to 56 metres long). So when 100 people arrive enmasse it becomes a pretty major event. The highlight of all this fun and frivolity has to be a performance from the children at Quilpie school who one evening sing, dance and tap their way through an entire repertoire of songs after only three hours practice…and they rocked the place.
The Outback is famous for its watering holes. Not the ones the wildlife need to stay alive in the dry season, more the pubs that attract locals from far and wide after a hard day’s work. We stop off at a few along the way and each has its own personality and characters propping up the bar.
Along the way we stop at some iconic Outback tourist attractions, some of them wacky, some of them plain weird! The Cosmos Centre in Charleville has to be one of the best though. With clear outback skies and no light pollution their telescope can spy stars and planets way off in the distance and they operate sessions at 7:30pm on most nights. Well worth stopping in for.
Palm Grove Date Farm is another gem of a place. They grow figs, dates and have some amazing mud baths too utilising the artesian clay that lines the creeks here. It’s all good for the skin apparently! Ian and Nan Pike run their little shop and sell some true delicacies including their Sticky Date liqueur – have a shot! I walk out with dried figs, fig jam and of course a mud pack!
After a week on the road the convoy pulls into St George having visited some cracking locations, met some charismatic people and experienced some real Aussie hospitality. The event last year raised over $250,000 for Angel Flight and this year looks like it could surpass it with more vehicles and much more generosity all round.
Next year the event will take place in October and head north from Barcaldine exploring another area of this beautiful land.
Time to wash down the Colonel, clean the dust from my ears and dream about the next Outback drive.
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