10-day ‘Best of Queensland’ road trip: Sandstone Wilderness
If someone said to me, “Show me Queensland. Give me a taste of the country. Give me the best of the bush. Take me to the reef. And wrap that up in 10 days”. Then I would give them this Sandstone Wilderness road trip.
Three times I’ve done Queensland’s Most Epic Road Trip: once in the back seat of a 1964 Ford Falcon (I was the fat kid in the middle with my fingers in a box of Coco Pops – it was a poor family’s version of a treat); once on a school camp with 32 other giddy 17 year olds; and finally as a grown up with a fellow camper from far, far away.
P.S. I’m gearing up for a 4th time this July, so this post is getting me a teensy bit excited.
Queensland’s heartland is alive year-round, but a word of advice, this journey is best done between April and October after the sting of a wet, hot summer.
DAY 1: BRISBANE TO TOOWOOMBA (124km / 90 mins)
Wave goodbye to Brisbane’s massive Moreton Bay Figs and drive 90 minutes west and 1400 feet above the worry line to the town of Toowoomba. Quaint it may be on approach, but never forget this is Australia’s biggest regional town and the lifestyle here is sucking in the tree-changers faster than the latest Dyson.
It’s here you’ll find things like country fairs, Devonshire Teas, museums and galleries – and a town centre flush with artful graffiti, tasteful coffee shops, and what I reckon is the best pub in the west.
Have a quick coffee (try Ground Up Espresso Bar in Ruthven Street), then rock up for a cooking class that’s just what the doctor ordered. If you don’t fall in love with the 105-year-old building with all its original beams, you will love the resident doctor-come-cooking teacher Sharyn Donaldson who heads up Sauce Cooking.
Overnight in Toowoomba.
Day 2: TOOWOOMBA TO ROMA (352km / 4 hours)
The town of Jondaryan did for T-shirts, what Ugg boots have done for shoes; put a practical item of clothing into just about every Aussie wardrobe. It’s here at Jondaryan that local boy, Jack Howe – Australia’s greatest shearer and a 90 kg ball of muscle – snipped the sleeves off his flannelette shirt and fashioned up the first ever Chesty Bonds singlet to help “snip go the shears”. You can read up on his life with a self-guided tour offered free on APP which also offers interesting insights into Australia’s biggest producing woolshed. Leave a little bit of time at the end of the tour for lunch. This place might be “beyond the black stump” but it serves up the BEST EVER lamb pie in the world.
Originally known as Dogwood Crossing, Miles was established on a track blazed by Ludwig Leichhardt and, like Jondaryn, visitors can soak up the past in the 20 buildings that form a recreated township (see pic above) at Miles Historical Museum.
Break the overnight journey and stay at The Laurels in nearby Chinchilla. Formerly an old homestead, Greg and Shara have crafted a smattering of cosy cottages from the relics of barns and chook sheds that once filled the land.
ROMA: 90 MINS WEST OF MILES
Roma has plenty to offer the modern-day visitor, and despite the town’s economic switch from meat growing to gas production, the past still plays a major role.
Every Tuesday and Thursday bovine as big as a farmer’s ute are trucked in from around the country and auctioned – via a staccato of numbers and nods – at the Bungil Cattle Yards. The process of transferring 6000 head of cattle is spectacular to watch and completely free.
On the way to the auctions, look out for The Avenue of Heroes, a heritage-listed street lined with 93 bottle trees that form a tribute to local soldiers from World War One. The first tree was planted in 1918 to commemorate the loss of a local lad, Lt Cpl Norman Saunders, killed in France. Pick up the local traveller’s guide and meander around the town on a self discovery. Pop into the Queen’s Arms in the middle of town for a solid pub lunch.
DAY 3-6: CARNARVON GORGE (242km / 3.5 hours)
Okay, things are going to get pretty scrappy the further you head north and the only movement will be Brahmin bulls that skit in and out of the scrub on the side of the road. Please don’t turn around.
Drink in that brown, because once you arrive at Carnarvon it’s like that scene out of Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly goes hyper coloured and emerald green.
Three nights at Takaraka Bush Resort and Camp Grounds
I’m going to be honest here. I’ve never stayed at Takaraka Bush Resort – but I’m booked in for July this year. The accommodation is legendary amongst my friends (think: ensuited cabins, glamping-style safari tents, cottages, and powered and unpowered sites) and the outdoor kitchen is as friendly as the local surf club on a hot summer’s day.
I know that if the surroundings are anything like the national park campground, then I’m in for some Queensland bush magic — this time with hot water showers (yah!). Carnarvon Lodge,just down the road, offers a more refined getaway; full table d’hote restaurant (burgers are to die for), swimming pool, landscaped gardens and cocooning standalone burres.
Ahhhh, Carnarvon. What is it that endears me to this place?
Is it waking up with the chorus of kookaburras and jaunty blue kingfishers? Or returning from a long, long hike to find a wallaby snooping inside the tent (top tip: zip it up).
Or is it the pageantry of Jurassic-era King Ferns sprouting from clear bubbling creeks, the boulders placed in the right spot for a bit of hopscotch or the crevices that reveal thousand-year-old Indigenous art? I’m not sure. There’s a mystical aura here and the ancients wish only good things for visitors.
Walks are abundant – 87km of trails if you have six nights spare – so pull up our guide , get your bearings and prioritise what suits. Take a guided walk with a local bushie if you really want to know the geology of the landscape or go all out and take in the grandeur by chopper.
DAY 6: THE SAPPHIRE GEMFIELDS (300km /4 hours)
The Australian version of National Lampoon’s Vacation goes like this: Young Aussie family ignore summer monsoon warnings and some time in the 1970s they tow a caravan inland (with a 1964 Ford Falcon filled with three kids and a few packets of Coco Pops) to the Gemfields in pursuit of underground riches.
It rains. They get flooded in. A two-week holiday turns into six weeks and eventually, after consulting the local tarot reader, the van is bumped onto a freight train and said family is transported – POW style – back to Brisbane.
You get to do a lot in six weeks in between downpours. We caught yabbies, divined for sapphires, panned the muck heaps, and yes, we even hit a little jackpot. The sapphire in mum’s engagement ring (and now mine) was seized from the top of a forgotten clay heap.
This is one of the world’s most significant sapphire bearing grounds and visitors to the region have two options – fossick alone and get a local to show you the best spots like we did (we kinda just shadowed the old-timers) or join a guided operation, buy a bucket of wash for $10 and use the equipment already set up for tourists.
If you work the wash at Miner’s Heritage Walk in Mine, it’s good to know that the locals can cut and set any gems you find in the same afternoon. #instantbling!
DAY 7: YEPPOON VIA ROCKHAMPTON (331km / 3.5 hours)
Today is an epic 3-hour-40-minute drive past Emerald through Queensland’s engine room to Rockhampton. If you have time, it’s worth spending an extra night at a farm stay like Myella, to get an understanding of life on the land. We actually stopped at one of the mines, knocked on the office door and convinced them to do a private tour. Oh to be 25 again.
Otherwise, make a beeline for Rockhampton for an afternoon tour of Capricorn Caves followed by a night at the Great Western Hotel. The former will have you squirrelled away from the tropical heat, while the latter, will bring out the bull… riding that is. To see what other things you can do in Rockhampton, click here.
Continue 45 minutes east to the seaside town of Yeppoon, home for the next two nights.
DAY 8: REEF WATCH GREAT KEPPEL STYLE
A smidgeon south of Yeppoon is Rosslyn Bay, the jump-off point for Great Keppel Island on the Southern Great Barrier Reef. Leave the car in the protected car park and buy tickets for a one-day return trip with Freedom Fast Cats.
Great Keppel Island Resort’s fortunes have dipped a bit since the resort made headlines in the 1980s as the most coveted prize for TVs first dating program, Perfect Match (the resort is now boarded up). But the island is still as delightful as ever, with 17 beaches and the most awesome snorkelling.
Freedom Fast Cats will cover off lots of snorkelling and water activities in a day, but should you opt to stay – like our friends Caz and Craig from Y Travel Blog (see their story here) – there is a smattering of budget-friendly accommodation on the island with the low-key Great Keppel Island Holiday Village a good place to start.
Beware! Those piercing shrieks in the night – kind of like a woman being murdered – are just the local curlew bird getting active. You’ll soon get used to them.
If you returned to Yeppoon, then try turning Japanese with an old-fashioned, bang-on-flavour set meal at Tsuruya restaurant at Capricorn Resort.
Day 9: BUNDABERG (301km / 3.5 hours)
Why, it’s next to your pork!
That old nugget still makes me laugh. So grab a ‘poon and fork’ and fuel up at Flour Café just off the Esplanade before the 3.5-hour hike south to Bundaberg and one of my favourite Queensland towns.
If you time it right, you’ll arrive for lunch at Indulge in the main street of Bundaberg to watch a parade of farmers toting fresh-farmed vegetables to owner Amanda Hinds. The food here is unbelievable (Don’t believe me? Read this here) and all comes from the paddocks that circle the town.
All that food is thirsty work, and no trip to Bundaberg is complete without a tour of the Bundaberg Bondstore. We know our southern cousins sometimes rubbish our state’s most popular drop, but after snaffling a Gold Medal in the 2016 World Drinks Awards in London, this distillery is now giving the big fellas a real ‘rum’ for their money.
Learn how to make the brew and get an insight into the marketing methods behind this drinking giant. And Yes. You even get to meet the Bundy Bear!
DAY 10: HOMEWARD BOUND (363km / 4.15 hrs)
Before leaving Bundy, uncover the tale of Australia’s greatest aviator, Bert Hinkler, at the Hinkler Hall of Aviation. The curation of this museum is as spectacular as the story of a Queenslander who generated a kind of Beatlemania; in life and death. (Don’t believe me? Apart from having a two step – and a tea cake – named after him, over 100,000 people lined the streets of Florence to pay their respects after Bert died in the countryside near Florence). It’s also possibly the only place this side of Egypt to venerate the Ibis (This pesky, big-beaked bird was the inspiration for Bert’s first aircraft).
With all that knowledge behind you, put your indicator on, pull out into the fast lane, and cruise the highway home from Queensland’s Most Epic Driving Tour.