Waltz with Matilda: 8-day Outback road trip from Cunnamulla to Karumba
Queensland’s farthest sealed western highway network, the Matilda Way, running from the Queensland/New South Wales border north to the Gulf of Carpentaria, is steeped in history.
Snaking its way through rich farming lands, tales of legends, dinosaur stampedes, gemstone country, and inspiring landscapes, a road trip through these parts will see you brush up on your Queensland pioneering history.
Or, take the kids for a unique educational experience under the guise of a holiday.
Day 1: Cunnamulla to Charleville (200KM / 2 hours)
Before driving the 200-kilometre journey north to Charleville, make sure you take a selfie with the Cunnamulla Fella. Representing the ringers and stockmen of the area, the double life-size statue is hard to miss.
Selfie done, travel back in time at the Cunnamulla Fella Centre to when dinosaurs roamed the earth and the Eromanga Sea flowed across the land.
In Charleville, stop at Heinemann’s Bakery for a hand-kneaded pull-apart and fancy breads.
Get your nourishments ‘to-go’ and head to the Graham Andrews Parklands. Built after the devastating 1990 flood it’s a sanctuary for locals and tourists alike.
Forget cuddling a koala here – instead, book a Bilby Experience tour to get up-close and personal with this endangered species, and help fund the survival of these desert-dwelling bandicoots.
Book a night of star-gazing at the Cosmos Centre and don’t forget to rug up – the outback can be chilly!
Day 2: Charleville to Blackall (300KM / 3 hours)
Clock up 300kms today along the Mitchell and Landsborough highways to Blackall.
Break the journey in Tambo, Queensland’s oldest town, where the local economy still remains reliant on locally-produced wool.
Nowadays it’s for its famous Tambo Teddies. Visit the shop on the main drag to learn how these handcrafted delights are made and pick your very own. Visit the café a few doors down for a bite and yarn to the locals.
Back in the saddle and an hour later arrive in Blackall, wherein 1892 Jackie Howe, using blade shears, sheared 321 sheep in seven hours and 40 minutes – a record still unbroken!
Take a guided tour of the Blackall Woolscour, the only remaining steam-powered washing plant in Australia and learn about operations, the benefits of steam, and engineering feats of both the machines and the building itself, where no nails were used.
Tonight’s tucker must be bushman’s camp oven fare – complete with campfire cooking – at the Blackall Caravan Park. Listen out for whip cracking or follow your nose to the damper-making demonstration.
Day 3 and 4: Blackall to Longreach (214KM / 2 hours)
The 214km journey to Longreach will require two stops.
First, at Barcaldine, the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party during the 1891 Great Shearer’s Strike, when shearers met under a cool shady tree to discuss working conditions and make policies and decisions.
This Tree of Knowledge, still stands stoically in the main street, despite poisoning attempts.
Learn more about the region’s workers at the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, where exhibitions pay homage to working women, power workers, teachers, railway workers, and many others for their hard yakka out here.
Second, visit the Wellshot Hotel in Ilfracombe, only 15 minutes east of Longreach. Once you’re done admiring the hats on the ceiling, order a drink and wander around the historic pub to learn more of its stories.
Arrive in Longreach and board a Thomson River sunset cruise – most include dinner and entrainment.
The next day split your time between the Qantas Founders Museum (remember to book a Jet Tour to view the Boeing 747 and 707) and the Stockman’s Hall of Fame (don’t miss the Outback Stockman’s Show in the winter months).
Day 5: Longreach to Winton (180KM / 2 hours)
Get up with the sparrows and fuel-up at the Merino Bakery (a local hot spot) with a brekkie burger – you’ll need your sustenance today.
Book a tour at the Age of Dinosaurs to see Australia’s very own prehistoric creatures: Banjo, Matilda and Elliot. You will see their fossils and tour the fossil preparation laboratory.
Continue hunting dinosaurs south-west to Lark Quarry. The 220km round trip (about half is unsealed) will take you to the world’s only known dinosaur stampede tracks.
In town, play the Musical Fence once used by Goyte for a hit song, and bang the farmyard-junk drums.
Visit the Qantilda Museum and Banjo Paterson’s statue and art installation – an ode to his famous Waltzing Matilda, penned nearby at Dagworth Station in 1895.
Watch the big-screen stars under stars at the Royal Open Air Theatre, and have a meal at the North Gregory Hotel – where Waltzing Matilda was first performed.
Speaking of Waltzing Matilda, a trip to Winton wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the refurbished Waltzing Matilda Centre. After being destroyed by a fire in 2015, the infamous museum has been rebuilt to celebrate the local history behind the song and is expected to open in April this year.
Day 6: Winton to Cloncurry (348KM / 4 hours)
Today is 348kms to Cloncurry, but turnoff just south of Kynuna at Combo Waterhole (lookout for signs).
A 2.6km round-trip walk from the car park takes you to the waterhole Banjo Paterson drew inspiration from for Waltzing Matilda! Check road conditions first as it can be impassable in the wet and not always suitable for conventional vehicles.
In Cloncurry visit the Mary Kathleen Museum and see explorer Burke’s original brown leather water bottle from his 1860-61 expedition. Wonder how many times it was refilled on his famous trek! There’s an impressive gemstone collection here too.
Next, head to John Flynn Place, a museum dedicated to the man who made the Royal Flying Doctor Service happen.
Watch the sunset over the town from the Cloncurry Lookout and pull up stumps at the Oasis pub for a good counter meal.
Day 7: Cloncurry to Normanton (383KM / 5 hours)
With 383kms to cover today and only one place to stop, don’t leave Cloncurry without a tank full of fuel.
Head west then turn north onto the sealed Burke Development Road towards Normanton – take care in the wet and when passing road trains, there are only small shoulders.
Halfway is the Burke and Wills Roadhouse with patron-only picnic tables outside.
As you approach Normanton birds swoop, crocodile signs emerge, and the faint smell of salt water is in the air – long gone are the Mulga trees of the state’s south.
Head straight to the life-size replica of ‘Krys’ an 8.63m crocodile killed in the Norman River by Krystina Pawlowski in July 1957. It remains the world’s largest crocodile killed and only one shot was needed.
There’s a pleasant walk across the Norman River to the wetlands where migratory birds nest – just watch for crocodiles – they breed them big here!
Mix with the locals for dinner at the unmissable Purple Pub – you won’t miss it!
Day 8: Normanton to Karumba (72KM / 1 hour)
Just 72kms further north is the seaside village of Karumba, and gateway to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Renowned for its abundance of fish, you’re sure to catch a big one here. Take a fishing charter or hire a boat for a few hours. Barramundi, Salmon, Grunter, Jew swim here – or try your luck nabbing a mud crab.
Learn more about Barramundi at the Les Wilson Barramundi Discovery Centre, the only place in the world where the Southern Gulf strain of the species is bred.
End your day watching the sun dip into the waters of Gulf at the Sunset Tavern. And, as you enjoy a freshly caught barra or muddie you’ll wonder why you hadn’t come sooner.