Overland Travel: Driving The Overlander’s Way from Townsville to Mt Isa
The Overlander’s Way doesn’t just stretch overland from Townsville to Mount Isa. It’s a veritable timeline of Australian history from the dinosaur era right through to our pioneering past. Not bad for a 1100km stretch of road.
So ‘routed’ (boom-tish) to Australia’s past, this overland road trip even follows the spirit of the rugged cattle drovers who pounded this now sealed-pavement from the Northern Territory to the coast in the 1800s. In fact, that’s how this road got its name.
Not only will the Overlander’s Way deliver you from the beach to the bush, it offers plenty ‘only-in-the-outback’ moments with sunsets, gorges, and dinosaur remains. It’s also one of Queensland’s Great Drives.
What are you waiting for? Here’s how to discover the Overlander’s Way in six days:
Day 1: Townsville to Charters Towers (137km / 1hr 30m)
Start your overland journey in Townsville, the North Queensland city that puts the sun in the Sunshine State.
Your first order of agenda is to swap the bright lights for some country sites and head 130km south-west to Charters Towers. This town might have been made rich by gold in the 19th century when it was the biggest city in Queensland (after Brisbane), but today it’s more than rich in history.
If there is one thing you must tick off in these 10 things to do in Charters Towers, it’s Leahton Park, home to the largest purebred herd of Texas longhorn cattle in Australia, including Guinness World Record-holder J.R., whose impressive horns stretch 3m from tip to tip.
Stay: Camping or caravanning? Pull up for the night at Bivouac Junction to see what all the inland fishing fuss is about. For those seeking creature comforts, how does sleeping in a former asylum sound? Interested? Check into Kernow for the night.
Day 2: Charters Towers to Hughenden (248km / 2hr 30m)
After a dose of gold-rush fever, continue west overland through the Burra Range to Pentland, home to a historic police lock-up and Pentland Post Office Cafe, whose burgers are something to write home about.
If you brought your 4WD, take a detour to White Mountains National Park to get the wheels dirty through Sawpit Gorge and Poison Valley. Here, you’ll be off-roading across sandstone heath and large deposits of lateritic stone, and if you’re travelling during May to September, wildflowers.
Don’t dilly dally too long, your goal is to reach your first taste of dinosaur country – Hughenden.
They don’t call this area dinosaur country for nothing. The proof is in its skeleton pudding, with over 3000 fossils discovered in the area alone, including the Muttaburrasaurus and the Queensland Pterosaur.
At the Flinders Discovery Centre, you can visit “Hughie”, a 7m skeletal Muttaburrasaurus and the most complete dinosaur skeleton found in Australia at the time (1969). The centre also has a sound and light show that recreates the formation of the region 500 million years ago, when the area was a giant inland sea.
You don’t need to watch a re-creation though, time permitting, you can see the ancient formations in the flesh, an hour north of town at Porcupine Gorge. Need more convincing Outback Queensland is Gorge-ous? After this, we think not!
Stay: For shady air-conditioned digs, set your sights on The Royal Hotel in Hughenden. There are units large enough for families as well as self-contained options if you want to DIY dinner. Campers and caravanners are well catered for at the Hughenden Terry Allen Caravan Park, with a large camp kitchen.
Day 3: Hughenden to Richmond (116km / 1hr 15m)
Double the dinosaur action, with a 116km overland drive from Hughenden to Richmond.
Make your first stop Kronosaurus Korner home to Minmi, a near complete ankylosaur skeleton.
Armed with a map, you can unearth your own fossil at one of the designated fossicking sites. If you find one, be sure to bring it back to be identified by the team at the centre. In these parts, if you find one, you’ll end up with a dinosaur named after you. How’s that for a dinner party story? “I came, I saw, I had a dinosaur named after me.”
Stay: Rest your weary fossil-hunting legs at The Ammonite Inn. Its licensed onsite restaurant Rivers means you don’t have to shuffle far from bed to the bar. Those with their own amenities can pull up at Lakeview Caravan Park, which overlooks Lake Fred Tritton, Jack Brown Lions Parks and the Bush Tucker Gardens.
Day 4: Richmond to Cloncurry (286km / 3hr)
Tick off another Outback Queensland must-see with a visit to Julia Creek en route west.
You won’t just find the usual Aussie animal line-up here. The wide-open grasslands in these parts are home to rare and endangered Julia Creek dunnart, a small mouse-like marsupial.
Pop into the Julia Creek Visitor Centre to meet the cute resident dunnart, Digby. Visit in April and you’ll catch the Julia Creek Dirt n Dust Festival, a three-day event with one of the country’s toughest sprint triathlons.
Back on the road, it’s just 90 minutes overland to Cloncurry, or The “Curry”, as it’s known to the locals. Named by explorer Robert O’Hara Burke (of Burke and Wills fame), there’s no shortage of early Australian history here.
At the Cloncurry Unearthed Museum, see the doomed explorer’s water bottle and other expedition artefacts, plus Indigenous spears and boomerangs.
Stay: Check into Gidgee Inn for all the creature comforts. Their onsite restaurant has a comprehensive modern-Australian menu and specials board that shows off the best produce in town. For campers and caravans, The Discovery Park on the edge of town has every amenity under the sun, including a breakfast buffet serving steak, if you are so inclined.
Day 5 Cloncurry to Mount Isa (122km / 1hr 30m)
From Cloncurry, the Overlander’s Way takes a hilly twist as it meanders through the Selwyn Ranges with its rich deposits of copper, gold, lead and zinc.
It’s a short, by outback standards, 122km into Mount Isa, a town that proves big is best.
Not only is the Mount Isa Mine the world’s largest single producer of copper, silver, lead and zinc, it’s home to the southern hemisphere’s richest rodeo and at over 43,000km2 in size, Mount Isa takes the prize for the second-largest city in Australia.
The best way to get to know the mining-capital of Queensland is a visit to the Mount Isa Visitor Information Centre, which also looks after the Hard Times Mine Underground Tour, Isa Experience and Outback Park, Mount Isa Regional Art Gallery, Riversleigh Fossil Centre, Mount Isa Fish Hatchery Project and the Outback Cafe. Talk about a one-stop-shop.
For sunset, see the smokestacks twinkling against the sunset at the City Lookout, promising 360-degree views of the town.
Stay: The beauty of being in a city, is big-city names and you’ll find the likes of Ibis in Mount Isa. For those looking to sleep in (Mount Isa) style, The Red Earth Hotel is where outback hospitality meets art deco. Its convenience to the main street is unsurpassed. Caravanners can swap cabins for powered sites at the Sunset Tourist Park.
Day 6: Mount Isa to Camooweal (190km / 2hr)
The Overlander’s Way takes a historic turn from Mount Isa to Camooweal, as you explore the road also known as “Tojo’s Highway”.
Built during World War II with American funds, it was designed as a link between the southern states and the Allied front line in the Northern Territory. The history makes sense – Camooweal is as close as you’ll get in Queensland to the NT border.
The district is best defined by rare sinkholes and caves, creating caverns linked by vertical shafts up to 75m deep. Geological formations which date back 500 million years ago.
The best place to see them is the Camooweal Caves National Park, which is a short 70m or 220m walk depending which route you take.
Stay: Check into the ultimate multitasker, the Camooweal Post Office Hotel Motel & Caravan Park, which offers all three services (hotel, motel and post office) from its Barkly Highway doorstep.
Time your visit
While there’s no bad time to do this overland road trip, we reckon these are the three best times to tackle the Overlander’s Way.
- Time your trip for the Australian Festival of Chamber Music Townsville, which hosts the finest classical musicians from around the world in a nine-day winter program, playing in outdoor amphitheatres like Orpheus Island (ps – this post will give you more reason to click ‘book now’).
- To see the richest rodeo in the southern hemisphere, hit Mount Isa in August for the Mount Isa Mines Rotary Rodeo. Each year, cowboys and cowgirls do battle with bucking bulls and broncos at Australia’s premier rodeo. Be sure to read this guide to a bucking good time before you set off.
- If you thought Tough Mudder was tough you haven’t seen anything until the Julia Creek Dirt n Dust Festival, which combines a triathlon through outback heat, bull rides and bog snorkelling. Don’t forget to tick off these 10 things to do while you’re there.
Looking for more overland and coastal road trip ideas? You’ll find 12 more Great Queensland Drives in this free ebook: