The Australian Outback: Red Dirt & Coolabah Trees

Hello friends, it’s me again – writing not from a foreign location but from home.

I’m in Canada now, somewhat grounded by this pandemic. The pandemic has forced my travel plans to be put on the back burner for the next little while. However, I did realize that I never really shared the stories from my last few weeks in Australia, primarily two areas that I covered in that time: the Outback and the Atherton Tablelands.

So, since I’m sitting at home and regularly reminiscing about my travels through Oz (living out of my car, driving with the warm sun and the ocean on my side….ah…), I thought I’d share some untold stories from my Australian adventure.

I’ll start with the Outback.

My plan for my last few weeks in Australia was initially to work in Cape Tribulation with the horses until almost the end, then give myself a few days to sell my car in Cairns, fly back to Sydney, see Richard again, and then fly home from there. However, as with all of 2020, my plans ended up changing!

I had planned on staying at my job another two weeks, but ended up leaving early. It was a dream job in many ways – I got to ride on the beach and through the rainforest, on horses I really loved – but the job had its share of faults as well. The boss was very temperamental, would be in a great mood one day and shouting at everyone – workers and guests alike – the next. He had low respect for women and on more than one occasion, I saw him slut-shame women who came to ride in what he deemed “inappropriate” clothing. I was classified as a casual worker, which meant that I had no benefits and also the freedom to leave at literally any time. After a couple of months I’d had close to enough, and then I heard that a good friend of mine, Sarah, was headed to do something called “the dinosaur trail” in rural Queensland. I realized I hadn’t been to the Outback once, over the entire year. I absolutely love dinosaurs, and it was a chance to travel with my pal – it was a no-brainer. I left work in Cape Trib, stopped briefly in Cairns, and then started driving inland.

I drove eight hours from Cairns to Hughenden that first day. It is the longest I’ve ever driven in one day. I definitely took a lot of breaks, including a lengthy one halfway at a mall in Townsville (mostly to get out of the 35 degree heat). I also stopped at a rest area, beside a dried-up river, a couple of hours away from Hughenden. It was directly off of the main highway, and I sat and watched three cars go by in half an hour. It felt quiet out there when I was driving, but as soon as I turned my engine off, I could hear the wind gently rustling the eucalyptus trees, the hum of the insects, and cattle lowing in the distance.

This long drive turned out to be very therapeutic – there’s nothing like an eight-hour drive with nothing but your iPod and a stuffed wombat to give you lots of time to think, find some perspective, and find some peace.

A long, quiet drive.

I made it to Hughenden that night, met up with Sarah, and our adventure began.

We started on the first day with a trip to Porcupine Gorge National Park.

There was an overlook point as well as a hiking trail down into the base of the gorge. In case you’re wondering, no, Australia does not have porcupines. The gorge got this name from a European explorer who, seeing an Australian echidna (who are a truly weird monotreme) mistook it for a porcupine. I couldn’t find the traditional indigenous name of the gorge, but I’m guessing it makes more sense.

The gorge, anyway, was pretty impressive:

Porcupine Gorge

The hike down to the bottom was a steep 1km. At the base of the gorge were pools of water, where you can sometimes swim; unfortunately all the water was green from algae and we decided to skip it.

In the afternoon we went to the indoor discovery centre. This would become our pattern over the next few days: do outdoor hikes and exploring in the morning, when it’s cooler, and then spent the afternoons indoors (it gets HOT in the outback. Even by 10am, it would already be 30 degrees out, and the daily temperature would regularly shoot past forty). The discovery centre in Hughenden has one major claim to fame: “Hughie”, a 7-metre tall Muttaburrasaurus fossil that was found in Hughenden.

In the evening, we found the most beautiful place to watch an outback sunset. This was Mount Walker, a random hill in the middle of a lot of flat. The colours of the sunset against the red dirt and all that warmth were pretty spectacular:

We left Hughenden the next morning. It was a short drive west to Richmond.

Highlights of Richmond included:

Fossicking, where we wandered around specific sites looking for fossils. We did find a couple of interesting looking things, which a trained person later confirmed for us were indeed fossilized leaves and shells.

Kronosaurus Korner, where we spent the afternoon. It had a ten-minute video (we were the only ones in the theatre) where you could see depictions of what the region used to look like. The dinosaurs found in this area are often water-dwellers, because the outback used to be an ocean! Back in the time of the dinosaurs, Australia used to more closely resemble two islands than one, separated in the middle by a huge inland sea. As time passed, the sea receded, the land was revealed underneath, and the two islands became one.

This place had some pretty cool fossils from those water-dwelling dinos. This one, the Richmond polycotylid, is basically the Loch Ness Monster. It’s the most complete plesiosaur skeleton ever found in Australia:

Nessie was definitely a plesiosaur, right?

From Richmond, we drove south to Winton. This was the first real outback dirt road my car had to handle.

If you looked at my route driving to the outback, you’d notice I went in a long L-shape to get there, rather than driving in a straight line. There was a reason for this lengthy detour: I was trying to stick to the paved roads.

Now, we had to tackle a dirt road. I’m going to start by saying that dirt roads in the outback are much different than dirt roads in Canada. And, well…. poor Subie.

My car’s one major flaw was a broken air conditioner. I bought the car knowing this, and wasn’t bothered; personally, I hate A/C in a car. I prefer to keep the windows down and have the fresh air rushing in & out. This strategy worked everywhere but the outback.

We’d hit patches where the temperature would be at 35 degrees; I’d roll my windows down; the road would be heavily corrugated, and we would only be able to drive at 20km/hour; this speed wouldn’t be enough to create a cooling wind; red dirt would be flying in through the windows, coating everything in the car; I’d try putting the windows up to keep the dust out; the temperature would rise to 40; I’d concede defeat to the dust and roll the windows down; the temperature hit 45; I’d drive with my head out the window, downing electrolytes and chips. By the end of the road, the entire interior of the car had a coating of red dust, including Batty:

The beginning of the dust.

So when we arrived in Winton I was completely filthy, covered in dirt and sweat. We spent a little time wandering around town trying to find a hotel for the night (during the whole outback trip, I let myself splurge for hotels. It was just too hot to camp). We settled on the historic North Gregory Hotel, which was the first place the song “Waltzing Matilda” was performed! (more on that later).

As we were checking in, the front desk clerk asked us what category we fell into. Category? She ran through them: were we “retired? Married? Family?”

I was beginning to feel incredulous that the categories were so limited, when she hit the last one: were we “free independent travellers?”

Um, yes!

We nodded happily. Next, there was a two-minute delay as the clerk had to go ask the manager about something. While we waited, they made sure we got a free drink from the bar for our troubles. After the long, bumpy, nerves-grinding-as-my-car-started-to-make-mysterious-rattling-noises drive, that drink was very, very refreshing.

Winton turned out to be my favourite stop along the dinosaur trail. Highlights included:

The birds! I got a lot of new lifers here, including my favourite – which I’d been wanting to see ever since I got to Australia – the endangered Wedge-tailed Eagle. (I did not get a photo of the eagle. I’m still sad about it).

Lark Quarry Conservation Park, home to the Dinosaur Stampede National Monument. This is the only evidence in history of a dinosaur stampede! A local first saw some of the tracks in 1960 and thought they were fossilized bird tracks; scientists didn’t come to check it out until the 70’s, when they realized what it was. The tracks were formed about 95 million years ago and show that over 150 dinosaurs were present. The fossil was too big to move, so it was left in place and now has a very nice custom shelter to protect it from the elements. You could see hundreds of dinosaur footprints and the guide showed us how these prints depict what (they think) was happening: many smaller dinos, perhaps in herds, were drinking at a lake when a large raptor approached, causing the stampede. Research is still ongoing for theories around different prints (what type of dinosaur they belong to, what they were doing at that moment in time, and so on).

Lark Quarry was 110km from Winton, and as we started the long drive back – we had driven together in my car – I realized something terrible.

I wasn’t sure if we had enough petrol to make it back. (Petrol being the Aussie word for “gas”).

We’d had just under half a tank when we left Winton, which would normally get me 400km. But I’d forgotten to factor in that the outback roads – super corrugated and in generally terrible shape – meant driving a lot slower, getting jostled around, and overall using much more gas than average.

Now, we had – at my estimate – less petrol than we’d used to get out there. And, though I was prepared in many other ways – I had 10L of emergency water in the car, ways to create shade, and food to last several days – I had failed to bring any spare petrol. And the road we were on was not very often used – we hadn’t passed a single car on our way in. If we ran out of petrol there, we would be stuck in the outback, in 40 degree weather, far from any help.

The drive back to Winton was therefore a little nerve-wracking. I did my best to maintain a steady speed and not touch the brakes. At one point, we caught up to a slow-moving white van (we recognized it from the dinosaur stampede and knew it belonged to a couple of tourists) and I passed them, thinking as I did so that even if we did run out of gas, there would be at least one car coming behind us.

My petrol light came on about 20km out of town… but we made it. I have honestly never been so happy to see a servo (Aussie for “gas station”) in my life. Nearly running out of petrol in the outback has been added to the list of “stupidest things I’ve ever done”, and I hope we can all learn from my experience (jerry cans are our friends, people!).

From that adventure, we went on to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum. This place was the absolute best stop of the trip. It included three different activities, each lasting about an hour.

The museum actually consisted of several buildings, and they’d all been built on top of a hill, called a “jump up”. It offered incredible views of the surrounding area (the founder figured that if you’re going to build a museum, why not build somewhere with a view?). We began with a visit to a beautiful vantage point:

The guide walked us through different outdoor dioramas, complete with life-size dinosaur casts. It made it eerily possibly to imagine walking along and seeing a raptor peeking out at you from behind a gum tree.

The second section was inside the blissfully cool indoors. We got to see some of the many fossils found around Winton. Similar to the badlands of Alberta and Montana, the layers of rock and soil in this area can be millions of years old. The soil regularly shifts in such a way that items in deeper layers of soil – such as fossils – are brought to the top.

Many of these fossils have been found by local farmers, who noticed that the shifting soil would pull their fenceposts further into the ground each year – and wondered if it meant that anything else (i.e. cool bones) might come up. One of the coolest discoveries was a dinosaur thigh bone that was about the size of a full-grown human. Just imagine how big that full-grown dino must have been:

Our final stop in the museum was the fossil lab. This is where they carefully remove all the dirt and non-fossil bits from the specimens that have been found. We got to see this in action, as well as taking a peek at their massive backlog of fossils to work through (the fossils are carefully excavated from discovery sites and wrapped in layers of burlap and plaster, before being sent to the lab for storage, eventual unwrapping, and further study):

At the guide’s estimate, they had enough fossil work to last the next ten years.

We finished with iced coffee overlooking the plains below, and then headed back to town.

Bye dinos.

The final sight of Winton was the Waltzing Matilda Museum. The museum took you through the history & impact of the song which, as I mentioned before, was performed for the first time at the North Gregory Hotel.

I’d heard Waltzing Matilda as a kid and roughly knew the chorus, but I didn’t know how much Australians love the song until I got to the country. It’s their unofficial anthem, and more Australians can sing along to “Waltzing Matilda” than to their actual anthem (“Advance Australia Fair” is the official anthem, in case you were wondering).

The words to Waltzing Matilda were written by B.J. Paterson. He was one of the most prolific Australian poets; he also wrote a poem called “The Man from Snowy River”, which then went on to inspire the movie – the poem includes the brumbies and that incredible run down the hill. Anyway, the words to Waltzing Matilda were written by Paterson while he was staying at Dagwood Station, close to Winton. A woman named Christina Macpherson – one of the family members of the station – played by ear a tune she’d once heard, and Paterson then wrote the words to go along with the music. Today, there are more recordings of “Waltzing Matilda” than any other Australian song.

Inside the Waltzing Matilda centre.

The centre provided insight into what the song lyrics actually mean and why it continues to be popular today. Waltzing Matilda was based off many true stories associated with the shearing strikes, and captured the essence of bush life in the outback during the nineteenth century. As to why it struck a chord with so many Australians, the centre explained: “The song still stirs the Australian spirit like no other with its celebration of loyalty, mateship, the rebellious spirit of a swagman, and strikers resisting authority. Words adopted from Aboriginal languages, such as ‘billabong’, ‘jumbuck’ and ‘coolibah’ make the song uniquely Australian. At the same time, the song also reflects our multicultural society and the contribution of migrants who brought with them terms like ‘waltzing’ and ‘Matilda.'”

I’ve only spent a year in Australia, but that depiction of Australia & its culture seems pretty bang-on to me.

Winton was the last spot along the designated dinosaur trail. Shortly after, Sarah and I said a sad goodbye, with her heading south while I was heading back north.

The outback surprised me in a lot of ways. Firstly, Kangaroo Jack was nowhere to be seen – though I did see some wallaroos jumping around. The outback scenery reminded me a bit of South Africa – the red dirt, scrubby trees, and how there was a lot of life hidden in a seeming inhospitable place. But overall, it was unlike any other place I’ve been: hot, harsh, unforgiving, and beautiful. Beautiful not despite its harshness but maybe because of it. And, like the rest I’d taken on the long drive there, it might seem quiet; but once you turned off the car or those other distractions, you began to see how much was there the whole time.

3 comments

  1. Very interesting article Caelan. I can imagine you being there! What an adventure! So glad you didn’t run out of gas!!!
    Love the story behind Waltzing Matilda. Hope you get back to Australia sometime soon.

    Like

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