Queensland is synonymous with salty beaches and tropical rainforests. Any traveller that has not heard of places like Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef, Brisbane, Fraser Island or Whitsundays? The coast is a sun-kissed stretch where eternity-blue meets glistening gold at the edge of the beach. But the greenery and the lushness that characterizes Queensland are mainly coastal. The hinterland is something completely different. The landscape shifts constantly, and the colour goes from green to red, yellow and brown. A significant part is desert. You don’t have to travel very far from the coast to notice the difference. The greenery is an idyll that soon fades away. The hard life that awaits in the wilderness deters many, but do not let the high temperatures stop you. It’s part of the experience. A trip here is quite possible, but you must come prepared. Buy a road map, an extra can of petrol and a whole bunch of drinking water. Another adventure awaits.
There are several cities originating from the gold rush of the 1850s. Some of them are ghost towns, empty shells of their former self. Others are still alive and kicking, even prospering. Visit them to understand how life has looked like for miners over the years. West of the outback-town Emerald are several fields where gemstones were found. If you obtain permission, you can dig here and look for stones on your own, even as a tourist. After all that dusty soil and no escaping from the merciless sun, it is surprising to encounter national parks. But they exist. The state’s inner is not only dry and inhospitable. There are deep ravines in Carnarvon National Park with lovely waterholes to cool off in. The indigenous people have strong ties to the landscape, something that is clearly visible during a trip through the area. In Carnarvon National Park, ancient hand paintings adorn the cliff walls. They tell a fascinating story about how life looked like thousands of years ago. Let a guide help you understand its mysteries.
Millions of years ago, west Queensland was home to dinosaurs. Around the town of Winton in the middle of the state, several dinosaur bones have been found. More and more are excavated, and as a visitor you can help doing this. The Great Dividing Range runs through the area, from north to south. In the Southwest, the country borders South Australia and Northern Territory. The landscape shifts again and is dominated by a red and burning yellow desert. Right at the border to South Australia, the Simpson Desert appear, with its rolling sand dunes and dry small shrubs.
Carnarvon National Park (npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/carnarvon-gorge) is an oasis in the arid landscape. If you are out on a longer trip you should make a stop here, but keep in mind that you need your own transport to do it. The park is divided into several parts, of which the Carnarvon Gorge is the most beautiful. Take part in ancient Aboriginal art painted on cave and cliff walls. There are fossils, waterholes and hiking trails. It is possible to spend the night in a tent if you wish.
Big Red is a giant sand dune and a playground for four-wheel drive vehicles. It is the start of the Simpson Desert, which continues into South Australia, and it is also the highest sand dune. When the light is soft and seem to be dancing over the red sand, it gives you amazing photo opportunities. Every winter the country- and rock festival Big Red Bash (bigredbash.com.au/bigredbash/index) is being hosted outside Birdsville, located on the outskirts of the Simpson Desert. It is a delightful festival in the middle of the red desert, on the border to South Australia. It’s not easy to get here, count on a couple of days driving from Brisbane, but it’s also part of the adventure. Food and drinks are available to buy once in place. Don’t forget to bring your tent. Camping is free.
Winton is a city that many Australians know about. In addition of being the birthplace for the airline Qantas, the unofficial national anthem Waltzing Matilda was written here. And not only that, Winton was home to dinosaurs millions of years ago. If you have the budget, you can participate in digging out dinosaur bones. For a week you get to work on the field and take part of the local history.
Two-hundred kilometres west of Rockhampton is Blackdown Tableland National Park (npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/blackdown-tableland). The national park rises over the flat land and offers forests of eucalyptus, hidden waterholes to cool off in and waterfalls to admire. Nature feels unspoiled, and there are many hiking trails to try. It is possible to camp within the park, but you must be able to fix everything on your own and bring with you all necessary supplies.
Another national park worth a visit is the Bunya Mountains National Park (npsr.qld.gov.au/parks/bunya-mountains). Lots of wildlife and especially many bird species live in the park, creating the forest’s very own melody. There is also plenty of natural beauty. The park offers views of the Darling Down agricultural plains.
The area west of Emerald is called Gemfields. The gemstone Sapphire has been found on an area of 900 square kilometres. In the heart of Gemfields lies the town Rubyvale. Much of the local life here evolves around gemstones. Join in for an organized tour where you get the chance to look for valuable finds. Buckets of soil are presented for you to look through. If you rather do all the hard work on your own, that is also possible. There is also an observatory in the area where you can take a closer look at the starry sky.
Mount Isa is no beautiful mountain peak. It is the name of a mining town in the northern part of Queensland. The smoke rises from the city’s industries, a city located far from everything else. In many ways it is an old-fashioned city that has a large influx of labour. The soil here is full of minerals being extracted. The biggest event in the city is the annual rodeo that is held in August, and it is the country’s largest rodeo (isarodeo.com.au).
Planning and preparation
Avoid summer if possible. Not only are the temperatures extreme, it is also peak season for storms. Heavy rain cannot get absorbed by the dry ground in time, creating floods. This can cause roads to shut off in days, even weeks. Many hotels and tour operators are closed during summer. However, the rain is positive for the vegetation that flourishes in full. Winter is a great time to visit Western Queensland, the days are still warm while the nights are cooler. Check out the website Outback Queensland for more inspiration (outbackqueensland.com.au).
You can get around partly via buses, Greyhounds (greyhound.com.au) and Bus Queensland Outback (busqldoutback.com.au). If you are looking for renting a car, a four-wheel drive is advisable to get through everywhere unhindered (wotif.com/Car-Hire). Make sure you have a map, enough drinking water and extra fuel. A satellite phone is often recommended for a trip far out in the outback. Read more on the Department of Transport and Main Roads (tmr.qld.gov.au). Keep in mind that it is easy to misjudge the distances. They are longer than they seem on the map.
An exciting and more comfortable way to discover Queensland’s desert is by train. The train called Spirit of the Outback runs between Brisbane and Longreach in northern Queensland. The trip is 1,325 km and takes 26 hours. Or you can take the Westlander from Brisbane to Charleville. This trip is 777 km and takes 17 hours. If you take the Inlander From Townsville to Mt Isa it is a 977 km, and 21 hours long trip. More information can be found on the Great Southern Rails website (greatsouthernrail.com.au).
Driving from Brisbane to Birdsville is a mighty experience, but instead of driving straight there, take a detour. Rent a four-wheel drive car (you will thank yourself later) and pack all the supplies. Bring a little extra in case something happens. You don’t want to be stranded in the desert without food or water. Leave the big city and drive west. After three hours, you should have reached Bunya Mountains and its national park. Wander around, listen to birds and relax, surrounded by the unique Australian nature. Spend the night in a tent and next day you travel towards the town of Roma (hotelscombined.com/Place/Roma.htm). Make a stop at Roma and then continue to Carnarvon Gorge. Stop here a few days, to swim in the clear waterhole and hike through the dense forest.
If you can’t have enough of nature, go to Blackdown Tablelands. Or leave the nature parks behind and head off to Gemfields. You will be glad you brought your sun hat. Challenge your patience here. Look for gems among buckets of soil or break land all on your own. It’s up to you. If you are lucky, you may be able to earn some coins. Rubyvale is a nice city to rest in. Visit the hotel and let the locals entertain you with old stories (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Rubyvale_Motel_Holiday_Units.htm.
After another four-hours’ journey you will arrive at Longreach. You can go 180 km north to the dinosaur city Winton (hotelscombined.com/Place/Winton.htm). From there, you can continue driving north to Mount Isa (hotelscombined.com/Hotel/Isa_Hotel_Mt_Isa.htm), or turn south and start driving towards Birdsville. The final stage is far too long to drive in one go. Driving from Longreach to Birdsville takes at least 15 hours. Slit up the trip by stopping in Boulia or Bedourie. The towns are small and located in a no-man’s-land surrounded by red dry sand. When ready, continue the last bit to Birdsville.