Great Aussie adventure
Every morning of the year, often before sunrise in mid-winter, Cheryl Thompson opens the doors of Barcaldine’s Ridgee Didge Café and looks for her first customers. She never waits long.
Early-rising outback travellers, sales reps and locals who need a pre-work coffee hit all beat a path to her door on the town’s main drag, Oak Street. Regulars love Cheryl’s coffee – her own blend called Coolamon – and the tourist grapevine does the rest. People will travel a long way for good coffee in the outback.
This is good news for Cheryl and for Barcaldine, a town in the central west that offers tourists a lot more than the big-ticket attractions you’ll find there and in other places along the length of the Matilda Highway. In fact, most outback towns have what might be called hidden gems – experiences that more thoroughly connect you to the land, the history and the people.
The outback is big and takes time to explore properly, but the good news for those travelling to the remote inland for the first time is that you can find something of its essence – a taster if you like – in just a few days, and you won’t need a 4WD and survival gear to do it.
If you concentrate on the 286km stretch of the Matilda Highway between Barcaldine and Winton, for example, you can get a valuable outback experience in a combined rail/car hire/air trip out of Brisbane that takes only five days.
Along the way you will find ancient landscapes, history and stories that go to the core of the nation, surprises and excitement in plenty and, above all, a deep and vibrant culture. Here are some suggestions for an itinerary that begins with a rail journey out of Brisbane.
Depart Roma Street Station in Brisbane on the Spirit of the Outback. Taking around 25 hours to travel 1325km to Longreach, this train doesn’t break any speed records but is considered by many travellers to be Queensland’s last great rail journey.
Longreach is the ideal outback base for soaking up the history and heritage of this amazing region. Visit Camden Park Station, a cattle property and homestead close to town, to talk to friendly owners the Walker family and discover what it means to live and work in the west.
Pick up a hire car early from Longreach airport and head for Winton (179km) on the Matilda Highway. Dinosaurs are all the go here and your first stop should be at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum of Natural History.
The museum recently opened Dinosaur Canyon, an impressive facility set in an ancient landscape that features full-size and beautifully crafted dinosaur replicas. While in Winton, take a sunset guided visit to Rangelands, a mesa just outside of town which offers impressive views and interesting geological formations.
Start early to drive the three hours to Barcaldine. A very pleasant place for a picnic in natural surroundings is Lara Station and Wetlands, about 30km out of town on the Blackall road.
If there was a street tailor-made for a pub crawl, it would be Barcaldine’s Oak Street, which has five pubs within paces of one another. Also on Oak Street is the distinctive Tree of Knowledge memorial outside the railway station, an icon of the Labor Party and Trade Unions.
Another must-visit is the Barcaldine Radio Theatre on Beech Street. This gem has a 90-year history and shows movies most Friday and Sunday nights – admission is only $8 and tea or coffee just $1.
If you set off for Longreach (107km) early, you will have enough time to take in at least one of the town’s two major attractions – the Qantas Founders’ Museum and Stockman’s Hall of Fame – before dropping off your hire car and catching a mid-afternoon Qantaslink flight home.
You’ll need at least an hour or two to see the Qantas Founders’ Museum at Longreach Airport. The museum restaurant/café serves excellent lunches. The Stockman’s Hall of Fame is an outback icon, located opposite the airport. There is a very enjoyable stockman’s show at the hall during the late morning in the tourist season.