It made sense at the time. Take a four day weekend and drive to Birdsville to take photos of the wildflowers. 3200km, several hundred dollars of repairs, and about 6 flowers later it didn’t seem so smart.
Spaggers and I had the idea at the same time. It had rained out near Birdsville, and an anonymous voice on the ABC assured us that wildflowers would be out six weeks after the rain. We had been looking for an excuse to head west for a while and this was as good was we were likely to get. There was one problem, the 300 or so kilometres of unsealed road between Windorah and Birdsville, which can be quite variable in condition. Hiring a 4-wheel-drive was too expensive, so we just had to take my car and chance it.
We left after work on Thursday to get few hours headstart on Friday, and camped at Broadwater conservation area, just west of Dalby. It was dark when we set up our tents, so it wasn’t until the wind changed direction that we realised how close we were camped to a dead kangaroo. It was a stinky sleep that night.
On Friday morning we headed west throough St George to Bollon. I’d never been further west than Roma before, and was surprised how quickly things turned dry. However the recent rains were evident in places with full creeks, and even water still sitting in the roadside drains in places. When we stopped in Bollon for a pie, the small weir was filled to the brim.
Heading into Cunnamullla, we still hadn’t decided which way to head next. The BOM website said that Thargomindah had had more rain than Birdsville, it was much closer than Birdsville and it was sealed road all the way. Unfortunately the staff at the visior centre only gave us blank stare when we asked about the possibility of wildflowers at Thargomindah. Luckilly they did know that the road to Birdsville had been graded since the rain, and should be passable. It was too late to drive to Quilpie by now, but we wanted to do a few more km before the kangaroos started their sundown kamakazee stunts, so we headed up the Quilpie road, and turned off to Yowah.
Yowah is a small opal mining community set in a particularly stark area of bush (see pic above). It is starting to gear itself up for tourists, but the facilities are still utilitarian at best. Driving into town there are numerous signs advertising opals for sale, and even free campsites. We splurged $6 for a campsite and a hot shower with water coming straight from the artesion bore, which was delightfully warm with a delicate fragrence of rotten egg.
We had a long way to go on Saturday, but we took an hour to go opal mining. The evening before we had borrowed sieves and trowels from the caravan park, and at first light set out to the public fossicking area. Apparently it is quite easy to find some opal out here as long as you have two things: (1) Time and (2)At least a vague idea of what you are doing. We had neither and found nothing. As soon as the office opened at 8am, we returned the sieves and hit the road.
The road to Quilpie is surprisingly good. There are two problems though. Firstly it is only one lane wide, which is only a problem when you meet a road train. The only thing to do is get completely off the road and stop until they go past. The other problem is the grids and dips, and it was here that the fun began. My shock absorbers have been taking a flogging for 12 years, which, when combined with the servere dips and drop-offs and 120km/h+ speeds, something had to give. Halfway to Quilpie I started to notice the handling felt a bit off. By the time we pulled into the Quilpie Cafe/Roadhouse, the rear end bottomed out, metal on metal. Both shock oil and bump stops completely gone. A sensible person would have stopped here and waited for repairs. Not me but. After a chicken burger (highly recomended) and coffee (give it a miss) it was back on the road to Birdsville.
Once you get past Quilpie things start to get a nice outback feeling. The dry scrubby mulga gives way to, well, nothing realy. But very scenic nothing it is. It’s quite a way to Windorah, where we filled up at the last servo for 384km. (we carried a full 20L jerry can all the way from Quilpie to Birdsville and back, but as it turns out it wasn’t neccessary). I’d highly recomend this road to anyone. Yes, it’s remote, and a breakdown would result in a tow truck bill that would require the sale of several major organs, but the scenery is worth it. Just make sure that if you are in a 2WD that you check the road conditions before you go. When we did it, the road was in great condition, except for one small muddy patch and a few KM of freshly spread gravel that required some carefull balancing to keep the tyres out of the ruts. Oh, and we had to remember to keep the speed down over the grids to avoid bottoming out. The landscape is desolate, but thanks to the recent rain was covered in a green haze of tiny plants. Even the greasy looking gibber plains had a fine covering of vegetaion poking through. The flatness is broken by the occasional fence or cattle yard, rusty car wreck, stoney ridge, sand dune or Telecom repeater tower.
It was right on sundown when we pulled into Birdsville, and we had to make the caravan park owner re-open the office for us. After setting up camp, a quick meal of cold can-o-crap and a shower in the mysterious slimey feeling water they have out there (when it happens to you, you’ll understand) it was off to the famous Birdsville Pub. Let’s face it, the pub it the whole reason for the trip. In all the photos you ever see of it, the pub appears to sit in complete isolation, but this is a matter of carefully positioning your camera to avoid taking in the rest of the town. None the less it does manage to keep a sort of end-of-the-world feeling, even if it doesn’t completely avoid the tourist trap flavour. But I suppose I was a tourist, and deserved no less. The rest of the night involved a number of rums, a number of other tourists (I don’t think I actually talked to a local. Even the publican looked like he had arrived that day from Sydney, and would be gone as soon as he could offload the Pub onto another buyer), and a stagger back to camp under a star filled (and disconcertingly rotating) sky.
We were up early again on Sunday. We had camped right next to the Billabong and you would have to be a lousy photographer not to get a great sunrise photo here. I have no great sunrise photos of there. Even the pelicans would tease me by swimming almost close enough for a good shot then turning away at the last moment. Maybe they are sick of tourists too. Instead I entertained myself by watching 4WD owners engaging low range to climb the smooth, gentle road back to street level, Townies!
It is obligitory to photograph your car outside the pub when you visit Birdsville, and a line of vehicles had formed accross the street, each taking their turn to pull up under the awning take a quick snap, and moving out the way for the next vehicle. Mine was the only 2WD car there. Come to think of it, it was the only 2WD I’d seen since Quilpie. Perhaps there’s a lesson there.
Next on the agenda was a quick trip to South Australia on the Birdsville Track. The border is only minutes from town, and I’ve always wanted to see the north of South Australia, which I’ve always imagined to be one of the harshest parts of Australia. It turned out to be pleasantly disappointing. I assume it is normally completely barren, but with the rain it was a green and pleasant land, with a new looking interprative display, and that jaunty looking South Australia sign. And the road was even better than the previous days drive. It was tempting to keep going. After all, Lake Eyre was closer than Quilpie from here. But of course the road would likely turn nasty before long, and I had NO shock absorbers any more, and we had to be at work on Tuesday, so back east we went. At least we got to take some photos that day, not being as rushed as the day before. We found a few wildflowers to look at, mostly on the dunes. Plus the rusty FX holden and combie van on the side of the road had their portrait taken from every angle. It was getting dark by the time we got back to Quilpie. (Slowing down to 30km/h for every cattle grid didn’t help), so we stopped for another chicken burger (no coffee this time- blech!) then on to Charleville.
(Let me pause here to remark on one of the true mysteries of science. We stayed at a Motel in Charleville, the name of which escapes me now. It was a pretty ordinary motel except for one amazing quality. The wheels on the beds were completely free of friction. Seriously, there appeared to be no rolling resistance at all. I sat on mine and the momentum carried me completely accross the room. Lying in it, your breathing could set it in motion. An ill timed sneeze could propel you, rocket-like, into the bathroom to crack your head on the washbasin. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.)
To be honest I don’t remember much of the trip back to Brisbane on the monday. The going-home-after-a-trip funk had set in. That, combined with lack of sleep and the wearing off of the novelty of sitting in a car 12 hours a day listening to the same three tapes again and again* has blanked my mind. I did think briefly of seeing if anyone in Charleville had the neccessary shocks in stock and the will to fit them, but lack of time and money ruled that out, and we were back in Brisbane by 4:30pm.
*(Neither Pete nor I had the brains to bring music with us. We were stuck with what was in my glovebox at the time, namely, Dire Straits self titled album, a Yes mix tape Pete made years ago, a spoken word recording of Bill Bryson’s “Lost Continent” (heavilly abridged) and about a dozen other, better, tapes that were too heat warped to play. (Which brings up the question of why Roadhouses only sell the kind of tapes that could best be used for interrorgating war criminals.))
The result of the trip at the end? So far I have replaced both rear shocks, including new bump stops and boots, had the steering box repaired from where it was torn off it’s mounts (I thought there was a clunk in the steering), wheel alignments front and back, 2 new front tyres, a smashed headlight protector, smashed plastic wheel trims and red dust EVERYWHERE. And to show for it all? A handfull of photographs and half a dozen souvenir stubby coolers and fridge magnets. Would I do it again? Yep! Because I’m stupid. And stupid rocks!