Alright… After the best part of three months on the road it was finally time to leave the coast. From Townsville we took a left turn and started heading west on the Overlander’s Way. Funnily enough, this physical ‘turning point’ was exactly that for our road trip so far. It felt like a real milestone in itself, and that we were moving into a new distinct, and slightly scary, phase of our little family journey.
It is amazing how quickly the landscape changes as you leave the coast. Without even realising the roads become straight, the dirt becomes a deeper colour and the trees start disappearing. There is a real sense quite quickly up here that you are venturing into the famed Australian ‘outback’; a feeling that is reinforced by the fact that you can drive for 200 km or more without passing through any town whatsoever! But don’t get the wrong impression, this endless nothingness is also totally amazing in its own right.
However, the fear that we had in anticipation of this part of the journey was pretty quickly resolved as we realised that we were just one very small part of a very large travelling caravan circus. It was remarkable that on this road, that seemed in the middle of nowhere, there was a regular flow of caravans and campervans in both directions. There also appears to be an unwritten rule in the caravanning community that you give a wave as you pass a fellow caravanner. We figured this may have been invented to help pass the time on these particular stretches of road, as the rule seems to be applied more stringently in these parts. It definitely provided some light entertainment on many occasions as we cursed the non-wavers and workshopped new waving techniques. Picture anything from the one finger raise off the steering wheel through to the double handed wave, all guns blazing.
Due to the vast distances between towns, passing through any town at all became quite a point of interest. Sometimes the towns were literally a pub, a general store and a windmill, and actually have a listed population of less than ten! And some towns were grand old outback towns like Charters Towers and Cloncurry. Towns with old heritage buildings, that are bubbling over with their own unique history and friendly country flavour.
The first stop for us was closer to the prior example, where we parked our van at the back of a pub in a free camping site in a town called Prairie. The owners had 3 girls that happily kept themselves busy in their ramshackle backyard. Our kids who had been stuck in their seats for most of the day were in seventh heaven and quickly joined the fun. This was somewhat of an OHS disaster, with a broken down, rusty car, a rickety tree house with plenty of sharp edges, and a makeshift flying fox as the main attractions. But it was a fantastic experience and non-stop fun for the kids. The pub then put on a meal where everyone sat around a communal dining table and got served a humble country meal of sausage, steak and veges. It was then rounded off with a large helping of story time from the publican. This was a great induction into the friendly hospitality of these towns. It also became quickly clear that these towns rely on this caravan ‘tourism’ to survive, and that the steady flow of caravans is much more reliable than the rains that feel like they haven’t come for many a year in these parts.
On the road the next day we had an early break in Hughenden. This small, respectable town is part of the what is termed the Dinosaur Trail because of the large number of fossils and actual dinosaur bones that have been, and are still being found in the area. While our kids may have been a little young to fully appreciate the history of this area, it was quite a remarkable experience; and more so because we had no real idea that this existed! Another area on the places to revisit list for us.
Following our prehistoric pit-stop, we pushed onto another friendly outback town named Julia Creek where we set up in a free camp on the banks of the ‘creek’. We were lucky enough to be there on a Monday night as the local caravan park ran a shuttle bus out to pick up anyone interested in going in for a cooked camp dinner, with entertainment included. This was all put on by the local school to raise money for excursions throughout the year for the kids. It was clearly a popular event, as there were people everywhere, and the slow cookers were lined up and working overtime as we arrived. But the heroines of the night ended up being the entertainment, The Crack Up Sisters. Picture if you can, three girls dressed in cowgirl tutu’s doing acrobatics and cracking stockwhips in a dusty outback caravan park. There were mishaps aplenty, which actually made it more hilarious, and made us think they were probably scripted. The next morning before we left, we visited the local tourist information centre which was pretty amazing for such a small, remote community. Another reminder of the effort these towns are going to, to provide a useful and interesting place for travellers to stop; and we’d have to say the effort pays off.
Onwards West to our next stop at Mount Isa for 2 nights to recover from a couple of nights of free camping, give the washing machine a solid run and restock on supplies. Mount Isa is a big town in relative terms, clearly fuelled by the numerous mines dotted around the landscape. However, the best thing we stumbled across in town on the morning we were leaving was a very impressive playground – probably top 2 in our travels so far! A full adventure playground, scooter park and waterpark all rolled into one. However we did wonder whether it was worth the visit as we dragged the kids kicking and screaming back to the car to hit the road once again.
This next drive took us onto a fantastic free camp spot right on the water’s edge at Camooweal Billabong, only 12 km shy of the Northern Territory border. There was again plenty of vans here and you could see why. The place was teeming with impressive birdlife and mother nature put on a nice show at sundown; life was good.
The following day it was high fives all round again as we crossed our second state (or territory) border. For the first time on our trip we had covered a fair amount of ground in a short space of time … and it was a pretty good feeling. Soon we would be making another turn and start heading North towards the top end. Check in soon and hear how we get on in crocodile country.