Around Australia: Into the Outback

A cold beer watching the sun go down over the sea followed by locally caught barramundi fish and chips was almost the perfect evening if such a thing exists.

We enjoyed relaxing because we have a few long driving days ahead. After Normanton, Highway 1 is gravel and no car hire company will let you drive long distances on gravel. For us, hiring a 4WD for this would be costly so we have to divert inland for a while and sample more of the outback. Carpentaria Shire describes itself as the Outback by the Sea.

We left the Karumba landscape behind, passing a couple of Brolgas en route.

After a fuel stop in Normanton we carried on south on this Route 83 which is also known as the Matilda Highway and runs from Karumba to the New South Wales border. It is another development road with some single lane sections and plenty of road trains. There were frequent signs warning of flooding and it must be impassable at some points in the wet season. After crossing the Flinders River, we passed through dry grassland with the large seed heads of grass blowing across the road reminiscent of tumbleweed. Burke and Wills Roadhouse at the junction with the Wills Development Road was a good coffee stop but also provides a lot more. I was slightly surprised to hear three men who were eating a huge plate of chips, chatting in Punjabi.

Continuing south, rocky outcrops and hills started to appear.

After crossing the Dugald River we passed a huge zinc mine which only achieved commercial production earlier this year. The road then passes by a few hills and descends into Cloncurry.

Cloncurry has been a town since 1884. Two of its claims to fame are as the birthplace of the Flying Doctor Service and the destination of the first Qantas flight. The surrounding area is mainly devoted to cattle farming now but between Cloncurry and Mount Isa is Mary Kathleen, the ruins of a uranium mine and community. Mount Isa is another town which grew up because of mineral deposits in the area; mainly lead, copper, silver and zinc. This lead to concerns about lead levels in children 10 years ago and now pollution is very closely monitored. The town is still dominated by the huge mine chimney. The bottle shop there is also the largest we have seen so far. The following morning we were back on the Barkly Highway, out of mining land and again in beef country. There was even a Drovers’ Museum in Camooweal, our coffee stop. The sign stated that the town was at 236m altitude and the population was 310. Shortly after Camooweal we drove into Northern Territory and gained 30 minutes due to the time difference. Here we were in dry grassland.

70km later we passed the first cyclist we had seen since leaving busier towns and the tourist zone. We had driven 276km before crossing a watercourse that had any water in it despite the road going over several rivers and creeks. Before we got to the Barkly Homestead Road House, the bush and termite mounds had reappeared. At the road house was a sign asking customers to forgive them for their higher prices. They explained that they had to generate their own power and it took 5,000 litres of diesel per day to do this. Standing there in sunshine and wind, I did wonder why they were not using solar/wind power.

We continued towards Tennant Creek. The roadside was littered with fragments of tyres and there were frequent skid marks. Some wrecked cars and lots of oil drums were left rusting by the road. We saw one more recent car that had left the road and were just wondering whether anyone was in it when we saw a notice: ‘police aware’.
Fairly close to our destination when we saw two dead cows by the roadside. Unlike other roadkill there were no crows or raptors feeding on them. I can only assume that the lack of water was responsible for the lack of birds. The total mileage for the last two days was 839 miles bringing the total so far to 3,895, a little more than the length of the Lincoln Highway we drove in 2016.