The Matilda Way is one road that most definitely leads to adventure, and a different one each day. The fully sealed 1812 kilometre highway that stretches from the New South Wales border all the way to the Gulf of Carpentaria can be completed in as little as 24 hours. But, that's one heck of a drive and you'll be missing out on the 'real outback' and its friendly characters, unique attractions and unspoiled natural sites.
Four days is a comfortable drive, depending on how long you stay in each town. The road itself is fully sealed although, as you'll be sharing it with huge road trains and a selection of stock and native animals, it pays to be wary and understand outback road courtesy. When a truck is approaching, the best and most polite approach is to pull off onto the side of the road and wait for the truck to pass. You'll protect your vehicle from rock damage and the truckies will thank you for it. As you're travelling, check the byways along the route; there are plenty of side-trips that add to the overall outback experience.
Goodbye New South Wales, hello Queensland! With a population of just four, don't expect a tumultuous reception in Barringun. The once-thriving New South Wales border town was so alive that there were two police stations; one on the southern side of the border and the other, with Queensland constabulary, just a stone's throw away.
The Tattersall's Hotel is one of the few original buildings still standing. Fuel is available in the township, along with refreshments and meals at the hotel.
The next major settlement is Cunnamulla, 119 kilometres to the north. Just south of Cunnamulla check out the dwarf-like red sand dunes adorned with pines. If the winter rainfalls are sufficient, have the camera at the ready for a landscape ablaze with wildflowers.
Cunnamulla, a country town full of outback traditions, provides enough reason to expand the itinerary and linger a while. This is a general service town with all the facilities that a traveller requires. Historical sites range from the Bicentennial Museum and Old Masonic Lodge to the Robber's Tree. The latter was a short-term sanctuary for Joseph Wells, who bungled an attempt to rob the town branch of the Queensland National Bank. The Cunnamulla railway station is one of only two totally covered platforms in Queensland.
A side trip to Eulo, the home of the world famous lizard races, is recommended. The mud springs and opal fields of Yowah are also worth a trip.
When all is done, head back to the Matilda Highway and head for Wyandra, 97 kilometres to the north. The highway follows the route of the railway and it's the railway system that actually dictated where towns would be created. Wyandra was once a major water stop for steam engines that hauled wool and sheep to the marketplace. There are some great examples of early architecture and many of these have helped form a self-guided heritage trail.
Charleville is a town that is worth some serious attention. It has a history featuring early cameleers, Cobb & Co. and Qantas. It has one of Queensland's largest schools of the air and is a major home base for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, which services towns as far away as Birdsville in the state's far south-west. Experience the amazing Cosmos Centre, a small observatory that introduces you to the world beyond.
Head north to Augathella (84 kilometres northbound) or detour through Quilpie and its opal fields. The pub in this town is the central social hub and a good place to hear about the exploits of the family of Kenniffs, infamous local bushrangers. On a more cultural note, local artists and artisans show off their latest creations at Boadicea Arts and Crafts.
Tambo is 119 kilometres north of Augathella and is home to the famous Tambo Teddies, established during the years of low wool prices but still going strong and producing teddies adored by children everywhere.
A side trip recommended for four-wheel-drive enthusiasts is out to Salvator Rosa National Park. If time is short, settle for a stroll along the banks of the Barcoo and do the Coolibah Walk.
Roughly 100 kilometres north of Tambo you'll arrive at the 'home of the original black stump'. Heed not what other states claim, as locals descended from early identities such as Jackie Howe steadfastly stick to the belief that the Thistle Street located stump is the genuine article.
In 1892 Jackie set a world record by shearing 321 sheep in seven hours and 40 minutes. He held that record for 58 years and when it was finally broken it was only by a shearer using machine shears, which were unheard of in Jackie's era.
It's here that you will again greet the Barcoo River, which flows close to the town. Keep count of how many times you cross the Barcoo on this trip, as local legend has it that after the tenth crossing you're there to stay.
The Historic Blackall Woolscour was brought back to life by locals to become a major tourist attraction. Whilst it's open throughout the year, 'steam-up' is usually restricted to the months between May and September. Blackall was supposed to have the first artesian bore in the central west, only to be beaten to the punch by Barcaldine, just 109 kilometres further along the Matilda Highway.
Barcaldine is a town that makes for a great 'pub crawl', although obviously not if you're driving. Each of the six pubs on the same side of the street are a tremendous example of nineteenth century architecture.
The town has a few other surprises including the Australian Worker's Heritage Centre. Set on five acres, this centre should keep you interested for a good couple of hours or longer. Make sure you also check out the 'Tree of Knowledge' in the main street, which is the founding site of the Australian Labor Party. Sadly, the tree was poisoned in 2006, but a fantastic memorial was built on around the tree's stump.
If you're travelling between Barcaldine and Ilfracombe during late August to early September, and the year's rainfall has been sufficient, the floral landscapes are spectacular.
In Ilfracombe, old tractors, disused farm equipment and historic examples of rural machinery have been neatly laid out to rest, forming a virtual open-air street museum known as 'machinery mile'.
Wander around town and visit the Wellshot hotel, take a dip in the artesian spa, see the corrugated iron Langenbaker Cottage and the Post Office, which claims to have been Australia's first motorised mail service.
The bustling town of Longreach came into prominence for visitors in 1988 when the Queen opened the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame. This modern centre is world famous and warrants much more than just a casual glance. The entire history, adventure and essence of the Australian outback is rolled into one huge, diverse and informative display.
Adding life to this western Queensland town are a number of other first-class attractions, namely the Qantas Founders Museum, with its own decommissioned Boeing 747 Jet as its centrepiece. The School of Distance Education offers tours of its facility, which provides an education to students within a 1000 kilometre or more radius via satellite internet. The Longreach Pastoral College, the Longreach Power House Museum and the Longreach Arts and Cultural Centre, in the old Ambulance Station, where locals display their arts and crafts, are also worth a visit.
Various companies offer regular sunset cruises on the Thomson River, some in historic paddle steamers, with campfire meals and bush poetry thrown in. Hop aboard a Cobb and Co. coach for a tour of the town or head out to a real working sheep and cattle property to get a glimpse into life on the land.
It's virtually impossible to arrive in Winton and not be humming or singing 'Waltzing Matilda'. After all, it is a national song and it's there at the original North Gregory Hotel in Winton where Banjo Paterson first publicly performed it.
Not only is Banjo's song the best-known piece of Australiana on the world stage but it also gave rise to the world's only centre dedicated to a song. The Waltzing Matilda Centre gives many reasons to puff up the chest with a degree of Aussie pride.
In town, and in holiday season, the town's local open-air picture theatre, The Royal, screens latest releases and also hosts a recently developed outback film festival that attracts film buffs from all over the country.
This is also the town where the Qantas airline was born. The first general meeting of the airline was held at the Winton Club before operations moved to Longreach.
The landscape between Winton and Cloncurry is undulating and open downs country but some 80 kilometres north of Winton you'll pass through Ayrshire Hills, an ancient weathered formation that look very much like the mesas from a spaghetti western. These isolated mesas back Kynuna to the west of the town.
Cloncurry is an interesting outback town and definitely deserves extended time for exploration. Mining has played a key role in the development and growth of the town and a bloke called Ernest Henry is responsible for its very existence. In 1867 he discovered copper and even today copper mining remains a major player in the growth of Cloncurry. Tours of the Ernest Henry mine are available and worth a visit.
A visit to John Flynn Place will provide a history lesson or two. The Reverend Flynn developed the Royal Flying Doctor service in the late 1920s to serve isolated outback towns and the service is still as integral to the outback's survival today as it ever was.
While the Matilda Way doesn't actually pass through Mount Isa, Cloncurry is so close to the nation's inland city that it's senseless not to visit. Mount Isa is home to a replica mine which is open for tours and machinery demonstrations. Come August, the world's third largest rodeo draws cowboys and girls, from all over the world.
Continuing on to Normanton, the vista changes and you'll see taller and taller termite mounds, which is a sure sign you've reached north west Queensland.
It's a good stretch of road extending the 71 kilometres to Karumba, a town right on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Although it seems to take the longest of any previously travelled section of the highway, it's all to do with the excitement of finally reaching the 'end of the road' and the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Its very location makes Karumba an excellent place to get a 'feed' of fresh seafood including excellent prawns, for which the town is noted. Visit one of the many vibrant bars at night and you're sure to run into somebody from the prawn trawling fleet. Speaking of bars, music buffs may know the Red Hot Chill Peppers' song 'Animal Bar', from the album Stadium Arcadium, which is written about Karumba and named after one of the town's bars.
Around Karumba it's relatively flat country, but it's the birdlife that excites. Saurus cranes, similar to a brolga, are in abundance. If you're in Karumba in September or October, keep an eye out for the 'morning glory' a unique cloud formation that sometimes forms in the early morning.
Congratulations for making the full length of the Matilda Highway.
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