From precious gems to dinosaur trails there’s plenty to discover across more than 90 million hectares of vast landscape in Queensland’s Outback. Here’s your bucket list.
You don’t have to travel to a galaxy far, far away to discover the Milky Way and chances are you will see it much more clearly from the Outback without the distraction of bright lights in the big cities. Some of the best vantage points to look for the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross include the Big Red sand dune near Birdsville, Lara Wetlands near Barcaldine and Mt Slocombe Lookout, south of Longreach.
Charleville, though, is the star-studded capital of Queensland, more than 700km – or just less than two hours flight time – from Brisbane. The town is home to the Cosmos Centre and Observatory and a powerful Meade telescope where guided tours provide an educational commentary along with viewing the galaxy of stars, planets, the moon and the sun.
Catch a picture perfect sunset
Almost anywhere in Outback Queensland you can also see one of the most spectacular shows in the country, playing every night at dusk, and it’s free. Big open skies are a canvas for a palette of many colours, viewed from places such as the top of Big Red, the first of more than 1000 dunes in the Simpson Desert which begins 35 kilometres outside of Birdsville, Harry’s Hill at Boodjamulla National Park, or Captain Starlight’s Lookout, 55km from Longreach.
Pack your swimmers
Inland Queensland isn’t all red dirt and dust – there are plenty of places to get wet in the Outback. Pack your swimmers ready for a dip to cool off in a river, lake, dam, creek or an artesian spa. Some of the best waterholes include the Thomson River at Longreach, Lake Moondarra at Mt Isa, the Warrego River at Cunnamulla, Duwadarri Waterhole and Indarri Falls at Boodjamulla National Park and the Birdsville Billabong. For a different experience, there are warm mineral springs in towns including Mitchell (90km from Roma), Bedourie and Blackall, and mud bathing at Eulo (64km west of Cunnamulla).
Watch for wildlife
The largest population of kangaroos and wallabies in Outback Queensland is in Cunnamulla in the state’s south west and, in Thargomindah they say there are more kangaroos than people! Out Bedourie way you’re more likely to see camels – and they are off and racing in a festive event held every year in July – while Barcaldine is home to plentiful birdlife seen around Lagoon Creek and at Lara Wetlands. Spot more wildlife on tours of Cobbold Gorge in Far North Queensland’s Savannah region or on a Boobook Eco Tour from Roma.
Seafood is also a popular item on the menu far from the coast and you might be sur-prised to discover that fishing is a popular activity in Outback Queensland where billa-bongs, lakes, gorges, waterholes and creeks are filled with yellow belly, cod, perch, bream and barramundi as well as a local specialty, ‘red claw’ crayfish. Top spots in-clude Lake Moondarra at Mount Isa, the Thomson River at Longreach, Lake Callide, 15 minutes from Biloela, and the Warrego River at Charleville.
Search for precious stones
The Boulder opal is unique to Queensland and is found in the mining belt stretching from Quilpie in the south west to Winton in the north of the state. Just out of town at Quilpie there’s a fossicking area open free to the public but otherwise a licence is required (usually available from the local visitor information centre). Other fossicking areas include Cloncurry, popular for amethyst, and the gem fields in central Queensland such as Rubyvale, Sapphire and Emerald for precious stones or to pan for gold.
Walk in the wilderness
Carnarvon Gorge is an oasis in the heart of central Queensland and a spectacular natural attraction within the Carnarvon National Park, about 700km by road north west of Brisbane. The best way to view its beauty up close is to walk some of its many trails that follow the boulder-strewn creek as it winds its way between the steep sandstone cliffs of the gorge.
Rock art along the way is evidence of the Aboriginal connection to the gorge and ochre stencils, engravings and freehand paintings are some of the finest in Australia.
Walking trails range from easy 1km strolls to the expansive 87km multi-day Carnarvon Great Walk which spans two sections of the massive national park.
Guided walks are available from nearby accommodation such as Takarakka Resort or Wilderness Lodge and multi-day tours from Brisbane with Sunrover Tours.
Eat a hearty feast
After long days working hard on the land, country folk enjoy hearty meals and visitors can get a taste of country cooking to satisfy a broad range of tastes from the roasts cooked on an open spit and served on weekends at Takarakka Resort, in the bushland surrounds of Carnarvon National Park to the more unique places to ‘wet your whistle’ such as The Lodge on Hawthorn, a café-plus-antique shop inside the former Masonic Temple building in Blackall.
No outback adventure is complete without stopping for a cold beer and a big steak at a roadside pub – the Nindigully Pub, south of St George, serves ‘road-train’ burgers (for four) and kilogram-size T-bones while the Walkabout Creek Hotel, south of Cloncurry, has been a popular stop ever since Crocodile Dundee was filmed there.
On the other hand, you could go a long way to find a real coffee in the Outback but journey no further than Barcaldine where Cheryl Thompson has created a special blend with an artisan roaster called Coolamon Coffee, served at her Ridgee Didge Café on Oak Street. They also serve up big breakfasts ‘with the lot’ and delicious pancakes.
Step back in time when dinosaurs roamed the land
The Outback is Australia’s answer to Jurassic Park where prehistoric creatures once roamed. Follow in their footsteps along the Australian Dinosaur Trail which includes the towns of Winton, Richmond and Hughenden and the Lark Quarry Conservation Park where more than 3000 giant stone footprints have been uncovered that are 95 million years old.
The Riversleigh Fossil Fields in Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park also contains fossil remains of ancient mammals, birds and reptiles that date back 25 million years, including kangaroos, koalas, platypuses, wombats, large flightless birds, the largest known freshwater crocodile and a tree-dwelling crocodile. The 800-metre fossil trail takes about an hour to walk or find out about guided walks at Visitor Information Centres at Mount Isa, Julia Creek, Georgetown, Croydon and Normanton.
EVENTS NOT TO MISS
Julia Creek Dirt n Dust Festival
Over three days of action-packed adventure at Julia Creek, 1627km north west of Brisbane, the brave and the brawny compete in a triathlon, bog snorkelling and the Dirt n Dust bull ride and everyone else can join in the Red Claw Luncheon of locally-farmed crayfish. In April each year.
Birdsville Big Red Bash
Right in the middle of the Simpson Desert, more than 1800km west of Brisbane, the Big Red sand dune is host to an annual camping and concert gig with Aussie legends and more on the playlist. Between shows it’s fun to go sand surfing on boogie boards, cardboard or esky lids down Big Red. Big Red Bash is in July each year.
Bedourie camel races and camp oven cook-off
It’s not horses but camels that reign supreme at this annual event in Bedourie, almost 2000km north west of Brisbane, supported by a program of pig racing, wood chopping and novelty events you’d only hear about in the Outback. Anyone can join the traditional camp oven cook-off to bake bread using provided ingredients. Bedourie camel races in July each year.
Mount Isa Mines Rodeo
More than 1800km north west of Brisbane, Mount Isa hosts the richest rodeo in Australia, and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere, where the best of the best men and women compete in bronc and bull riding, roping, wrestling and barrel racing. Away from the arena, live music, sideshow alley and Fred Brophy’s boxing tent keep the crowds entertained. In August each year.
Windorah International Yabby Races
If you’ve only seen yabbies on a restaurant plate this event will be quite a treat as the crusty little freshwater critters are auctioned off and cheered to the finish line to help raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS). Windorah makes a good pit stop about 1200km west of Brisbane for anyone driving out to the Birdsville Races. In September each year.
This is the Melbourne Cup of the Outback which attracts a crowd of 10,000 to enjoy two days of racing and entertainment more than 1800km west of Brisbane. A tent city is set up to accommodate the jockeys, trainers and spectators who help raise funds for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Fly or drive to Birdsville from Brisbane. In September each year.
WHERE TO STAY
Wallaroo Outback Retreat is 160km north of Roma, in the dramatic sandstone belt of Queensland, between the Carnarvon Gorge and Lonesome National Park. The intimate camp of eight safari-style tents lies within the grounds of Pauline and Justin MacDonnell’s sprawling Wallaroo cattle station where visitors can practise their camp oven cooking skills, learn whip cracking, go fishing and bushwalking by day and spotlighting to view nocturnal wildlife at night.
Accommodation is fitted with comfy bedding and there are separate bathrooms with hot running water, a communal kitchen and outdoor fire pits for rustic cooking. Tents can be booked individually or the easiest way to stay is on a tour that includes transfers from Roma and guided exploration of Carnarvon Gorge over four days.
Cobbold Village is in the heart of the Gulf Savannah region in Far North Queensland, about 500km inland from Townsville or Cairns. Spectacular 10-metre high cliffs narrow to just two metres wide in Cobbold Gorge where tours include cruising or paddle boarding along the waterway with an expert guide, short or multi-day walks and scenic helicopter flights. Multi-day tours are available from Brisbane and Cairns. Accommodation is available in air conditioned ensuite cabins with an on-site swimming pool and bistro.
Kinrara Expeditions offers a luxury escape at MacEacherns Camp on the O’Brien family’s cattle station spanning almost 30,000 hectares four hours south west of Cairns. Inclusive five-day, four-night adventures have been created in consultation with the area’s Indigenous traditional owners and a Gugu Badhun guide joins each tour to share its story. Accommodation is provided in ‘glamping’ tents with views of the Burdekin River and surrounding national park which is home to abundant bird and wildlife, and a diverse landscape. Customised tours include transfers from Cairns and are limited to a maximum of 12 people at any one time. Open from April to October.
Adels Grove is a good base camp for exploring the Boodjamulla National Park, close to the border with Northern Territory in Queensland’s north west, with accommodation ranging from safari tents to ensuite rooms and a licensed restaurant. Tours include sunset viewing from Harry’s Hill, cruising the Lawn Hill Gorge, half day tours to the fossil fields at Riversleigh and multi-day tours from Mount Isa.