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33 Australia Road Trip: Outback, from Cloncurry to Camooweal
At the Cross roads...
In the previous installment of their Around Australia Road, Mick and Sheila drove south from the Gulf of Carpentaria through an uninhabited and flooded landscape, having previously fled from the east coast of Queensland in the wake of a devastating cyclone. Part of their problem is a meteorlogical conspiracy, compounded by the fact that their vehicle, despite being a real 'trooper', is old and diabolically slow. Oh well, it makes for more of an adventure...
Cloncurry is a crossroads town, situated on the Flinders Highway , about 700 kilometres west of Townsville. The Landsborough Highway also meets the town. This road offers a direct cross country route to Rockhampton (via the Capricorn Highway ) and far away Brisbane. You must remember too that a highway in outback Australia isn't quite the same as a freeway in the USA, they are often roughly sealed, potholed and strewn with roadkill.
Cloncurry has nothing to offer us other than a campground with clean showers and the chance to rest up for a night without worrying about floods, cyclones or crocodiles. As early as we can in the morning, we have breakfast and head west toward the "biggest city in the world" – Mt. Isa.
Mt Isa - it's all mine
The Isa (no, it is not a type of high interest savings account) is one of the world’s most successful mines with a community of 25,000 people living around the city centre slag heap, with another 30,000 odd souls scattered around the 43,000km2 of desert that constitutes the metropolitan area. It’s 120kms from Cloncurry to Mt. Isa and it is a surprisingly scenic drive as the early morning sun reflects a golden hue across the red rock formations, ridges and escarpments. This is real desert country, not unlike parts of Arizona or New Mexico in the States.
The huge smokestack of the Mt Isa mine is the first thing you see as you approach. It is a reasonable looking town or should I say city, much more amenable than I would ever have imagined and we take stock in the Tourist Information Centre and Mining Museum before hitting the shopping mall for some well-earned retail therapy a la K-Mart and Safeway. After that, we hit a McCafé, another Aussie phenomena that sees McDonald’s turned into trendy cafés selling good coffee and cakes. Their flat whites aren’t bad, considering we are just about as far away from the la-la land of trendy Sydney café society as you could care to be.
The Tojo Highway
With the sun moving unstoppably westward, we know it is time for us to do the same. There is something a little unsettling about the next leg of the journey. From Mt Isa to Camooweal is 189kms. The town of Camooweal is considered to be a 'suburb' of Mt. Isa despite it’s distance, but that is not what is giving us the jitters. It is the fact that we are well and truly committed to the outback now, there is no turning back and for us in our cumbersome Winnebago there is only one road we can take - the tattered blacktop of the so called “Tojo Highway” (proper name: the Barkly Highway) to Camooweal at the edge of the desert. The road was built during the Second World War as a supply route the north in case of Japanese attack, hence the Tojo tag – it looks like it has barely been repaired since the bloody war too. The other thing that unsettles us poor, road weary travellers is the Rough Guide description of Camooweal, and I quote:
“There is no way to avoid Camooweal but you might wish there were; the township’s atmosphere of lazy aggression is exacerbated by a total lack of charm… you’ll find a roadhouse, mechanic, general store and a hotel – a risky place for a last drink in Queensland.”
How I laugh when we read that description while sitting in the salubrious surrounds of the McDonald’s carpark in Mt. Isa. "I can’t wait to get to F**king Camooweal" is all I can say! There nothing for it, we must move on, and when we find a place we like we shall stop and stay a while, but Isa is not the place and I’m fairly certain Camooweal won’t be either.
On the outskirts of Mt Isa we pass a sign warning us that the highway to Camooweal is closed due to flooding. I don’t bloody believe it! I thought we'd left the floods behind. Bugger it! We elect to keep going. If the road is indeed closed and impassable at some point down the line we will just have to turn around and come back. After all, we aren’t carrying 20 litres of spare petrol for nothing. The scenery beyond Isa is even more picturesque than before and there are some hills to climb and descend which makes a change from the monotonous flat. We do notice however, that there are no other vehicles on the road at all, in either direction… maybe the road is closed.
The asphalt strip becomes narrower and tattered on the edges, like the Gulf Developmental Road and we pass through a low-lying section that has obviously been flooded until recently; the road is even still wet in places and the red dirt definitely looks waterlogged... so maybe we aren’t going to get through after all. Then about half past three in the hot afternoon we see up ahead an innocuous collection of tin rooftops and antennas poking up above the grey acacia scrub... welcome to Camooweal!
Beyond the Shell garage... nothing
The Dream: Australian Gulag
She lies in bed hoping that sleep will come to her soon. She tries to count the road trains as they rattle and roll to a stop beside the roadhouse across the street, but their air brakes sucking and screeching against the still night air conspire to sabotage any hope of blissful slumber. Other things keep her awake too...
Earlier, in the short red twilight, she hears the fearlful howls of feral dogs as they fight and scavenge amongst the sorry suburb of run-down bungalows beyond the chain link fence that protects the campground. As the sky darkens, the ethereal black shapes of desert eagles hover and soar overhead as they hunt for prey in the arid scrub that surrounds and infiltrates the boundaries of this town of last resort.
As the sun melts, in biblical splendour, behind the distant dead straight horizon, he begins stowing the outside gear - folding the chairs and table and rolling up the awning; all done with a subtle haste, as if nightfall will signal the beginning of something dark and rather unnatural. Finally, safe within the familiar comfort of the Winnebago, they huddle before the cool of the electric fan as if they were sheltering by the security and warmth of a campfire in a cold climate, clinging to the tiny vestige of civilisation that they call home.
A child’s cry from one of the nearby shacks sounds in the night like a wild beast’s call; in fact every sound speaks of something unseen and wild. Footsteps on the gravel grate in time with the constant, steady click of crickets and the drone of cicadas, while the sudden clatter of empty beer bottles being binned at the tavern on the corner jars against the other night sounds - a burst of alcohol-fuelled aggression. Somewhere, a car door slams and they see a dark sedan with only one headlight rumble up a side road before being swallowed into the darkness that lurks just past the Shell station.
Beyond this dysfunctional outpost there is nothing. Just an ocean of dirty, dry scrub, red rock hillocks and a million, pointed red tombstones that are the cities of ants. For hundreds of kilometres in any direction there is nothing shaped by the hand of man, other than stark wire fences, distant dystopian microwave towers, and that insecure ribbon of tattered asphalt that is the only link to elsewhere.
You could say that there is nothing to do here. You would be wrong. You stay here, on the edge of nowhere, long enough to rest, fill up your tank and move on, otherwise you do what those who live here must do – you go slowly mad, from boredom, alcohol and despair – that’s what there is to do here.
In the far off distance, through the cloak of darkest night, beneath a canopy of the brightest stars imaginable, a low rumble wells into the roar of another road train, grinding and hissing out of the desert to stop for a coffee and a piss. It is time to start counting again, perhaps sleep will come.
Fancy some Midnight Oil?
Check out some true blue Aussie bush music
A Desert tale...
Next installment sees Mick and Sheila attempting to cross the vast emptiness that is the Barkly Tablelands - 450kms of horizon, interspersed with roadtrains and locusts - it's all good fun.