An Outback Interlude

Lucky me got to visit some outback towns this week, while I was out doing fieldwork.

In hindsight, I wish I’d thought to get a few more photos, but at the time I was occupied with work and logistics and stuff. So a few of these are mine but most are scrounged off the internet.

Day one: Winton (population 954).

Winton’s dual claims to fame are that it’s the birthplace of the song “Waltzing Mathilda” and it hosts a quarry full of fossilised footprints, known as the dinosaur stampede. There’s a dinosaur museum, too.

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Not that I had time to go see any of this, but still, it’s interesting to know. Apparently in the early Cretaceous, about 100-95 million years ago, Winton was on the eastern edge of the vast inland Eromanga sea, home to countless dinosaurs and plesiosaurs. Enormous quantities of sediments were deposited in this sea, forming sandstone and mudstone to depths of up to 400m. In extent, it’s basically what is now the huge underground aquifer of the Great Artesian Basin.

great-artesian-basin So I got to see the end result of all that sedimentation as we drove west out of Winton on the Kennedy Developmental Road. First there were mesas, where a former plateau has eroded away except for remnant sandstone caps. The things that look like grass tussocks are actually spinifex, which has green spikes in place of leaves.

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Day Two:

And then, on the long drive to Boulia, there was a landscape that actually kind of freaked me out. Where there was once sea is now three hundred kilometres of nothingness, the flat horizon wavering with mirages and the lower sky reddened with a band of dust. In places there were swathes of scrubby trees, but these were prickly acacia, a declared weed. Here’s a shot from the car window, looking at a distant plateau:

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Further on we were back into mesa country, like these at Cawnpore lookout:

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And then the town of Boulia. Based on its prominence on the map and the fact of it being a regional centre with its own Council, it was… well, all I can say is that it was a bit smaller than I expected (population 440). You could stand in the street and see to either end of the town. And when I went to the store for supplies, the mandarins were $13.50 a kilo. But, hey, it has 3-D pedestrian crossings:

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That photo’s off the internet, when I was there they were in need of a new coat of paint, and had lost that 3D effect.

Apparently, Boulia is also famous for its camel races, but, yeah, I didn’t see any camels, either. Had a weird dream about them, though (which I put down to an excess of sun and a schooner of beer. What can I say, we were staying in the pub).

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Day Three:

My only concern, about an hour into the drive north out of Boulia, was an urgent one: in a landscape of unending flat scrubby plains, where the heck is one supposed to go to the toilet? Luckily, I was saved by a little place called Dajarra (population 150), which has not just one but two blocks of public toilets! The roadhouse (below) also provided a very decent egg and bacon toastie (with three slices of bacon, onions and BBQ sauce). M-mm.

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Heading to Mount Isa we got into a different geology. Here we’re in metamorphic rocks, which were older sediments that have been subject to immense pressures and thrust upwards. In the roadside slopes there were all kinds of rock, from ironstone gravels to sparkling pyrite-bearing schists and dykes of pegmatite and quartz. I grabbed a few samples:

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Day Four: Mount Isa (population 18,678)

Mount Isa is basically a mine with a town attached to the side. The Mount Isa inlier hosts the largest deposits of lead, zinc and silver in the continent, formed 1,650 million years ago from percolation of hot, metal-rich brines through sea-floor sediments. They also mine copper at the Enterprise mine, which is the deepest and hottest in Australia with a shaft extending to 1,900m below ground. On the drive into town we passed steel towers that are air vents for the underground workings. You can just about see the Mt Isa silver mine in the background of my photo:

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I can’t say I’m too fond of Mount Isa, to be honest, though I only stayed the one night. I had time to kill in the morning before flying out, but the riverside footpath shown on the tourist map didn’t seem to exist any more.  There was an acrid tinge to the air, probably from all the sulphur dioxide given off by the workings, and there were posters up with messages about “living safely with lead”.

But then I was flying home in a 34-seater SAAB, on the “milk run”, with stops at 3 towns on the way. This little place is Julia Creek, known for it’s “Dirt n Dust Festival” and triathlon:

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On the 20 minute hops between towns, the plane didn’t get up to normal flying height, which meant we got bounced around by a tailwind and updrafts. A short break on the tarmac at Richmond and then up for more turbulence on the way to Hughenden. Everyone was clutching their stomachs and trying not to groan.

Overall it was an eye-opening trip, but I was pretty glad to see the (relatively) greener landscapes of home. Hope you enjoyed sharing my outback interlude.

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