desert high­way

The vast red ex­panse be­tween Birdsville and Be­dourie is steeped in pi­o­neer his­tory. To­day, you can also see what their ghosts left be­hind.

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - OUTBACK -

Speck­led and vast, the gib­ber plains veer un­flinch­ingly into the dis­tance. Their parched, ruddy sprawl, on ei­ther side of the road from Birdsville to Be­dourie, in far south-west­ern Queens­land, is stunning to be­hold, de­spite be­ing as dry and fea­ture­less as a li­brary of tax man­u­als. For kilo­me­tre af­ter kilo­me­tre there is noth­ing to break the ex­panse of nat­u­rally formed peb­ble­crete. Not a leaf of veg­e­ta­tion, nor an­other soul.

Then, sud­denly, we come upon a con­crete gar­den set­ting and, a lit­tle fur­ther on, the con­tents of a kitchen, lonely and un­walled, the wind whistling through the oven and around the mi­crowave – amus­ing in­stal­la­tions ap­par­ently de­vised by a lo­cal to punc­tu­ate the monotony.

The 187km road that links the two towns – the Bilby Way, in hon­our of the en­dan­gered rab­biteared bandi­coots found in the re­gion – runs through rapidly chang­ing land­scapes from the stony ex­panse closer to Birdsville, past the coolibah-lined wa­ter­holes and wet­lands flow­ers near Cut­taburra Cross­ing to the mas­sive red sand hills closer to Be­dourie.

Bris­bane is 1600km east, Ade­laide 1200km south down the Birdsville track, and the Simp­son Desert laps the edge of the road and dis­ap­pears west to­wards the nearby North­ern Ter­ri­tory bor­der. But the iso­lated, un­for­giv­ing coun­try’s dis­tinc­tive, bar­ren beauty is a tourist lure in the cooler months.

We pull up at Car­cory homestead, 70km north of Birdsville, just off the road on a bleak, breezy day and as we walk around the crum­bling lime­stone block walls of the aban­doned build­ing, the Slim Dusty lyric “I love to have a beer with Dun­can … ” em­anates from the open door of a fel­low trav­eller’s Land­Cruiser. The homestead, built in 1877, stands roof­less and lonely on stark, rocky coun­try, sprin­kled with sparsely leaved shrubs and the des­ic­cated car­cass of a steer. Some­how, Slim’s dron­ing bon­homie adds to the sense of des­o­la­tion.

The Na­tional Trust-listed house was built by two broth­ers and then owned and aban­doned by cat­tle king Sir Sid­ney Kid­man in 1906 af­ter years of drought and the loss of 4000 bul­locks. Kid­man also fea­tures at an­other point on the part-dirt, part-sealed road link­ing the vast Dia­mantina Shire’s two tiny town­ships. Down the road at Glengyle homestead, the “Kid­man tree ” has been listed by the Na­tional Trust to mark the spot where the even­tual owner of 100 prop­er­ties (three per cent of Australia) camped when he first trav­elled through the area.

For such a re­mote lo­ca­tion, there have been sev­eral celebrity vis­i­tors. Ex­plor­ers Burke and Wills plod­ded past in 1861, on their trau­matic jour­ney from Mel­bourne to the Gulf, and King Creek near Be­dourie is named af­ter John King, the only sur­vivor of the ill-fated ex­pe­di­tion. There’s also a me­mo­rial to Will Hutchi­son, who dis­cov­ered the opal that led to the found­ing of Coober Pedy, South Australia. He’s buried by the road­side af­ter drown­ing in Eyre Creek five years later, in 1920; he was tak­ing a swim while drov­ing cat­tle for Sir Sid­ney.

Also on the regular vis­i­tor list are the es­ti­mated two mil­lion mi­gra­tory waders which an­nu­ally make the 13,000km trip north to breed in the brief Arc­tic sum­mer, one of the world’s great bird mi­gra­tions. They take off in March and stop over in China be­fore reach­ing the food-rich tun­dra, then re­turn for the Aus­tralian sum­mer. The wet­lands at Cut­taburra Cross­ing and bil­l­abongs on Eyre Creek are teem­ing with life, and we stop at one wa­ter­hole and at­tract a sour glance from the only other vis­i­tors, ap­par­ently ir­ri­tated to have their soli­tude in­ter­rupted. The Grey No­mad in pink Crocs and match­ing fleece pushes her glasses down out of her woolly perm and snaps some shots on her iPad be­fore she and her part­ner roar off in a cloud of dust in their four-wheel-drive with at­tached camper­van.

Just 12km out of Birdsville is one of Australia’s three stands of 500 to 1000-year-old waddi trees, renowned for their ex­tremely hard wood and nee­dle-like leaves.

The body of Wil­liam Moonie was found nearby in 1895, the ex­act lo­ca­tion now lost in time. Charged with pa­trolling the area’s sec­tion of dingo fence, he had left the Birdsville Ho­tel with two cases of whisky on his pack­horse. His body was found sur­rounded by empty bot­tles. It was six weeks be­fore any­one found him, un­sur­pris­ing given the iso­lated lo­ca­tion in this harshly beau­ti­ful land­scape.

Life, death and des­o­la­tion …( clock­wise from op­po­site page) Car­cory homestead, 70km north of Birdsville; the wet­lands near Cut­taburra Cross­ing; a high­way “pic­nic” stop; Cut­taburra birdlife; ( open­ing pages) hell’s kitchen.

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