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