To travel along the Matilda Highway is to step back in time and experience the real Aussie outback.
This feature was originally published in 4x4 Australia’s August 2011 issue.
Few towns in Australia have a history that has touched the people of an entire nation. It was in Winton that Banjo Paterson wrote the ballad Waltzing Matilda which for many people typifies the spirit of Australia and is the unofficial anthem of this rugged country. Our international airline, Qantas, was also born in Winton and is testimony to the spirit of endeavour that is so typical of the Aussie character.
A short drive from Winton is Bladensburg National Park where you can camp out under a star-filled sky and learn about outback characters like Scrammy Jack. The town of Longreach is home to the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame; this is a spectacular tribute to the people of the outback. Longreach is also the only town in the world where you can tour a fully operational 747 jumbo jet and experience a wing walk on this giant of the sky.
The tiny town of Ilfracombe is the hub of the west and full of pioneering history and heritage. Barcaldine was the site of the Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891, a monumental revolt that lasted four months and resulted in the imprisonment of many of the leaders.
Personally, I reckon every person who calls themselves an Aussie should venture into the Queensland outback and learn about the fascinating history of this spectacular country. This nation was built by ordinary people who simply wouldn’t give up in the face of adversity and made a living in even the worst of circumstances.
Banjo Paterson visited Winton in 1895. In no time at all Banjo learned a new lingo from one of the locals. Stories about a “swagman who had just killed a jumbuck” were new to him.
The Shearers’ Strike and major union upheaval at the time brought turmoil culminating in events such as shearer Samuel Hoffmeister shooting himself near a billabong after being chased by police. No doubt good old Banjo would have had a bit of a culture shock but he turned his outback experience into a ballad that every Aussie can relate to: Waltzing Matilda.
For a true outback experience you must drive out to Bladensburg NP; it is only 12km from Winton. If you don’t have a high-clearance 4X4 you can follow the Route of the River Gum which is a 56km loop drive that will take you past various waterholes, the camping area at Bough Shed Hole and back to Winton.
For an awesome off-road experience leave the Route of the River Gum and take the left turn to the information centre and the original Bladensburg Homestead: this is where the real outback experience begins.
4x4 Gear: Outback trip preparation
The homestead is definitely worth a look and tells the story of the family who ran the sheep station in this rugged country. There was even a racecourse where races were held in the late 1940s to raise money for returned WWII soldiers.
Like most families living in the harsh outback tragedy was never far away and here there is a story of eight-month Delia Dalrymple dying of an infection while she was teething. Her little grave can be seen six kilometres from the homestead.
The old homestead is the starting point for Scrammy Drive which will take you through rough country and up rocky mesas to where waterholes nestle among hardy acacia trees and the views over Mitchell grass downs and the Channel Country seem endless.
This 40km return drive will take you into remote and isolated country so it is very important to stick to the marked roads and follow the signs. There are many unmarked tracks in the area so getting lost is a real possibility. In any case, carry plenty of drinking water because it gets extremely hot out this way with little to no shade in most places.
Scrammy Drive will take you past the racecourse (2.1km) where a few white stakes remain of those that once marked the old Bladensburg racetrack. Another 5.1km will take you to the lonely grave of Delia Dalrymple. The 10.8km remainder of the drive will take you to Scrammy Gorge, Scrammy Rockhole and Scrammy Lookout. The next landmark will be a broken windmill where the track starts to climb and then levels out on a jumpup.
At the turn-off to Scrammy Gorge you will see a fascinating ghost gum that resembles an octopus. The gorge has unstable cliff edges so it is wise to stay at least 20 metres away from the rim.
4x4 Technique: Dirt-road driving
Jump back in the car and drive to Scrammy Rockhole, which is around two metres deep and rarely dries up. The track from the rockhole to the lookout has an interesting stretch where the track becomes rocky and possibly a bit wet. The scratch marks on the rocks tell the story of some people who either had a low-clearance vehicle or simply drove too fast; take it easy and there is no reason to bottom out.
The view from Scrammy Lookout is amazing as the Channel Country stretches out in front of you and you realise the vastness of this spectacular landscape. Under the cliff’s edge we were standing on we discovered the bones of a kangaroo that had lay down there to die. The outback can be captivating and unforgiving at the same time.
From Winton it is a 180km drive to Longreach, which lies geographically and figuratively at the very heart of the outback. This friendly town is famous for its tribute to the many outback pioneers – the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame.
This mammoth project was conceived in the early 1970s by artist and poet Hugh Sawrey who felt it was necessary to commemorate those who did so much in rural and outback Australia; one of whom was his mum. In 2003, the museum underwent a complete re-development and extensive renovation project, and in early 2010 the Cattlemen’s Bar & Grill opened.
Driving into Longreach from the east you are not going to miss the Qantas museum: the great red tail of a decommissioned Boeing 747 dominates the landscape. Qantas is the world’s second oldest airline; it was registered in Winton on November 20, 1920 as Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Service Ltd. The company and operational headquarters were moved to Longreach in February 1921.
Under federal government Qantas became Australia’s international airline. Many of the secrets of this great aircraft are revealed on the tour. It is possible to sit in the cockpit and if you are up for a bit of excitement, strap on a safety harness and take a wing walk. It is only 27km to the historic town of Ilfracombe which prides itself on freely sharing its heritage; there is no entry charge on any of the attractions or facilities.
Ilfracombe was originally called Wellshot, after the famous sheep station that was once Australia’s largest (460,000 sheep in 1892). Drought heavily affected this area and in 1900 Wellshot Station lost 130,000 sheep, with 90,000 more the next year.
In 1914, 29 young men from Wellshot enlisted to serve in WWI. Ilfracombe is also home to the Romani Hall Memorial which is a tribute to the brave men of the Australian Light Horse. The tiny shire of Ilfracombe farewelled many of its young men who left all that they loved to embark on a journey into the unknown.
Another interesting place to visit is the Langenbaker House. Harry and Mary-Ann Langenbaker brought the house to Ilfracombe in the 1890s and raised their 11 children there. One child (Les, born 1904) was blind as a result of an accident in about 1921.
After this time, the family took care to change the layout and features of the house as little as possible so that Les could easily find his way around. It has resulted in a house which is a great example of outback living conditions in the early 1900s.
Our last stop along the Matilda Highway was Barcaldine, home to the Tree of Knowledge. The tree was a place of inspiration for the striking shearers and has always held a special place in the history of Australia.
Unfortunately, someone poisoned the tree in May 2006 and it never recovered. A memorial was constructed including preserved elements of the tree.
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After the shearers’ strike, thirteen of the leaders were sentenced to three years of hard labour on St Helena Island, in Moreton Bay. The strike is acknowledged as the starting point of political and social processes which led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party and subsequently to the election of the first Labor representative to government. For us, this meant the end of our trip along the Matilda Highway but it’s one we will do again.
It is inspiring to travel through these towns that are full of pioneering history and heritage. It is the best way to learn about and experience the Aussie spirit, the one that never gives up and the one that pays honour to the many men and women from the outback who made this incredible country what it is today.
Duncan's Me Mate
I met Duncan in the town of Longreach and there was no doubt in my mind that this bloke was a fair dinkum Aussie. With his Drizabone coat, hat and Aussie slang he was probably the most Australian fella I’ve ever met. You have to listen to his stories and wonder if any of them are true and crikey, they are!
Duncan is another Steve Irwin, working with snakes, crocs and any other reptile you can think of. They have a fancy name for it: herpetology. Duncan prefers to be called a wildlife keeper and thinks it is absolutely fabulous to work with crocs and snakes. He lived in Port Douglas for ten years where he worked with reptiles until he got sick of the lousy pay and decided to stack shelves in Woollies instead.
He is a real gentlemen who will remove snakes from people’s homes free of charge to release them away from human habitation. He recalls one lady who called him out to remove a non-venomous tree snake. He had to walk up her 500-metre driveway to even get to the snake which was in her lounge room. After catching the snake he then had to walk back down the entire driveway with the lady driving behind him all the way because she wanted to make sure that he would release the snake far away from her house!
Duncan’s travelling around Oz with his wife Penny in a minivan and caravan, so make sure you say G’day if you meet them.
Scrammy Jack lived at Scrammy Rockhole in what is now Bladensburg National Park. He was a boundary rider who became a hill top hermit. He was known as a ‘hatter’; in reference to his hat covering his entire family because he lived alone. Jack became Scrammy Jack after his hand was crushed by a wagon wheel (scrammy is an old English term meaning left-handed). He worked for neighbouring Vindex Station around the year 1900.
Someone used to take him supplies every month and found him dead one morning. Old posts, scraps of wire and rusty nails are all that is left of his simple hut and horse yards. One can only wonder who he was and how he survived but he was an Aussie who made a home in the outback and lived there until the end of his days.
Talk about legend and Longreach and you will certainly get to hear about Henry Arthur ‘Harry’ Readford who became known as Captain Starlight. This name was drawn from Rolfe Boldrewood’s Australian classic Robbery Under Arms with the central character, Captain Starlight, based on a combination of bushrangers of that period, as well as the renowned cattle-duffer, Harry Readford.
He became an outback legend when in 1870 he stole 1000 head of cattle. The mob included a white bull which became a bit of a problem for Readford. He sold it at Hill Hill Station, in South Australia, so that he could purchase supplies from the station store. The bull was later shipped back to Queensland as evidence against Readford at his trial in Roma.
Harry faced charges of cattle stealing but the jury returned a verdict of not guilty, thus ending one of the most daring escapades in recent outback history. Apparently, the judge at the time was stunned at hearing the verdict and exclaimed: “I thank God that verdict is yours, gentlemen, and not mine.”
It is believed Readford and his men gathered together the 1000 head of stolen cattle at what’s now called Starlight Lookout and split them into three groups to avoid a suspicious dust cloud. He would have been wiser to leave the white bull behind.
The Matilda Highway is part of a tourist route that runs from Cunnamulla, in south-west Queensland, to Karumba in the far-north Gulf Savannah.
Camping is available all along the Matilda Highway with caravan parks in each town. There is bush camping in Bladensburg National Park at Bough Shed Hole; there is only a pit toilet and camping fees apply ($5.15/p/n). Longreach has an Apex park on the Thomson River where you can camp for four days at no charge (has toilets).
WHAT TO TAKE
If you intend to go bush camping, bring a shower tent and drinking water. You need to take your rubbish out with you.
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES
All the towns have a supermarket and a petrol station.
All the main roads are sealed. The roads in Bladensburg National Park are dirt and become quickly impassable after rain. Scrammy Drive in Bladensburg NP is for high-clearance 4X4s only.
CONTACTS AND INFORMATION
Regional information is available at the following websites:
PERMITS AND RESTRICTIONS
Permits are necessary for bush camping in Bladensburg NP. Phone 13 74 68 to make a booking or use the self-registration permits available at Bough Shed Hole campground.
Alternatively you can book online at derm.qld.gov.au/parks/bladensburg.