Australians love a good nickname and the 2800 kilometres of bitumen and bull dust that connects Winton in Queensland with Laverton in Western Australia, has been given the moniker “Australia’s longest shortcut.” It’s a bucket list drive, cutting though the red heart of the country where dramatically beautiful landscapes are punctuated by tiny blink- and -you’ll –miss- ‘em towns. Just about everything else is huge, from the road trains trailing red dust clouds to termite mounds as big as 4wd’s and stations the size of entire countries. And while The Outback Way might be a ‘short cut,’ there’s so much to see and do en route, you’ll want to take your time.
Whether Winton is the start or finish of your The Outback Way journey (depending on which way you’re travelling), you’ll want to join tourists and locals in the beer garden of the historic North Gregory Hotel for the afternoon chicken races.
Originally built in 1879 and destroyed by fire three times before its final resurrection in the 1950s, this is where Banjo Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’ was first played - an event recreated by a musician in the lobby daily just before the starter pistol sounds.
In the evening, settle into a deck chair with some popcorn and watch a movie under the stars at The Royal, one of Australia’s few remaining outdoor cinemas. The townsfolk are movie lovers from way back; at one stage in its history there were no less than four theatres in the main street - all but the Royal eventually consumed by fire. Something of a recurring theme in Winton it seems!
After a leisurely breakfast, head out of town for some dinosaur fossil viewing. Outback Queensland was once part of an ancient inland sea and today the region is a rich source of marine, dinosaur and megafauna fossil finds, including some unique species. The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum is home to the largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils in the world and has tours through the fossil preparation laboratory, their collection room and ‘dinosaur canyon.” There’s even an outdoor diorama with life-sized bronze dinosaurs and superlative views across the gorge.
For more dinosaur viewing, the Lark Quarry Conservation Park, 110 km south west, is the location of the world’s only known evidence of a dinosaur stampede. Footprints of two legged dinosaurs escaping from a larger predator were preserved in the sandy lakeside sediment which compressed to rock over 95 million years. There are also the much larger footprints of the carnivorous therapod whose terrifying presence set off the panicked stampede. The tracks were first discovered in the 1960s by local station manager, Glen Seymour but remained a local secret until scientists visited in 1971.
Pull in for a beer and a yarn with publican Les Caine at one of Queensland’s most isolated pubs in one of the country’s smallest towns (population 3). A once thriving town, the Middleton hotel is one of only 2 structures remaining. Built in 1876 during the Cobb & Co. era, it’s where tired horses and equally fatigued drivers were replaced on the stage coach route between Winton and Boulia.
Before leaving town, get the goss from Les on the actors who frequented the Middleton Pub while out here filming the movie ‘Goldstone’ in 2015. On the road out of town, you may spot the old miner’s hut; part of the film set. Pull off the road and have a look – it’s an authentic reconstruction of how miners, attracted here by the promise of gold, would have lived.
The drive from Middleton to Boulia is one of the most spectacular in outback Queensland, winding through channel country, punctuated by ‘jump ups’, - flat-topped mesas rising suddenly above the fields of Mitchell grass. Around 50km from Middleton, pull off the road at Cawnpore Lookout, a high point on the drive, figuratively and literally. It’s well signposted and it’s a short, easy walk to the top for a magnificent 360-degree panorama of the surrounding countryside and the Lillydale Hills.
Small, tidy Boulia has two claims to fame – its annual camel races and the Min Min lights. First spotted above the Min Min Hotel ruins in 1918, the lights are described as appearing to float, dance and race about the countryside between Boulia and Winton and even today are still unexplained phenomenon.
Visit the Min Min Encounter in the main street to hear the history of the first sightings by drovers and local indigenous people and some of the theories expounded over the years to explain the mystery. Boulia’s locals have plenty of their own theories too and are happy to explain them to you - it seems everyone’s either seen the Min Min lights or know someone who has.
If you’re staying the night, don’t miss a camel burger at The Australian Hotel.
Do set out early, the abundance of wildlife (as evidenced by both the living and the roadkill) means it’s not wise to be on the road come dusk.
The Queensland/NT border crossing is a low-key affair, particularly on the Queensland side, where it’s marked by a battered hand painted sign. The road is not great from this point on, with fine red powdered bulldust often disguising axel breaking potholes, so take it easy and check road conditions before you set off. The scenery is classic film set outback, with massive red termite mounds, balls of spinifex grass and large mobs of both emus and ‘roos.
From the border crossing, it’s about a 4-and-a-half-hour drive to Gemtree Caravan Park where you can wash off the dust and treat yourself to a comfy bed for the night. The region is mined for the gemstone garnet and you can join a tour to fossick for your own and have it valued in the station’s store. In the evening there is a camp oven cookout with entertainment - a surprisingly charming home movie on the family history of the property. Avail yourself of a generous plate of smoky grilled meats and vegetables and wash the dust away with a cleansing beer from the onsite bar.
t’s an easy hour and half drive on a sealed road to reach ‘Alice.’ It’s a rude shock seeing all the accoutrements of city life again – like traffic lights and billboards advertising fast food. Despite it being as a far from from a coast as it’s possible to be, it feels a bit like an outback Byron Bay, the shops, restaurants and cafes often staffed by a united nations of multi-accented backpackers. Take time to check out the indigenous art in the many galleries, fill up on good coffee in one of the chilled cafes, wander the Olive Pink botanical gardens or visit the School of the Air Visitors Centre, (which these days uses satellite technology rather than radio to communicate with students across 1.3 square kilometres of rural Australia.) It’s worth basing yourself here for a least a couple of days as there’s plenty of fit-all-budgets accommodation and lots to see.
A short drive out of town to takes you to the McDonnell Ranges and Rainbow Valley, known as “Wurre” to the landowners, the Arrernte people. Take a tour with an Indigenous guide who will point out petroglyphs, bush tucker and medicinal plants, and the sharpened stone tool heads that litter the valley floor. The valley is a photographer’s dream, best seen in early morning or late afternoon when the sandstone bluffs and cliffs change colour. If you’re here after rain, it’s even more spectacular as the claypans surrounding the ridges fill with water.
It’s about an hour’s drive north east of Alice to Trephina Gorge, famous for its sheer quartzite walls and red river gums. Lace up your boots, slather on the sunscreen and choose from a couple of different walks, all with magnificent views of the East MacDonnell Ranges. An easy 2 kilometres walk begins at sandy creek bed and makes a gentle ascent around the gorge’s rim before looping back down, whilst a slightly longer and more challenging walk ascends more steeply and reaches a higher plateau. For experienced bushwalkers only, there’s a five-hour (one way, plus 2 hours back via the road) Ridgetop Walk that traverses the top of the gorge to John Hayes Rockhole. Whichever you choose, the scenery, with the towering rock walls, ghost gums and limpid waterholes is breathtaking.
Looking for a souvenir that will allow you to take a little of the outback home with you? On remote, million-acre cattle station Lyndee Severin, wife of the owner’s son Ashley was looking to add something to attract tourists and Curtain Springs Paper was born. All the artisan paper is made from native grasses, flowers and seeds from the property, processed by hand in a former abattoir on the property. If you have time, you can do a papermaking workshop, if not, just browse the gallery showcasing the creative skills of Lyndee’s daughter Amee who makes paper jewellery, contemporary paper sculpture and more.
It’s worth taking a bit of a detour en route to Yulara to cattle and camel farm Kings’ Creek, where’s there’s a campground, well equipped permanent tents, or if you’re up for a bit of luxury go for the glamping. One reason, (apart from the comfy beds, stunning surrounds and adorable baby camels) is to take a bush tucker and bush medicine tour with Christine Breaden and Peter Abbot of Karrke Tours. The couple teach visitors about traditional hunting weapon and methods, bush foods, and dot painting and the tour; small, personal and very informative is one of the best in the outback.
It’s a bit of a thrill when it suddenly appears on the horizon as you drive towards the small, buzzy resort village of Yulara. Climbing the rock is now discouraged, as it’s a place of spiritual significance to the indigenous owners, but consider getting up early before it gets too hot to do the 10km walk around the base of the rock that showcases every facet of Uluru’s magnificence. Come back for the tail end of the day and pull up with all the other vehicles for the sunset show to watch the myriad of colours flit across Uluru’s undulating curves and crevices.
It’s less than an hour’s drive to the distinctive rock domes of Kata Tjuta, meaning ‘many heads’ in the language of the site’s traditional owners, the Anangu people. Some visitors reckon Kata Tjuta equals or even outshines Uluru. Decide for yourself. There are plenty of walks, from short strolls, to viewing areas, to The Valley of the Wind, a 7.4-kilometre loop winding between the 500-million-year-old ochre domes, through creek beds and to the Karu and Karingana lookouts. Alternatively, join a cultural tour to learn some of the region’s sacred history and Dreamtime stories.
Originally due to wind up in March 2018, Field of Light’s popularity has seen the installation extended to December 2020.
A construction by British artist Bruce Monro, The Field of Lights is the size of 7 football fields and consists of more than 50,000 frosted light globes planted into the earth that change colour. It is a sight to behold against the black canvas of an outback night. You can only get there by tour bus and they book up quickly so move fast if you want to see it.