As we set off in our rented motor home, expectations are high and excitement buzzes for our month-long odyssey ahead. Our plan is to get off the beaten track of Queensland's coastline and explore the natural encounters and charming towns that dot the landscape between Airlie Beach and Longreach, the heartland of Queensland history some 823 kilometres direct south west.
After living in Airlie Beach for several years, we decide to start our inland journey from the neighbouring town of Mackay, a place we have never really explored.
The first pit stop is at Cape Hillsborough National Park, located 50 kilometres north of Mackay and easily accessible via gravel road.
Here the ancient rainforest meets the turquoise waters of the sea and provides a nutrient rich habitat for plants and animals alike, including the local kangaroos that hop along the sandy beach without a care in the world as to who is watching. With more than 150 species of birds, 25 varieties of tropical butterflies, thousands of scurrying crabs and soothing tidal rock pools, anyone who wants to see nature at large should pack the macro lens for this stop.
Driving into the heart of Mackay city, the obvious landmarks include Art Deco buildings and quirky parallel streets lined with iconic Queensland palm trees. The Mackay region, a leisurely two-hour drive south of Airlie Beach, is an inviting blend of secluded beaches, elusive wildlife and rural communities.
The district is home to over 120,000 people and is nicknamed the 'sugar capital of Australia' producing more than a third of the nation's cane sugar. In fact, if you want to know more about this so-called “sweet poison”, there are mills to walk through, products to taste, and local rum to drink in Mackay.
While most travellers tend to head east to the beaches and the islands of Brampton and Keswick, Mackay has its own charms and like most outback places, this is where the inquisitive traveller will meet true Aussie characters, like the friendly guides at the local Visitor Information Centre on Nebo Road who are ready to offer motor home enthusiasts access to the onsite grey water disposal site. Payment, of course, is a mandatory yarn and in-depth discussions about our next moves.
After listening to the friendly guides, we decide to pull up stumps in Mackay and explore the region.
An easy 80 kilometres inland set in mist-shrouded mountains we stumble upon Eungella National Park, home to over 860 subtropical and tropical plant species. Much of the park is rugged wilderness dissected by vast gaping gorges and is home to the Eungella honeyeater, one of five new Australian bird species discovered during the past 50 years. I read that other forest residents also include the Tawny Frogmouth, Sugar Glider, and Brushtail Possum.
The park has more than 20 kilometres of picturesque walking tracks, scenic lookouts and rare plants and animals, enough to keep us happy for days.
But the best spot has to be the viewing platform at Broken River. Here, patient bush walkers can be rewarded with sightings of the elusive platypus. All you need to do is stand as still as a door post - sometimes for what feels like eternity.
Luke and I are lucky enough to spot two of these duck-like creatures diving to feed. At just 20 centimetres in length, they are much smaller than I expected and move like lightning through the water.
The guide at the VIC mentioned that less than 20 percent of the Australian population has actually seen one of these iconic Aussie creatures in nature, let alone capture them on camera, so we were feeling particularly chuffed.
We trade the thrill of platypus spotting for a bush picnic and pull up stumps under the huge swamp mahoganies and red gums at a nearby resting area. It is only when we sit still that the rich smells of the damp bark and wood strike the senses - and perfectly complement the beef snags we throw on the single gas burner. I can tell the family next to us has more than a bit of 'food envy'.
The next day we venture along more tracks exploring another local hot-spot five kilometres south of Eungella called Finch Hatton Gorge. This secluded pocket of rainforest features waterfalls and deep clear water rock pools and is well worth the walk!
It is useful to note that Eungella boasts an Internet Access Centre perfect for catching up with friends and family before heading out of the range.
The ancient rainforests leave us feeling rather 'Zen', and it's time to head south to the newly developed Mackay Mining Trail, located along the Peak Downs Highway a short hour and a half drive past Marian.
We start our journey at Hay Point, a seaside town that houses the region's coal terminal, and take the tourist route less travelled. The beautiful landscapes, historic towns, vibrant mining communities, impressive man-made works, and the friendly folk we meet along our way make this a valuable trip as we pass through Nebo, Moranbah, to our final destination; Clermont.
The Coal Country contains a growing number of open cut and underground coal mines producing 'black gold' that provides the life blood for the Mackay region.
Given its importance to the Australian economy and our city slicker's lack of knowledge, we join a free council tour of Blair Athol Coal Mine, 22 kilometres north of Clermont. The three-and-a-half-hour tour leaves from the Tourist Office in Capella Street every Tuesday and Friday at 8:45am and details the operations of Australia's largest exporter of thermal coal.
Everything in the outback is oversized and larger than life, and the coal industry is no different. To me the coal carrying trucks look like gigantic tonker toy trucks; although the reality is they are somewhat less shiny and yellow than those purchased from Kmart.
We also visit the Clermont Museum ($6 entry fee per person with morning tea) and learn about the tragic tale of the 1916 flood that claimed 65 lives. For more information on the region and the Mackay Mining Trail, visit www.queenslandholidays.com.au
Our next stop is the modern country town of Emerald, established in 1879 as a base for building the western railway. Emerald is now the 'hub' for the Central Highlands and the 'gateway' to the Sapphire Gemfields; the largest, and one of the richest sapphire fields in the southern hemisphere, where visitors can get in amongst it and dig for their own jewels.
Interpretive signage tells us that in 1972 the construction of Fairbairn Dam and the Emerald Irrigation Scheme enabled the development of agriculture including cotton (normally 25% of the state's total production comes from here – much of it wiped out in this year's floods) and large areas of citrus. The dam construction around Lake Maraboon in 1977 also helped support large-scale coal mining in the Bowen Basin and this now produces a significant proportion of Queensland's total coal exports.
At the recommendation of the local grocer, we head 18 kilometres out of town to Fairbairn Dam and the massive Lake Maraboon. After this year's rain, the 15,000 hectare lake is full, making it the perfect boating and camping destination for the local holiday market. Here there is a selection of cabin, caravan and camping accommodation.
The lake is stocked with eight different kinds of fish, but is most noted for the Red Claw Crayfish. I have to admit Red Claw was not my preferred meal, but the freshwater barramundi, straight out of the lake and onto the barbeque, is to die for. No wonder this waterhole is popular with the locals.
Once famous for its reputation as a major sunflower producer, the world's biggest Van Gogh sunflower painting – balanced on an easel – takes centre stage in Emerald's Morton Park. At an impressive 25 metres tall and made out of almost 14 tonnes of steel, this is definitely a photo opportunity, even for those less inclined with a camera.
Next door is the 'straw bale' Visitor Information Centre where the volunteer staff provide tips on exploring Emerald and the surrounding Central Highlands including Emerald's Town Hall where you can view a 250 million year old ancient fossilised tree.
Queensland's Outback like you've never seen it before…
After travelling in a south west direction, it's time to tack due west, and take the Landsborough Highway 420 km along an iconic journey referred to as Reef to Outback (from the coastal town of Rockhampton to the Outback town of Longreach). Hours stretch by as we lazily motor through the small rural towns of Jericho, Alpha and Barcaldine, the latter provides Luke and I with one of our most memorable events yet.
In front of the famous Tree of Knowledge, the birthplace for the Australian Labor Movement, local character Tom Lockie introduces himself - and his goats – to us and in true outback style, he invites us to the local showgrounds to see one of the quirkiest races yet; the annual goat races.
“You've got to be kidding me,” was my initial reaction, but after squishing my lanky legs into the goat drawn carriage and hurtling at speeds of 30 kilometres per hour over bumpy terrain, I have to admit that while it's not quite Flemington, it is oddly, fun.
Of course, my goat comes dead last, and the winners consist of the local school kids who couldn't be more than twelve years old and weigh less than fifty kilos.
Barcaldine is a hidden Outback gem. The pride in the town is amplified in the impressive Queenslander style pubs that line the main street and which are neatly maintained by friendly council workers, gardeners and hands-on publicans. Even the Mayor Rob Chandler, whom we meet over scones and tea at the local 'Roses n Things' café – is bursting with admiration for his town.
A couple of hours west of Barcaldine lies Longreach, the centrepiece of Queensland's Outback. This iconic town is the focal point of some of the most awesome attractions in the state such as the Qantas Founders Museum; the Australian Stockmen's Hall of Fame and RM Williams Cottage; the Cobb and Co Station Store with its associated camp-out and horse drawn carriage tours; the School of Distance Education; and multiple Thompson River Cruises, all of which we trialled at least once.
Longreach is a must-see destination that requires several days - or weeks if you have them - to truly immerse yourself into the culture and local history. There are a variety of accommodation options such as Aussie Betta Cabins, as well as complimentary camp grounds near the local showgrounds and common areas just outside of town, which were just fine for us.
No matter how long you stop, be sure to visit Richard and his family at the Cobb and Co Station Store and leave some room for what are arguably be the best tea, coffee and scones this side of the Great Divide. The impeccable service only matches the calibre of the food.
Our month long vacation is fast drawing to a close and the local residents at Longreach almost convince us to throw on an akubra and continue south west to the Diamantina National Park and Channel Country.
According to local lore, the past 12 months of rain is transforming the dusty backdrop into a once-in-a-generation lush green spectacular, brimming with bird life and bursting with colourful wild flowers. The detour they say should be coupled with a scenic flight over the inland 'reef' with Webb Helicopters (firstname.lastname@example.org) to truly get a birds-eye view over Birdsville, Big Red and Mung-Thirri National Park (the Simpson Desert). Locals liken it to an 'inland Great Barrier Reef', with the unusual sight of water lapping over the red earth creating a vibrant contrast against the surprisingly green foliage.
Unfortunately, our bosses are expecting our return and the Channel Country has to wait for the next outback adventure.
Over a quiet ale or two at the local Longreach pub, Alan Smith from Outback Aussie Tours suggests we enjoy a hassle-free trip to the east coast (Rockhampton or Brisbane) on Queensland Rail's 'Spirit of the Outback' train. When Luke hears we can load up the motor home on the train to Rocky (starting from $249 per motor home and $107.64 per adult), we jump at the opportunity to relax on the 13 hour journey and make full use of the sleeper style beds and Queensland tucker served on board. See: www.queenslandrail.com.au.
Fresh as daisies, and having avoided covering the same route twice, we zip (safely!) north along the Bruce Highway from Rockhampton to Airlie Beach.
In one month, we have traversed some of the friendliest places in the state – and can't wait to go back.
(Please note: Spirit of the Outback departs Longreach twice a week. Caravans, camping trailers, boat trailers, motor bikes, and roof loaded boats or canoes will not be accepted).