Wet Season Travel in Outback Queensland
In this vast, colour-infused landscape, I love travelling beneath wet season storm clouds with no fixed destination and no time frames. There’s nothing quite like immersing your senses in the landscape and the sounds of the engine, and that feeling of utter freedom. It’s a release from everyday life. And as with all new travels, anticipation brings excitement and that release of endorphins that makes all well in the world again.
Being in the bush during the wet season is about experiencing change. Real and polarising change, often in short and intense bursts. This was definitely the case during my most recent Etheridge Shire road trip, west of Cairns.
During this trip, I experienced the incredible extremes of Australia’s outback within a short space of time. From sweltering heat to shivering cold. From hues of browns and greys, to greens, indigoes and reds. Magnificent rainbows and sunsets separated by the violence of lightning, driving wind and dark, racing storms. From dust to heavy droplets, to raging rivers and undriveable, soaked backcountry roads. Life can be a rush in these times and we can be forced to forget the cities, our work and life problems, and truly live in the now.
“The thing to remember when traveling is that the trail is the thing, not the end of the trail. Travel too fast and you will miss all that you are travelling for.” Louis L’ Armour
On a journey without any fixed itinerary, all sorts of doors can open to reveal their secrets. Ancient rock art beneath sandstone cliffs, weathered chisel marks in solid granite, the twisted remains of a handmade horseshoe or an old cemetery of cracked and fallen headstones. These are the things that become visible to the observant eye that is in sync with a mind not straining to be elsewhere. As much as these observations raise questions or ponderings that demand answers, they also tell a story. A story of struggles and triumphs and of life and death, but most of all, of the continuous and unstoppable turning of time beneath the stars.
It’s rare to find travel companions with the ability to relax and see life in a similar fashion and yet, here we were. Three mates, three vehicles, beer in the esky, tracking slowly south from Einasleigh in North Queensland to the ghostly relics of Gilberton, each enjoying the travel for what it was, and just glad to be out there.
Etheridge Shire, situated six hours’ drive west of Cairns, is on the regular route to the Gulf country and the fishing destinations of Karumba and Normanton or the Savannah Way. Those who do stop during an Etheridge Shire road trip are most often visitors to the well-known Undara Lava Tubes, the Georgetown minerals museum or the beautiful Cobbold Gorge. Rarely does anyone venture further afield, but on this journey we avoided those tourist haunts and instead found ourselves driving a clockwise circular route starting and ending at Einasleigh, to simply look and discover.
Only a couple of months earlier I had witnessed the colourful contrasts of Copperfield Dam. I had wanted to return to explore further and experience the beauty of the ancient cycad, granite and sandstone vistas and to capture an image I had visualised through the lens of my camera. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. Heavy rainfall and the resulting overflow of the spillway had seen the dam closed by the local council. We continued south, through rarely seen lush greenery, towards Gilberton and some of the old mining ruins from the early 1900s.
Gilberton Station itself is steeped in history and regularly hosts keen gold and gem fossicking visitors. Camping is cheap, but you’ll need to be totally self-sufficient and call ahead so they expect you. Info is available on their website here. After a visit with the Station, we spent the day swimming, before camping near the main causeway crossing of the Gilbert River. One of the little known gems in luxury Outback accommodation is also located at Gilberton in the form of the Gilberton Outback Retreat. Hosts Rob and Lyn have a single luxurious cottage on the escarpment above the Gilbert River and cater to those wanting the ultimate getaway.
The following day saw us meandering up the Gregory Range heading west on a narrow track. This range rises to 700 metres above sea level and is predominantly sandstone with a mix of ancient compacted alluvial deposits, ironstone jump-ups and occasional granite outcrops, interspersed by Acacia and Bloodwood forest, and lots of spinifex.
Unable to ignore the opportunities to stop and walk among the rocky outcrops and crevices caused many a painful experience as the needle-sharp hollow spines of the spinifex grass constantly reminded us we were in their territory. However, the reward was the feeling of isolation amongst the spectacular scenery, and regular finds of Aboriginal hand stencils under-protected sandstone bluffs.
Off the back of the Gregory Range, we wound our way further west, then north past the ruins of the old Iona mine and through Rungulla Station, up to the Agate Creek campground. Rungulla boasts more stark sandstone cliffs and is one of Queensland’s newest national parks, having only recently been acquired in an effort to protect native wildlife, such as the northern quoll, glossy black cockatoo and brush-tailed rock-wallaby. It’s an interesting country indeed and hopefully will be opened soon to the public.
After passing through Forsayth, we found ourselves back at the Heritage-listed 100-year-old Einasleigh Hotel, where we waited out a final awesome lightning display and a drenching that saw the Einasleigh gorge change from a clean trickle to two feet of frothing brown water flow. Unfortunately, time caught us at this point and with reality now upon us, we turned the vehicles towards home.
An Etheridge Shire road trip is best done with plenty of time up your sleeves, but can be completed with a single overnight stay if you are on a tight schedule. Driving to Einasleigh from Cairns takes about six hours via Georgetown. There’s a council van park in Einasleigh and a cold beer available at the pub. There’s camping at Copperfield Dam (aka Kidston Dam), Gilberton Station (by appointment), Agate Creek and Cobbold Gorge. The beer is also cold at the pub in Forsayth and the meals there are great as well.