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The Pace of Change in Outback Queensland

Editor’s Note:This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Spring 2022 Issue.

Within the hour, paradise would fade into the distance. Every kilometre we put between us and the coast would melt into the afternoon sun. Once the rainforest canopy crumbled into open plains, a trail of dust would leave months of an unplanned pause behind us. By the time daylight slipped below the horizon, we would have driven nearly 900 kilometres west into Queensland’s interior to the withering remains of what used to be the region’s capital. In the tiny town of Adavale, our quest to clear our heads and find solitude in the Outback began.

This wasn’t the way we had intended to cross Queensland. When we left home over 250 days ago, our heads were spinning with visions of white, sandy beaches and warm,blue waters. Backpackers in tired old vans should have been whizzing around us, and grey nomads, encased in the luxuries of experience and retirement, were supposed to be sharing their years of collective wisdom around a campfire. If the last eight months on the road have taught us anything, however, it’s that the best-laid plans are only ever written in sand.

The publican of the Adavale Hotel—one of only a handfulof sunbaked buildings that remain in the town—was as surprised to see usas we were surprised to hear, “We’re still kinda closed, mate.” He had heard of travel restrictions easing within the state but hadn’t seen many travelers passing through. We were amongst the first. “We’re pretty far away out here, mate, so give it a few days or a few weeks, and I might be open again.” What he couldn’t provide in a cold bottle, he would more than happily share in local knowledge. On the publican’s advice, we’d camp that night near thebeautiful-if-ominously named Hell Hole Gorge.

Our rough plan for the next three or four weeks was to arc through Queensland’s far western reaches. In short, we wanted to be alone for a little while. From Quilpie, we’d drop off the face of civilization, skip up the still-closed border with South Australia, and skirt the edges of the Strzelecki Desert. If our fuel calculations were accurate, we’d have enough to re-enter civilization at the famed town of Longreach. These calculations, we would later learn, would be way too exact for comfort. At that time, however, all we truly wanted to experience was the peace and solitude of Channel Country’s ancient and gargantuan landscapes before heading into Queensland’s remote northwest.

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Leaving our last fuel stop at Quilpie, affectionately referred to as the End of the Line, the air hung thick with the sulfurous smell of bore water. Through the dust, the streets were completely empty. Yet again, we must have been amongst the first travelers to return, and it was starting to get a little eerie. We left the tarmac with a clunk and began rumbling our way towards Cameron Corner. It would be just shy of another 1,000 kilometres before we’d see pavement again.

Far from an expanse of nothingness, the enormity of Outback Queensland is peppered with aging relics of European settlement and early pastoralism. Ghost towns, woolsheds, mines, oil wells, train stations, and rusting machinery dot the otherwise relentlessly sparse plains, puncturing the hours with something to stop and look at. Look a little closer, and traces of indigenous inhabitants or prehistoric life are everywhere. Ancient wells, lakes, middens, a fossilized seabed, and the world’s only record of a dinosaur stampede are all things we grew up seeing only in textbooks. Yet here we were, face to face with the real McCoy in the absolute middle of nowhere.

Be it the heat from the unfettered sun, the hours at the wheel, or the insistent, unchanging terrain, we’d started to over-attribute significance to any en-route discovery that broke the monotony. For instance, spotting our first feral camel somewhere between Nockatunga and Cameron Corner felt like the first time we’d ever seen an animal at all. After three long days of driving, we finally reached a milestone of actual significance: the Dig Tree. Enshrined in early Australian colonial history, the Dig Tree stands as a living testament to the ill-fated Burke & Wills Expedition of 1861. It’s a legend. To see the etchings still engraved on the tree was one thing, but to perch ourselves on the banks of Cooper Creek and imagine what it must have been like for those early explorers was another thing entirely. It didn’t matter how tired we were, how much dust we had inhaled, or how dry and cracked our lips were getting. We still have it immeasurably easierthese days.

From the Dig Tree to the dunes of Windorah, we opted for the longer,unsealed route north along the South Australian border. Our pace remained slow and steady over the rough, rocky tracks, and the hours rolled by in the bush. Through the haze, a deeper shade of red in the sand and a wall of dunes to the west signaled the beginning of the Strzelecki Desert. We would only skirt the far eastern edges of the Strzelecki; beyond those dunes to the west lay the border settlement of Innamincka and a whole host of desert adventures for another day. For now, we plodded on north, rattling over the corrugations, passing the sign to Birdsville with a heavy sigh and rejoining a gloriously smooth tarmac road that turned east towards Windorah.

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That night, we rolled into town to find camp on Coopers Creek—the same Coopers Creek from 600 kilometres ago at the Dig Tree. We laid eyes on the pub on the way past in the faint hope it was open, until blue lights and sirens brought that wishful thinking to an abrupt end. Our out-of-state license plates stick out like a sore thumb in these parts, and the nicest policeman we’d ever met was only enforcing a border check.

By now, those fuel calculations we’d made well over a week ago were still looking good as we turned towards Longreach. That said, taking the interesting route instead of the fast one would almost be our undoing. The two-day detour through Idalia National Park was stunning for sure, camped among the remains of an old cattle station high on the red, rocky escarpments. As we neared Longreach, our Land Cruiser lurched and gasped in a surprise moment of hesitation. We were only 30 kilometres from town and had been keeping a watchful eye on our fuel consumption the entire time. We knew it would be close, but surely not thatclose. Switching to the sub-tank and slowing to a gentle, efficient cruise, we did the math and knew we only needed 4 liters more diesel to reach the next service station. Hopefully, after the 1,525 kilometres since we last filled up in Quilpie, there were enough dregs in the sub-tank to get us there.

The moment the bowser dispensed 171.9 liters of diesel into our 180-litre tanks was the moment we made a mental note to forever limit our range to 1,400 kilometres, with no exceptions. Our math was accurate, but never do we want to feel the Troopy hesitate like that again. It was a close call, and we drove north all day before we’d finally been able to laugh about it. Amongst the mirth, we would unwittingly stumble upon that moment of absolute peace we’d been looking for this entire journey.

The Middleton Hotel is the last remaining watering hole along the old Cobb & Co stagecoach route from Winton to Bedourie. It is categorically in the middle of nowhere. Set amongst rolling hills of Mitchell grass pierced by red, rocky outcrops, the hotel’s dusty, ramshackle demeanor was straight out of a film set. We would later learn that film sets were dreamt up straight out of this place. As we rounded into the yard, an old, disheveled stagecoach lay baking in the harsh sun on the right. On the left, fuel bowsers from the 1920s teeter behind rusty gates. On the porch, a figure sat motionless by an open front door. “G’day mate, how ya going?” he suddenly piped up. His Akubra hat looked like it had seen more adventures and had more stories to tell than our Land Cruiser, which had nearly 300,000 kilometres on the clock. He eased himself up, shuffled inside, rounded the bar, and waited.

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It’s hard to put into words the evening that followed. If you’ve been to the Middleton Hotel and had the absolute honor of having a yarn (or chat) with the owners, there’s a strong chance you’ll know precisely what we mean. Walking inside the hotel takes you back in time anywhere from 50 to 144 years, depending on where you look. History is everywhere, and the place is packed with character. As the sun eased itself lower and lower outside, the stories began to roll out from behind the bar, one by one. For weeks we had been chasing pastoral history across the desert, and here, in front of us, was the real deal. We heard how he worked the stations of Birdsville as a drover in the 1950s, caught feral camels across the Simpson Desert in the 1960s, and tried his hand at the rodeos in the 1970s before buying his station in the 1980s—long before even telephone lines reached this far out west. With each story, there would be a photograph or two amongst a dusty pile of clutter that offered a faded window into what life out here was really like. His stories were raw and hard as nails. In one evening, the last three weeks and 3,000 kilometres of remote travel were brought to life by the Outback spirit of one wildly larger-than-life character.

The stories didn’t all come easy, however. Between tales of rounding up cattle on horseback, sleeping rough under the stars, or walking camels for days on end, the fellow’s vivacity paused. Sentences like, “Yeah mate, it’s all just about over for me” and “I’ve had a few health problems, and I just haven’t bounced back like I thought I would,” pierced our wonder and awe. He’d stutter as he searched his usual reservoir of dry one-liners, only to come up empty. “We’re just too isolated out here now. We’ve got to get out.” The first thing he’ll do when someone buys the pub, he told us, is catch the Indian Pacific train from Adelaide to Perth. He’s never been out West and has one last big adventure left in him.

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That night left its mark on us. As we walked across the road from the pub to the “Hilton Hotel,” a patch of dust that patrons are welcome to camp on, our heads were swimming. This wasn’t how we had planned to cross Queensland. We came out here to clear our heads, and this wasn’t exactly how we thought that would happen either. There was something in the life stories of an Outback legend that had unsettled and inspired us both at the same time. In that dusty, unglamorous campsite opposite the characterful, old pub, we lay back and let it all out.

The world we had planned to spend years traveling through had changed immensely since we left home. With our future on the road seemingly out of our hands, we came out here to escape the noise. Against the silence of the Outback—where the only noise at night is the sound of your breath—we realized that in this upheaval, we might just have the greatest opportunity to create something entirely new. Yes, the world has changed, and our plans will have to change with it, but it’s the challenge of working through those changes that means we too can build our collection of stories and the way things were during our own moment in history. As the “old mate” behind the bar put it, “Our last big adventure might be the best one yet.”

Read more: 20 Things You’ll Learn Driving Across Australia

Hailing from the goldfields of Victora, Australia, Antony Austin is one of the quiet ones. Part musician, part photographer, and part adventurer, his creative outlets aim to capture the pursuit of peace and contentment through travel. In 2019, Ant and his partner, Emma, left home to chase a long-held ambition to drive around the world. That three-year plan unraveled in six months as the global events of 2020 unfolded. Through that experience and the unplanned adventures that followed, Ant and Emma learned the importance of living a life less adrift. They continue to lead a semi-nomadic life, holding on to that long-held ambition to explore the world in their trusty Toyota Landcruiser.