Charleville – Longreach – Noonbah Station – Winton – Barcaldine – Shandonvale Station
In April 2021 Sigi and I had a trip into the Queensland outback with our friends Anne and Harpur. The idea was to visit a few classic outback towns along with a couple of outback farms (or stations as they are called in Australia) while exploring some of the history of the region, including dinosaur fossils up to 100 million years old and ruins from World War 2.
The first day we headed to Charleville. It was a sea of green most of the way following recent rain. Quite a rare sight out this way.
We were met at the Charleville bowser by Warwick from South West Air Services, who brought back memories of “service stations” from the 1960s with a friendly full refuelling service. Their “Flight Deck Cafe” is a great set up and, if you are an aviator and you call ahead, you can borrow (yes borrow – no charge!) their Holden Barina to get around town. Now that really is service. Driving into town a quick lunch of the best pizza in Queensland at the iconic Corones Hotel was followed by a two hour tour of said establishment by Rachel, a local font of historical knowledge. https://www.hotelcorones.com.au
Harry Corones, a Greek immigrant who arrived in Sydney in 1904 with a few coins in his pocket, built up a business empire centred on Charleville and was one of Qantas’ first shareholders and awarded an MBE for his services to regional Queensland. The hotel is his legacy and hosted numerous VIPs over the decades. Amy Johnson, the pioneer aviatrix stayed overnight and bathed in champagne to celebrate achieving her goal of flying from Britain to Australia. Harry supplied the bottles of champagne and after Amy finished her bath Rachel assured us that Harry arranged for the champagne to be returned to the original bottles and sold every last one as “the champagne that Amy bathed in”. This shows the sort of entrepreneur Harry was.
Day 2 of our trip started with the WW2 Secret Base Tour in Charleville.
This turned out to be really interesting. During our visit to the Corones Hotel the day before Rachel had told us about a top secret visit by Sir Robert Menzies (Australian Prime Minister) to Charleville in 1940 and during the tour we discovered he’d been checking the place out so that the US military could set up a secret base there. By 1942 there were 3500 US military personnel in town and the whole area was officially “off limits”. Military police checked everyone going in and out. It was a fall back location to defend the populated areas of Australia if the Japanese were to capture the north coast. The local council has started the “tag along” tours (you need a car to follow the guide) that cover a few key locations close to the airport. Our guide Luke had plenty of stories to tell about the war years and what they have been discovering about them in recent times.
Find out more about the things you can do at Charleville at: https://www.experiencecharleville.com.au
Following the tour we dropped off the Barina at the South West Air Services Flight Deck Cafe. Taking off, we headed north west to Longreach, taking around one hour. This time I was smarter than the last couple of visits and touched down half way along the 2km long runway so we didn’t have to taxi for ages to reach the apron. After refuelling we parked next to the Qantas museum and headed to Saltbush Retreat where we’d stay the night.
Later we were picked up and taken for a sunset cruise on the Thomson River (surprisingly wide and not unlike the Murray around Mildura). We saw some of local wildlife including black kites and Emmett Turtles (more on them later) who feasted on Salada biscuits supplied by the boat’s captain.
Dinner was at a great setting on the banks of river with entertainment from local singer Corinne who, after banging out a couple of country and western numbers, noticed that the public were not really C&W fans and diversified into more interesting songs, some of which she’d written herself.
Day 3 was a Qantas day. Not in the sense of flying with Qantas but just learning about the company and its aircraft. Unfortunately the Qantas cafe didn’t open until 9am so it was off to the Stockmans Hall of Fame for a quick breakfast instead. Then Harpur and I headed for the Qantas airpark tour and spent almost 2 hours being shown through the B747-200 City of Bunbury, a Lockheed Super Constellation and the B707 City of Canberra as well as a quick look into a DH DC3.
Meeting up with Sigi and Anne at the Qantas McGuinness Cafe for coffee we were soon segueing into the Wing Walk Tour that took us in more detail into the depths of the 747, including a look at the outside of the “pressure tank”, that keeps the interior of the aircraft at atmospheric pressure equivalent to that at 8000ft, and the electronics bay and cargo hold, accessed via a hatch located under a square of carpet in the forward business class section. This access was only used in extreme cases as it strangely enough tended to cause concern for some of the passengers when they saw the flight engineer descending through the floor of the cabin into the bowels of the aeroplane.
Next it was onto the flight deck where we were able to take up our positions as captain and first officer for 5 minutes while we worked out what the instrumentation was for. Finally we went out on the wing (with a lanyard) and Grant our guide showed us how to jump up and down in unison and make the tip of the wing flex! After that little adventure we headed for the museum and spent a couple of hours reading about how QANTAS was formed and grew to what it is today. We walked back to the Saltbush Motel and grabbed a shuttle into town for dinner and were soon back out at the Qantas museum for the Luminescent Longreach show – audio visual projections onto the exterior of the aircraft in the park. Did I mention? It was a Qantas day.
On day 4 it was time to head out to the real outback. We took off from Longreach and headed about 80 miles south west, following the Thomson River downstream to Noonbah Station.
Noonbah has been in the Emmett family since Angus’ grandmother won the right to buy it in a raffle in the early 20th century. Angus grew up here and did all his schooling on the property. He had a variety of governesses until he started to take too much interest in them and his mother took over his schooling! Angus is needless to say a character, and a somewhat famous ornithologist as well. He has identified numerous species of birds in the area over the decades and had some birds named after him and even a turtle. He’s also a keen wildlife photographer with an amazing collection of photos to his credit. Meeting us with Banjo the dog at the airstrip, Angus dropped us off at the cottage that we’d stay in overnight. After a short break he took us for a two hour natural history tour around the property – 130,000 acres of it. Afterwards we had his wife Karen’s home baked scones and tea while meeting some of the menagerie they have around their home. This included a variety of kangaroos and wallabies and a few pythons.
A short trip took us for a view of the sunset before settling in for a home baked dinner and some good red wine. This was true outback hospitality. You can find out more at: https://www.noonbahstation.com.au
We had an early morning start for our flight to Lark Quarry to visit the Dinosaur Stampede. Angus picked us up from the cottage at 6:45 for the short trip to the airstrip and shortly after 7:30 we were rolling down the strip waving goodbye to Karen and him. Climbing out to north west it was just over 30 minutes to Lark Quarry where we buzzed the museum and then did a 500ft overfly to check out the strip. Soon after securing the plane Peter arrived in the 4WD to take us for a 5 minute drive to the museum.
Lark Quarry is the site of a stampede of dinosaurs where the footprints have been conserved in mud and fossilised and are still visible today as a result. Bec gave us a very interesting summary of how the dinosaur tracks were discovered and gradually uncovered over the past 50 years. Proof that uniquely Australian dinosaurs lived here in a temperate climate 95 million years ago. After the tour we did a short walk around the hills (or “jump up” in local lingo) and Bec drove us back out to the airstrip. After another 25 minute flight we landed in Winton and were picked up by George from the North Gregory Hotel.
The afternoon was spent in the Waltzing Matilda Centre, reading about the history of Winton and Banjo Patterson’s poem, first recited publicly in the North Gregory Hotel many years ago. Dinner was at the other grand old hotel, The Tattersalls, across the road, watching as a blood red sun sank in the west.
Day 6 was spent in Winton, home of the Outback Film Festival. George drove us out to the Age of Dinosaurs that is located on a “jump up” about 25 km outside of town. They’ve done a great job of bringing Australia’s pre-history to life.
First a visit to the lab where dedicated volunteers expose the prehistoric remains from the surrounding rock. Second a presentation on the many skeletal remains discovered near Winton. Third a walkway where lifesize replicas of the dinosaurs appear in the natural surroundings.
George dropped us back to town and just after 4 Vicki from Red Dirt Tours drove us out of town again. This time it was to the north, to another jump up to explore weathered crevasses and then the sunset with drinks and nibbles.
Day 7 it was time to head back towards Brisbane, but not before staying a couple of nights at an outback Queensland farm stay – Shandonvale Station, near Barcaldine. George drove us back out to the airport and we prepared for departure. I had originally planned to fly first to Muttaburra, a tiny settlement at the source of the Thomson River (and location of the discovery of the Muttaburrasaurus fossils) but discovered that the pub didn’t open for lunch so changed plans to fly to Barcaldine for lunch instead. As it turned out, this was a fortunate decision as there were dark clouds gathering to the east and the radar indicated heavy showers over Muttaburra. We took off and flew over the Age of Dinosaurs Museum on the jump up and then followed the Landsborough Highway towards Longreach, skirting down the western edge of the weather at 5500ft. Twenty miles from Longreach we turned and headed direct to Barcy, as the locals call it. There was low cloud in that direction so we descended early and were soon following the main highway at 2000ft. East of Longreach the brown paddocks gradually changed to green and by the time we landed we were surrounded by a sea of emerald paddocks. I’d called ahead to arrange fuel from the Barcy refuellers and Brian, the manager, arranged for his offsider Noel to meet us on arrival. After topping up the fuel he kindly drove us into town (there’s no taxi in Barcy) and gave us a bit of a whirlwind tour of the main sites before dropping us at the Tree of Knowledge. As we disembarked he gave us his mobile number so we could call him to arrange a lift back to the airport. That’s service! We inspected the Tree of Knowledge and read about the great shearers’ strike of 1891 then headed for the Ridgeedidge Café for a sandwich.
Noel had told us about the Workers’ Museum so we spent an hour learning about the history of workers’ rights in Queensland in the well laid out centre that’s located in a parklands area. After an hour or so Noel picked us up and we were soon back out at the airport. The clouds were still hanging around and were quite low, so we took off and flew at 2500ft the 36 miles north to Aramac, dodging one shower of rain as we went. Once again, the pastures below were emerald green and a sign that they’ve had plenty of rain in recent times.
I had originally planned to land at Shandonvale Station, but the owner Deon had called a few days before and told us the airstrip was too wet to land on – we’d get bogged – and that we should fly into Aramac instead. The runway at Aramac is a long sealed one and we were soon tied down and Deon’s neighbour Bryson was there to drive us the 30km to Shandonvale.
Meeting Deon and Lane (Allaine) on arrival, we transferred to our four wheel transporter and drove ourselves to the renovated shearers’ quarters that would be our home for the next two nights.
Deon apparently has a gift for interior design, as well as cooking that complement his abilities at breeding cattle, sheep, goats and a variety of other animals. He gave us 30 minutes to settle in and then took Harpur and me out to the nearby dam to set up some traps for red claw (a type of yabbie).
Back at the ranch Sigi and Ann were preparing the champagne for our trip to the elevated spa next to the creek. It’s a copper lined spa tub installed on top of an old tank stand about 5 metres up in the air that looks out over the Aramac Creek. After a few wrong turns (It appears Deon’s not as good at explaining directions as he is at interior design, cooking and breeding etc, or was it just that we weren’t listening properly – none of us?) we ended up where we were meant to be next to the creek. We climbed the stairs to the top and dangled our legs in the 41 degree bore water that was being fed continuously into the spa while sipping the champagne and watching the birdlife on the creek. Bliss.
After the sun had well and truly set, and as the remaining light faded, Harpur and I dropped Sigi and Ann at the shearer’s hut and went to collect the red claw from the traps. Each one had about 20 in it of various sizes. We threw the bigger ones in a bucket and tossed the smaller ones back into the dam. A quick shower at the shearer’s quarters and we were off to dinner at Deon and Lane’s homestead a few hundred metres away. Deon took charge of the red claw and put them in the cold room (for later) and tended a leg of lamb that had been slow roasting for a few hours while we chatted. He and Lane explained that their main reason for starting the tourist business was to combat the loneliness of living in such a remote area. They love to have the world come through their door and mixing with people from all over Australia and the world and to share with them their experiences of living in the outback. Deon also loves to share his knowledge of sustainable agriculture practices. A very interesting young couple. Needless to say, a couple of bottles of Pepperjack were enjoyed along with the lamb before we climbed aboard our transporter and headed back through the night to our lodgings.
Day 8 was spent on Shandonvale Station. Sigi and I started with a walk around the dam as the sun rose and the birds woke up (there are a lot of birds!).
We cooked up some home made camel sausages and free range eggs for breakfast. Deon arrived just after 9 on his quad bike and took us on a guided tour of the property, explaining some of their key practices including containment fencing that aims to keep feral dogs and kangaroos out.
The fences cost about $10,000 per kilometre so with about 38km of perimeter fencing it was very costly but Deon reckons they’ve already broken even on it as the kangaroos would otherwise have eaten a large portion of the grass that they need for their own stock. He showed us the comparision between one paddock that was within the containment fence and another outside it. The amount of grass in the outer one was a fraction of that in the inner one. He also explained their tree clearing philosophy. Only new growth is cleared, allowing the mature trees to grow and for grasses and shrubs to grow underneath resulting in a more diverse vegetation. In properties where there is no clearing the trees grow densely and form a canopy that stops all undergrowth and results in a monoculture. He also showed us how they are bringing clay pans back to life using a method of checkerboard undulations that capture the moisture and allow it to seep into the soil rather than just evaporating. Back at the homestead Lane took us over to feed the geese, goats, solitary pig and a few dorper sheep that she has separated for breeding purposes.
By this time it was time for lunch and Deon appeared with the red claw from the previous evening that had been cut in half and cleaned ready for barbecuing. He put them on the barby in the newly completed outdoor kitchen, trickled on some marinade, and cooked them for just a few minutes.
He also made a salad appear magically and with a bottle of riesling the lunch went down a treat.
In the afternoon we witnessed the shooting and preparation of a goat for consumption. They do everything on site and Deon is not only a crack marksman (single shot to the head) but also an expert at butchering the animals. On the way to find the goat Harpur distracted Deon with questions resulting in the ute getting bogged in a muddy hole on the airstrip (one of the reasons we hadn’t landed on it) and he had to fetch the road grader to extract it.
The goat was duly dispatched and taken back to the homestead. Harpur assisted ably with the skin removal process.
Predinner drinks were at the spa on the old tank stand next to the river again. The sun set over the river again as we pondered how green the country was and how fortunate we were to see it in such a condition. We barbecued camel steaks in the outdoor kitchen and had them with salad and a splash or two of red wine. By this stage we were ready for an early night as the next day it would be time for the big trip home.
Day 9 arrived and it was time to head for home. Not before we had a last look at the starry starry sky of the outback though. The moon was waxing from first quarter to full so tended to flood the sky with light in the evening while it was up there. So, waking at about 4am, Sigi and I headed out for a look at the sky after the moon had dropped below the horizon and it was magnificent! Within 5 minutes I saw three shooting stars and the milky way just spread across the sky from one horizon to the other. It really makes you feel small out there. Anyway, it was back to bed for another couple of hours sleep before rising to walk around the dam again and watch the birds leave their roosts and head off for the day. Back at the lodge we cooked up some home grown bacon and more of those free range eggs for brekkie, packed and loaded up the four wheeler with our bags and headed over to the homestead to meet up with Bryson who was driving us back to the airport at Aramac. Deon appeared from the house with a big grin and a large polystyrene box for us – it was a significant portion of the goat that he’d butchered the day before! Vacuum packed and cooled with sealed ice packs.
I had to do a quick recalculation of the weight and balance to make sure we could carry it all. The process of fitting everything into the back of the Cirrus would take on an extra degree of difficulty. After saying our goodbyes to Deon and Lane we were soon back at Aramac and juggling the bags to make it all fit. And fit it did, with no spillage over into the passenger compartment.
You can find out all about Shandonvale from their website:
Lifting off we headed in the direction of Roma and our track took us directly over the top of Shandonvale Station so we did an orbit overhead at about 2500ft so Harpur could take a few snaps. From there it was a climb to 7500ft down the western edge of the Carnarvon part of the dividing range. Once again we couldn’t get over how green everything was.
Just over 2 hours and we were landing at Roma where we could refuel and get a taxi into town for some lunch. From Roma it was 90 minutes to Redcliffe. I chose to fly IFR this leg even though it was clear blue sky, just to see how ATC would descend us into the Brisbane area.
A few bumps as we descended under the steps over the Brisbane River Valley and the hills west of Dayboro and we were home again. It was the end of another great trip.