Our Outback Towns
Queensland’s classic outback towns embody the great Australian frontier spirit. From Mount Isa to Longreach, Winton to Charters Towers, here’s how to get a genuine taste of the Aussie bush, writes Lee Atkinson.
Orange is the new black in Mount Isa. Dressed up in lurid orange overalls and a matching hard hat with a lamp, a group of adventurous travellers have been squeezed into a steel cage to descend deep beneath the remote outback mining town on a guided tour of the Hard Times Mine.
The tours are led by former miners, and by the time you emerge, blinking into the sunlight two-and-a-half hours later, you really have a feel for what life would have been like for those who once toiled almost two kilometres below the surface. The best bits are the off-the-script stories that emerge during the tea break in the crib room.
In western Queensland, the things you see in the museums, like the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach, aren’t just facsimiles: they’re a reflection of real life. Take the fascinating exhibition on the Royal Flying Doctor Service at the Hall of Fame as an example. Here you’ll get a remarkable close-up look at one of the planes that once patrolled this vast, sparse region, saving lives.
Everything that you’ve ever heard about outback Queensland is true. Well, probably. It’s a place of immense skies and wide horizons, big hats and stockmen wearing rodeo buckles, who tell wild yarns full of mysteries, histories, explorers and adventurers, past and present.
All you have to do is pull up a stool in a classic old pub like the North Gregory Hotel in Winton, famous as the place where Banjo Paterson’s iconic ballad Waltzing Matilda was first performed back in 1895, and where the founders of Qantas decided to start an outback airline. (There’s a museum dedicated to them in Longreach – it’s one of the only places in the world you can walk out onto the wing of a 747).
It won’t take you long to find yourself immersed in a chat with a local, although whether the tales are tall or true depends on the storyteller – but you can guarantee they’ll always be entertaining.
Winton, surrounded by red rocky ranges and vast yellow-brown plains that seem to stretch forever, is such a quintessential outback town that it’s become Australia’s red-dirt version of Hollywood. Dozens of films and TV series and movies have been filmed here, including Goldstone, Mystery Road and The Proposition in recent years. The annual Vision Splendid International Film Festival is screened in one of the country’s last open-air cinemas.
Charters Towers, a five-hour drive to the north-east, is another classic outback town, albeit a whole lot grander than most. Gold was discovered here in 1871, sparking one of Queensland’s largest gold rushes and giving birth to one of the most beautiful inland cities in the country. It remains a showpiece of that era, with ornate buildings that flaunted the wealth of its inhabitants at a time when the town was known as “The World” because it was said that anything could be had in the Towers, leaving no reason to travel elsewhere. It hasn’t been discovered by film and TV location scouts yet, but it won’t be long. Go there now, so you can say you were there before it was famous.
Images of Stockman's Hall of Fame; Qantas Founders Museum and Lake Moondarra sunset drinks, courtesy of photographer Graham Werner.
Need to Know
These legendary Queensland towns are at the heart of our 14 Day Essence of the Outback tour.
See – begin in Cairns before visiting the Woodleigh cattle station en route to Undara Volcanic National Park, home to ancient and fascinating lava tubes. Then it’s all aboard the Gulflander Train for a journey through savannah country before heading to Karumba in the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Stay – enjoy a two-night stay in Mount Isa.
Experience – head to Winton, stopping over in Cloncurry to visit the Waltzing Matilda Centre, the only museum in the world dedicated to a song. Then it’s on to Longreach the next day, where experiences include the Qantas Founders Outback Museum and cruising the Thomson River. Stunning Carnavon Gorge is the next stop, then, on Day 11, Minerva Hills National Park and the town of Emerald are on the itinerary. Step back into gold-rush glory in Charters Towers the next day, and visit spectacular Paronella Park on the way back to Cairns.