South West Queensland - The Dowling Track and Kilcowera Station

Sunday, Sep 18, 2011 at 19:30

Kevin S - Life Member (QLD)

We have just returned from 8 days in the south west corner of Queensland. We were picking up on some activities that we missed when rain caused us to abort our planned trip up the Birdsville Track early in July, so this is really a follow up on Lake Eyre & Birdsville by Air & Road (Blog No 3139).

At 8.30 am on Tuesday morning, north out of Brisbane on the Daguilar Highway via Yarraman was a far better option for reaching Dalby than to dive into peak hour traffic on the Gateway Arterial. A quick coffee stop in Yarraman and we were at Dalby for lunch. The afternoon was spent getting to St George via Moonie and Westmar, which has an excellent free camp area with toilet and shower right across the road from the hotel/motel/roadhouse.

As you approach Dalby the undulations of the Great Dividing Range give way to flat rich agricultural land, much of it already planted, but some with plough furrows seeming to reach the horizon. Towards St George there are some significant forests roadside but very soon the tell tale tufts of cotton start to appear beside the road.

The Pelicans Rest caravan park has recently joined the Top Tourist Group so 10% discount from the cost of our comfortable cabin. We checked out the town including the Queensland office of Senator Barnaby Joyce, the bridge/weir on the Balonne and cairns, old and new, to mark the crossing of the Balonne at this point by Major Thomas Mitchell on St Georges Day 1846, hence the name of the town.

Day two took us to Cunnamulla, during which journey we stopped for morning tea at the small town of Ballon which figured prominently in the news during the Queensland floods last summer. The town is on Williams Creek, without a hill in sight. They had 3 meters of flood water through and around their town. I can’t even start to understand the feeling of sheer despair that must have gripped the residents as the flood waters approached. But the town is up and running again. Talk about guts!

The terrain changes as you move west. The country is lightly timbered in places and opens to native grass land in others. It is in the grass land areas that the road kill is thickest with evidence of multiple hits. There was a great variety of animals both dead and still surviving by the road side. There were kangaroos, emus, goats, possums, wild pig and others beside.
Cunnamulla is one of those country towns that are determined to make a mark. They issue a book of activities that could keep you busy for a month, but we only had a night so we used the afternoon to check the place out.

The Warrego River is a fine stream just west of the town and, of course, there is the Cunnamulla Falla, the subject of a Slim Dusty song, who overlooks the town centre with a proprietorial gaze. We followed a heritage trail and did some shopping in readiness for three days of remote living on Kilcowera Station.

There was a short sharp storm that night with bright lightening, deafening thunder claps and wind, but not much rain. So on the morning of day three, after a brief stop at Eulo (no sign of a rebuild of the burned out store as yet) we turned into Hungerford Road, aired down for the
dirt and headed off, leading a modest trail of dust. But before we decided to go this way we had looked at a sky that had turned from blue to grey and wondered if the Dept of Meteorology knew what it was talking about with a forecast of “isolated showers and possible thunder storms”, but took a punt and decided on the long way round.

About 5 minutes into the journey the first spits of rain came but abated later to allow us a dry morning tea stop and a brief detour to the ruins of Caiwarro Station which makes up part of the Currawinya National Park. There are some very nice and accessible camping spots by the Paroo River. The area is now on our “come back with the off road van” list.

Light rain started to fall during the 3 ½ km drive back to Hungerford Road and by the time we reached the turn to the Currawinya National Park headquarters there was a steady drizzle, so we mentally placed the national park on the previously mentioned list and continued to the Royal Mail Hotel at Hungerford where we had an appointment with two steak sandwiches for lunch. The folk at Kilcowera Station had advised that the Hungerford steak sandwich was not to be missed.

We were hopeful of a quick lunch so that we could be on our way before too much rain fell but there was quite a queue ahead of us. The hotel cook was up the road refuelling the Flying Doctor aircraft as it was clinic day in Hungerford. I guess multi skilling is essential in a small town. We filled in time looking around this very authentic former Cobb & Co depot.

The sandwich was all that it was cracked up to be and we were on the road again at 2.00 pm but so was a lot of rain. The precipitation had increased during our long lunch break. While the first part of the Dowling Track was reasonable, deterioration soon became evident and the slipping and sliding commenced.

For those who are not familiar with it, the Dowling Tack runs between Bourke and Quilpie and passes through Hungerford and Thargomindah. It is named after William (I think) Dowling who was a prominent pastoralist in the area and explored the Paroo and Bulloo Rivers, finding the source of both. He also discovered that the Bulloo River is a quite separate river that starts in the ranges south of Isisford and flows to the Bulloo Lakes near the NSW Queensland border. Rivers to the east flow to the Darling and those to the west flow into the Lake Eyre basin. The Bulloo water flow is retained within its closed system.

If Mr. Dowling had been with us he may way have renamed the road the Dowling River. At Hungerford we had met another couple who had also stopped in for lunch and were headed to Kilcowera. They were towing a fair sized camper trailer and were having more problems than we were. But finally we both prevailed over the 99 km of mostly slush and arrived at the shearers’ quarters on Kilcowera Station, both looking a bit the worse for wear.

The Kilcowera turn off is about 80 km south of Thargomindah and 90 km North West of Hungerford. It is another 13 km to the homestead. The station covers about 50,000 hectares of flood plains and range country and is about 50km from the front gate to the back fence. It is a cattle property now, with sheep operations closing some years ago, but the sheering shed remains. The property is run in conjunction with a neighbouring property by Greg and Toni Sherwin, who offer station stay accommodation in a modern shearers’ quarters building, in a camping area on grass at the rear of the shearers’ quarters (with some powered sites) and at a billabong side bush camping area about 3 km away that is very well set up for privacy.

The unique feature of Kilcowera is its shared boundary with the Currawinya National Park which includes the western shore of Lake Wyara. This lake is one of two that are the main features of Currawinya National Park. Lake Wyara is a brackish (salt) closed lake system and is a favourite location for breeding pelicans. As the water level drops sand banks appear and pelicans use them as predator free breeding locations. It would be safe to say that there are tens of thousands of breeding birds living on the sand banks and feeding in the lake. There are many other water birds as well as pelicans.

The lake is reached by the station 4WD tourist track which also takes in other points of farm interest such as water tanks and troughs, lookouts over the lake and lower areas and even an artesian bore named Murder Bore. Yes, a murder was committed there many years ago.
There are gorges containing caves which were used by early stockmen to shelter and a fine amphitheatre called Rustlers Roost where cattle duffers used to hide their hoofed booty. The track, including side tracks, is about 70 km and takes the better part of a day to see it properly. It leads over Mt Roy, the highest peak in the area at 231 meters.

The furthest point of the track is within the national park overlooking Lake Wyara. You can walk from there to the water. The length of the walk depends on water level in the lake but at the moment takes about half an hour each way.

When we arrived at Kilcowera, a group of five bird life photographers were in residence, there to photograph the pelicans and other birds. They were carrying cameras with lenses like canons but they were getting some top quality images and video. They added interest to an already fascinating trip with their willingness to share information and show us their work.
After two days to dry out, the Dowling Track was much improved with long smooth sections of sandy dirt interspersed with areas of gravel as the road crosses areas of gibber country. Part way along there is about 10 km of sealed surface and about 20 km out of Thargomindah the sealed surface starts again and continues right into town.

Thargomindah is a small town and on Sunday morning was quiet but fuel was available and a grocery store was open. Thargomindah is the last town before Innamincka, so is the last supply point before going really remote. Some of the activity was due to people headed for Innamincka or who were coming from there.

After refuelling we headed for the last part of the Dowling Track. Thargomindah to Quilpie is just less than 200 km. The first 23 km is sealed and work has started on the next section of about 30 km to the border of the Bulloo and Quilpie Shires. Once you cross into Quilpie territory the road is sealed for the rest of the way. Some is single lane but of good quality.

Toompine Hotel, promoted as the hotel without a town, was a handy place for lunch. It is not far into Quilpie territory. We could have sat down for all kinds of fare, but we opted for take away fish and chips. Such as decision seemed to be perversely appropriate. Back down the road to Quilpie, turn right and another 100 km and you reach the oil and dinosaur town of Eromanga, which claims to be the Australian town most distant from an ocean.

We had two nights in Quilpie. This town is only separated from Birdsville by Windorah and 630 or so km. But proximity to Birdsville is part of what keeps Quilpie going. If you want to catch the mail truck to Birdsville you catch it from Quilpie. You can do so as a tourist. It will cost you about $450 return.

On Monday morning the main street was busy with tourist traffic. Quilpie is to Birdsville what Thargomindah is to Innamincka. A small tag along group were stocking up on final supplies while travellers moving east replaced items consumed on their travels. Caravans, camper trailers and 4WDs with huge stacks of items on their roof racks were lined up along the street. One large 4WD had 7 20 litre jerry cans on the pack rack, plus other items. From our cabin in the caravan park we watched the travelling public coming and going. There is still a great deal of life left in the outback tourist season this year.

Baldy Top, back along the Dowling Track a short distance, provides panoramic views over the mostly flat country side. A climb to the top provides a view of the horizon as almost a perfect cycle, a reminder that the world is not flat after all. To the north east of the town Lake Houdraman provides picnic facilities, water flowers in season, water birds and a very decent free camping area, but without facilities.Quilpie is also the rail head with most trains coming and going in the cattle mustering season.

It is, of course, an opal town with an excellent display of opal on the front of the alter at the Catholic Church and shops selling opal in the main street.

Returning to Brisbane you pass through Charleville, Morven and Mitchell before reaching the thriving oil and gas town of Roma. At Morven we stopped for morning tea by a historic area which included a hut made of flattened kerosene tins. It will be just the thing when Europe goes belly up and USA follows it.

In Rome we met a police officer friend of our daughter. She warned of possible delays due to road works on the Warrego Highway. We counted eight major road works sites and couldn’t believe our luck that we were able to drive through all of them without stopping. I’ll bet that won’t happen again.

Next time that we venture into this area, hopefully we will be towing a caravan again with the Strzelecki and Birdsville Tracks firmly in our sights. We will be watching the scope of the wet season very closely this year.

Kevin & Ruth
It is important to always maintain a sense of proportion

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