Following the Big Wet - 2011 Trip – Part 13: Diamantina NP

Saturday, Oct 29, 2011 at 14:44


A cool morning saw us on the road early, heading across rolling open country towards the old homestead that now serves as the park headquarters and visitor centre. There was a cluster of small buildings and one of these housed a small display of photos and objects depicting the history of the area. The buildings are set on a low rise and seem very exposed in this harsh environment – even in winter it seemed hot and there was a relentless wind blowing.

The 507 000 hectare Diamantina National Park was formerly a pastoral holding called Diamantina Lakes. The property was sold to the Queensland Government and became a national park in 1992. It stretches across weathered sandstone ranges in the east, down to the floodplains of the Diamantina River and its tributaries, then across Mitchell grass plains to dune-fields reminiscent of deserts further west.

In the past, aboriginal people moved through every part of this landscape and their connections to the land still remain strong. The park is home to many rare and threatened species. Lake Constance and Hunters Gorge are important wetlands and support breeding populations of many resident and migratory birds.

The homestead is situated close to Hunters Gorge, one of two permanent waterholes created by the Diamantina Gates, a gap between the Goyder and Hamilton Ranges through which the Diamantina River flows in narrow braided channels.

After looking around the homestead and visitor’s centre we set out to Janet’s Leap, a lookout above the river, to see the Gates and the channels of the Diamantina that run between them. Janet’s Leap is so named because at the handing over of the property someone remarked that Janet Holmes a’Court (who sold the property to the Qld government) might as well jump off the cliff as sell the property to National Parks. Of course she didn’t jump and the results of the transfer are now there to be seen by visitors.

The road up to the lookout climbs through eroded gullies then goes across the flat rocky top of the hills to the lookout. From there the rocky headlands that form the Gates are easily seen along with the muddy river channels, coolabah forest and lignum that covers the width of the river channels. It must be a truly awe inspiring sight when the river is rising and water is forced through the gates. A sign at the lookout conveys the drama of such an event in 2007:
“My recollection is that no rain was falling on Diamantina Lakes but Dave raced over from his quarters and said, “If you want to see a phenomenon grab your binoculars and get up to the homestead,”…”The Diamantina is coming through the Gates.” …once in flood it plunges through Hunters Gorge a raging torrent and fills to overflowing the five channels sweeping out over the plains devouring everything in sight. I gazed in awe. In an incredibly short space of time, none of the yards, not even a fence post, was visible.”

Behind us was a maze of deeply eroded gullies and they too presented a dramatic scene. Imagination came into play again, thinking of the difficulties of mustering cattle in such rough and broken country.

Up on the plateau the wind was blowing steadily but there were numerous shrubs out in flower, defying the harsh conditions. There were bloodwoods with masses of creamy flowers and red and blue Eremophilas adding a splash of colour.

Eventually the incessant wind drove us down off the plateau and from there we drove around to Hunters Gorge, one of only two camping areas in the park. There were half a dozen other campers there but we were able to get a site overlooking the big waterhole. A pit toilet and self-registration station are the only facilities provided.

Once set up we did some exploring, although it was too hot for much exertion. Sitting in the shade of the big coolabahs along the banks and watching the small number of waterbirds filled in the hottest part of the afternoon. Later in the afternoon a pig came down from among the lignum to swim, and as the sun set there were dramatic colours on the rocks of Mt Mary, seen across the water from our camp.

Next morning we drove around to check out the Gum Hole Creek camping area before setting out on the Warracoota circuit drive. There we found a smaller camping area with half a dozen shady bays spread out along a small waterhole and conveniently close to the start of the Warracoota circuit.

The drive around the one-way Warracoota circuit is approximately 87 km and takes 4-5 hours. It’s a self-guided drive to explore pastoral relics and learn about the desert landscape and its importance to the aboriginal people. The park guide that we picked up at the visitor centre provided detailed information about stopping points of interest.

Although it took us a full day to complete the circuit it only covers a small part of the park. It does though take in all of the main land and vegetation types so gives a good overview of the park as a whole. It took us to old cattle yards, across vast mud flats
and gibber plains, through sandhills and across Mitchell grass plains. There were some impressive big waterholes, including Lake Constance where permanent water and an abundance of live mussels reminded us of the value of these places to both aboriginals and early settlers alike.

The old yards, especially the bronco yards emphasised the sheer hard labour that was needed to work the property, and the isolation endured by the men (and the few women) who worked this land in the early days of settlement. In the centre of the bronco yards is a sturdy frame. A beast would be lassoed by a stockman on horseback and then pulled against the frame by men on the ground who would then hold the animal down while necessary tasks – branding and castrating - were carried out. Very hard work, and often dangerous as well.

Although now a national park, there were still signs of cattle – hoofprints across the claypans, and we saw one or two cattle in the distance. There are some remains of small stone structures where shepherds may have lived – their history and use is unclear but they were certainly very isolated.

During our drive we saw very little wildlife, just a couple of emus, a few brolgas and one wedgetail eagle in a nest – probably a young one as it stayed on the nest while we took photos. There were a few wildflowers to be seen – a grevillea, hakea, two different Eremophilas, hop bush and of course lots of coolabahs and gidgee.

It was a very interesting day, giving us a wonderful opportunity to get a feel for the scale of this property. Imagine working it without mechanised transport, using just horses or camels for transport. We were surprised that there were so many sand dunes, and fascinated by the mosaic of mud flats interspersed with productive Mitchell grass areas. Overall it was the vastness and emptiness of the country that really made an impression on us, and it was hot even though it is the middle of winter (if such a season exists there). We only saw one other vehicle during our drive, a lone vehicle going the wrong way around the loop. We were lucky we didn’t meet on some of the blind corners on the track.

Back at camp Troopy provided a refreshing shower and we enjoyed the shade of the river red gums that line this waterhole, their white bark making them stand out from the more common coolabahs. A flight of brolgas closed the day.
Tomorrow we will head back to more populous placesBoulia and north to Mt. Isa.

J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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