North to the Devils Marbles
We are nearing the end of our time in Alice and decide to spend the last weekend with Pippa at the Ross River Resort some eighty kilometres into the East MacDonnell Ranges. We enjoy a delightful weekend in a very laid back (and pet friendly) camping area with lots of time to have a last catchup before we leave. Unfortunately we will miss Tara, who arrives back from Europe in a few days.
However you choose to leave Alice, you have a long drive ahead of you. We set off to the north with the intention of following the Stuart Highway as far as Tennant Creek and then turn to the east onto the Barkly Highway towards the Queensland border. Wikicamps tells us that a good overnight stop is to be had at the Devils Marbles Conservation Park some four hundred and twenty kilometres to the north. It is a very popular stop for good reason and is one of the few stops along this stretch of the highway. At seven dollars per night, it is a bargain. And what an amazing rock formation it is, especially in the late afternoon and early morning light.
Back to Queensland once more
Continuing to the north we enter the realm of the termites. Termite hills stretch to the horizon in every direction.
We are now entering cattle country, and soon the cleared land has been given over to the grazing of livestock. In the Northern Territory there are said to be more than two million beef cattle at any one time. Much of the original vegetation has been cleared. To drive from the Devil’s Marbles to the Queensland border is a further six hundred kilometres. The distances here continue to amaze! We are now driving for hundreds of kilometres through completely featureless country.
Mount Isa and the Gulf Country.
We hardly notice crossing the border into Queenland – the same flat country, the same empty roads. Until, that is, we reach the rocky ranges on the approach to Mount Isa.
Mount Isa Mines is reputed to be one of the most productive single mines in world history, based on combined production of lead, silver, copper and zinc. The area between Mount Isa and Cloncurry in the Queensland gulf country is all about mining!
Onward to the coast
We had planned to go across to the coast and on up to Cairns, but with another thousand kilometres to go, we are having a change of heart. When in Alice, Pippa had talked about her time on Magnetic Island off the coast of Townsville and so, thanks to the wonders of the internet, we abandon Cairns and book an AirBnb on the Island which is a twenty minute ferry ride from Townsville in north Queensland.
But we still have to get there; another few days driving!
On this road trip, we have found many excellent free camps and towns that welcome self sufficient travellers, as well as those which ban free camping and insist you go to their caravan parks. The best of the trip so far is Julia Creek where, instead of discouraging visitors, they have reserved an area near a water hole and welcome free campers and caravans to spend a night or two. Newly planted and well nourished trees provide shade and a home for many birds, the whole adding up to a really pleasant spot.
As we approach the east coast it begins to get crowded once more and we leave cold nights behind. Rivers have water in them after weeks of dry creeks. The humidity rises as we arrive in Townsville and find a parking place for the next three nights. Then it’s off to Magnetic Island for a break away from Winnie! We completed seventeen hundred kilometres of the Explorer’s Way in travelling from Port Augusta to Tennant Creek, and now the complete sixteen hundred kilometre length of the Overlander’s Way in travelling from Tennant Creek to Townsville.
Magnetic Island is a very easy going sort of place and reminds us of visits to Bali in the nineteen eighties before it all got swamped. There is little traffic. More than fifty percent of the island is designated as a national park with a reputed eight hundred or more Koala bears (although we didn’t see any – not that we were looking that hard) and many different bird species. There is a good regular bus service with cheap all day passes which runs between between Nelly bay, where the ferry docks, and the other three bays, Picnic and Arcadia bays on the south of the island and Horseshoe bay in the North. Since it is in the Great Barrier Reef marine park, the sea is flat and there is coral to be found just off the shore. We love it and it is great to have a break from driving!
Time to go home
Across in Townsville and back in Winnie we turn south, and like any good riding school pony, it is an effort to stop ourselves bolting for home. We have been on the road for nearly three months and we are full up. It’s been a wonderful adventure but it’s now time to return to Noosa. Only another twelve hundred kilometres to go. We manage to slow ourselves down a bit and first head for Airlie Beach via Bowen through the sugar cane country of north Queensland. So many more small towns now and lots more traffic on this, the number one road which circumnavigates Australia. It is the height of the season here and everywhere we go there are plenty of tourists and travellers.
In Airlie Beach, as in many of the larger towns in this part of the world, they have built an extensive lagoon on the sea shore for swimming. Swimming is safe enough for much of the year, but in the summer, in particular, there are nasties in the sea, in particular the various small jellyfish which can even kill in some circumstances. Not to be recommended!
Seaforth and Mackay
We have arranged to look up an old friend who is staying with her daughter in Mackay, so once again we continue south. Just outside Mackay, we drop in on the beach at Seaforth, which somehow has the feel of an ideal tropical location. A long empty beach lined with coconut palms with the Whitsunday Islands off in the distant haze amid a calm sea. Mmmmmm.
We have a lovely evening with our friend and her family who live in Bucasia beach some ten kilometres north of Mackay. We spend the night camped in the street outside their house, before making our run towards home. Thanks to Sue and family for such a warm welcome!
Having driven straight through Rockhampton, the cattle capital of Queensland, our last free camp is next to the Boyne River bridge, just south of Gladstone.
We are nearly home and having bought our last tank of fuel in Maryborough we drive into town to look for a cafe for the last coffee of the journey. It is Saturday and we find there is an event happening in the middle of town. A live band plays fifties country music, while locals, dressed for the part, dance in the street. The line of restored vintage cars glint in the sunshine. This is definitely a part of Australia influenced by America, so different from the York Motor Museum in Western Australia which was completely influenced by Britain and Europe. This is another of the many faces of Australia.
Back to Noosa
And so, after nearly fourteen thousand kilometres and almost three months, our road trip is done and we are back in our house in Noosa. What a trip it has been! Much more social than we anticipated, it has been a delight to catch up with friends that, in some cases, we hadn’t seen for more than thirty years. It has reminded us that Australia is indeed a huge country and that to traverse it by road is a major undertaking … one that we will probably not attempt again. We have confirmed that most people in Australia live along the coast and that there are vast areas in the centre which have extremely low populations.
At this point I would like to give a shout out to the guys at Van Works in Adelaide and Butler Mechanical in Port Augusta who did such a great job of making sure Winnie got there and back again. Also to all you out there who have followed this adventure and those who have commented or emailed your encouragement. Thanks to you all!
It would be impossible to select favourites, save to say that for Jacqui and I it has been a such a delight to spend this time together and share this adventure with each other. May there be many more in the years to come!