Route: Winton in outback QLD, to Emerald via Longreach, then north to the Whitsundays town of Bowen.
By the Places We Go team
QLD conjures up images of endless coastline, sparkling waters, the Great Barrier Reef, lush rainforest, and plenty of sunshine.
But it’s a huge state, and you simply must check out what lies inland. Because Outback QLD is absolutely worthy of your time, and even better if you can couple it with a trip to the beach.
The outback has always attracted us. We love the stretches of land where you can see nothing but the horizon, as well as the charming pubs, colourful characters, and all the stories there are to learn.
We began our outback-to-the-coast road trip in the town of Winton in Central QLD – about 900km from the eastern coastline. For such a small town – population 875 – it is big on reasons to visit. Among its major attractions are the Dinosaur Trackways at Lark Quarry where you will discover fossilised footprints of the only known dinosaur stampede in the world.
Or immerse yourself in one of Australia’s most famous anthems: Waltzing Matilda was penned here by Banjo Paterson in 1895. Have a drink at the North Gregory Hotel in town, said to be the first place the iconic bush poem was performed, and visit the Waltzing Matilda Centre, the first museum in the world dedicated to a song.
We went a step further and travelled to Combo Waterhole out of town, a billabong said to be part of Banjo’s inspiration. It was impossible not to burst into song once on its banks.
Winton remains a hub for bush poetry, and modern poets perform in local establishments as well as events such as the annual Outback Writers’ Festival and Outback Festival.
Tear yourself away from this quaint, historical town and head south-east along the Landsborough Highway for about two hours until you hit Longreach.
Another small town with loads to offer, Longreach is famous as one of the founding centres for our national airline, Qantas. A drive along the main street will take you to a Boeing 747 proudly stationed by the side of the road outside the Qantas Founders Museum.
Elsewhere, Longreach celebrates its outback history and heritage with the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, a fascinating museum dedicated to the lives and stories of stockmen, explorers, and Aboriginals on the land. It’s a must-visit for any Australian or overseas visitor.
When you drive between Longreach and Emerald on the Landsborough Highway, you will pass through the small outback town of Barcaldine. Here, the famous 200-plus-year-old Tree of Knowledge, positioned in front of the town’s railway station, is known as the birthplace of the Australian Labour Party and the location for the first Australian shearers’ strike.
Barcaldine – or ‘Barky’ to the locals – is known as the ‘Garden City’ of Outback QLD, and you will note all the wide tree-lined streets are named after trees. While here, wander along the fascinating Bougainvillea Heritage Trail.
We managed to be in town in the lead-up to one of the town’s most-anticipated events – the annual goat races in the Tree of Knowledge Festival (late April-early May). Yes, this is a ‘thing’, and the locals were all too happy to give us a run on their goats during a training session.
Our adventure in outback QLD ended near Emerald, in the little town of Rubyvale, famous for its gem mining. We joined Peter Brown from Rubyvale Gem Gallery in his backyard – literally the gem fields – where he has made his living unearthing beautiful stones that he sells in his gallery.
Underground, we learned what the life of a gem miner is really like, and the work involved in digging for these precious stones. We ended up conceding it is much easier perusing his gallery for them than finding gems ourselves.
It was time to hit the coast and enjoy the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean and the Whitsundays Coast. Our adventure would finish in Bowen – a town on the Whitsundays Coast famous for its relaxed atmosphere, yet spectacular location.
Quieter than its southern neighbour, Airlie Beach, Bowen welcomes visitors with the Big Mango situated on the Bruce Highway at the visitors’ centre. It is an absolute must to stop here and have a photo taken with the gigantic structure, and of course try the delectable Bowen mango sorbet available at the shop there.
In town, we relaxed at NRMA Bowen Beachfront Holiday Park where you can literally take a few steps from your beachfront cabin to the water and throw in a fishing line.
We were welcomed by the park and its loyal holidaymakers at their regular happy hour drinks where we met and shared stories with guests who had been coming to this part of the world – and this park – for many years. ‘A home away from home, with all the benefits of the Whitsundays’ was the sentiment that was shared among all, and we couldn’t help but feel like we had struck a little piece of QLD gold.
Clint and Charli tried their luck catching dinner straight off the boardwalk that fronted the park, but when luck wasn’t on their side, we meandered into town to visit the Bowen Fisherman’s Seafood Co. Here, they sell fresh fish that is brought in by their trawler directly to the wharf behind them, and have their own café called Birds Bar where you can indulge in fish and chips or a local prawn platter right by the sea.
On the Sunday we were there, we couldn’t stay away from the weekly markets held next door to BIG4 Bowen at Hansen Park. We met the local mascot, a roving mango, and many of the passionate local producers who leverage Bowen’s standing as Australia’s ‘salad bowl’, growing abundant fruit and vegetables including the Bowen or Kensington Pride Mango.
From mango jam to mango leather, they know how to make the local fruit into a variety of gourmet goodies, and it was a delight to wander around trying everything and grabbing souvenirs.
Bowen is North QLD’s oldest town, and as you wander about the main streets you can relive its history via the 27 painted murals that adorn various buildings. Then prepare to feel a little déjà vu as you try to picture where you have previously seen the Bowen Jetty and pub…until you realise parts of the film Australia with Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman was shot here.
Finally, one of the best ways to spend your time in Bowen is on one of the eight beaches, and Horseshoe Bay is our top pick. A small bay framed by rocks at either end, it is child-friendly and perfect for soaking up that famous QLD sunshine.
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