STRANGE LIGHTS AND DINOSAURS
As winter approaches, my thoughts don’t turn to snow-capped mountains and log fires, but rather red dirt plains and wide blue skies. The cooler months are the ideal time to explore Queensland’s outback, and hitting its dusty roads is the only way to get to fully appreciate the scale, complexity and beauty of this rugged, wild and bizarre landscape.
After flying into Mount Isa, we pick up our four-wheel drive camper and despite the kids’ pleas to don hard helmets and mining suits and venture underground (my idea of hell!) we press on, keen to embark on the first 300 kilometres of our journey. Signs stating “G’day” and “Welcome to the Min Min Byway” announce the theme of our journey; ahead lies a long flat stretch of tar, disappearing into infinity with nothing but scrub and red dirt on either side.
This is hauntingly beautiful country; massive outcrops loom from nowhere, red boulders stacked randomly as if by aliens; mesas reminiscent of thed Arizona desert catch the afternoon light, turning spectacular shades of red, russet and indigo; while wedge-tailed eagles hover in the thermals above, reading to swoop on roadkill.
The town of Boulia appears quietly, unassumingly, 300km south of Mt Isa. There’s not much to see in this sleepy outpost – a cobweb-covered collection of old farm machinery and dinosaur bones serve as a labour-of-love museum, there’s only one pub, and once a year a couple of camels plod around a dusty racetrack.
But what Boulia does have is a mystery – and a great one at that. The town is home to the legend of the Min Min Lights – inexplicable glowing balls of light that, over the past 150 years or so, have terrorised locals and passers-by. So widespread is the interest in this phenomenon that Boulia has created its own theatrical attraction, the Min Min Encounter, a $2 extravaganza incorporating animatronics and fibre optics that pays tribute to the art of Outback bullshit. Up to 200 people a day visit this museum – not bad considering there really is no other reason to come to Boulia!
To further explore the legend of the Min Min Lights, drive a further 73km east on the road to Winton to the site of the original Min Min Hotel, a ruin consisting of a couple of decrepit graves and a bottle dump.
Legend has it that this was once a roaring shanty, a den of iniquity so notorious for its murders and rapes that it was burnt to the ground in retribution. It was not long after this act of vengeance in 1918 that the strange lights began to mysteriously appear, chasing unsuspecting passers-by who chanced upon the ruins.
While this makes a fascinating stop-off on the way to Winton, we don’t have time to stick around to see if the lights make an appearance. Winton is still another four hours’ drive away; though stop-offs at Cawnpore Lookout (fabulous views across the rugged countryside) and Middleton Hotel make the journey pass quickly.
Winton is home best known as the home of Waltzing Matilda – it was here that Banjo Patterson wrote the famous song we all know and love. A museum dedicated to the song is a must-see attraction in Winton, as is the Qantas Museum, where you can learn all about the history of our national airline and even tour inside jumbo jets. Make sure you do the Wing Walk tour – it’s a fantastic experience and one your kids will remember for years.
The final highlight of our outback drive is a visit to Lark Quarry, the site of the world’s only known dinosaur stampede. The kids’ eyes light up as they hear the tale of the chicken-like coelurosaurs, who, as they were drinking at a lake, were chased by a hungry theropod, leaving a chaotic mess of footprints in the mud which have been preserved by time.
As well as being able to see the whole drama played out in the fossilised footprints, we also get the chance to hold real dino-bones and rocks bearing the imprints of the prehistoric creatures.
Lark Quarry is 110 km southwest of Winton – a day trip in itself. While you can do the trip by two-wheel drive, it’s pretty rough going on mostly dirt roads, but the journey is worthwhile to see a fascinating and under-appreciated part of Australia’s long history.