The border between Queensland and the Northern Territory extends down almost half the length of the continent of Australia. Yet there is only one paved interstate that connects the two.
In the Northern Territory, we turned at the three ways and headed towards Queensland. The long, straight road stretches across a flat plane. Along the way, we saw our first Thorny Devil. Since there was no traffic in either direction – and we could see all the way to the horizon – we got down onto the road with the peculiar lizard covered with horns. He posed for a photo shoot and was a great distraction in the middle of the outback.
On our first night in Queensland, we turned off the paved road onto a dusty track about half a kilometer in. We parked next to a lone gum tree. The smooth white trunk of the gum glowed pink in the setting sun and the grassy plains swayed like a golden sea in the light breeze. It was quiet and peaceful.
Queensland proved to be a mix of camping in the outback among ghostly creatures and meeting up with friends many of whom we met somewhere else first along the way in our travels.
An outback camping experience that we will remember for years to come is the mournful cry heard on a moonless night in the ghost town of Mary Katherine.
Mary Katherine was once a planned settlement built in a shallow valley about six kilometers away from the uranium mine that employed its inhabitants. At its peak of prosperity, 1,200 people inhabited this small town 70 kilometers away from the next settlement.
When the mine filled its last contract in 1982 the townsfolk left. The buildings were razed and all that remains are broken roads and concrete slabs where homes, small stores, and churches once stood.
It is now a respite for long-haul travelers to stop for the night as they pass through. We drove into the ghost town and chose a nice concrete slab on which to camp. Maps.me (we have since switched to Organic maps) told me we were parked on 15th Street. There were a few other campers in the distance on the other side of town but we saw no one wandering around. The evening was quiet and peaceful until we heard a mournful cry that sounded like a tortured soul.
Our windows and door were wide open as they are most nights to let the cooling breeze flow through.
Midnight cries in the ghost town
Once the colors of the sunset had faded into the night Mary Kathleen became black as a highwayman’s heart. Creatures began to rustle the leaves outside but not one could be seen.
I heard the cry first from a distance as if a child was in distress. Then it came closer and became more of a sorrowful cry. Whatever creature was emitting this mournful sound was growing closer, but we could see nothing in the darkness.
Soon the sound was just below our window.
“What is that?” Trin whispered. I did not know the answer.
Soon the wailing moved on and eventually faded in the distance.
The following morning I woke to a noise right next to my ear. I lifted my head from my pillow and there on the other side of the screen was a large bull peacefully eating the grass next to Lil’ Beaut.
We spent the day wandering through Mary Kathleen looking at the sites where the town center used to be. We read all the information signs telling us what once was. Behind the town, the uranium pit is filled with bright blue water and can be viewed from the walking trails.
We also learned that seepage of radioactive water from the toe of the dam and the surface is at a much higher rate than initially predicted.
“Maybe the creature wailing last night drank too much water here?” I said to Trin.
We enjoyed the peace and quiet of the small valley so we stayed a few nights. Days were spent wandering around the trails and writing. Trin changed the oil. He faithfully changes it every 5,000 km. This was a great spot to do so since we were parked on a concrete slab.
Cry of the Curlew
A few weeks later we learned that the mournful visitor in the dark was a curlew. It’s a tall, slender bird whose large eyes accented by a black outline gives them a sad look that matches their cry. They often stand and stare as if they are trying to look into your soul.
Each region of Australia has new sounds that we hear, some new exotic birds or animals. Mary Kathleen was our first time to hear the cry of a curlew, but we didn’t actually see a curlew until we reached the waterhole above Babinda and camped at a free park by the natural pools.
After leaving Mary Kathleen we traveled east to Cloncurry and then took a left heading north up to the Savanna Way.
The Savannah Way is a self-drive tourist route only part of which is paved. The unpaved section is an outback adventure over rough roads and tricky creek crossings. We skipped the part requiring 4WD.
We overnighted near the Quamby Pub on our way north. The Quamby Pub is only a remnant of what was once a customs house from the 1860s. The roof is sagging and many of the boards around the sides are missing or broken on the ground. In front of the pub is a single faded phone booth. A dim light glows from it at night offering travelers a rescue line in case of breakdown. There is no water or settlements for miles around.
As we tucked in for the night a strange eerie sound began to whisper with the wind. At first, it was a singular whistle, but then was joined by a chorus of what sounded like a hundred damned souls crying out. The wind outside blew through the holes of the metal fence posts that ran for miles along the fields. The changing tones and intensity continued for most of the night.
“We should watch a horror movie tonight,” I said to Trin. It was the perfect setting.
Bush camping in the outback has been strange and wonderful.
People of Queensland
Along the coast, we stopped in for tea with Thomas and Lina. We ended up having a nine-day adventure in Mission Beach with them.
Further south we stopped near Gympy to see our friend Lisa whom we met in Panama in 2017. We had been anticipating and looking forward to this visit. When we finally arrived she said, “Surprise! We sold the house and are moving but I didn’t want you to not stop by.”
We stayed the week and I hope we were at least a bit of help with the packing. I thoroughly enjoyed the hours being able to spend with Lisa again just talking and catching up with her life. Time is a luxury we never seemed to have enough of before we retired. Often, time with friends was far too limited. What a luxury to be able to sit for hours talking and building deeper relationships.
We camped for the week out on Lisa’s massive piece of land where cows, horses, and koalas wandered. At night the koala bears grunted and made a racket. The neighbor dog who panted like a sow would also wander by looking for Cowboy, Lisa’s dog. They stayed out late together on their own little adventures.
Life on an Island
Just before leaving Queensland, we caught up with the parents of one of our best friends from North Carolina. They graciously invited us into their home and took us on a tour of their island. We spend mornings riding bicycles. Their helmets had a dozen or so zip ties sticking out of them. They were supposed to be a deterrent during the swooping season to keep away the Australian magpies. They are known for leaving nasty gashes on the head that can require stitches.
In the evenings we ate dinner together and enjoyed long discussions about politics, retirement, and life in general.
We love the outback, the solitude, the adventure, and even the strange sounds in the night. Even more, we love the opportunity to just “be” with people. Time to listen and time to experience is more valuable to us than any five-star hotel.
Have you taken the opportunity lately to be alone or an opportunity to spend hours with one friend? Or maybe your next opportunity is to learn more about something that sounds scary right now, but after you find out the truth – maybe it’s just a beautiful bird. Maybe finding the truth and reducing fear is your next blue door.
Where we are now:
We have completed the Big Lap around Australia! Our Lil’ Beaut is up for sale and admittedly it is going to be sad to see her drive away. We hope the new owners have just as much fun as we have.
During this transition, we are in Sydney house sitting and waiting to see if the borders to New Zealand open early next year. I will still be writing posts about places we have visited here in Australia now that we have some downtime. Australia has so much to see and there is no way to cover them all. I hope you come to see this stunning continent for yourself someday.