Survivor Down Under: My outback drive for a luxury artesian bath

While it is on the must do list for every visitor to Australia, despite living in Australia my whole life, the ‘outback’ isn’t a place that has ever been terribly high on my to do list. I put this down to a few factors. One, I’m not a camper; my idea of roughing it is a 3 star motel. Two, when I travel I like to be busy seeing lots of things close to each other; everything in the outback is seriously spaced out. Three, I don’t really like driving for too long and everything in the outback is a really long way away. Finally, and this one’s a biggie, there’s the plethora of things that can kill you in the Australian outback; my main fear being of the reptilian kind. All these combined have limited my exploration of outback Australia thus far. However in my quest to fly places around Australia I decided that I couldn’t just do a ‘touch n go’ visit and needed to actually overnight in some of the airport pins I’d thrown at the map. 

So with the need to overnight to truly say I’d ‘been there’, I looked at the flight routes and then figured out where I would overnight. The flights that lead to this dilemma were the Regional Express milk run flight from Townsville through to Mt Isa, via Hughenden, Richmond and Julia Creek. I’d ruled out Hughenden because it was the first stop on the route, ruled out Richmond because I’d lived in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond before and figured that was the Richmond I wanted to remember. I was already going to be visiting Mt Isa anyway so that only left me with Julia Creek to visit. I did a few searches on Instagram to see what there might be to see in Julia Creek. The top results are of claw foot baths in cute cabins overlooking the sunset across the plains. It turns out there was something for me in Julia Creek other than just the airport. So it was time to start planning for my outback bathing experience. 

Julia Creek Outback Road
Julia Creek Signage

The practicalities of visiting Julia Creek, a town of a mere 511 people in 2016 (we’ll see how many are counted in this years census) made it an adventure. I’d planned out a few possibilities. Option 1 was fly there on the Wednesday flight and then wait till the Friday flight to come move along the line. With no rental cars in Julia Creek and not a lot to do in town, that would leave a few potentially awkward days to fill in, so that was quickly dismissed. The second option was to fly into town then take either the bus or train between towns. This was definitely the cheapest option, but the trains also only ran twice a week, in the middle of the night and the bus times weren’t much better. In the end the most practical way was to fly through Julia Creek to the next major city, rent a car and drive back… for the night… have a bath. 

After making all the bookings the day of travel finally arrived and to my dismay there was no-one wanting to fly into or out of Julia Creek that day. As a result my three stop flight became a two stop trip as my flight over flew Julia Creek and went express from Richmond to Mt Isa. I was the only passenger on the flight, which I’ve reviewed separately so arrived into Mt Isa as the only person in an empty airport terminal. My lonely bagged popped through the baggage carousel curtain and then the carousel stopped abruptly. I waited for the car rental to open and then picked up the keys to a cute little SUV and headed east for the 266km drive from Mt Isa to Julia Creek. On this journey I’d only pass one other town; Cloncurry, on a journey that is 2km longer than the width of The Netherlands. 

Julia Creek Dunnart
Julia Creek Dunnart Enclosure

The journey from Mt Isa to Cloncurry was interesting as I navigated through the ochre-red Selwyn Ranges. On my return I went off the main road to visit an abandoned uranium mine, but on the way out I was on a mission to get to Julia Creek before the key attractions closed. Being a Friday, most wouldn’t reopen till the Monday so it was a race against the sun to get to Julia Creek. With Cloncurry in the rear view mirror the landscape flattened out as I passed numerous floodways that I’d seen from above cutting their way across the land. While they looked majestic from the sky, at ground level they were bumpy as hell designed for tough road train tracks and not this plastic SUV I was driving. A reptilian quickly slithered across the road as I drove along, re-instilling the my fear of the outback. After 3 hours of driving on now straight and flat, although rather bumpy roads I arrived in Julia Creek. 

While the Instagram pictures of relaxing baths were the main draw card, there is a much smaller reason to visit Julia Creek. Tucked away in an old cottage at the visitor centre is Julia Creek’s smallest resident. The Julia Creek Dunnart is about the size of a mouse and bounces with his pointy nose and attentive ears towards the glass of its enclosure as I enter the darkened room. I’m the only visitor and get to spend some time watching him bounce around; clearly a showman who knows how to draw your attention. The Dunnart is native to the area and is endangered. A rehabilitation area has been set up on the grounds of the airport to allow the local population to grow without the threat of become a meal from a passing fox. After taking more photos than is necessary and falling in love with this cute little creature the centre was closing so it was time to move on. If you visit Julia Creek, make sure you don’t leave without visiting the dunnart. 

I walked the main street of Julia Creek which has a couple of mural art works on few of the buildings and couple of small museums. One of the museums housed a small cabinet with a collection of bottles, which reminded me of the bottle museum in Winton; bottles must be a country thing. Its a quiet little town with not much activity on a Friday afternoon as the few local stores closed up for the week. With everything closing up, it was then time to check out my bed for the night.

If you recall from the start of this story, one of the reasons I haven’t explored the outback before is the need to rough it in dodgy accommodation. After passing the snake on the drive into town, I was about to conquer another fear of the outback by staying at the local caravan park. I’m trying not to be a snob, but I know I am when I say that caravan parks just don’t draw me in. Communal showers, toilet dump points and tents are just not things that appeal to me. Fortunately for me the local caravan park had fully contained cabins on site, and I was booked into one of these. The caravan park is also home to the outdoor baths, so how bad could it be?

On arrival I was greeted by the friendly operators of the park who gave me my cabin key and time slot for my sunset bath. While the bath booking was for a set period of time, as I was the last booking of the day I was told I could come in earlier and stay as long as I was out by 8 when the final clean of the day started. So far the caravan park life was a lot better than I had expected. 

I drove around to my two bedroom cabin complete with a queen bed and four bunk beds. There was a small kitchen, lounge and dining area and a bathroom. Everything was clean, fresh and comfortable, importantly featuring air conditioning in both the living area and bedrooms. The cabin had a small porch with a table and chairs were I sat and caught up on some writing. My fears of roughing it were greatly over exaggerated. This was a really comfortable, quiet and relaxing place to spend a night. 

As the sun began to go down I made my way over to the baths. There are a combination of huts and rainwater tanks lined up along the edge of the park overlooking the seemingly endless fields surrounding Julia Creek. My baths were inside one of the converted rain water tanks. One of the park managers greeted me on the path to the baths and reminded me to put up the privacy sign so I wasn’t interrupted. Nothing like getting naked in the outback. 

Entry to the tank was via two giant double sliding doors that opened about a quarter of the tank to the view of the landscape. Inside sat two white claw foot baths, a wine barrel between the baths housing the taps and spout and a central wooden ledge which would have been perfect for a glass of wine or cheese platter (I really should have planned ahead). I ran a hot bath, hung my clothes on the carefully placed hooks and slid into the water. I thought to myself that caravan park life isn’t as rough as I thought it was. 

I lay there soaking in the warm artesian basin waters watching the sky change from bright blue to orange to a red horizon and brilliant dark blue skies. As the water began to cool and darkness filled the night sky I got out of the bath, dried off and wandered back to my cabin to get ready for dinner. 

There were two pubs in town; a Queenslander and a modern pub, with both offering dinner. I was recommended to go through modern pub so drove the few hundred meters into town and had a rather unpleasant steak. After dinner I drove by the water tower which is lit up each night in a rainbow of colours. Despite the streets of town being in an almost grid like pattern, in the pitch black darkness I got lost and had to use a map to find my way back to my cabin. Country dark is different to city dark. 

I had a great night sleep in the complete darkness and stillness of the caravan park. I was woken in the morning as the park came to life with campers packing up their caravans and tents. The only cafe in town was closed so got a hot chocolate and toastie at the local supermarket (as ya do) before continuing my journey back towards Cloncurry. 

Despite not even doing a touch n go landing by air in Julia Creek, I’d had an adventure coming here. Preconceptions of caravan park and outback life were re written as I soaked beneath the clear night sky in the artesian waters of Julia Creek. And so that is how I ended up in Julia Creek, for nothing more than a bath.

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