My travels through outback Queensland were planned to be an adventure in following in the footsteps of the history of Qantas. In my planing of the trip I misjudged how much of the ‘outback’ experience there was to see other than simply aviation landmarks. So while my time in Longreach was short, I had to stay true to the mission and dedicated a day in my trip to visit Winton. With no rental cars available at Winton airport, if I was going to explore more than the airport I needed to start and finish my journey in Longreach. With time not on my side, I finished up breakfast in a main street Longreach cafe then headed on the one road out of town to the north west towards Winton around 9 in the morning.
Despite learning to drive while growing up in regional Victoria, driving in the outback is a really different experience. I’ve lived in cities for my adult life and am used to peak hour traffic, stop start movement and it taking forever to travel small distances. Out here it was just me and the open road. After leaving the causeway on the outskirts of Longreach the speed increases to 110 kph and I start to appreciate just how big the outback really is. For the next 2 hours with the cruise control set on 110kph I won’t pass another town, only see another car every 10 minutes or so and there’ll be no mobile reception.
Cartoons travelling through remote outback regions are depicted with sparsely placed trees, vultures circling above and tumbleweed blowing across the landscape. What I saw was not much different. The road was straight and relatively flat, and vegetation was low and sparse. The odd trees broke up the landscape and eagles were effortlessly soaring high above the road. To my surprise not only does tumbleweed exist, its massive! Balls the size of large sheep blew across or along the road.
For much of the journey, the landscape was predominately flat with only minor variations to the flatness of the land as far as the eye could see. As I got closer to Winton on the left hand side there was an area of higher ground rising above the land. I latter learnt that these are called jump ups and are scattered across the region. A few kilometres before Winton there is a turn off for the Australian Age of Dinosaurs centre. I’d checked out their website and wasn’t keen on the 3 hour tour they advertised but by now, the jump up was close and in the same direction I decided to swing by and check it out anyway.
The dinosaur centre is located atop the jump up and had great views that highlighted the starkness and vastness of the drive I’d just made. To my surprise the centre offered tours shorter than 3 hours so I booked one for the afternoon then continued my drive into Winton, ready to return later in the day. Despite driving into Winton, staying true to the aviation history I was following I made my first stop in Winton the airport. With no flights arriving or departing today, the terminal was deserted. The small brick and fibro sheet terminal proudly carries ‘Winton – Home of Waltzing Matilda, Birthplace of Qantas’ on its exterior wall ready to greet the few flights that pass through this remote part of Queensland. The next day I’ll be one of those passengers who briefly stopover at the airport on my way from Longreach to Townsville.
Arriving into Winton township there are a few detours for trucks to avoid the town centre however off those detours lies a beautiful town centre along Elderslie Street. The centre medium of this street is filled with lush green grass which is such a contrast to the many shades of brown I’d experienced on the drive to get here. There are three large pubs in town. These iconic buildings presence dominates the street. The first to catch my eye is the North Gregory with its Art Deco facade. Opposite the Gregory is the Australian hotel and just down the street is the Tattersalls, both of which are a Queenslander style pub each wrapped with a balcony.
Another building of note on the street is the Royal Theatre where its open air cinema has been screening pictures since 1918. Being the middle of the day there were no showings but I can imagine it would be quite the experience to watch a film under the dark clear outback sky. I wander along the street taking a few photos, explore the volunteer run Wool and Opal museums and then settle into a local bakery for a fresh sandwich for an early lunch.
After lunch I explore the Matilda Centre, which was destroyed by fire in 2015 and has recently been reborn in this new museum. The museum tells the story of what is a very iconic song, Waltzing Matilda within a new and modern indoor gallery. Attached to the centre are some outdoor exhibits including a rail carriage, medical history room and even a museum room dedicated to glass bottles. Overall it was a little lacklustre in it’s appeal to me, and looked a lot bigger on its website than reality but was still worth a look while in town. I spent some time wandering around the town, including the strange ‘Arnos Wall’ which is a collection of what I’m probably offensively describing as ‘junk’ built into a wall. It reminded me of growing up surrounded by old pieces of machinery and stuff that my parents seemed to think had value all put into a wall.
While sightseeing was always going to be on the agenda, the main reason for visiting Winton was for its place in Australian aviation history. It was time to explore the place that Qantas first became something. The Winton Club is a modest weatherboard building a block into town from Elderslide St. While the club opened in 1913, it burnt down just 3 years later and was again severely damaged by fire in 1943. Talk about bad luck. Since then its had additions added to end up in its current form which resembles a few buildings joined together. The significance of this place in aviation history is that on February 9th, 1921 the first board meeting of QANTAS was held. Other than a sign on the wall, you’d never know that this simple site was the birthplace of what is now Australia’s largest airline and one of the longest operating airlines in the world.
A selfie was taken and then I moved onto the newest landmark in Winton. Opened only a few weeks before my arrival by the current CEO of Qantas is a metal statue marking the first landing site for Qantas. In the formative years of Qantas, it wasn’t just a matter of flying between places. They had to find places to establish airfields and landing strips across the country. At this now industrial end of town stands a steel silhouette of the Avro aircraft with the words ‘Winton: Birthplace of Qantas’. While now an industrial area, you can easily imagine the first flight touching down on this flat and dusty paddock where the sign now stands.
There is also a ‘musical fence’, yes you read that right, next to the sign. This fence is another collection of old pieces of junk that have been turned into music, or if I’m being honest, noise making devices. The idea is that you can play waltzing Matilda if you smash the equipment in the right order. I’m sure kids would love it and it makes sense why they’d place it out there in the industrial part of town as to not annoy the neighbours.
Having seen the birthplace of Qantas I quickly stopped off at a few more signs in town including the Way Out West sunset sign and the Winton sign. The town seems to have a thing about putting itself on the map, and if you search Instagram there are plenty of snaps at sunset of these iconic Winton markers.
I made my way back up the jump up to the Australian Age of Dinosaurs centre. I’d booked into a 1 hour tour which included the fossil preparation laboratory and the collection room. The fossil preparation laboratory is about a 5 minute walk along the edge of the jump from the main reception centre. The lab is a large shed full of fossils that have been collected from farms around the region and stored ready to be examined by a team of scientists and volunteers. It was quite an interesting story of how they find, collect and then clean up and preserve the fossils and how they identify what type of dinosaur it came from.
The small group got chatting with one of the volunteers who spoke of her experience going out on a dig and helping excavate some fossils. The museum sells places on these volunteer expeditions which were apparently very popular. After the lab tour I walked back to the reception centre for the next part of the tour, being the collection room. On the walk back I stopped off at a small lookout across the jump before swooshing away a heap of flies on the walk back to the reception centre. They have a sign warning of the fly level on the jump, with today’s level being ‘very high’. This was 2 levels lower than the highest level which is described as ‘free protein’.
There was quite a lot of waiting around before that part of the tour commenced, and it wasn’t as interesting as the lab. Inside the collection room is the reconstruction of some of the fossils found and a story is told about the likely life of these prehistoric beings. While I can see potential for the centre, and if you’re out all this way its worth stopping by at, but overall I didn’t rate the centre too highly. It could have been done a lot quicker – but I guess most of the market here are on long road trips where time isn’t exactly rushed.
It was now time to make my way back to Longreach before dark. I’d read lots of warnings not to drive in the dark due to the high chance of hitting some wandering animal. The roadkill I saw on the drive here confirmed that those stories had some truth to them so wanted to get back before dusk. The drive back was the reverse of the route I’d taken here this morning with long stretches of straight road without another car in sight. On the return I did pass quite a few more road trains than on the outward journey. These trucks are absolutely massive, with signs indicating that they are 53m long. Fortunately there was lots of straight clear road which made passing them relatively easy, although you spend a long time on the wrong side of the road passing these beasts.
Just shy of 2 hours later and exhausting my limited downloaded Spotify playlist, I arrived back into Longreach just as sky began to turn a brilliant purple. The outback sky in the evenings is simply stunning as it transitions from brilliant blue to complete black through a mix of oranges and purples. I took a few photos around the town before stopping by the local pub for a hearty steak dinner. The day was completed as I lay in an outdoor bath looking at the clear night sky reflecting on my 360km round trip to visit a quintessentially outback Australian town and an important place in my journey tracking the history of Qantas.