The Lynd Junction and its roadhouse lie in the hard, dry Great Dividing Range country north-west of Charters Towers. North west from The Lynd, the Gregory Development Road is unsealed gravel, with corrugations, and bull dust.
It’s over forty years since I drove on a road with corrugations, and I’m actually enjoying it. I can feel the shudder of the corrugations through the steering wheel, and I remember the need to moderate my speed on banked corners to avoid juddering across the road and into the ditch. I watch out for bull dust holes.
We’re driving our Forester through the small towns of Einasleigh and Forsayth to visit Cobbold Gorge, eventually to end up back on the coast, visiting family. Finding different routes to Far North Queensland is a pleasant challenge.
The first time I drove on a corrugated gravel road, I was on the way to Camooweal, and it was not all fun.
Camooweal is a small town on the Barkly Highway, just twelve kilometres from the Northern Territory border but within the Mount Isa City Council jurisdiction. The 188 kilometres of highway between the two is referred to locally as the world’s longest Main Street.
Last year, police were stopping vehicles here to make sure they weren’t bringing fireworks, legal in The Northern Territory, into Queensland, where they’re illegal for private use.
As part of the state’s corona virus measures, there’s currently a checkpoint at Camooweal, manned by police and army, stopping people from crossing into Queensland.
It was in 1973, having lived in the Gulf Country for just six months and unused to local driving conditions, that I drove to Camooweal from Burketown and experienced my first corrugations. There was no highway.
This was a seven-hour trip of 340 kilometres, north to south, entirely on dirt roads; partly smooth, well-graded gravel, but for much of the way consisting of corrugations and bull dust. The last ninety kilometres into Camooweal, known locally as the “short cut”, is still notorious today.
Corrugations are unpleasant to drive on, especially if you’re not used to it, or if you’re in the wrong kind of vehicle, such as our HR Holden.
There was also the bull dust. When vehicles drive these roads in the wet season, sometimes getting bogged, they leave deep ruts in the mud. These ruts dry out after the Wet and set like concrete. In the Dry, they fill with fine, dry dust, often making them invisible to the driver. Hitting those hard ruts at speed is nasty, and dangerous.
You can also be bogged in bull dust beside the road – as I found out.
It was July, the middle of the dry season, and the Border School Sports were on, at Camooweal State School. School groups were coming from an area the size of Victoria – from Dajarra to Burketown, as well as tiny Northern Territory communities such as Lake Nash.
Con was the principal of Burketown school, and he and his assistant teacher and a group of parents were taking most of the school’s seventy-odd children to the Border Sports. Many of the kids travelled that rough road sitting on mattresses in the back of a truck – in my memory, a council tip truck. Between Burketown and Camooweal, the only oasis, apart from the occasional dirt track leading to a cattle station, was the Gregory Downs Hotel, 120 kilometres down the road.
I drove our car. With three-year-old Matt and seventeen-month-old Lizzie, and a grade one child from the school who suffered from epilepsy, I set off ahead of the truck. That way, if I came to grief, the people in the truck would be able to rescue me.
We must have stopped to eat along the way, but I don’t remember that. I just remember that somewhere down the road, and quite a long way ahead of the truck, I pulled off for a toilet stop and got bogged in bull dust.
I knew that when the truck came along and saw me bogged, I would be teased for getting stuck, so I determinedly set about pushing sticks and bark down in front of the wheels to provide some grip. Eventually I was able to ease the car out of the bull dust and back on to the road. I was proud of myself.
Unfortunately, it happened again, further down the road, and this time I couldn’t get out before the truck came along. And they laughed at me, of course, before getting me out of the bull dust bog.
By the time the long-suffering kids in the truck reached Camooweal, they were coated in dust. Parents who came with us cooked up saveloys for dinner, and the kids took the mattresses out of the truck and spread them on the floor of the classrooms to sleep.
It was cold. These were coastal kids, not used to desert country in mid-winter. Next morning after their porridge breakfast they huddled together like brolgas in the cold as they lined up for the march past.
The sports went all day, and the Burketown kids did well. One more sleep, and we set off for home again. This time, to my relief, our convoy avoided the “short cut”. We drove the first seventy kilometres on the Barkly Highway’s bitumen, before heading off on the dirt road north to Burketown.
By the time Con and I left Burketown we’d had lots more road adventures: breakdowns, a cattle strike, wet bogs, dry gullies, rough surfaces and bull dust. Of course, this is everyday life for the people of the West. They know these lonely roads better than I know the Bruce Highway. The roads have improved, though; and vehicles are more comfortable.
And these days, kids probably don’t go on school excursions in the back of council tip trucks.