Bull Dust and Corrugations

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.

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Camooweal abc.net.au

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.

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Police check for fireworks, Camooweal mypolice.qld.gov.au

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.

camooweal police and army checkpoint corona virus Qld Country Life
Camooweal police and army checkpoint – corona virus Queensland Country Life

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.

camooweal corrugations cook
Corrugations – Cook Shire cook.qld.gov.au

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.

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Bull dust hole outbacktravelaustralia.com.au

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.

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Matt next to our Holden, outside the Gregory Downs Hotel

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 easy 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 towing 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.

camooweal school yard
Children playing in the Camooweal State School sports field camoowealss.eq.edu.au

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.

Burketown

Rosevale is beautiful. The old one-teacher school (now closed) and the even older principal’s residence are set on top of a hill, surrounded by trees, with a view over dairy farms to Cunningham’s Gap. We lived in that house for the two years that Con was Principal of the school, but after that I wanted a change.

“Let’s apply for a transfer to somewhere up north. It would be exciting and adventurous. Not the Gulf of Carpentaria, though! I don’t want to go there. It’s probably hot, dry, flat and miserable in the Gulf Country.”

Burketown, a small, isolated town in the heart of the Gulf Country, was where they sent us. It was hot, dry and flat. But it was rarely miserable. Just different.

These days, there are conveniences in Burketown that were unimaginable when we were there: mains power, street lights, treated water, sewerage, a swimming pool complex, a coffee shop, even a green and shady caravan park.

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Burketown Caravan Park today. From its Facebook page

For us, shade would be a luxury.

We moved to Burketown in January 1973, with our two small children. The car and our pets went on the train with us from Brisbane to Mt Isa: the dog in the dog box in the Guards Van, cats in the luggage van in pet packs and our HR Holden on a flat-car.

From Townsville to Mt Isa there were no sleeping berths available, so we curled up on a couple of seats at one end of the Buffet Car, with people coming and going all night.

On the train we met a pink-cheeked Irish family, just arrived in Australia and travelling to work at Mount Isa Mines. Arriving next day, we all stepped out of the train into what seemed like an oven. I sometimes think of that Irish family and wonder how they coped.

A couple of days later, we flew to Burketown with Bush Pilots Airways in a twenty-seater Twin Otter. It was a mail run, stopping at Mornington Island and a couple of cattle stations, swooping over the station landing fields to chase horses away before setting down.

At Mornington Island more passengers boarded, a couple of them sitting cross-legged in the aisle. One woman was wearing a broad felt hat with a tape measure as a hatband. I was in southeast Queensland no longer.

At the tiny Burketown airport, the shire clerk met us, and he drove us into town. We left our suitcases in the principal’s house, a neat, new highset house of the style used all over the State for Queensland Government employees. Next door was the recently-built school.

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Burketown State School, with the Principal’s house in the background, 1974

Awaiting the arrival by road of our furniture, we checked in at the pub.

The Burketown pub, known as the Albert Hotel, was in those days a square concrete two-storey building. It had been built originally as Customs House for the then-thriving port on nearby Albert River. The sleeping areas were accessed via an outdoor staircase. We were warned that when the bar closed, the generator, which thumped away all day in the neighbouring shed, would be switched off, and there would be no lights until morning.

There is no quiet like that of a tiny town in the middle of nowhere when the generators stop.

Stars never seem brighter than on a clear night in a town with no streetlights.

There is no heat like that of a tropical night in the middle of summer without fans.

The publican also warned us that there would be no breakfast, as his wife, the cook, was away in Cairns. Next morning in the hotel kitchen I cooked bacon and eggs for us all.

In our three years in Burketown, we got to know the Albert Hotel well, along with its eccentric regulars, animal and human.

A sulphur-crested cockatoo named Whacko sat on top of the doorway into the bar, chewing the heads off matches.

Fishermen and locals spun endless yarns, not only to the new schoolteachers, but also to visiting politicians and media.

A film crew asked a group of locals playing euchre how long they’d been playing. “A couple of weeks,” came the laconic reply.

Once we found a large fresh-water crocodile tied to a post outside the door, like a dog waiting for its owner.

On our second evening in Burketown, when the bar was full and card games in progress, our furniture van arrived and pulled up in front of the pub. The card players offered to help with the unloading.

South-east Queensland had suffered a heatwave over Christmas of 1972 and into the New Year. Con and I had been busy during those hot weeks before leaving the south. Driving round Brisbane with little kids in the back seat, trying to buy a kerosene fridge and a thirty-two volt washing machine, had taken precedence over sorting our belongings. In the end, we’d instructed the removalists to pack everything; and so the blokes from the Burketown pub, in their footie shorts, singlets and thongs, carried electric heaters and winter coats into a house without electricity in the middle of a Gulf Country summer.

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Burketown general store, 1975. So hot inside, condensed milk would caramelise in the can

In our time, there was a hospital, general store, shire offices, fuel depot, school and hotel and not much more in Burketown, and barely a tree or blade of grass; but it was a friendly and welcoming place. The locals told us what sounded like tall stories, but I learned to believe the lot. Crazy things happened here all the time.

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Con and our children in Burketown

We never regretted the move to the Gulf, in spite of insect plagues, the trials of operating the thirty-two-volt generator, kerosene fridge and petrol iron, the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, the rough dirt roads, the isolation. Sometimes it was lonely, though. I would stand on the verandah, looking north to where the Gulf lay, out of sight beyond endless desolate salt flats and mangroves, and feel sorry for Burke and Wills, who got this far and then turned back, to die of starvation.

It can feel like the end of the world, up in the Gulf Country.

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Looking north from the Principal’s house, 1974

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