On the Road with Helena Rubenstein

The Witches Kitchen, the restaurant of the Union Hotel in Barcaldine, is a lively place where locals come for birthday dinners or special family meals.

Early in the day, though, the restaurant is closed and quiet. One morning, from where I was staying in the cosy motel section behind the Union, I walked through to the empty dining room with my breakfast muesli, and sat there for a time, reading.

Suddenly, the street door opened and in walked two cheerful young men in bright matching shirts that seemed to be covered in flames.

The blokes from Buddy’s Fire, outside the Union Hotel, Barcaldine

I suppose that for a fire safety certificate, every hotel, shop, hall, school or office building across the state must have its fire extinguishers checked and signed off on regularly. That’s what these two were here for. Based in Rockhampton, six hours’ drive east of Barcaldine, they worked for a firm called Buddy’s Fire, spending their days driving round the Central West checking fire equipment.

My friend Yvonne used to travel for Helena Rubenstein. She drove across most of the state, Cunnamulla to Mount Isa, her station wagon loaded with samples, visiting local pharmacies in country towns to take their orders for cosmetics and skin care products. It was an adventurous life for a lone woman on those long, rough roads. And there were no mobile phones. Even today, phone coverage in western Queensland is patchy.

Helena Rubenstein cosmetics – old advertisement

In Rockhampton, beginning one of her long trips, Yvonne bought, on impulse, a cane lounge. She squeezed her new cane lounge into the car with the sample cases and set out for the west.

After leaving Charleville, on the then lonely, gravel road to Quilpie, she punctured a tyre. Unable to change it, and not knowing how long she would be there in the sun, she pulled the lounge out of the boot, hauled it across to a shady brigalow tree and sat down to wait for someone to come along and rescue her, looking, I’ve no doubt, carefully made up and elegant as befitted her trade.

Eventually, she says, a car pulled up and the Marlboro Man got out.

It wasn’t really the Marlboro Man, of course – just a handsome young man in a big white hat who took her to the next town to get the tyre repaired, then home to have dinner with his wife and family. Then off she went again, delivering cosmetics and glamour to the country women of Queensland.

Yvonne tells me that she’d usually eat her evening meal in her motel room. That way she’d avoid the attentions of lonely men looking for another kind of adventure. The one time she let herself be lured into the hotel room of a traveller in jewellery, to “look at his samples”, it was his family jewels he took out to show her. She grabbed her bag and ran.

On regional Queensland’s long, long roads, workers are hauling fuel, mining equipment, cattle or supplies in three-trailer road trains. They’re driving graders for the local council or droving cattle. They’re flying past our Subaru in utes and four-wheel drives, their big vehicles filling the parking bays at motels, work boots sitting outside unit doors; and before we wake up in the morning they’re gone.

Work vehicles parked outside the units at the Royal Hotel Motel, Hughenden

Last month, driving through mining country on the Gregory Developmental Road north of Clermont, Con and I met a “Wide Load” pilot vehicle. Soon after, a police car came towards us, on our side of the road, urging us off on to the gravel verge. With a crest on the road five hundred metres ahead, we still couldn’t see anything coming, so we eased our way along with two wheels on the bitumen, until another police car waved us further off the road. Pulling over, we stopped and waited.

Very wide load on the Gregory Developmental Road

Five minutes later, a monster appeared over the crest. On the back of a semi-trailer loomed a ten-metre-wide mine bucket, taking up the entire width of the road. The truck was moving along at a good pace, and we were in awe, as we’ve often been, at the skill and confidence needed to drive the huge loads that travel western roads.

A week later, we were in the small Channel Country town of Windorah, 1200 kilometres west of Brisbane. The Western Star Hotel Motel is famous in the area, and we had our dinner there, out under the verandah roof.

After work at the Western Star Hotel, Windorah

Near us, a group of workers in dusty high vis were eating together and enjoying one another’s company before heading off to their rooms for an early night. Leaving first thing in the morning, they’d try to beat the worst of the heat as they worked long days on road surfacing, or bridge repairs.

Windorah is one of just three small towns in Barcoo Shire, which covers 62,000 square kilometres and has a total population of around three hundred people. The Shire Council is currently advertising for an experienced grader driver, offering above award wages and five weeks annual leave, uniforms, subsidised accommodation – and ten-to-twelve-hour working days.

Con and I were off in the morning too, driving east to Quilpie then on to Charleville. Bitumen all the way now – not like it was in Yvonne’s day. Those flame-covered young men have it easier than she did; but with heat, isolation, and those long, long roads, driving into the sun and coping with breakdowns and a lack of phone coverage, it has never been easy working on western Queensland’s roads.

Heading east from Windorah

Main photo: a cattle road train passing a sand dune, heading west from Windorah towards the setting sun

Good to Go!

This year, when it comes to travel, Queenslanders have few choices. Because of the pandemic, no overseas or interstate travel is allowed, flights within the state are few and expensive, and most long-distance train services are on hold.

So, if we want to travel, we’ll need to hit the road, and we’re being urged to do just that, now that COVID-19 seems to be under control here: to take a road trip, explore Queensland, and support regional tourism. Let’s do it.

This a big state, with huge distances to travel. We can’t do it all in a weekend; but the school holidays are coming up soon. Let’s go – and let’s take the kids!

Queensland has many fascinating, beautiful and well-known places to visit. Here are some of my favourites, and they are places that kids will enjoy.



Chillagoe is an old mining town on the Burke Development Road, in dry, rugged country 205 kilometres west of Cairns. With a population of about 250, it’s an interesting place with a wild west feel to it, with caves, strange and rare karst rock formations, heritage-listed ruins of a copper smelter, and the extraordinary Tom Prior Ford Museum.

In the Chillagoe-Mungara Caves National Park, take a tour led by a competent National Parks guide through the spectacular Chillagoe limestone caves.

road trip Chillagoe-Caves athertntbles.com
Chillagoe limestone caves athertontablelands.com.au

17 kilometres out of town to the west are the Mungara caves, where you can rove through a labyrinth of caves and gorges, past amazing rock formations and Aboriginal art sites.

Rock paintings at Mungara Caves

They say that the designers of the film “Avatar” based their flying rock islands on the cliffs of Mungara.


Also in the national park, the atmospheric old smelter ruins look spectacular in evening light amongst the red hills.

Copper smelter ruins

In the town creek there is a beautiful swimming hole. In summer, so hot here in the tropical inland, it must be irresistible.

On the edge of town, visit Tom Prior’s amazing and eccentric collection of old Fords, in his original mechanic’s shed, open to the public by contribution. I like this kind of museum – years of work by an expert and passionate collector, displayed in its authentic setting.

road trip ford
Tom Prior’s Ford Museum

Carisbrooke Station

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The Winton area, in Western Queensland, beyond the black soil plains and in the land of spinifex and red bluffs (jump-ups, in local terms), looks wonderful on film. Think of Aaron Pedersen, the lean, gruff detective of 2013 movie “Mystery Road”, poised on the red rock bluffs of Carisbrooke Station, ready for a shoot-out with the villains.

road trip mystery road
Aaron Pedersen in “Mystery Road” filmink.com.au

Winton, 1358 kilometres from Brisbane, now has its own film festival: the “Vision Splendid Outback Film Festival”. Also the “Way out West” Music Festival, Outback Writers Festival, the Australian Age of Dinosaurs centre (a must), Waltzing Matilda Centre – and Camel Racing. But the real beauty lies out of town.

Several years ago we took a three-generations family road trip from Brisbane, ending up with a farm stay on Carisbrooke Station. In the late afternoon, tired and hungry, we turned off the Kennedy Development Road forty kilometres west of Winton and drove down a deserted gravel road, trusting that we would eventually find our home for the night. The kids yelled out in excitement when a mob of kangaroos bounded across the road in front of us. Until now, all they’d seen was roadkill.

When we finally pulled in front of our accommodation, we knew that the trip had been worth it. The whole huge bowl of the sky was filled with the reds and pinks of sunset.

Carisbrooke Station sunset

The corrugated iron workers’ quarters we’d booked had four simple bedrooms, a kitchen/living room, and a barbecue out the front so we could keep looking at that wonderful sky while dinner cooked, until the sunset faded and a million starts appeared in the clear, dry air.

Farmer and guide Charlie took us up on to the jump-up next day, to explore, boil the billy and look out over that magnificent countryside.

Charlie boiling the billy

We drove up to join the red gravel Winton-Jundah Road and visit Lark Quarry Conservation Park, site of the famous dinosaur stampede – inspiration for the stampede of large and small dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park”.

Site of the Lark Quarry Dinosaur Stampede

On the road back to Winton, we met one of the mining road trains that we’d been warned used this road. It was trailing a huge cloud of dust. People have died in head-to-head collisions in these dust clouds.

Pulling off the road, we waited while the trucks thundered past and red dust blocked the sun, settling on the cars and into every crack and crevice.

Next day, back in Longreach, the cars were loaded on the Spirit of the Outback and we started the twenty-four-hour train journey back to Brisbane.

Cars loaded on the train at Longreach

It’s a loss for the tourist industry in Longreach and Cairns and elsewhere that travellers can no longer drive one way and load their cars on to the train for the return journey. For working families and school kids, time is limited. To spend three more days driving back to Brisbane would have made our family trip impossible.


Years ago, so I’m told, when the Commonwealth government was granting money to outback towns to develop tourist attractions, Charleville, 745 kilometres west of Brisbane, was offered money for a Cobb and Co. Museum. The locals thought it over, and had a better idea. At the local high school were teachers keen on astronomy, and there were other enthusiasts in the district. The climate in Western Queensland is perfect for star-gazing – open skies and dry, clear air. Why not start an observatory instead? So the Cosmos Centre was established at Charleville, and Toowoomba got the Cobb and Co. Museum.

road trip cosmos centre 2
Big Sky Observatory at the Cosmos Centre, Charleville queensland.com

On a cold winter night we went to the Cosmos Centre for a session at their Big Sky Observatory. We sat with blankets over our knees, among families and children, taking turns to look through telescopes operated by remote control to focus on particular galaxies and planets, while the well-informed staff told us what we were looking at. Above us the Milky Way sprawled across the sky.

Next day, we visited another Charleville highlight, the Bilby Experience: a not-for-profit centre dedicated to the preservation of those cute local creatures, with a chance to get up close to them, support their protection and buy a bilby t-shirt.

road trip bilby
Charleville Bilby Experience abc.net.au

In Charleville we stayed at the famous and spectacular 1920s Corones Hotel. For children, having the run of a big, old country pub is great experience.

Corones Hotel, Charleville

Con and I slept in a room with a private terrace, original furniture and tiled bathroom, once occupied by visiting celebrities such as solo aviator Amy Johnson, and singer Gracie Fields, brought in to entertain the American troops stationed here during the war. Harry Corones, the Greek immigrant who built the hotel, was an ardent supporter and original shareholder in QANTAS, which began here in central-western Queensland.

Original Souvenir Booklet for Corones Hotel guests

With its 60 metres long central corridor, its original bar room and ballroom, stained glass and brass and timber fittings, this once-luxurious hotel, the wonder of the west, has seen hard times, but new owners are bringing it back to life.

Fine details in Corones Hotel

We took a guided tour of the old hotel – startled to find that our (untidy) room would be part of the tour.

These fine old country towns have suffered from changing conditions, the downturn in the wool industry, loss of banks and shops and young people; but they are full of staunch locals and interesting sights. When the premier says, “Queensland, you’re good to go!!” it’s places like these she is urging us to visit.

And when we get home to the coastal towns and cities where most of us live, and we begin to wash the dust off the car, we’ll pause, and feel a sense of pride that we’ve been out there, far from home, supporting our fellow Queenslanders, and having fine adventures along the way. And the kids will never forget it.

If they need reminding, they just need to go to the movies.


On the road


Black Soil

Flat land, straight road. I’m driving from Roma to Dalby on the Warrego Highway, following the railway line through tiny towns with enormous grain silos. The road has an uneven surface. It’s difficult to keep a road surface level in this landscape of soft, deep black soils, especially as road trains come this way. In drought times, as it is now, trucks haul hay to the dry farms to the west, and they haul cattle east to sale yards or agistment.

There are no passing lanes. I choose a good spot, take a deep breath and bowl past a truck hauling two trailers of cattle. East of Roma, that’s the limit: two trailers, up to 36.5 metres total.

West of Roma, road trains can have three or even four trailers and be up to 53.5 metres long. Passing them on a dual carriage road takes nerve for a city driver like me, although local utes and SUVs fly past them.

Road train drivers may be direct descendants of the drivers of horse and bullock teams that did the haulage a hundred years ago, on the gravel roads and dirt tracks of the time. George Lambert’s 1899 three-metre-long painting, the heroic Across the Black Soil Plains, is one of the treasures of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The painting depicts a horse team straining to haul a load of wool bales across New South Wales plains country much like the country I’m driving through today. This ground is muddy, though. The horses and the teamster’s legs are muddy, and the load is leaning dangerously. The scene defines hard, frustrating labour.

across black soil plains
Across the Black Soil Plains, George Lambert. 1899. Art Gallery of New South Wales

After rain, this fine, black soil becomes notoriously sticky.

Con and I found out just how treacherous it can get when we visited a homestead in black soil country near Barcaldine. We drove there in our Falcon: a great car for long journeys on bitumen, but not so good in mud.

While we were having a cup of tea there was a shower of rain. We said our goodbyes and started to drive back to the gate, five hundred metres away. The Falcon went its own way on the slimy black soil and slid off the edge into the muddy paddock. A station hand in a Toyota ute tried to tow us out, but the car was too heavy. They hitched another Toyota to the first one, and both of them strained, exhaust fumes gushing.

Slowly, the car slithered its way down the muddy track behind the straining utes. They towed us across the road, facing back towards town. The Falcon had black mud up to the windows. The driveway into the station looked like a ploughed field – they would need a grader to fix it. There was nothing Con and I could say or do except apologise and head back, shamefaced, to town.

It took us hours to get the mud off the car – out of the wheel nuts and tyres, off the panels, the number plate, grill and headlights, the floor, even the seatbelts. Months later we were still finding pockets of black soil under the seats.

Here on the Warrego Highway, shiny-leafed brigalow scrub lines the road on both sides. Every so often a patch of prickly pear cactus provides a reminder of the heart-breaking scourge of these farm lands in the late 1800s and early last century. Prickly pear from the Americas was introduced in the 1800s, and soon it was choking the land. There were forests of prickly pear, and by 1920, 23 million hectares of land was affected.

prickly pear, dulacca, 1910
Prickly pear, Dulacca, 1910. State Library of Queensland: Picture Queensland

Con is looking at the map to pass the time while I drive.

“Wallumbilla, Yuleba, Dulacca, Miles: all these tiny towns. And Baking Board: that’s appropriate. Not a hill in sight. The only landmarks are the grain silos. But according to the map, believe it or not, the Great Dividing Range is just north of here.”


This country is not flat, although it looks that way from the road. It is gently rolling downs country, rich agricultural land producing cattle, fodder crops and wheat.

East of Chinchilla, at the tiny township of Boonarga, we pass the Cactoblastis Memorial Hall. In 1925, as the result of government-sponsored research, three thousand cactoblastis moth eggs were imported from South America and distributed around the Chinchilla area. The larvae killed the prickly pear. Those larvae were local heroes. This is the only hall I know that was dedicated to a bug.

Cactoblastis Memorial Hall, Boonarga

On the outskirts of Dalby, a road turns left to Jandowae. I lived in Jandowae, on the Northern Darling Downs, when I was a teenager. It was small and friendly, cold in winter and blazing hot in summer: a complete change from where my family had lived until then, in Nambour and Brisbane. We all loved it.

“I got my driver’s licence in Jandowae,” I tell Con. “It was easy – there was hardly any traffic, and lots of space, and the policeman who tested me was a family friend. There’s no hill for thirty kilometres, so I didn’t have to demonstrate a hill start. That was lucky, because I wasn’t good at hill starts. Nowhere to practise.”

Soft, deep, fertile black and brown soils make up a large part of Queensland’s geology. If you’re driving along a country highway and notice that the power poles and fence posts are slightly crooked, leaning at strange angles, you’re driving through black soil country.

It’s fine country for grazing and for cultivation. A great deal of Australia’s food comes from black soil country; and under the plains lie the priceless, ancient water reserves of the Great Artesian Basin.

Unfortunately, there are also huge reserves of coal and gas underneath this country. The Galilee Basin is said to be one of the largest untapped coal reserves on the planet, and nine huge mines are planned for the region.

I hope they know what they’re doing. It seems a terrible shame to risk ruining fine land and priceless water with gas wells and open-cut coal mining. You can’t grow food in a mine pit.

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