THE 2021 JALOPY DERBY ROUTE.
DAY 1 – Sydney to Coolah
Our first overnight stop was originally planned to be Dubbo, however nearby Coolah is one of the winners of Rural Aid’s ’10 Towns’ initiatives and it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss!
The first day is an all bitumen affair, designed to get us out into the countryside as quickly as possible, so no dirt roads today I’m afraid! We take an incredibly scenic drive over the Blue Mountains and through the magnificent town of Mudgee, well known for its collection of colonial buildings and a magnificent sandstone church characterised by gothic revival architecture. Nearby is the 19th century post office with arched colonnade. You’ll have plenty of time to stop in Mudgee and take a look around, or pop into many of the local wineries in the area and pick up a few bottles of wine for the cool evenings ahead. It’s a great opportunity to inject some cash directly into the local community!
Just north of Mudgee is coal country, with Ulan Mines having two large underground mines and one open cut mine in the area. Love it or hate it, you’ll get to see the huge coal mounds that are visible from the road as we pass by.
We will aim to arrive into Coolah at around 4pm, and we’ll overnight at the Showgrounds just out of town. The facilities have recently been upgraded using a $1m grant awarded to the town by the NSW government, as part of a compensation package when another proposed mining operation was cancelled, along with the potential for numerous job opportunities. Coolah was historically a lumber town, however in the late 70’s the mill shut down along with the loss of many jobs. Coolah was also the location for the 2017 bushfires that ravaged many areas around the town.
The local rotary club will provide the catering for the evening and breakfast the following morning, and local farmers and people from the community will join us for a BBQ and a yarn around a roaring fire. Sally Edwards, who made the 10 Towns submission on behalf of Coolah, will be joining us to discuss the community’s plans for the revitalisation of the local area, and Carol Richard, a local farmer who photographed and documented the fires of 2017, will be on hand to share her pictures and stories. If we’re lucky Roy Cameron, author of the historical book ‘Around the Black Stump’ which details the history of the region may join us, but given that he’s 95 this year we’ll have to play that one by ear.
And please don’t forget to get a good night’s sleep. At 8am the following morning we ditch the bitumen and we’re straight onto the gravel roads as we head up to our next overnight stop of Brewarrina.
Day 2 – Coolah to Brewarrina
Lightning Ridge was originally planned as our overnight stop for day two, however nearby Brewarrina is another winner of Rural Aid’s ’10 Towns’ initiative and it seemed like another opportunity too good to miss, so we swapped things around again.
This is probably the longest day of the derby, both in terms of distance and time . . . 446km and 9 hours in total, but what a day it is. Whereas the first day was an all bitumen affair, today is almost all dirt with only 80km on the black stuff. Classic outback dirt roads, smooth enough for 2WD’s, but dusty enough to remind you that you’re now truly in the outback.
You’ll be split into groups, each group consisting of five cars. This will be your group for the rest of the Derby so if you know anyone else that you want to be in the same group with then please let us know and we’ll make it happen. Otherwise it’s a great opportunity to make new friends very quickly. Every day, a new member of your buddy group will take pole position in the convoy. Out front equals dust free, so it’s only fair that we rotate the lead each day!
We’ll be taking the Merri Merri Road all the way from Quambone to Carinda where we have two things organised. Firstly we’ve arranged for a local to show us their property, once a thriving farm but now completely barren due to lack of water. The lack of water is heartbreaking, but unfortunately very common across much of this area. We’ll then head back into town, where the local supermarket and the service station have recently closed, and the local population continues to drop as people leave the area.
Fortunately, the famous St George Hotel is still running under Learne’s management and she’s looking forward to welcoming us for a beer as we pass through (now might be the time to start negotiating with your co-driver as to which one of you will be the designated driver for the rest of the afternoon!). In 1983 David Bowie and a skeleton crew travelled from London to the town of Carinda (population 194) to make the video for ‘Let’s Dance’, the title track from the singer’s best-selling album. It was an unusual clip even for Bowie, as the video blended scenes of care-free carousing with a highly politicised statement on the plight of Australia’s Aboriginal people. Fortunately for us the pub hasn’t changed at all since the video was shot, and people come from all over the world just to stand in the same place that the late Ziggy Stardust once stood.
Leaving Carinda we make our way to Brewarrina along more iconic outback tracks, where the council will be opening up the showground for us to camp. Brewarrina is also the location of Rural Aid’s second portable desalination plant. The local bore water has extremely high salt levels, making it almost impossible to drink. The desalination plant, which has the capacity to process 75,000 litres of fresh water per day, removes the salt and other minerals to make perfect drinking water for the community. David, the council’s Facilities Manager, will show us the plant in action and we’ll get to drink some of the purified water.
Later that night the council will be putting on a ‘Sports under Floodlights’ evening in town for the kids, a sure-fire way to get the community out on a Sunday evening and a great way for us to meet everyone..
Day 3 – Brewarrina to Cunnamulla
A reasonably short distance today, only 336km, but perhaps it could turn out to be the most challenging day of all, depending on conditions.
The tracks in this area tend to be a little sandy, and so maintaining momentum is the key to success. Confidence is the name of the game . . . back off and you might be reaching for the shovel and a set of recovery tracks to jam underneath your tyres!
We’ll pass from NSW into Outback Queensland during a short stretch of bitumen that links our two dirt tracks together. Don’t forget to put your clocks back by an hour as we do a little time travel, just be careful not to cross the border at 88mph otherwise you could find yourself back in 1955.
Day 4 – Cunnamulla to Windorah
The longest day of all at 531km . . . but don’t stress too much because the following day is the shortest day of the entire derby.
No messing around, we’re straight onto the dirt again as soon as we leave Cunnamulla, with a (hopefully) shallow crossing across the Paroo River as we track up to Quilpie in a plume of bull dust.
Once we reach Quilpie we hit a 246km stretch of bitumen all the way to Windorah. Now that doesn’t sound too exciting, but it’s a road with a difference (and it’s the only road or track to Windorah which makes our route selection quite easy for once!).
OK, so what’s the big deal about this road? Well for one it’s only one car width wide for most of the way, with quite a few blind crests thrown in for good measure. Which means you could be having a close encounter with an oncoming road train at a combined speed of almost 200km/h. So stay sharp, be alert and use your co-driver to scan the horizon for oncoming traffic. If you do encounter a rig coming the other way our advice is to move as far left as possible or even pull over while they pass to avoid any small rocks flying your way and cracking your windscreen. Car vs road train . . . there’s only ever going to be one winner, as the picture of the warning sign implies!
It’s also not just a road. It’s also a runway, with proper runway markings and numbers to boot. For use by the Flying Doctor Service perhaps? Either way, try to resist the temptation to do a Jeremy Clarkson on the ‘track’.
Just outside of Windorah you will spot the Windorah Solar Farm. With an array of solar dishes it looks like something out of a James Bond movie. Built by Ergon Energy in 2008, the plant uses five concentrated solar dishes which contain 112 square mirrors each measuring 1.1m across. The five solar reflectors sit atop 13m masts and can rotate 360°.The array produces about 180 kilowatts of electricity for up to 10 months of the year. The total cost of the project was A$4.5 million with $1 million being provided by the federal government, and is estimated to save up to 100,000 litres of diesel fuel per year.
And finally we arrive in Windorah, population 100. Located in the heart of the Channel Country, Windorah boasts the beauty and majesty of Coopers Creek and the intrigue and colour of the red sandhill country which surround the town. In the heart of cattle country, the Cooper’s Creek is the only place where two rivers, the Thomson & Barcoo, join to form a creek. A haven for bird watching, fishing, water sports and just relaxing.
We’ll be staying in the local show ground, with Marilyn from the Western Star Hotel looking after the catering. Pop in for a beer with the locals if you have time, it’s always a lively place in the evening and many a global crisis has been resolved over a few beers.
Windorah . . . it really is in the middle of nowhere!
Day 5 – Windorah to Longreach
Today is probably the shortest day on the derby in terms of distance, but our route is a snaking one, dusty and constantly changing direction as we link tracks together in order to make our way up to Longreach, passing through two mega cattle stations, one the size of Singapore and the other roughly the size of Vanuatu.
Longreach is the largest town in Queensland’s Central West and is steeped in history, so an early afternoon arrival is the aim so that you have time to take in some of the town’s attractions. One such place is the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame and Outback Heritage Centre, a spectacular tribute to the people of outback Australia. It tells the story of the rural areas from the arrival of the Aborigines more than 40,000 years ago, settled by the British, exploration, the establishment of grazing, agriculture, mining, forestry and other industries in country Australia. It follows the story through to the present day where technologies of many kinds are playing the role in farming, business and communications.
Of course a visit to Longreach isn’t complete without a visit to the Qantas Founders Museum, dedicated to telling the history of Qantas from its early days in outback Queensland in the 1920s to the present day. Unfortunately, there are currently no aircraft tours and wing walks of the Boeing 747 aircraft operating due to an ambitious $14.3 million project that is currently underway to erect an 8,000m2 roof over the aircraft area and create a unique night experience using a sound and light show projected on the fuselage of the iconic Boeing 747 and Boeing 707. The roof is due for completion on 9th May 2020, just two days after we visit the area, for the ‘Red Tail Road to 100’ event that reunites former Qantas staff for the airline’s 100th year.
However . . . here’s some potentially very exciting news. In our discussions with staff at the museum we have managed to persuade them to open the new area up for the Rural Aid Jalopy Derby two days before the official launch. It’s a big ‘if’ (we all know that building projects rarely run on time), but if they do manage to meet their milestones we will have an evening of beers, bubbly and a BBQ under the new roof housing the aircraft, and we’ll be the first group to tour the aircraft with an ex qantas pilot. We should have confirmation from the museum in the next two weeks so keep your fingers crossed!
DAY 6 – Longreach to Emerald
Pretty much a straight run from Longreach to Emerald today as the derby moves into its final stage towards the east coast. Very little dust today, but we pass through plenty of amazing outback locations and we have a fantastic ending to the day planned.
Ilfracombe – We’re barely out of Longreach and we encounter the Great Machinery Mile at Ilfracombe, it hosts a range of equipment from standing engines to earthmoving machinery. A wonderful display of machinery, some of it very rare and almost all collected within 100 miles of the town, can be seen.
Barcaldine – ‘Barcy’ as it’s known to the locals is the geographical centre of Queensland. Head straight to the Tree of Knowledge, and pay homage to a centrepiece of history, the birthplace of the Australian Labour Party and 1891 shearer’s strike. The once-poisoned 200 year old, heritage listed ghost gum has been recreated as an incredible 18m high sculptural timber canopy. Oak Street in the centre of town also has five historic hotels, although try to resist the temptation to visit all of them as we still have some driving to do!
Jericho – sitting on the banks of the Jordan River, Jericho has a fascinating biblical infused history, including The Crystal Trumpeteer’s Monument and ‘The Trumpeter’ sculpture.
Alpha – A Rural Aid ’10 Towns’ recipient with 28 murals in Alpha, painted by local artist Bob Wilson, that have earned the town the moniker of ‘The Art Capital of the Outback’ with an outback sculpture trail including the much photographed ‘Roly Poly’.
Finally we head to Emerald. We’ll be staying a little way out of town on the banks of Lake Maraboon at the Lake Maraboon Holiday Village. But first we need to take a short dirt track that leads us out, and across, Fairbairn Dam. The dam is an earth-filled dam across the Nogoa River, constructed in 1972 for the primary purpose of agricultural irrigation, the impoundment created by the dam serves as one the major potable water supplies for the region and assists with some flood mitigation. Its capacity is approximately three times larger than Sydney Harbour. Maraboon is the Aboriginal for “where the black ducks fly”.
The Fairbairn Dam Spillway Upgrade is currently underway, which involves anchoring and thickening of the existing spillway so as to comply with new state legislation. Owing to a tight construction program and the need to finish all works prior to the start of the wet season, the project runs on a continuous 24-hour timetable.
Given that we’re staying in such close proximity to one of the most critical irrigation projects in Queensland, we thought it useful to better understand how important the dam really is, and so Sunwater (who own the dam) and the Fairbairn Irrigation Network Limited (who manage the distribution of up to 86,000 megalitres of water from the Fairbairn Dam to channel customers) have kindly volunteered some of their staff in the afternoon to give us an insight into how the site, and the entire irrigation network, works.
And Lake Maraboon Holiday Village will be holding a sausage sizzle for the local community to raise more funds for Rural Aid as the sun sets across the lake. Let’s just hope the water levels improve as last week it was sitting at just 9%.
Day 7 – Emerald to Yeppoon
You thought you’d seen the last of the dirt . . . well not quite. As soon as we leave Lake Maraboon we have a two hour stint on the gravel, our last for the derby, before heading towards Yeppoon on the bitumen and the likelihood of much busier roads.
We end the week at the NRMA’s Capricorn Yeppoon Holiday Park, a cracker of a park with fantastic facilities that will help to wash away a week’s worth of dust. They also have a variety of cabins on site, so if you’ve had enough of camping then by all means call ahead and secure some creature comforts if you need to!
The derby wraps up that evening with celebratory BBQ. Give yourselves a well deserved pat on the back. Almost 3,000km travelled, an amazing amount of money raised for a great cause, many new friends made and memories to last a lifetime. We made it!