Deep in the heart of Queensland’s Channel Country amidst vast plains of flaxen Mitchell grass, a steady stream of wintertime travellers settle in amongst the water birds at Winton’s Long Waterhole. Despite its remote location – 1500km by road from Brisbane and 470km from Mt Isa – this RV-friendly town pulls plenty of travellers off the beaten track with a long list of offbeat attractions, free camping and one of the best national parks in the region right on its doorstep.
But Winton’s major claim to fame lies with AB ‘Banjo’ Paterson, who wrote his most popular ballad Waltzing Matilda here and performed it for the first time in the local pub back when Winton was known as Pelican Waterholes. And like that infamous jolly swagman, today’s travellers still camp with the birds beside the billabong, sitting up their rigs for lengthy stays at the shady free camping ground at Long Waterhole.
THINGS TO DO
There’s so much to do in and around Winton, you could easily fill a week.
Start at Arno’s Wall, a 10m-long installation of recycled treasures, before heading to percussionist Graeme Leak’s Musical Fence to belt out a tine on the surprisingly melodic collection of recycled metal instruments.
You’ll need to open up your wallet just a little to check out Winton’s top historical collections: the Qantilda Museum and the Diamantina Heritage Truck and Machinery Museum, or catch an outdoor show at the Royal Open Air Theatre (April to September). Unfortunately, Winton’s popular Waltzing Matilda Centre was destroyed in an electrical fire in June, 2015, but promises to be rebuilt in the coming years.
From Long Waterhole’s roomy base camp, you can tackle a day trip to the Australia Age of Dinosaurs and Lark Quarry Conservation Park, which preserves the world’s largest collection of Australian dinosaur fossils.
BLADENSBURG NATIONAL PARK
An easy drove from Winton, Bladensburg National Park showcases dreamy outback pastoral scenes including a uniquely restored historic homestead and woolshed set against a backdrop of rosy sandstone mesas and golden grasslands. Beyond the homestead museum, two scenic drives lead across rolling Mitchell grass plains and spinifex-covered jump-ups to the edge of eroded sandstone cliffs, shadywaterholes and lofty lookouts. Grave sites and outstation ruins are dotted along the track, providing insight into the challenges of life on isolated Bladensburg Station a century ago.
ROUTE OF THE RIVERGUM SCENIC DRIVE
Easiest to tackle and suitable for conventional, high-clearance vehicles, the Route of the Rivergum is a gentle, half-day scenic drive out of Winton (72km return) that links swimming holes, picnic spots and the campground at Bough Shed Hole. Highlights en route include an icy swim at Engine Hole, lofty jump-up views over the Vindex Range, and Skull Hole, the site of a terrible Aboriginal massacre in the late 1800s. Despite its dark history, the latter is eerily beautiful at first light as you peer over the undercut rock face that flows with wet season rains.
Back on track and close by, Bough Shed Hole invites camping alongside a deep, permanent waterhole on Surprise Creek. You can swim here, enjoy the honeyeaters and painted finches that flit along the banks of the creek and, as the sun goes down, the great mobs of red kangaroos that emerge to graze. If you are lucky, you might even catch Bladensburg’s most prized wild critter in your torch-light: a rare, endangered Julia Creek dunnart. By day, deep, dry cracks in the Mitchell grasslands’ clay soils provide perfect shelters for these tiny, mouse-like creatures that measure just 10-12cm and only emerge under the cover of darkness.
As the only campground within Bladensburg National Park, Bough Shed Hole attracts a crowd of camper trailers and compact off-road caravans in the cool winter months. With generators and open fires prohibited, you can expect plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy the birdlife drawn to the water’s edge. Facilities are limited to a pit toilet, so bring plenty of drinking water and a fuel stove and take away all your rubbish.
SCRAMMY DRIVE 4WD TRAIL
Bladensburg’s more adventurous Scrammy Drive follows rocky 4WD tracks to Scrammy Lookout and the undercut edge of Logan Falls and Skull Hole. Setting out from the station’s old racecourse, past the grave of baby Delia Dalrymple, the route climbs the spinifex-clad slopes of colourful jump-ups and crosses fragile claypans to reach Scrammy Gorge at the 17km mark. Carved by turbulent floodwaters that have eroded the circular sandstone rockface, small pools deep in the gorge sustain river red gums and fig trees and lure wallaroos, birds and yellow-spotted monitors. In fact, the 2m-deep pools at nearby Scrammy Rock Hole rarely dry out at all.
Continuing on, Scrammy Drive quickly becomes rather rugged as it follows a boundary fence over rock slabs and boulders and crosses Scrammy Creek to reach a breezy lookout high on the mesa’s edge. If your vehicle lacks sufficient clearance, you can walk the final 900m to the lookout where an expansive vista meets the far horizon. Pick up a drive guide from the homestead before setting out and allow around 2-3 hours to explore all the highlights along Scrammy Drive (20km each way).
LONG WATERHOLE CAMPGROUND
Many travellers enjoy the serenity of a night camped at Bladensburg’s Bough Shed Hole, but the national park is also close enough for day trips from your base camp at Long Waterhole.
Surrounded by trees that throw just enough shade, Long Waterhole is a popular camp on a man-made lake that attracts spoonbills, pelicans, egrets and herons. Pets are welcome, campfires are permitted, there’s mobile coverage and you can stay as long as you like, which is great because there’s a swag a things to do around town. There are no facilities on offer but just 4km away, Winton provides a dump point, drinking water, public toilets and one of the best bakeries in the outback.
There’s always something on in Winton over the cool winter months when temperatures average a comfortable 12-23˚C. If you go, don’t miss the Diamantina Rodeo (May/June), Winton Camel Races in July, or the Outback Festival in September.