They may be lacking in numbers but the colourful characters of the hinterland more than make up for it with bold names and big personalities, writes Tim Roxborogh.
Eight hundred and seventy-one kilometres west of Brisbane is just about the most middle of nowhere I've ever been. Dodging kangaroos, both bouncing and never to bounce again, I've driven virtually the length of New Zealand's North Island and ended up in Eulo, population 108. My itinerary says this is for a mud bath in the Outback and I have no idea what to expect.
About a 45-minute drive from the big smoke of Cunnamulla (population 1217 - notable for a statue known as the "Cunnamulla fella"), I've arrived at Ian and Nan's Palm Grove Artesian Mud Baths complex.
As I will discover over the course of this week-long "Queensland's Big Sky Country Drives" road trip, the Aussie Outback is full of great characters, often with attached character-filled names for themselves as well as the places they live. But Madonna and Lyle from Bonus Downs are still a day or two away as I pull into the red-dirt driveway of Palm Grove in Eulo.
Ian and Nan are ready and waiting. A sprightly couple most likely in their 70s, the word "codger" springs to mind in the best possible way. Walking towards the baths, I get distracted by Ian's shed, handily signposted as "Stuff".
"Is collecting stuff a passion for both of you?" I ask to a loud "Ha!" from Nan. "What do you think!?" she adds in a tone that somehow makes me think she is more complicit in her husband's hoarding than the initial "ha!" implies.
I like these two. Ian then shows me his old cameras, knitting machines, bells and irons that fill his meticulously ramshackle shed. Even the walls of the "Stuff" shed are made from old petrol cans.
Ian takes me to an area with four claw-footed baths that look transported from a 19th century manor, only outside and painted in the brightest of reds and whites. It is here that this friendly Aussie Outback codger reveals himself as something altogether more nuanced than any stereotype.
With a plate of toasted sandwiches from Nan, I soak in mud while hearing about the joys of exfoliation from an elderly Australian male in the heart of the Queensland Outback. Brilliant.
Turns out that as dry as Eulo and the surrounding scorched land is, it sits above a huge artesian water supply than has sustained life in this often-brutal climate for well over 100 years.
That artesian water, combined with the soils of the outback, creates a fine mud that does wonders for the skin. Which may be enough of a lure, but what really sells this place is the added plus of being able to lounge about either under the cloudless blues of the Queensland sky, or the starlit nights.
There's an industrial chic to Palm Grove's corrugated iron walls and thatched roofs - not to mention the shed of "Stuff" - that is entirely authentic and, without trying, very 21st century cool.
Thanking Nan for the toasties and getting Ian to pose for photos next to his "Stuff", it is back in the 4WD to make the 270 ks to Charleville before dusk. Normally I don't think twice about driving at night, but Ian and Nan explain that dusk and dawn is when the kangaroos are grazing at the roadside in their highest numbers.
And with trucks as long as 53m (known as "road trains") traversing these vast town-to-town distances, it's not always possible to break in time for this easily spooked national icon.
By this stage though, I am starting to feel pretty at home on the roads of rural Queensland. My Aussie road trip had begun two days earlier with the pick up of my 4WD rental at Brisbane Airport and the tapping in of destination number one into the GPS: a half-built mansion from the 1860s, located just outside the town of Warwick (population 12,000).
Leaving the city behind, I passed through fields of cotton where giant power lines, unlike any we have in New Zealand, seemed to dance down the side of the highway. There were the lush mountain rainforests of the Great Dividing Range and the rich agricultural soils of Darling Downs, with everything from cattle and sheep to wheat and barley.
Reaching Glengallan Homestead (about 150km from Brisbane), I was looking at the almost-realised dream of John Deuchar - a man who aspired to build the grandest house possible overlooking the crop-fields of southern Queensland.
The two-storeyed Glengallan with its wrap-around balcony cuts a kind of American South, plantation home presence that can be seen for miles. It's only when you get up close that it's clear some very strange things must've happened here.
From the glorious highs of allegedly the first domestic flushing toilet in Australia, to drought, bankruptcy, alcoholism and premature death aged just 50, the story of Glengallan and John Deuchar seems an almost comically tragic tale.
Not only did Deuchar never finish his mansion, the plans for the house's expansion were forever lost. Deuchar's Glengallan fantasy had proved folly as early as the 1870s and he was dead by 1872. Cause of death? A bizarre incident involving being kicked off his horse while suffering alcohol-induced pneumonia on his way to fight a bush fire.
In the intervening 120 years until the property was enveloped by the Queensland Heritage Register the homestead changed hands, had curious renovations (such as a spookily positioned central staircase), was stripped of valuables and fell into various stages of dereliction.
Today it is a tourist attraction that has been partially restored to its brief 1860s heyday and partially preserved in its crumbling, incomplete intrigue. Water closet historians and aficionados will be pleased to know much of the original toilet remains, though sadly no longer in use.
From the mysteries of Glengallan there was time for a quick stop at Rudd's Pub in Nobby (population 484). Worth visiting for the name of the town alone, Nobby's memorabilia-overflowing watering hole opened in 1893 and is everything you'd want a pub in a place called Nobby to be.
Feeling like I'd walked into the bar from Crocodile Dundee, I ordered a beer and was relieved when the local jokers who'd just knocked off for the day were welcoming of the outsider: "Try the Great Northern lager, mate!"
Rudd's Pub comes with a good kitchen and seriously decent pub hotel accommodation. With quirky touches like beer taps for the en suite bathrooms, Rudd's Pub has long been putting Nobby on the map.
After Nobby it was a night in a converted church - now a smartly done Quest hotel - in Toowoomba, Australia's largest inland city after Canberra (population 165,000). A 90-minute drive from Brisbane, Toowoomba is notable for preserved 19th century architecture, an internationally celebrated spring flower festival and its excellent Cobb & Co museum.
The museum houses nearly 50 horse-drawn wagons and carriages from Australia's colonial past and gives a sense of how different the concept of distance and time must've once been. Let's say it's circa 1870, you live in Toowoomba and you've got business to tend to with your sheep-shearing buddies in the woolshed village of Jondaryan, 43km away? That'll be seven hours, depending on conditions and how the horses are feeling.
Fast forward to the present day and my voyage between Toowoomba and Jondaryan took just half an hour, though the destination is not unlike what it would've looked like in the days of the Cobb & Co museum's carriages. A 150-year history and said to have been the site of the largest operating woolshed in the world, Jondaryan is these days best known as a wedding venue with a twist.
Jondaryan's vast wood and iron woolshed has hosted functions with well over 1000 people. With the floorboards equally adept at absorbing sheep dung as they are spilt beer, the shed is somehow simultaneously down home as well as being high-end. Clydesdale horses are available to trot the bride to the venue, and when weddings aren't happening you'll often see visiting artists drawing sketches of the various historic buildings.
The bush, hills and wide-open spaces of Jondaryan are roughly where southern Queenslanders regard the beginning of the Outback to be. Over the next few days as I travel deeper inland, the landscape becomes flatter, the earth redder, the grass blonder and the trees more sparse.
I continue avoiding kangaroos, say hi to plenty of emus and also encounter other Aussie wildlife, such as the brightly coloured galahs of the Balonne River in St George (500km west of Brisbane).
There are countless of these birds on my St George sunset river cruise and I can't help think of that archetypal Aussie bloke Alf from Home and Away. "Ya flamin' great galah!" is a classic Alf saying from the long-running Aussie soap and there are many a flamin' galah on the river.
Wildlife of a different variety is what is taking me to the town of Charleville. The furthest north I will drive during the road trip, I am still west of Brisbane by nearly 750km (about eight and a half hours' drive time) when I visit Charleville's bilby rehabilitation centre. A cute little marsupial that looks like a cross between a rabbit, an anteater and a mouse, the endangered bilby has also featured as an Aussie rival to the Easter bunny.
With the bilby population having disappeared from 80 per cent of its original habitat because of foxes and feral cats, fundraising efforts like chocolate Easter bilbies are as vital as they are fun.
My itinerary also allows for a night in Charleville to experience the unpolluted Queensland night sky, with the telescopes of the Cosmos Centre and Observatory before heading to a farm stay for lunch. Madonna and Lyle's Bonus Downs Farmstay has me instantly wishing I was hunkering down with a bunch of mates for several nights.
Madonna and Lyle preside over 13,300ha (about one and half times the size of Waiheke), some of which is ooline forest, the rest with a long history of cattle and sheep farming. They live in a 100-year-old homestead that sits amid a lake, a garden with bottle trees, an old bus grazing in the grass, a shearing shed and quite possibly my favourite bar in all of Australia.
Next to the old jackaroos' accommodation block (neatly presented rooms with a wonderful shared kitchen and dining room, complete with church pews to sit on), Madonna and Lyle's bar, The Smoke House, is where they do a lot of their entertaining when the weather is good. And being that this is Queensland, that weather is good most of the time.
Not for the first time on this road trip I find myself wheeling out the "industrial chic" cliche as I succumb (again) to the charms of corrugated iron and wooden beams. There's a bench for leaning and yarn-spinning around the fire / barbecue, long wooden tables, plenty of space for a band and it's little surprise there's been many a ripping night here that's gone into the wee hours.
"Madonna, I want to have a big hooley here!" I say to a friendly shoulder slap from my host. "You'll have to come back," she says with another slap on the shoulder. "Where are you staying tonight? Don't bloody stay there! Stay with us!"
A roast lunch is served after my tour of the property, complete with Madonna's outrageous banana cake. "Go on, have another slice Tim."
Deciding this won't be my last time at Madonna and Lyle's, it is back to avoiding kangaroos in the 4WD. I am now looping back from the far reaches of western Queensland and heading for the spectacular rainforests and vistas of Bunya Mountains National Park.
On the way there is a night in Roma (population 8000) to see the town's famous cattle saleyards and visit the gardens of arguably Queensland's most luxurious, most impressive historic home.
Achieving everything John Deuchar hoped to with his half-finished mansion in Warwick, Jimbour House is a must-see if you appreciate opulent, historic architecture and perfectly manicured subtropical gardens. Located in Darling Downs about three hours west of Brisbane, the still lived-in house cost a whopping 23,000 on completion in 1877.
Leaving Jimbour House, I drive a stretch of road so flat and straight that I count at least 20 minutes behind the wheel without a hint of a bump or bend. Not even a veer! This changes though, with Bunya Mountains National Park criss-crossed by narrow and steep roads overhung by an almost Southeast Asian-looking rainforest.
Staying for a night in a three-bedroom cottage with nonchalant wallabies sunbathing on my lawn, I love everything about these mountains. For a start, the sunset views towards the coast are so serene and so devoid of any pollution that it's the furthest I've seen, save for looking out aeroplane windows.
Then there is the hospitality. Sue, the general manager of Bunya Mountains Accommodation, presented me with two complimentary bags bursting with steak, sausages, potatoes, garlic bread and salad for me to barbecue back at my cottage.
But best of all has to be the forest. Having so recently been surrounded by the sparse, horizontal beauty of the semi-desert, it is surreal to suddenly be shrouded in dense, mountainous subtropical greens.
This national park is the location of the largest natural bunya pine forest in the world and some of the peaks are so sharp they've never been logged. Whether a short stroll or a several-day hike, you'll stand at the foot of trees with such gargantuan roots you can walk right through them.
After Bunya Mountains I have only two stops left before returning the 4WD to Brisbane Airport: a winery and a seaside destination.
First though, it is time for lunch at Crane Wines near Kingaroy. Run by Judy and Bernie, the couple spent several years living in Auckland before returning to the sunshine and slower pace of rural Queensland. Their small winery and B&B sits 600m above sea level with a sweeping outlook over the plains below.
Those plains and the coast beyond are where I am headed. My Queensland road trip is almost complete with more than 2000km of driving and not a solitary kangaroo harmed. Three hours after grabbing my pick from Crane Wines (a tasty bottle of viognier) I am parking the 4WD next to the pier at Redcliffe, the childhood playground of a certain Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb back in the 1950s and 60s.
For the brothers who'd soon become known as the Bee Gees, the seaside town of Redcliffe (about 35 minutes north of Brisbane) was a warm-weather paradise after their early years on the Isle of Man and in Manchester. Close to the pier is a 70m walkway called "Bee Gees Way" and is to fans of the brothers Gibb what Liverpool is to Beatles fans.
Created by the local council in conjunction with Barry Gibb to honour a musical family who sold over 220 million albums and wrote more than 20 US or UK number one hit singles, Bee Gees Way has statues, murals, photos, quotes from songs and a big screen constantly playing music and interview clips. The whole project struck this Gibb diehard as a sincere acknowledgement of the Bee Gees incredible impact on popular music.
"The dream came true" is one of the quotes you'll read from Barry Gibb on the walls at Redcliffe. Fifty years after becoming child stars in their adopted homeland, to see groups of smiling teenagers posing for selfies next to the statues of the brothers, he's right. Despite the losses, despite the setbacks, the story of the Gibb family is one of never giving up and of never forgetting where you came from.
And as is clear for Barry Gibb, Queensland is forever a part of him. Doing my traditional #casuallean photo pose on the shoulder of the bronze version of Barry, I couldn't think of a better place to end this Queensland adventure.
Getting there: Qantas flies daily from Auckland to Brisbane.
Details: See Adventure Way Discovery or phone 0800 35 44 48.