Big spaces and open hearts hit the right notes for Tim Roxborogh.
It's fair to say I was getting cocky about how good I was at spotting kangaroos and slowing down in time. And then, just like the swift change in fortunes anytime I've said out loud in tennis, "gosh I'm serving well today", a kangaroo leapt from the bushes in front of the car.
With my 4WD rental doing somewhere in the vicinity of 110km/h, the kangaroo didn't have a chance. Or so I thought. On open road and with nothing behind me, I slammed on the brakes, the bag of chips my waistline didn't need flying like greasy confetti. Certain I would hit the animal, the rental somehow screeched to a stop not more than a metre from messy impact. Bouncing to the trees at the side of the road, within seconds the spooked kangaroo was gone. Phew.
Gathering my chippies and settling the heart rate, I was soon back to the rhythms of driving the southern Queensland Outback. Rhythms so vastly different to any kind of road-tripping in New Zealand where corners, inclines, ever-changing landscapes and competitively short passing lanes are your constant Kiwi companions.
Which is not to say driving the Outback was boring, the truth being it was anything but. The rhythms; of elbow out the window, of Cold Chisel through the speakers, of power lines unlike any we have dancing down the highway, of sparse forest, of the bluest skies, of blonde grasses, of red soils and of roads so flat and straight your sense of time and "are we there yet" seem to get a little hazy.
And then, just to stop you from getting too relaxed behind the wheel, there are the emus, cattle and kangaroos your eyes hopefully notice safely in the distance. I wasn't embellishing for the sake of the yarn about the Cold Chisel either. Like the music and travel geek I am, I'd made an Aussie playlist especially for the Outback and for nearly 2000km, Barnsey and his Chisel mates (not to mention Little River Band, Icehouse and early Downunder-era Bee Gees) were the soundtrack. Which is great, because now every time I hear Forever Now or Home On Monday or Great Southern Land or Spicks And Specks, I'm transported back somewhere in rural Queensland.
Somewhere like Ian and Nan's Palm Grove Artesian Mud Baths in Eulo. One of those times when you're meant to be at a place, your expectations are so-so and when you get there you love it. Almost 1000km west of Brisbane, sitting in an outdoor bathtub in the semi-desert while munching on toasted sandwiches and chatting with a classic Outback character like Ian, this was gold. In a village of little more than 100 people, surrounded by industrial-chic corrugated iron and in conversation with a man who collects and displays everything from old cameras to vintage irons, the Eulo mud baths were terrific, eccentric and evidently very good for the skin.
That's where Cold Chisel's Forever Now seems to be taking me now I'm home and it must've been on the car stereo at a particularly snapshot-worthy moment as I made that 'roo dodging trek from Cunnamulla to Eulo.
If the song is LRB's Home On Monday, then the scene is Madonna and Lyle's farm-stay in Bonus Downs. One of the most attractive parts of the southern Queensland Outback I saw, Bonus Downs has gentle hills, ooline forests and in the case of Madonna and Lyle's, a grand old homestead next to a lake. Ask Madonna for some banana cake too — you won't be let down.
Great Southern Land by Icehouse has me driving into the town of Roma as the sun set on another cloudless day. With the heat of the afternoon fading into the cool of the evening, I was again racing to a destination that on paper I was prematurely blase about. That seems an odd thing to race towards, but I was being shown around the Roma cattle saleyards and as an urban lad who traditionally (and indefensibly) wanted to know as little about the meat he eats as possible,
I wasn't strictly speaking "excited".
Only who knew the largest cattle saleyards in Australia could be so curiously photogenic? Not me. But as the Queensland sun melted into the horizon, the endless rows of pens and silver-coloured walkways created something visually hypnotic. The scale of the place was staggering and my wide-brimmed hatted host was as typically warm and engaging as all my other new Outback friends.
I started to realise this part of the world is as much about the unique folk who live here as anything else. Something any traveller would have a hard time missing in Nobby.
Sounding more like the nickname of a mediocre club cricketer who averages 17 with the bat and takes occasional wickets with his slow-mediums, Nobby is most famous for its historic pub.
I heard Spicks And Specks the other day by those then still teenaged Gibb brothers and there I was, back in Nobby's memorabilia-drenched Rudd's Pub. It's been serving cold ones to Queenslanders since 1893 and the blokes casually leaning at the bar welcomed the stranger, made beverage recommendations (the Great Northern Lager seems a proudly local choice) and management even gave
me a tour of the accommodation. With beer taps in the en suite bathrooms, I was sold.
All told the Outback was a revelation. More beautiful and more openhearted than I ever imagined, it's also closer than you think to the lush rainforests that fringe Queensland's most attention-grabbing asset, its coastline.
Mind out for the bouncing animals, bung some Aussie faves on to a playlist and see what's beyond the beach.
Qantas flies from Auckland to Brisbane, with return Economy Class fares from $482.