Elisabeth Easther visited Longreach, in the depths of Central West Queensland, and discovered there's more to the Sunshine State than theme parks, wildlife sanctuaries and beaches.

Queensland's Outback works to a very specific weather pattern and it's nothing so ho-hum as four seasons a year. Just to keep people guessing, residents can expect a flood every 20 years and, within those two decades, there'll be three grand years and three or four really tough ones, as a rule.

Thigh-high grass isn't unheard of; it's just not something you'll encounter when it's as dry as a bone as far as the eye can see, which it has been now for some years.

But the good news is, extreme drought has given birth to a novel boom because, deep in the heart of rural Queensland, farmers have turned to tourism to keep their small towns alive.

Longreach, Outback, Queensland, Australia. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland
Longreach, Outback, Queensland, Australia. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland

As you fly to Longreach, 1175km northwest of Brisbane, the landscape below barely changes, occasional houses, a handful of hamlets and scratchings of dried-up riverbeds are all that punctuate the dust, and you wonder how anything survives. Landing in Longreach however, you'll discover a town that's flourishing, thanks to the locals' pioneering spirit.


Next to the airport, the Qantas Founders' Museum tells the story of the world's second-oldest civilian aviation company. Poke your nose inside the old Apollo, the world's first plane to have a lavatory - although to be honest it's little more than a bucket. In contrast, the giant Boeing 747, with its 19.3m high tail fin is the longest, tallest public structure in town and it was the height of luxury in its day. Accessing the first-class lounge via a spiral staircase, I wished the walls of its opulent interior could talk and as I explored the flight deck, taking a seat in the cockpit, I allowed my long-suppressed pilot fantasies to take flight.

But my favourite relic was the "short short 707". Unassuming from the outside, inside it oozed glamour - all rich wood, crystal and gold-plated fittings, bathrooms with padded toilet seats, double beds and armchairs. When it stopped flying commercially it was kitted out to attract a king's ransom, the intention being to sell her to rich Saudis for a cool $54 million - but the pig leather seats scuppered that plan. No trip to Longreach is complete without a cruise on the tranquil Thomson River. Lazing down the river on the Drover's Sunset Cruise, it was astonishing to find such a vibrant water source in a land where almost all conversations start and end with talk of drought. As I headed upstream towards Sunset Bend, gnarled coolabah trees clung steadfastly to the banks, their shambolic roots exposed to the elements. And as the day drew to a close, the water turned to glass, reflecting all the shades of the citrus palette - pink grapefruit, burned orange, lemon, a splash of tangerine, all squeezed together before evaporating into a rich velvety blue.

As we floated along we passed a handful of pelicans resting onshore, it appeared they were a little worse for wear, as in dead. Apparently pelicans cast out their old folk when they're no longer useful, so quite a few corpses were lying about. As for the livelier birdlife, standing in the branches of trees were enormous nests of whistling kites. These big birds mate for life, returning to the same spot each year and making their homes bigger and bigger each season. What an endearing bird, I thought to myself, until I learned that the chicks, during their five months in their oversized nurseries, take sibling rivalry to new heights, the stronger chick throwing the weaker one out to its death.

Back on land, Smithy's Outback Dinner and Show beckoned - barramundi with all the trimmings and a very fine pudding hit the spot just nicely, followed by billy tea, damper and dancing beneath a star-studded sky.

Thanks to the soporific nature of cruising and the subsequent campfire dancing, I was out like a light that night, but next morning there was no chance of sleeping in thanks to the thousands of short-beaked eastern rosellas holding court in the trees.

Longreach is big on birds: all the streets are named for them, northeast streets I was reliably informed were all land birds and the south-westerly streets were named for birds of the sea.

For a taste of the pioneer spirit, the Outback's lid is well and truly lifted by Kinnon & Co, a farming family who are unashamedly herding tourists until the weather turns around.

Longreach, Outback, Queensland, Australia. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland
Longreach, Outback, Queensland, Australia. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland

At Kinnon & Co HQ, in the centre of town, visitors can enjoy all sorts of homespun fun, but it was the Cobb & Co carriage ride that stole my heart. Once the lifeblood of the Outback, these lovingly crafted stagecoaches carry passengers out of town along an old dirt road. Leaving Longreach at a leisurely pace, we made our rickety way into the countryside, stirring up clouds of dust in our wake.

Back in the day, stagecoach drivers had permission to lead their teams into a gallop only when they were trying to outrun a storm, and only at full-speed for 800m, or else the horses wouldn't have coped. To give us a sense of what that was like, for a brief time we took off - mighty Clydesdales in full sail - utterly exhilarating.

Longreach is also home to the Outback Heritage Centre. The timber, stone and corrugated iron building contains five themed galleries.

You could spend a whole day perusing the installation Indigenous Stockmen: In Our Own Words. For 50,000 years, Aborigines criss-crossed this country and, understandably, their navigation and survival skills were in demand when the Europeans arrived. Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny, always fascinating, this collection features interviews with 350 notable Aboriginal men and women.

For a taste of rural life, one of the local tourism industry's many endearing characters, Alan Smith, escorts tourists to Strathmore Station. Deep into the Outback, we encountered kangaroos foraging dejectedly for the last of the feed among the carcasses of their friends, the edges of the road lined with piles of sun-bleached bones.

Outback Heritage Centre Stockman's Hall of Fame, Longreach, Outback, Queensland. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland
Outback Heritage Centre Stockman's Hall of Fame, Longreach, Outback, Queensland. Photo / Tourism and Events Queensland

Stepping into our vehicle at Strathmore, our guide Maree Pearse cut a trim figure, the sort of woman you might find in the pages of an R.M. Williams catalogue.

Born and bred on this very land, she talked about the ups and downs of life in the back of beyond. She told us that this has been one of the worst dries on record, but life here has evolved to withstand the extremes, which is why the trees and plants are uniformly pale, to lose as little moisture as possible.

One thing, however, that seemed to defy the drought was the flourishing paddy melon; resembling little apple cucumbers. Not even the hungriest animals eat them, except for the occasional camel. Apparently they're terribly bitter. 'How bitter?' I wanted to know. 'Like a lemon? Like a lime?' No one could tell me, so I cut a fruit in two - how bad could it be? - and bravely gave it a lick.

For hours afterwards, the sharp, shocking taste lingered on my tongue and lips - it was extraordinary, not pleasant at all but an experience all the same. The funny thing was, none of the locals in all their time living round here, and running tours, had ever licked one. So there you go, we all learned something that day - and the lesson was, paddy melons really do taste vile.

As for the future, one day the rain will fall, the land will spring back to life, the dusty brown ground will be reborn as green - a miraculous thing to behold I'm told.

In the meantime, tourists will keep the wolves from the farmers' doors.