Endless empty stretches of tarmac, drunken locals telling gruesome backpacker stories, figures walking resolutely along the highway in the midday sun with no interest in thumbing a lift, and skinned animals strung up on fences.

No, this isn’t the sequel to Wolf Creek but instead some of the stranger things we saw on our road trip from Melbourne to Cairns. Instead of following the usual trail we decided 
to travel inland, along the Mitchell and Capricorn highways until regaining the coast atTownsville. Taking this route there’s no Mission Beach, Byron Bay or even a chance of seeing the Whitsundays, but there are cemeteries with headstones that read “found dead in the bush” and “shot dead by police” (Bourke), towns with teddy bear road signs (Tambo) and warm sulphurous bore water that people braver than me drink (Barcaldine).

Feeling fruity

It may not sound glamorous and relaxing, but there’s a lot of weird and wonderful out there, and if you’ve been captured by people’s descriptions of the ‘real Australia’, this is a good way to get a taste.

One thing to consider when road tripping around Oz are the borders and the fruit fly exclusion zone. Plan accordingly. Otherwise, you could find yourself parked at the side of the road having the biggest fruit salad the world has ever seen. I’m not kidding, it was huge.

Travelling long distances also means that you can find yourself in the middle of nowhere with very little choice of where to stop for the night. We were warned against just pulling off to the side of the road and I think it would probably have given me nightmares anyway. It’s therefore a good idea to pick up the maps from the tourist offices (you’ll find an office in nearly every town), which outline what amenities are available where – petrol stations, hotels, campgrounds, etc. We found ourselves, however, in a place much too small to be included on our map or guide book. Called Barrigun, it was the last place to stop before the Queensland border.

This town has a population of four and one pub, and it’s where you’ll find the Bush Tucker Inn. We pulled in just as the sun was setting and found a note taped to the door telling us the owner was out sheep shearing. We parked up in a spot next to two other tourists, and made friends with the resident goat (who was sneakily eating sections of our neighbour’s caravan). It soon became apparent it was a rest stop for road trains that doubled as a site for campers and caravans, and when we went into the main building later in the evening, to pay our fees, we met the locals. All four of them! They may have ribbed us a bit, but with it seemed to come a smidgen of respect and a large helping of incredulity that we were that far in the middle of nowhere and had stopped in Barrigun. We stayed to chat for a bit and then left them to their beers. By 6am it was as if none of the other tourists or truck drivers had ever been there, it was just us and the goat and a whole lot of nothingness. Hallucinating? No, I don’t think so. Too many horror films? Definitely. Although I’m putting the tapping in the middle of the night down to the goat.

Over the border in Queensland, stop in at Cunnamulla and try to plan your visit so you can stay overnight. We arrived in the morning and were too tied in to our schedule to stick around, but there’s the Cosmos Centre with a telescope – being so far away from the light pollution of the big cities, the stars should look astounding. You can also head into town and take a look at a couple of rain guns dating back to 1902. It was hoped the explosions they generated by being fired into the sky would change the atmospheric pressure and produce rain. Needless to say it failed and in the process two of the guns blew up. There’s a Flying Doctor’s Visitor Centre, a few are dotted around the Outback, or for those more interested in animals there’s a captive breeding programme for endangered yellow-footed rock wallabies and bilbies, and you can go down there and visit them. The wallabies can be seen at any time but the bilbies are only brought out in the afternoon. 

On reaching Barcaldine you can head west to Longreach, but we left the highway here (after checking with the locals that our camper could cope) to 
get to Torrens Creek. It turned out to be an excellent opportunity for me to hone my kangaroo spotting skills, as groups of them were sheltering under the trees, some bounding away when they heard the van coming down the otherwise deserted road. Luckily, we were still paying attention and saw the emu run out in front of us in time to slow down. We’d been on stretches of road before that hardly saw any traffic but this was different. This felt really remote and the people we did see just made me jealous, taunting me with their air conditioning.

End of the road

I was reduced to sticking my feet out into the (warm) breeze to try and cool down. Finally, we reached the part of the road that wasn’t sealed (we’d been warned of this before we’d set off). There was no sign or warning, the tarmac just stopped. We crawled along at a sloth’s pace trying not to slide, passed a car wrapped round a tree, and provided much needed entertainment for the workmen who scratched their heads at the sight of us.

It wasn’t long before we were heading inland again along the main road to Charters Town. We were back in civilization, where no one waves and the lizards are more traffic savvy. When we stopped for food we found we were overwhelmed by all the people everywhere. It took a few days to acclimatize and for me to stop saying “I miss the Outback, let’s go back”. I am, however, hankering for a trip to Longreach to see the Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and maybe Mount Isa. Who needs to go to the beach when you’ve got the Outback.