Living history on Outback Queensland Steam Safari

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Scott McGregor

150 years of Outback Queensland Settlements

On a journey into the wild and remote territory of North West Queensland you will find a rich history of settlements established among the black soil plains and rich red Spinifex country around 150 years ago. This is Kalkadoon country, with our first Australian’s history stretching back tens of thousands of years and remaining ever present. Known as ‘the elite of the Aboriginal warriors of Queensland, they fought one of Australia’s historic battles of resistance in 1884 against a para-military force of European settlers and the Queensland native Mounted Police at a place known today as Battle Mountain, not far from Cloncurry.

It was explorer, Ernest Henry, who set off in 1859 beyond the headwaters of the Burdekin who first saw the potential of the rich grazing lands around Flinders River and decided to open up this fertile country.

Both Hughenden and Cloncurry grew from the endeavours of Ernest Henry. He established Hughenden Station to stock cattle and sheep on the grasslands around the Flinders River. However, his exploration of the Cloncurry River area in 1867 had the most profound effect on the region and the fledging nation. A chance find of a heavy black metal was worthy of a claim. He soon found a mother lode of copper and established the Great Australian Mine and so, the town of Cloncurry was born.

2017 heralds 150 years of Cloncurry’s existence, and 110 years of the railway history since the railway line opened in 1907. Key to the celebrations is the Outback Steam Safari and the rare event of an historic Outback rail journey.

Reliving the days of the mail trains in the Steam Era.

From a state rich in railway history, the special heritage steam train journey provides an opportunity to engage in rail travel over vast distances. This once in a lifetime opportunity is made possible with the support of Queensland Rail (QR) and the communities along the line. In the capable hands a QR Heritage crew and magnificent power of a 60 year old veteran BB18 1/4 Class locomotive, number 1089, the last mainline steam locomotive to be built for service in Australia, a long lost era of “Mail Trains” will be recreated.

Hauling a passenger special to the key railway towns in outback North West Queensland, this Heritage Special will steam out of Townsville heading westward over the Great Northern Railway towards the historic centre of Charters Towers. Passing through string of small towns including: Anthill Plains and Woodstock before our train attacks the heavy grades of the Haughton Range, where no doubt our steam loco will start to rise to the challenge with a typical staccato beat of a locomotive under load. Cresting the Haughton Range, the train will gather pace before drifting down towards the mighty Burdekin River. On approach to the Burdekin River will cross over the one kilometre long bridge alongside the1899 heritage listed former rail bridge. Charters towers is not far off and back in the 1880’s, Charters Towers was Queensland second biggest city and even had its own stock exchange. The buildings of this era of Queensland history remain. “The Towers” is intertwined with gold mining history and Venus Gold Battery commenced operations in 1872 and continued to crush gold until 1973 before becoming a tourist icon. It is the largest surviving historic gold battery in Australia.

There are many “wild rivers” in this part of Queensland and the steam special train will set out to cross the head waters of many of these rivers including the Campaspe, Cape and Flinders Rivers on the descent of the western slopes of the Great Diving Range. The great Red Cutting, with its rich red walls starkly illustrates the colours of the outback. Baffles Creek, Homestead and Prairie are a passing parade of small towns on the Great Northern line. Hughenden, one of the largest towns was established in the late 1870s and has been a pivotal centre for cattle and sheep properties in the district.

Heading out into the wild west – Dinosaur country!

The Queensland Rail Heritage Special will amble out of Hughenden towards the wide open plains west of the town. In this territory, the headlight of an approaching train might be visible for 20 kilometres, and the line has small reminders of an earlier era of railways when there many more outposts with exotic names likes Dunluce, Marathon and Moselle all long forgotten footnotes of history.

This is flat, “Black Soil” plains once, the bed of a vast inland sea and as the centuries passed, the climate and conditions became ripe for fossil formation. Skeletons of Sauropods, Pliosaurs, Pterosaurs – a flying reptile with a wingspan of four metres – shark teeth, ammonites, and belemnites have all been found, not to mention the bones of the massive Muttaburrasaurus and more recent giant Megafauna.

Richmond, predominately a grazing centre, is more recently the home of Kronosaurus Korner, a museum dedicated to marine fossils. The museum provides a fabulous insight into period of our continental history when vast areas were covered in water. Richmond also has an interesting history from pioneer days until the present and the there will be an opportunity to undertake a walk through some of the town’s rich history.

The open plains and grazing country remains the dominant feature beyond Richmond. Former railway townships like Maxwelton and the non-existent Nonda were once home to small Track Gangs that had custody of a section of the line. Further west Julia Creek, a compact town on the fringe of the Great Northern line comes into view.

Cloncurry – end of the line but end of the journey.

The rich black soils give way to the seeping red ochre soils signalling a change to the outback countryside. In the old days, railway men noted the “460 mile” point on the run up into Cloncurry. The once great Cloncurry Railway Station and depot was home for over 200 railway personnel and was the key railway depot for much of outback Queensland. A web of branch lines was also served from Cloncurry, Selwyn, Mount Cuthbert, Dajarra; and, of course, the famous Mount Isa.

On the special Outback Safari Railway Adventure you will continue your fascinating exploration onto Mt Isa, Winton and Longreach. For more details or a brochure www.railwayadventures.com   ph. 1300 733 323

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