Prowling the Dowling
"The Dowling what?" you may well ask. The Dowling Track is a collection of classic little known outback gems that are not appreciated until they are experienced. Not exactly the Canning, but a tourer's 564km delight complete with history, old outback pubs, plenty of the red stuff, and remote enough to keep you on your toes.
Vincent James Dowling may not be as well known as Burke and Wills, but from Bourke to Quilpie he is an absolute legend. In early 1959, he drove 1200 Hereford heifers to a station he established on the Darling River that he named Fort Bourke. By 1862, he was a magistrate in both New South Wales and Queensland, but the wanderlust was setting in again as the Darling was getting "too civilised".
So, Vinnie traced the Paroo and Bulloo Rivers to their origins for a lark, establishing Caiwarro and Eulo stations as a result. By 1867, with partner George Cox they had leased over 3367km² in the Warrego region. Apparently not everyone was happy to see him, and in one incident he was saved by his 'long American hat' from an Aboriginal spear.
In 1867, he took wife Fanny and newborn child to Thargomindah and established Thargomindah Station. Fanny was the first white woman in the area and the first magistrate. When he sold in 1874, the station had 129km of river frontage on the Bulloo and 2590km² of grassed mulga ridges and saltbush plains with a fine herd of his favoured Herefords. No wonder 'VJD' was the man and now here we are, 150 years later, trundling along his old stamping ground.
The kick off is Bourke, home of the magnificent Back of Bourke Centre, but the real excitement starts on the Fords Bridge Rd when black turns to red. Recent rains meant the 'Road Closed' signs had been up more often than not, but the big guy was on our side with the road damp but open. Fords Bridge is a neat little town with friendly locals and a magnificent old pub that is quite unique. Thought to be the only pub in Australia still standing made from mud bricks, it was built in 1913 on the site of the original Salmon Ford Pub, a Cobb & Co changing station.
About 64km up the track and a good place to boil the billy and have a deco around is Yantabulla. Essentially a ghost town these days, but once thriving with nine houses, a store, police station, cordial factory, and if you didn't like the cordial, a pub. Originally called Yanda Bullen Bullen, local Aboriginal for 'Plenty to eat', Cobb & Co had a changing station and Vinnie had a homestead. He must have been a cordial lover!
The next stop is an all-time personal favourite and not to be missed, historic Hungerford. Marking the NSW/QLD border, a gate in the rabbit-proof fence lets the southern hordes into the home state. Personally, I think there should be a full immigration station with entry by visa and a compulsory swim through a cattle dip to screen non-residents!
The Royal Mail Hotel built in 1873 is as iconic as you can get, and I would find it hard to believe Vinnie didn't stop here a time or two for one of his favourite cordials. There is inevitably an old-timer or two nestled at the bar willing to have a chin wag and share a bit of local history, or in this case the latest road conditions. Yes, the road was open despite the rain and watch out for the road gang that was grading the road. "Thanks fells, I'll keep an eye out, but I'd better have a light, cold one before I head off."
The road to Thargomindah initially parallels the rabbit-proof fence. Originally built in the 1880s, it has undergone several reincarnations morphing into the dingo fence in 1914 when it was raised to 6ft high while maintaining its rabbit-proof status. More recently, the name changed again to the very politically correct sounding wild dog barrier fence, allegedly after a complaint to the Discrimination Court by an upset purebred dingo seeking compensation for mental trauma as a result of being categorised with mongrel bitsers.
At its peak it ran 8614km, and today is still the longest fence in the world running 5614km from the Darling Downs to Eyre Peninsula. Just a note: do not drive along the service road because while it might seem like a fun thing to you, the repair teams working the fence don't appreciate being run over by some yobbo hurtling over a blind dune when they are head down and bum up fixing a hole.
A real appreciation of the local terrain is gained as you cross over the Martha Range. At 129m above sea level, oxygen masks are hardly dropping from the overhead console, but it is high enough for a good panoramic.
There is no shortage of grouse places to set up camp. Hungerford, Currawinya National Park, side of the track and just a bit further off the track, Kilcowera Station. Toni and Greg Sharwin have opened up their property to campers, trailers and vans, or you can grab a room in the old shearer's quarters. Hot showers, fire pits, camp kitchen, wood supplied, it has the lot as well as walking and drive tracks to explore the flora, fauna, cave, waterholes and ominously named Murderers Bore.
Vinnie's stamp is all over the next stop, Thargomindah. After he established Thargomindah Station in 1864, a town of the same name followed and was gazetted in 1874. Thargo was the first place in Australia and third in the world to have street lighting generated by hydro power, and a tour of the Water Museum and a demo of the hydro power should not be missed. There are some great old buildings, with several like the old hospital being built from locally made mud bricks.
There is also a top little drive that crosses over a stone causeway originally built for Cobb & Co. The recent rain had water well over the crossing, which made it a bit more exciting and an excuse to tickle the little lever into action.
While the Hungerford/ Thargomindah Rd was open when we entered at Hungerford the day before, the 'Closed' sign had just been put up in Thargo. A quick check at the roadhouse confirmed that the strip to Quilpie was "open to 4WDs with caution".
The final leg is the least adventurous with way too much blacktop for my liking, but did throw up an unexpected corker, the Toompine Pub or as the two locals put it, "The pub without a town!"This is a compulsory stop and I would make it an overnight, as the mad-as-a-cut-snake pub manager, Jonesey, probably won't let you leave anyway! Daxy's Bar claims the best steaks in Queensland and the atmosphere in the 1893 bar is as good as it gets. Plenty of room to camp, they will even open up the local hall, where you can throw a swag down if the weather is lousy with dunnies and showers to boot. Fishing, yabbying, an old cemetery, opal fossicking an old mine, and Jonesey's pets including her camels, donkeys, alpacas, goats and calves are all there.
End of the road is Quilpie, situated just out of flood reach in most years on the Bulloo River. Take the time to have a good look around at Baldy Top Lookout, Lake Houdraman, and try your hand at opal fossicking. There are plenty of local businesses, an art gallery, the pub of course, and a bakery from which I must confess to having a diet-busting pie and old-fashioned cream bun!
Vinnie did us all proud and his legacy lives on in the Dowling Track. It is an excellent trundle with superb camping, iconic character-riddled pubs, classic outback towns, and enough dust, dirt and flies to make it a classic trek.
We have all been guilty of driving dirt-caked trucks with a certain pride. Hell, haven't I been outback! It is, however, very important to obey any road closures because while the road immediately ahead might look okay, down the track could be an impassable creek or dangerous washout. The main problem is people driving on closed roads digging ruts, which then require expensive repair. So, do the right thing and check road conditions before you leave home and then double-check at the local police station, roadhouse or information centre.
The red windows and caked-on mud, as we found out on this trip, is also a beacon for the local constabulary, who may well assume you have been driving on local closed roads, even though you may have legally been on roads hundreds of kilometres away. Big tyres and lifts can then become items of discussion, which may be alright, but as we found out, may not be okay!
On the long stretches there is nothing like some soothing music to help the miles slip by. In my truck there are two choices of music, country and western, and it is great to have a new CD on each trip. The connoisseur's choice for the Dowling Track was Slim Dusty Sittin on 80, a four-CD collection of Aussie truckin' classics from the master himself featuring a toe-tapping 80 songs. How good does it get?
While the kids and missus might want to throw themselves out the windows, this is an essential part of the outback education featuring classics like Red Roo Roadhouse, My Dad Was A Roadtrain Man, and Danger! Roadtrain.
Total distance 567km starting at Bourke, 68km to Fords Bridge, 64km to Yantabulla, 85km to Hungerford, 163km to Thargomindah, 113km to Toompine and then 74km to Quilpie or 'Mickey Merv' if starting in the northern hemisphere of Queensland.
Full range available with ample bush camping, back of pubs, campgrounds, national parks. If you cannot find something to suit on this trek, give the game away.
SUPPLIES AND FACILITIES:
Supplies at all stops but full service in Bourke, Thargomindah and Quilpie.
Remote touring and condition dependent, but should not give any drama with care and diligence depending on how far off the track you venture.
MAPS AND GUIDES:
Most navigators will do the deed. This brochure is a must. http://www.bourke.local-e. nsw.gov.au/files/2091/File/ DowlingTrackBrochure.pdf
If you run out of fuel on this trip, either your trip computer is broken or you have a hole in your tank.
Mariala, Currawinya, Lake Bindegolly, Gundabooka and Clagoa all come into play depending upon which direction you are coming from.
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY WAYNE 'NUGGET' NIELSEN