Page 49

Blackall and on to Longreach.


The town was named in 1868 after Queensland's second governor, Sir Samuel Blackall. The Shire of Blackall has an area of 16,393 square kilometres and a population of 1,800. That means the people of Blackall only have an average of 9 sq. km. each, unlike the residents of the Booringa Shire who have 14 sq. km. each (see last page). However, should the Blackall residents feel at all deprived, perhaps they should think about the residents of England who have to share every square kilometre with 368 other people. Or the residents of the City of London where 1,961 people have to squeeze onto each square kilometre.

I rather like these comparisons, they emphasise the relative size and 'emptiness' of Australia better than mere statistics. The U.K. figures are 1991 estimates so very out of date but they won't have changed dramatically.

The four hundred kilometre drive from Mitchell to Blackall was much like the previous trip - empty, flat roads. The big difference was it rained for the second two hundred kilometres. We almost had to stop and consult the vehicle's handbook to find where the wiper switch was. Of course, the rain was entirely predictable - I'd given the caravan a very thorough wash the previous day.

When we arrived at the Blackall Caravan Park we found no sealed roadways. The top two or three inches of the surface dirt was like sloppy porridge but below that it was still dry and hard. Yuk! It was hard to walk without slipping and your shoes sank in unless you were really careful to step on the tufts of grass. It wasn't the best caravan park we'd ever stayed in, but it was one of the cheapest. In celebration of Mothers' Day the staff had cooked a lovely meal over the coals of an open fire in the park's barbecue area.

Camp Kitchen

'Chef' Rob with his wife, Chris, behind him. They own and run the Blackall Caravan Park

We happily paid $12 each and enjoyed soup and bread followed by beef, lamb, and a selection of vegies. To follow was 'damper' with butter and honey, and lamingtons. (Brits, a lamington is a popular Australian confection consisting of a cube of sponge cake coated in chocolate icing and shredded coconut. They're as yummy as they are fattening. They are frequently made to raise money for charity.) There was also tea, straight out of a billy. Before and after the meal we were entertained by an excellent bush poet who kept us all laughing.

And so to bed without the noise of heavy trucks pounding over a bumpy bridge all night. Bliss.

In Blackall, as in Mitchell, the town's water came from bores drilled 2,500 feet down to the Great Artesian Basin. It rose to the surface under its own pressure (which is what 'artesian' means). In Blackall the static water pressure at the surface was 72 P.S.I. at a temperature of 60° C. In other places, for example Winton, three hundred and fifty kilometres to the north west, the water emerges at boiling point, thus water cooling becomes much more of a consideration than water heating. The water is pure, we were told, and required no processing. However, in Blackall it had the same 'bad-egg' smell which we experienced at Mitchell. I was taught at school that pure water is a transparent, odourless, tasteless, liquid. If that's still a fact, then the bad-egg smell indicates that the water in these towns was not 'pure', though whatever it contained is probably harmless. The odour soon disappeared if the water was cooled in a fridge or left to stand.

In the shower I kept turning up the cold pressure but the water was still too hot so I tried turning down the hot pressure. The hot tap was fully off before the temperature was just right.


One of the early steam powered percussion drill rigs. This one is displayed at the site of Blackall's
original bore. They drilled down over a thousand feet and struck water which was used for a few
years, but was too brackish. A new bore was drilled but the old one is still flowing today.

The source of the water in the Great Artesian Basin is rain which fell thousands, if not millions, of years ago on the Great Dividing Range. It was trapped by an underground rock layer and seeped slowly westwards at between one and five metres per year. The Basin's capacity is estimated at 64,900 million megalitres - enough to fill Sydney Harbour 120,000 times. Even so, the number of bores that were drilled, some with a flow rate of eight million litres per day, and atrocious wastage resulted in the water pressure dropping over the years. Natural springs and some bores began to dry up. Eventually the State and Federal Governments stepped in and developed a management plan. They placed a moratorium on all new bores and heavily subsidised bore owners who were prepared to eliminate wastage. Free-flowing bores were capped and poly-pipe replaced thousands of kilometres of 'bore drains' (open channels). That eliminated losses which could amount to 90% through evaporation and seepage. Things improved substantially but there's still a long way to go, and the population depending on that water continues to increase.

We discovered for ourselves that there is a 'head in the sand' attitude in the towns that rely on this subterranean water. As I wrote on the previous page, we were told at the Information Centre at Mitchell that there was enough water for 200,000 years. At their caravan park we were told to use whatever we liked. However, while at Blackall we researched the situation much more thoroughly and found it isn't nearly as rosy as most people believe. In a nutshell, you can't take out more than goes in.

On our first full day we visited Blackall's foremost tourist attraction, a steam driven wool scouring plant. The plant had closed in 1978 when the wool growers found the Chinese could wash the wool cheaper. After a period of deterioration, local people decided to restore the scourer to working order, and that's how it is today. We watched the engineer turn a valve and start up the steam engine which powered the whole plant. As the big flywheel began to rotate, so did several roof pulley shafts and dozens of pulleys and belts, not to mention the machines which the belts drove. That engine smelled beautiful . . . but I think I was the only one to think so. It did nothing for Pam, that's for sure. After the guide moved the rest of the party on, I remained to talk to the engineer who, as I quickly discovered, was as deaf as a post. I asked one question, he answered another; it was like talking to a politician. In the end I gave up and caught up with the party in time for the guide to ask if I was a retired shearer! What had gone on in my absence?

Let me ask; would you like to see some pictures of the steam engine? Hmm, I thought not. Outside the wool scouring shed was an artesian bore . . .

Scourer bore

The wool scourer had its own bore which still flows. The stream taking the water to sheep and
cattle some distance away is called a 'bore drain'. Its crystal clear water was so hot that I was
only able to dangle my fingers in it for a few seconds. On a cold day it steams, of course.

Hands up all those who are not familiar with the expression, Beyond the Black Stump. Okay, listen up. In Australia, this is a very common saying meaning 'the back of beyond' - a long way from anywhere - some distant, usually unspecified, place in the Australian bush.

I never knew where the saying originated nor whether there ever really was a black stump. The town of Blackall, however, claimed that not only is there a Black Stump, but they have it! How could we resist? We had to go and see it, if only to photograph it for you, kind and patient reader. We followed TO THE BLACK STUMP signs down a side street and around the back of the school. There we found . . . this:-

Black Stump

When is a black stump not a black stump?

But it gets worse, poor reader. I feel cheated for you! What absolutely scandalous behaviour. Just look at the last paragraph on the sign photographed below right. Not only is the Black Stump not black, it isn't even the Black Stump! How can they get away with such deception? And after raising our expectations like that.

Stump sign

The first paragraph on the sign either explains what the original Black Stump was used for, or is total gobbledygook. I'm inclined towards the latter. I was, however, greatly enlightened to discover that: The circuit around Blackall was 27 miles square and contained an area of 729 square miles. Well, it would, wouldn't it? What is a principal meridional circuit traverse? Anybody know? And what is an Astro Station? A place where spaceships dock, perhaps?

On the central grass strip of the main shopping street there is another chunk of fossilised wood on display. They don't claim this one is a black stump, the plaque tells us that it's a conifer preserved by opalization and silification. Don't reach for a dictionary, dear reader, I've checked the Oxford, Macquarie and Collins Dictionaries. They don't list either word. Perhaps the last word should be silicification (converted into, or impregnated with, silica). The plaque tells us that the stump is either from the Tertiary era - 1,000,000 years old - or from the Mesazoic era - 225,000,000 years old. (Mesazoic is also misspelled, it should be Mesozoic)


The fossilised tree stump.
How old is it?

I'm not sure why this fossil is displayed in the centre of Blackall, it was brought from 100 kilometres away. If they are going to display it, perhaps they should date it a little more precisely than 1 million or 225 million years old.

Am I being too critical? I really believe that if a town is going to use an object as a tourist drawcard, as in the Black Stump, they should be truthful. They should also take the trouble to check their spelling before they make a plaque to accompany an object of interest.

By the way, did you notice the figure in the top left of the fossil picture? It's good old Pam marching purposefully off to the nearest newsagent to buy her English Women's Weekly. She buys the English version because it does NOT contain who's sleeping with whom, who has lost or gained weight, whether Prince Harry is going to Iraq, who wants to stab Princess Mary in the back, what Kylie Minogue, Nicole Kidman and Camilla are up to, how to lose 15 kilos in 45 minutes . . . and so on. She will NOT, she says, waste money on such puerile drivel. Besides, she reads them free when other women leave them in the park laundry.

I have to confess that I have been caught reading the English Women's Weekly myself, but only to check which stairlift I'll buy - when I get old - and the price of loose covers for the furniture. And I might read the problem page too. Can you believe that people actually write to a magazine to ask such stupid questions? Neither can I. I think she writes the questions herself and then answers them - and she still gets it wrong.

Thomas Mitchell Memorial Clock

Tommy Mitchell's Memorial Clock on the main street. Unlike the tourist literature, this photo shows both clocks telling the same time.

One banner to the left of the clock is advertising Saint Patrick's Church Christmas Fair . . . in mid-May! The other banner is the Pistol Club's.

During our week at Blackall the town was overrun by 'motor homes' and their smaller brothers, 'campervans'. They were all travelling to Barcaldine, 110 kilometres to the north, where a rally was due to be held for that type of recreational vehicle. They varied from old, converted vans to state-of-the-art purpose-built mobile homes constructed on a bus or truck chassis and costing anything up to $800,000.

Most of the big motor homes tow a small car behind, either connected by an A-shaped draw bar so that the car steers itself, or with the front wheels off the ground on a bogie. Other cars ride on a car trailer towed behind the motor home and some have a boat mounted upside down above the car. We've even seen a motor home where the back of the vehicle has been constructed as a small garage. Open the rear doors, lower the ramps and drive in the car. There's really no limit to what you can have if money is no object.

They'll all be at Barcaldine soon; thankfully we won't be.


Before leaving Blackall we had another little 'Jayco Episode'. During our normal preparation for travel we found another centre bolt missing from one of the caravan springs and everything out of alignment. This wasn't a great drama, it just entailed a jolly hour grubbing about in the dirt with one wheel off and the axle separated from the spring. We carry the spares and have done this repair twice previously so we were soon on our way. And as compensation, we were given a following wind for the northerly half of the journey which reduced our fuel consumption and, of course, the load on Billy's engine.

About a kilometre before entering Longreach we re-crossed the Tropic of Capricorn so we were back in the tropics . . . just.

We were making a return visit to the Gunnadoo Caravan Park where we were to remain for three weeks. I'd better admit, up front, the reason for remaining so long. The Qantas Founders' Outback Museum is situated at Longreach and that museum has a huge Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet on display, but that wasn't the reason. The Museum also has a 1942 vintage Douglas DC-3 Dakota that used to fly under the Qantas banner, but that wasn't the reason either.

Qantas 747

Our Pajero was dwarfed by Boeing 747 City of Bunbury at the Qantas Founders Outback Museum.
Would our car fit into the Boeing's engine intake? Almost.

Not long ago, the very first Boeing 707 to be purchased by Qantas was discovered on an airfield in Britain. It had passed through several hands since Qantas sold it and had finally been 'put out to pasture'. Since it was the first jet airliner ever to be owned by an Australian airline it had some historical significance and it would make a valuable addition to the Museum's collection. A team of volunteers offered to restore it to airworthy condition - an incredibly large labour of love - so it could be repainted in the Qantas livery of the period and be flown back to Australia. And that is just what happened.

The 707 flew to Sydney and was due to fly into Longreach in late 2006. Ongoing delays ensued, the reasons for which vary according to whom you speak. The real reason, of course, was that Pam and I weren't able to get to Longreach until mid-May 2007 so Qantas management rescheduled the arrival for 10th June to allow us some leeway. But whatever you do, dear Reader, don't mention that to anybody else because the residents of Longreach are already pretty p----d off over the delays.

At Easter there had been great excitement in the town when the 707 appeared overhead and made several approaches to the runway . . . then it flew back to Sydney. The runway at Longreach is technically far too short and far too narrow to accommodate a Boeing 707. When the 747 landed it did so carrying minimal fuel and after being considerably lightened. Additionally, it landed with its outboard engines shut down to avoid gravel being ingested as those engines overhung the runway edge.

On our previous visit to Longreach we had seen the very sad and dilapidated Dakota outside the museum. At that time there were unspecific plans to do some restoration work. On our second visit we found the work underway with the tail raised and scaffolding around the aircraft. The cabin top was being blasted and her fuselage was being rubbed back. Her rudder trim tab was still missing, however.

Work on the DC-3

Wonderful! The ex-Qantas Dakota receiving some much needed TLC at Longreach.

During our stay we called at the airfield several times to monitor the Dak's progress. It was parked right outside the window of the Museum's café which served excellent coffee, so going there was no hardship. We heard on the radio that its skin was being blasted with bicarbonate of soda! We had thought it was being painted when we saw the white spray, but not so. A rudder trim tab appeared from somewhere then some Qantas sign writers turned up and restored the original registration, along with other insignia of the time. The scaffolding was then removed but work continued on the interior. They hoped to have her open for display on the big day when the 707 arrived.

Dakota after work

A week later she had her self respect back, a new trim tab and her original registration.

Changing the subject entirely, we found the Gunnadoo Caravan Park almost unrecognisable. A lot of improvements had been made since our last visit and it was almost full every night. On one occasion in November of 2005, Pam and I had consisted of 50% of the population of this huge park.

This year we were treated to the sight of a stagecoach galloping through the park. Okay, okay, the horses were galloping . . .

Galloping through the Carvan Park

The stagecoach company ran a selection of tours and this was good advertising. It looked fun!

We couldn't resist. A few days later we rode the stage coach on a tour of the town then a gallop across the common. Pam sat inside and I rode shotgun . . .

Riding Shotgun

There's happy Pam peeping out of the window. I'm trying to do a 'mean' look with the gun.

I didn't know the lady sitting next to me but she loved horses and the coach driver gave her the reins from time to time. The man in the back seat decided to rest his arm on the wheel as we galloped across the common - but only the once. The horses, quarter Clydesdales, were called Joh and Flo after a charismatic State Premiere (now dead) and his wife.

As always we got contradictions, misinformation and confusion when we enquired about certain things. One was the origin of the town's name and another was the source of the town's water. Regarding the latter, certainly water is drawn from the nearby Thomson River, but is it supplemented with bore water? We received various answers but the probable truth is that one part of the town is on river water (cold) and the remainder on artesian water (hot). Some claimed all properties were served with both hot and cold supplies - a good if expensive idea. Even the spelling of the Thomson River varied. Well, it did on our map. The stretch nearest the town was labelled the Thompson River. If that's where the locals swim, we can guess where the 'p' came from.

One day we met a helicopter pilot in the pub. He was engaged on a government contract to measure variations in the earth's gravity. This was done by an extremely sensitive instrument which was basically a weighing machine, presumably with an internal weight. The pilot's job was to place the helicopter on the ground at the exact location given to him. His passenger would then hop out with the instrument and place it in position using a G.P.S. that was accurate to within two centimetres. (That's some accuracy. Alice is only accurate to four metres at best.) A gravity reading would be recorded and the helicopter would move to the next location and the process would be repeated, all day every day. Gradually a huge matrix of gravity values would be amassed. The theory is that where there is a large body of denser than normal material present below the ground, the pull of gravity on the surface will increase by a miniscule amount. This data will enable ore bodies to be located and a good idea of their size to be calculated. Clever stuff.

We might as well move on to Page 50, dear Reader. See you there.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 49 was completed on 14 May 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level 3.