When you drive east from Alice Springs to Queensland, there are only two ways to go; via Tennant Creek, 500 km to the north and then east along the Barkly Highway to Mount Isa or via the Plenty Highway. The Tennant Creek route is bitumenised (asphalt) 400 km longer and, when you've driven it hundreds of times, exceedingly boring. The Plenty Highway is a mostly gravel road that commences about 70 km north of The Alice and although rough in parts, is suitable for four wheel drive vehicles and trucks with high clearance.
With diesel fuel at $1.75 per Litre at Alice Springs, it's cheaper to go via the shorter dusty route and of course, a little quicker. As we hadn't been across the Plenty Highway for quite a few years, we decided to go that way saving money and revisiting the route we had taken two or three times previously, a good opportunity to see if anything had changed.
As you turn from the Stuart Highway (named after explorer John Stuart) into the Plenty Highway, you face a number of signs telling you about the road condition and the need for 4 wheel drive, this time after Jervois Station. (See photo at left). For at least a few kilometres, it was bitumenised, something new since our last trip. The Northern Territory Government extends the bitumen a few hundred metres or kilometres each year, depending on what funding is available. By 2090, or perhaps a little sooner, it will be fully bitumenised, but by then it will be of little benefit to me.
For this first leg of our journey, we had decided to travel to Cawnpore Lookout, an idyllic spot (well, idyllic by our standards) somewhere between Boulia, the first town in western Queensland and Winton, the next along the track. The lookout is on top of a little hill and the surrounding views are magic; ancient hills turned into buttes and other rugged shapes by millions of years of wind, rain and sun. Cawnpore is about 950 kilometres from The Alice and therefore, a good day's drive away.
When we arrived where we thought Cawnpore should be, it was pitch dark with a miniscule quarter moon revealing very little of the surrounding hills. We had a little trouble finding our way, but eventually located the lookout and drove up the steep slope to park on the top. Not a sound could be heard except for some crickets. As is common in outback Australia, the display of stars in the sky was outstanding. The Southern Cross and Milky Way were particularly bright and a cool breeze came from the south.
We boiled the billy for coffee and tea, had a cold dinner and then sat for a couple of hours enjoying the isolation, peace, tranquility and the beautiful heavenly display before pushing back the seats in our Prado and going to sleep. As morning broke, a lone road train (truck with five trailers) rumbled along the road below towards Boulia and we prepared for another day's drive, this time to Emerald, a coal mining and cotton growing township close to Rockhampton near the Queensland coast.
Our new Landcruiser Prado handled the rough, dusty roads very well and was much more comfortable than our previous, beloved Toyota Forerunner. We still have a long way to go.
PS: Double click graphic to see larger size.