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Charleville: Exploring The Heart Of Mulga Country

Ben Hall

After sitting in pitch darkness for five minutes, our eyes finally adjust to the night and overhead the sky turns on a show of sheer brilliance which is unique to this part of the world. The stars, and the Milky Way in particular, burn bright and the twinkling mass of colour extends to a seemingly endless horizon in every direction. As each person gets their night vision, it’s punctuated with an “Oh wow!” or “Oh look at that!” and similar variations. The night session at the Cosmos Centre and Observatory in Charleville has that effect on most people, experienced astronomers included, who are moved deeply by this introduction to one of nature’s greatest shows. 

Charleville’s unique location in the Outback with no pollution and very little city lights, combined with the fact that the area is dead flat for hundreds of kilometres around and has very few cloudy days, means it’s one of the best locations to view the stars and systems that make up our universe. Over the next hour, our small group takes turns at looking through the three powerful Meade telescopes which are each pointed at various stars and galaxies - we look at star clusters, binary stars, nebulae, coloured stars and planets as our trained guides explain why they’re there, and how they were formed.

It’s an overwhelming and humbling experience and it’s just one of the highlights of a visit to Charleville, 750km west of Brisbane. With a population of 3,500 it’s the largest town in the south-west of the state and has become a major hub for an exploration of the Queensland Outback. The modern innovation of the Cosmos Centre aside, it’s a town steeped in rich history set against an unbreakable bond with the land, and to gain a real appreciation of what makes Charleville “tick”, you need to take to the air. Down at ground level, the town is a quiet and pleasant place with the ubiquitous low-lying mulga trees the only barrier to the horizon which dominates in an eerie 360 degree panorama.

Outback Airtours operate joy flights over Charleville, along with longer tours of the Outback, and this is the best way to gain a sense of scale of the region. As we fly over the town, the Warrego River dominates the landscape and this permanent water source meant that it became part of an important stock route in the late 1800’s, and  more than 500 bullock teams passed through each year until the 1920’s. The meandering Warrego runs right through town and is prone to flooding. The worst event in recent memory was in 1990 when the whole town was evacuated when the river peaked at over 8.5 metres.

Outside of the town and it’s red dirt and mulga trees as far as the eye can see with the bright blue sky seemingly halting its advance and the odd station homestead is the only indication that human beings actually live out here, along with a puff of red dust which indicates a four wheel drive on a dirt road. The Charleville to Cunnamulla rail line provides a sobering sense of distance in the Outback - it’s a gun barrel straight piece of track that runs for 200km and even at an elevation of a couple of kilometres, you can’t see where it ends. Like much of the landscape it just keeps on going until it’s claimed by the horizon.

Down at ground level and life moves along at its own unique pace, as if to complement its place in the world, and the locals are more than happy to share their knowledge of what to see and do in the area. The Charleville Visitors Centre, on Sturt Street in the Graham Andrews Parkland, is a great place to become acquainted with the area and all it has to offer and this is where you’ll be able to pick up information on everything there is to do, and make bookings for most of the activities along with accommodation. If you need to customise a driving tour, find out where the best heritage and bush walks are, locate the best camping and fishing spots, and search out that ultimate Outback experience, then this is the place to start.

The Visitors Centre also has BBQ facilities next to a lake where geese, ducks and various parrots congregate, along with a well marked Outback Native Timber Walk which highlights the flora of the area in an easy loop around the lake. In the same parkland area is a reminder of Charleville’s rich and often quirky history with the famous Vortex Gun Display. In 1902 Queensland meteorologist Clement Wragge came up with an innovative idea to break a bad seven year drought and ordered the construction of six “rainmaker” guns at more than five and half metres high each. The theory was that blasts of air detonated by gunpowder would trigger rain from clouds - but the end result was a lot of noise and nothing else.

Out and about in Charleville, and it’s not difficult to slip into the laid-back sense of calm that prevails - from a quiet beer with the locals at the Heritage listed Corones Hotel to the weekly yabby races at the Bailey Bar Caravan Park. The yabby races on Tuesday typifies their love of life and sense of humour. The yabbies themselves are locals, caught down at the Warrego River, and their numbers are painted on their tails to make the job of tracking them a lot easier. An auction for each yabby is held, and punters get to “buy” one of the crustaceans with winning bids ranging from $10 to $30, and the winners’ purse is a princely $80 with minor prizes for the other place getters, and whatever’s left over is donated to the Royal Flying Doctors’ Service.

Nobody’s really sure what indicates a “fast” yabby - whether it’s down to size or a perky demeanour - but the auction can get quite competitive. It’s BYO chairs and drinks and the object of the race itself is pretty simple - nine or so yabbies are placed in a circular barrier in the middle of a large piece of canvas with a circle painted around the perimeter. The first yabby that makes it from the middle to the edge is the winner. Typically, on this day, the “high priced” yabbies failed to perform and scuttled around in circles while the less fancied ones seemed to know the rules of the game, including one called “Boiling Point” - a $15 yabby that romped home for two of the younger kids who clubbed in with their pocket money. It’s Outback entertainment at its best, and typifies the essence of a vibrant country town that’s justifiably proud of its past, and loving every minute of its present.


Three-Day Driving Itinerary In And Around Charleville

Day One:

Call into the Charleville Visitors Centre to discuss what you want to do and to pick up maps and itineraries. 

Walk over to the the Vortex Rainmaking Guns. 

Drive into town and do the Heritage Trail Walk which takes in the Historic House Museum, the Town Hall with its historic photographic display, the Court House, the Royal Flying Doctor Service and the Corones Hotel.

Visit the Cosmos Centre and Observatory in the afternoon for interactive displays, and movies and a hands-on session on meteorites.

Return to the Cosmos Centre at 7.15pm for the observatory session. 


Day Two:

Drive out to the Evening Star Tourist Park at Thurlby Station for a guided station tour.

Head to the Ellangowan Hotel in Augathella (one hour away) and begin a 4X4 tour of the local stock routes, and finish back at the pub with a cold beer. 

Drive back to Charleville for either the yabby races or a camp oven dinner at 4.30pm at the Bailey Bar Caravan Park.

Visit the Bilby Experience on Park Street at 6pm


Day Three:

Drive down the Warrego Highway to Morven (about one hour) and visit the local museum. 

Head 10km south along the Morven-Bollon Road for Tregole National Park for a picnic lunch followed by a pleasant walk which reveals a good example of the diverse and fragile ecosystem of the area.

Drive back to Charleville for sunset and bird watching along the banks of the Warrego River.






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