Follow the old drovers along the Georgina Stock Route, down the best river in western Queensland.
The name Georgina is an evocative one for an outback river. It conjures an image, perhaps of an unpredictable female that offers great promise, and yet has the ability to break the spirit of the strongest of men.
Well, if that’s what the people who named the Georgina had in mind they did a good job of it. In its day, the Georgina stock route was one of the busiest among the western Queensland and Northern Territory routes; and it broke its share of hearts.
The female persona of the river is perpetuated today, with many of the old drovers who “went down the river” still referring to it in the feminine gender. In those days, Camooweal was at the head of the stock route and at the centre of operations for drovers bringing stock in from the Northern Territory.
The Georgina stock route was busy for a number of reasons. Prime among them were the trucking yards at Dajarra, on the road between Boulia and Mt Isa. But it was also important for cattle going down to the clover-rich fattening country along the Diamantina and the Cooper. In 1950 alone, 121,000 head of cattle went down the Georgina.
STARTING AT CAMOOWEAL
Camooweal is an important place to begin your trip along the Georgina because it was from there that most of the drovers started. The Camooweal Common was where the drovers spelled their horses between trips, and many lived there as well. Today, the sound of horse bells and the creak of saddlery have been replaced by the howl of the 600hp diesel engines of road trains.
There are tracks on either side of the Georgina. Both were used as stock routes, but the one on the eastern side tends to run closer to the river. Like most outback rivers, the Georgina is, for the most part, little more than a string of waterholes.
The country along the track south is still the massive Barkly Tableland, and you pass through a couple of the larger stations, Headingly and Barkly Downs.
For much of the way, the northern end is typical of the downs, with open vistas of Mitchell grass that wave in the breeze in a good season. But towards the end of the dry, there is little left but cracked earth and a few dry stalks of grass.
While there are plenty of places to camp, there are no actual designated sites for most of the route. You are travelling through a pastoral lease of some sort the whole way and, while reasonable campsites can be found near the many tributaries of the Georgina, most of them will be dry.
At Urandangie, there is a pub. Not just any pub, but the ’Dangie pub and another link from those droving days.
The bar is distinctive and features stubby bottle caps laid into a sort of resin to form the surface. The ’Dangie pub was often blamed for the downfall of many a bush worker in its day. One drover was said to have put the entire proceeds of his last trip over the bar, followed up by drinking his entire droving plant. He rode away with just two horses out of 50.
At Urandangie, there are a few options: one track takes you over into the Territory and down to Tobermorey station, another takes you straight to a T-junction with the Donohue Highway. The third is the route most of the old drovers took because it took them across to Dajarra.
This was once the place to where the railhead came and it was almost purely for the loading of cattle coming in from the Territory and as far away as the Kimberley. Once a rollicking town when the big mobs of store bullocks came in, it has settled into a quiet backwater, but the old pub is a reminder that good watering holes are few and far between out here.
My route lay south down towards the Donohue Highway and Glenormiston Station. It’s good to travel with an eye for your surroundings, rather than simply a way of getting from one end to the other.
Birdlife is prolific to say the least, with galahs and corellas by far the most prevalent. Here and there are the remains of the days long gone, sometimes in the form of old cattle yards, while in other places a lone bronco panel is a silent reminder of the way cattle were handled in open country without using yards.
Just south of Urandangie is Walgra Station. It was a fattening destination for some bullocks coming in from the Northern Territory, but had a downside. Along with the country further south, including Carandotta and Roxborough Downs, there were incidents of what was known at the time as gidgee poisoning. This only occurred at certain times of the year and often left dead cattle in its wake.
About 20km below Roxborough Downs, the stock route joins the Donohue Highway on Glenormiston Station, but your affair with Georgina isn’t yet over. Turning east on the Donohue you cross her again between Glenormiston and Herbert Downs, and then she’s gone; at least from this part of the journey.
Eventually her waters will join up with those of the Diamantina and the Cooper and, in a good year, they may make it to Lake Eyre. But they never get to the sea.
- The Drover’s Camp, 1km from the centre of Camooweal, can provide info on local roads and events. The Drovers Camp Festival is an annual event.
- Fuel is available at Camooweal and Urandangie. Other than that, you will have to hold on until you get to Boulia if you go east on the Donohue, or Tobermorey if you go west. Like most of the outback, the cooler months are best for travel.
- Most of the track can be handled in 2WD or 4WD high range. For the most part, the route is little more than two-wheel tracks. Camper trailers are okay, caravans are not recommended.
- This is a remote area (naturally) so you will need to have all your pre-trip preparation done. Carry two spares and a tyre repair kit, as well as the usual kit of tools and spares for any outback journey. For communications, an HF radio and/or satphone is hard to beat. Most of the stations use UHF for local communications.