“On a [motor]cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Hunting down a ghost is not what you think of when your read about a motorcycle touring in outback Queensland. But today is day three of my journey and I’m sitting on my small travel chair with my feet perched on my collapsible travel table. As I take in the expanse of the Julia Creek show grounds, I’m thinking about the road ahead and if I will finally encounter the elusive ghost of the dead swaggie.

It is early morning and the grounds are bathed in the golden light of another magnificent outback sunrise. A number of Gallah’s are busy scratching out seeds and chattering incessantly.

I’ve just had a hot shower at the show ground facilities which are some of the best I have seen when outback camping. My destination today is to get to the Combo Waterhole and to get some photos for a blog post I’m writing.

Hunting a ghost

The waterhole is where Waltzing Matilda was written. For years I have sought out the ghost of the poor old swaggie in the song. Apparently according to the song “….. and the ghost maybe heard as you pass by that billabong”. But I have also discovered a back story, and I have wanted to write it for over 20 years. It just happens to be the number one item on my bucket list for this year. You can read this story on my digital swaggie blog https://digitalswaggie.com.au/?p=693

I’m anticipating a fairly short ride down an outback dirt road to Kynuna, then about 12 kilometres on the highway to the Combo Waterhole. At this point I’m undecided as to where I will go from there but had contemplated stealth camping at the waterhole in anticipation of the ghost that may be heard (Well you know the rest). If I go north I will reach Cloncurry or travelling south I’ll get to Winton.

(The Combo Waterhole was the billabong and the scene of one of Australia’s most infamous murders. It is also the inspiration for one of the country’s most loved songs, Waltzing Matilda. )

Motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland camping Julia Creek
Julia Creek Campsite. Waking up to the chatter of Gallah’s.

Waking to a new day

Motorcycle touring in the outback gives you an opportunity to site and watch the sunrise. Sunrises and sunsets in the Outback are spectacular, with golden and red light giving way to clear blue skies. As soon as the first rays of light penetrate the black inky sky the Gallahs and Cockatiels wake up and start their incessant chatter.

Sunrise in Julia Creek on day three of my outback motorcycle tour of Queensland.
Gold and crimson sunrise over the Mitchel Grass plains for as far as you can see.

The day doesn’t really start until the first cup of coffee. On this trip I brought with me a coffee pod pump. You simply put the coffee pod in the pump, along with a small amount of hot water and pump the little plunger until all the water has passed through the pod. Then fill the cup with water , milk and sugar, and presto you have barista coffee in the outback. The more I think about this little bit of luxury the more I contemplate leaving it behind next time.

Motorcycle touring is not like car touring, every little bit of bulk and weight adds up. I’m already feeling I have overloaded my bike, I will have to think about what I’m carrying the further I get into this journey.

Making the morning coffee at Julia Creek show grounds.

Hitting the road

After a breakfast of muesli, coffee and a couple of crackers with cheese, I pack up and ride back into town. I’m trying to create small videos as I go. But I was late into town last night and I didn’t get to film anything. So I’m going to fuel up, ride through town and come back this way as I ride out to Kynuna.

Julia Creek Town Centre

Julia Creek is an ideal stop on a motorcycle touring in Queensland, it has a pub, servo and bakery. What else could you ask for. It was originally established as a support town for a local gold mine and as a stop over on the way to either Hughenden or Cloncurry.

Today it is a thriving centre that supports not only an extensive rural sector but tourist and travellers like me. This town is an awesome stop over and I’m glad I made the effort to get here last night.

Julia Creek Fuel Stop ready to ride out to Kynuna,

Preparing for the next leg

After fuelling up Emu, I’m keen to get on the road, as I ride out of town I’m hoping for my first patch of dirt. I quickly find the road to Kynuna has been tar sealed all the way, which is a disappointment at first. It seems dry out here and as I ride, I’m accompanied by a flock of Cockatiels flying just above head like an honour guard.

Lost luggage

My honour guard deserted me about five minutes later, banking to the left in perfect formation then souring into the azure sky, only to bank around and land at a nearby dam. I briefly drift off into thoughts of what it means to be motorcycle touring, solo in the middle of the week. It really is the ultimate escape.

At about this stage I noticed a small cattle truck close behind me, pulling to the left I slowed down and signalled him to pass. But instead of overtaking he slowed behind me, when I stopped he stopped so I went to take off again and he tooted his horn at me.

As I turned around I could see the driver getting out of his truck, he was an older gentleman in his 60’s, one of those genuine country characters “Gidday Mate” he said “I think you’ve lost something from the side of your bike” pointing at the right pannier. I responded with “Gidday”, looking down I could see a one of my dry bags was missing, in fact it was the one with my tent in it.

“Oh f&#k I said” he laughed. “It’s about 20 kilometres back, I couldn’t stop in time, but I’m sure someone would’ve picked it up by now” “Try the 24 hour road house in town, people often stop there” he said. I thanked him and turned around. “Shit another 40K to my journey”

Run in with the Police

As luck would have it, I was just taking off my helmet to go inside the 24 hour Caltex station when a young man walked up to me “Have you lost a green dry bag” he said. I nodded, “I left at the police station”.

Thanking him for his kindness, I jumped on Emu and headed to the police station. True to his word at the front of the station was my dry bag and tent. What an amazing show of country spirit and generosity….. mate if you read this blog, thanks for your help:). There are many YouTube bloggers traveling around the world, some do not take tents with them.

I can’t help feeling this restricts there freedom, when I thought I had lost my tent, it was like a small panic button had gone off. With a tent I could stop anywhere, without it I had to find a town before night fall. This is something I would explore more as my motorcycle touring knowledge increased. For now, I was just happy to get my tent back.

Day three Motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland Julia Creek police station.
Recovering my tent at the Julia Creek Police Station.

Road to Kynuna

Back on the road to Kynuna I was mazed at how dry the ground was, while at the same time wondering how the dams seemed so full. I crossed causeways with water lapping at the sides, while up on the flats the ground was fractured. There were cattle on both sides of the road, that looked like they were in fairly good condition, especially considering that all the grass had been eaten and what remained was dead or just dust.

I pulled over a couple of times to let cars or the occasional cattle truck go by, even though it was tar sealed the road was a very pleasant ride. I’m fairly new to motorcycle touring, and I feel it will take sometime to relax into the role of “Easy Rider” where I go with the flow. For now, I’m focused on my destination rather than my. journey. I’m hoping the next 27 days will help me find the “One thing” or at least build some perspective on life.

One thing is sure in motorcycle touring so far, the journey is the exciting part. It’s where all the action happens and it is the people you meet on the journey that make your experiences remarkable.

Taking a break between Julia Creek and Kynuna on my motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland
Emu and I take a break on a pull over areas on the road to Kynuna.

It wasn’t long and I had to turn right at the cross intersection or the Matilda Highway, I arrived at Kynuna around 11.30 am and headed straight for the pub. There were a couple of tourists siting on the veranda of the pub when I pulled up and a couple of others trying to fix a small problem, not a place to have car problems.

Topless barmaids and Waltzing Matilda

The Blue Heeler Hotel is one of those pubs in a time warp, I have read a number of motorcycle touring stories over the years and this pub seems to be a favourite for bikers heading north.

It seems to have stayed true to its heritage. I first heard about it from reading the Pix People Magazine (which I only brought for the stories) some 40 years ago. Then in my early 20’s, I enjoyed the articles and of course the pictures of the topless bar maids and the party atmosphere, thinking to myself this looks like the place to be.

Formation of a backlist item

At the time I had no idea where it actually was and it wasn’t until I lived in Mount Isa that I was able to put this area into perspective. Three must do items sprang up from that realisation, Larks Quarry and its famous dinosaur footprints, bolder opal from Opalton and finding that bloody ghost of the dead swaggie.

Day Three - Motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland - Emu outside the Kynuna Hotel
Emu parked on the edge of the Matilda Highway outside the timeless Blue Heeler Hotel, Kynuna
Day Three Motorcycle tour of Outback Queensland - Kynuna Hotel
Inside the Blue Heeler Hotel, no sigh of topless bar maids.

Sitting on the veranda overlooking the Matilda Highway, I watched tourists and road tDayrains pass on their way to more exotic destinations. Stripping off my jacket I sat under the shade of the veranda and enjoyed a ginger beer, with the slight breeze from the dusty plains providing some relief from the relentless heat, dust and flies.

Time to plan

It is slowing dawning on me that while it is important to plan, one should try and stay flexible in a motorcycle tour. Pulling out my map, I surveyed it for my destination. There it was the infamous “Combo Waterhole”. During my previous visit to the area in 2001, I had spent four hours digging my 4*4 out of the black soil mud in the car park.

At the time it had occurred to me that there was something not quite right about the song. For a start, after four hours digging my car out of the mud by hand there was no sign of a ghost, not even a laughing, sniggering one enjoying the spectacle. Secondly, most people who had visited the waterhole reported it to be a small shallow pond, hardly big enough for a wise old swaggie to drown in.

I had always wanted to come back and write the real story behind the “Waltzing Matilda” myth. You can read my story by following this link. https://digitalswaggie.com.au/?p=693

Combo Water hole
This is the actual waterhole “Billabong” where the events of that night took place and where the picnic occurred that led to one of Australia’s most famous songs.
The car park at the Combo Waterhole. Twenty years ago this area had a flash flood and I drove my 4*4 straight into mud. It took four hours to dig out by hand. The ghost did not say anything (too busy laughing I guess)

More than just a muddy hole

The Combo Waterhole is a fantastic piece of engineering for its time. While the view of a single billabong tends to pervade most conversations, the combo in the title belies the multiple water catchments around the area. As you walk through the tourist walk you learning all about the engineering behind the site and the Chinese labours who built it.

After a quick lunch of tuna and the occasional fly I rode back to Kynuna with the intention of going north to a Clem Walton Park, and wild camping. Clem Walton Park is between Mount Isa and Cloncurry. I had been there before and it is an oasis in the middle of the Selwyn Ranges and the dam buid to supply water to Queensland’s only Uranium Mine “Mary Kathleen”.

One really important useless fact about flies, they are suicidal, especially when it comes to motorcycle touring. Not only do they fly into your visor at full speed on the road, but they try and steal food from your mouth as you eat it. Just saying……. not a great survival strategy:)

Decision time

I was of two minds on my way back to Kynuna, do I continue to battle the elements for an extended period of hot dry and dusty riding or should I start making my way south to cooler weather.

As I fuelled up at the Kynuna petrol station, I watched two massive road trains pass by carrying mining equipment, even at the bowser of the station I could feel the hot pressure wave given off by the massive trucks.

Dealing with trucks is a given when you’re on a motorcycle tour, it shouldn’t really influence your decision. But it was decision time and I made up my mind to turn south and head directly down the 170 kilometres of the aptly named Matilda Highway to Winton.

The big 650 was siting nicely on the road at 110 kilometres per hour, while the wind noise was starting to get to me and I was moving around a lot now on the uncomfitable stock seat, it was good to be on the final journey for the day.

The combo ghost hits me

Suddenly, I was hit by a strong powerful supernatural force from the left side, it’s hard to explain but it was like a constant wind pressure wave, I thought maybe it was the ghost from that old swaggie. It was so strong it pushed me over the centre line and into what would have been oncoming traffic. It wasn’t your typical wind gust, this was like a giant unseen force constantly pushing you.

The only thing I could do to counter the force was to lean into the wind pressure, and literally drive the bike back into the left lane. Emu and I were leaning at about 15 degree angle into the wind. No sooner had I done that than it changed direction to the right and I found myself out of control being driven off the road.

What is this unseen force of nature, there was no dust, no movement on the side of the road to indicate wind direction, then just as quickly as had it appeared, it was gone.

Willy Willies – WTF

Lots of things go through your mind when you are trying to work out a perplexing issue. What is this strange force in the middle of nowhere that seems to be hell bent on killing me. The weather elements are always something you are aware of when on a motorcycle tour, but this thing gave no warning.

When suddenly it happened again, but this time with almost twice the force, I was leaning to the right and trying to hold onto my handle bars where I spotted a chip packet about 5 metres in front of me going in the opposite direction.

It then occurred to me that I was in the middle of what I call a “Willy Willy” which is kind of like a small tornado. At this point I understood and as the chip packet got closer I prepared for the sudden wind change. On cue it happened again as the chip packet sailed over my head. I was to encounter one more of these strange natural phenomena. While I was now more prepared to deal with them I was hoping they didn’t occur as a road training was approaching me from the other direction.

Winton

As you get closer to Winton the flat dry grass land starts to show signs of small sand stone escarpments. There are a number of places I could have stayed about 50 kilometres north of Winton. But I had a plan to ride to Opalton for my next bucket list adventure, I was keen to start preparing for that journey.

After a long and hot 170 kilometre ride from Kynuna I arrive in Winton, just as the light was changing and the sun starting to prepare for bed.

If you’re planning motorcycle touring in Queensland’s outback, have a great trip and stay safe

Cheers Swaggie 🙂

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Gary is a travel writer, educator, training specialist and part time adventurer. When not paddling rivers, diving on the Great Barrier Reef or riding down some dusty outback track on his trusted KLR650 "Emu" he likes to explore historical areas and look for the back story.

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