History, opals, dinosaurs and wildlife await travellers on the scenic detour between Blackall and Winton in Western Queensland.

Story By Nick Rains

When asked about the population of Yaraka, Les ‘Thommo’ Thomas, owner of the Yaraka Hotel, counts off names on his fingers. After a few seconds he says: “Twelve, yeah, pretty sure there’s 12.”
Originally a worker on “Budgerygar”, one of the local stations in Queensland’s mid-west, and now the publican for the past 22 years, Thommo tallies a total of 31 years in the district. “This is true sheep country,” he says. “But sheep are more work to maintain – drenching, crutching and all – and with the difficulties in getting staff these days a lot of the pastoralists are now running cattle. Just a few days’ mustering once a year is much easier to manage.”
Yaraka is a small settlement on the increasingly popular ‘scenic route’ from Blackall to Winton. Thommo says the pastoral industry remains the backbone of the area, and hopes that the recent rains will give the area a boost, but says the increasing tourist traffic over recent years is an added bonus.
On the blacktop, it’s a very easy 387 kilometres on the Landsborough Highway from Blackall to Winton, but the variety of scenery and the chance to drop in to Welford, Idalia and Lochern national parks makes the 735km scenic route via Yaraka an excellent alternative for travellers with a few extra days up their sleeves.
Blackall is the home of the last remaining steam-operated wool-washing plant in Australia, the Blackall Woolscour. Its machinery room is vast and still runs with the smooth precision of a well-maintained watch. The Woolscour operated from 1908 until 1978 and, with a 20-stand shearing shed attached, could process upwards of 3000 head of sheep per day.
It now has guided tours each hour, conducted by locals such as 80-year-old Keith ‘Beaver’ Denzele. His nickname originated because he always wore R.M.Williams beaver moleskin trousers. Beaver and his father were drovers, and his tour is embellished with lots of anecdotes from his past. “My father used to bring herds of over 10,000 head in here back in the ’50s, from over 200km away,” he says. “I was a bullock-train driver and packhorse drover back then, but I have lived here all my life.”
As well as being home to the black stump – located at the exact centre of a meridian square used by surveyors to align the borders of Queensland in 1887 – Blackall is also the former hometown of Jackie Howe, who holds the record of shearing 321 sheep with blade shears in 1892.

This story excerpt is from Issue #74

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2011