The OTA team travelled down the legendary Diamantina River - updated June 2016.
Like many of Australia’s giant rivers the Diamantina has its source in shallow hills, spreads majestically wide when full and ends anti-climactically in an inland swamp. Also like many inland rivers the Diamantina is little more than an expanse of dusty channels, with isolated waterholes, in most years. Flooding rains change that scene.
The first white people to see the Diamantina were John McKinlay the explorer and his party, searching for members of the ill-fated Burke and Wills Expedition.
McKinlay followed the north-east course of the Diamantina from near modern-day Birdsville to a point to the west of Winton, before swinging north-west in the direction of Cloncurry.
The Diamantina is linked tightly to white folklore, because one of its waterholes was the site of the swagman’s suicide that inspired ‘Banjo’ Patterson to write our unofficial national anthem ‘Walzing Matilda’.
Our journey began 60 kilometres west of Kynuna, in the Swords Range, close to the source of the Diamantina. We’d planned to drive past the ruins of the Ranges Valley homestead, but this area is now private grazing land, so we had to settle for being one low hill away from the River’s source.
We had two options in travelling to the Swords Range: via the riverside track on Kynuna Station, or via Middleton, on the Kennedy Development Road. We chose the Middleton route, using the Saville Creek stock route track that runs north from this hamlet and joins the Diamantina about 15 kilometres downstream from its source. Having left Winton that morning, our arrival near the Diamantina’s source coincided with camp time, so we settled into a sheltered valley in the Swords Range.
Next day saw us running east along the Diamantina channels, crossing over its dry Derry Derry Creek and Glen Urquhart Creek tributaries. The track skirted the Swords Range at first, then traversed grassland and river channels, before ending at the Kynuna Station homestead.
We asked one of the hands about travelling along the station track that clings to the western bank of the Diamantina, but were told: “You’d be lucky to get an agbike along that track and over the tortured river channels,” so we opted for the surer run along the western side. That meant a short detour through the outskirts of the Kynuna township, before turning west along the old Landsborough Highway alignment.
There is a well-signposted turn to the riverbank at the historic Combo Waterholes and a parking area adjacent to a two-kilometre walking trail. We did the tourist bit and recited ‘Walzing Matilda’ beside the waterhole and marvelled at the skill of Chinese coolies who built the ‘shotovers’ that had prevented the raging river wiping out wagon roads. The main reason vehicles are no longer allowed to drive to Combo Waterholes is the damage they do to the stonework in the shotovers.
South of Combo Waterholes we turned off the old Landsborough Highway dirt road and swung onto Dicks Creek Road that ended at the bitumen of the Kennedy Development Road, thus making a circle of our first two days’ travel. We ran into Winton for a fuel top-up – and a bush poet’s night at the Matilda Country Tourist Park. ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s poetry, recited by Milton Taylor, had a deeper significance, after our being at the birthplace of ‘Walzing Matilda’.
Next day saw us heading west from Winton for 50 kilometres along the blacktop, before heading south-west down the Diamantina River Road. This well-graded track traversed low, rocky hill country and river channels, before running across grassland to an intersection with Cork Road.
Old Cork Homestead is off to the right of the road and is in a sorry state these days.
We pressed on down the Diamantina, passing by Brighton Downs homestead, heading for the mesa features of the Mayne Range, visible on the horizon.
The Range forms the northern boundary of the Mayne River channels and is well worth some walking time. Amazingly, cattle climb to the tops of the mesas, where they graze on leaves during times of flood.
The Mayne Range sits at the northern end of Diamantina National Park; formerly Diamantina Lakes Station.
Welcoming visitors at the northern doorstep of the Park are the ruins of the old Mayne Hotel. Still evident are the structural timbers and the cellar where beverages were kept as cool as possible in summer temperatures that can reach 50ºC in the shade.
On arriving at the former Diamantina Lakes homestead we were met by a National Parks Ranger who gave us the rundown on the Park and directed us to the best campsite, at Hunters Gorge, on one of the Diamantina waterholes.
We settled under stately coolabahs and spent a couple of days exploring the Park, before heading south-west once more.
Diamantina National Park
Diamantina National Park covers 500,000 hectares of Queensland’s channel country. The Park encompasses weathered sandstone ranges, floodplains, expanses of Mitchell grass, claypans and sand dunes.
The land was formerly a grazing property, Diamantina Lakes, which was sold to the Queensland Government in 1992. The property is well-sited, alongside one of two permanent waterholes, created by the ‘Diamantina Gates’ – two gaps at the junction of the Goyder and Hamilton Ranges – that concentrate the Diamantina channels into narrow streams, running between the low limestone hills.
The narrowing is clearly visible from ‘Janet’s Leap’, a vantage spot above the river and so named because at the handing over of the Diamantina Lakes Station one of the onlookers said that Janet Holmes a’Court might as well jump off the cliff as sell the property to National Parks. She didn’t jump and we all can appreciate the results of the transfer.
We opted for Hunters Gorge campsite, because it has a deeper waterhole and sits on the Diamantina, whereas the other site at Gum Waterhole is on Whistling Duck Creek.
We were rewarded with a campsite behind the waterfront coolabahs and treated to a display of birdlife unexpected in such a remote region.
Kings of the waterhole were undoubtedly the pelicans that ‘sailed’ imperiously up and down the water course, taking time off to fish and to squabble with one another. Cormorants, ducks and swamphens took their chances, fishing beside the much larger pelicans.
The waterhole trees were home to thousands of birds, with the noisiest being the corellas and galahs.
Diamantina National Park features a one-way circuit drive that begins 20 kilometres from the Ranger’s Headquarters and covers the wide variety of landscapes that make up the Park.
We began the circuit at the Ranger’s Headquarters, turning off the Windorah-Boulia Road at the old steel stock yards and running across grassland for a few kilometres before parallelling red sand dunes.
The dunes are lined up along the path of the prevailing winds – south-east. Research says that the dunes were formed millions of years ago during glacial periods, when cold, strong winds were prevalent.
Each glacial period created dune growth that can be seen as successive ‘crusts’ in the dunes. The dunes have been stable for the past 12,000 years, with only small ‘blowouts’ of sand emerging from temporary foliage depletion.
Aboriginal people of the area, the Maiawali, have a legend that the sandhill dust stirred by the wind is the spirits of ancestors.
The dune country gives way to claypans eight kilometres into the circuit drive, flowed by gibber plains. The gibber plains were formed as ancient mountain ranges eroded and their once forest-crowned tops leached iron, creating hard mesa caps and clumped particles – today’s gibbers.
The gibber plains change into grassland – Flinders and Mitchell Grass – that edges up to the large depression of Lake Constance.
The grassland slopes down gradually to low-lying channel country, with cracked, black soil, then the grass returns, backed by large dunes.
Warracoota Waterhole has never been known to run dry and was an important source of water and wildlife for the Maiawali. It also attracted early settlers and there is ample evidence of European occupation, including limestone structures, meat tins, wire and remnants of pumping equipment.
The next feature on the circuit is Green Tank, an aptly-named man-made dam that fills with green water and has been taken over by native species, now that cattle are no more.
The dunes change once more after Green Tank, with spinifex replacing the softer grasses.
Boundary Bore is worth a visit, to see how so many typical Outback water sources are created.
The Gumhole stock yards were beautifully made from gidgee and coolabah wood and remain in good condition today. Ingenuity shows in the use of a welded-on horseshoe to make a gate-pull. The track continues to a stockmen’s camp, complete with tin shade structure, before returning to the main road.
It's possible to end your own Diamantina Dreaming trip at this point and head for Windorah or Boulia, but we followed the great river southwards.
The Track South
About 50 kilometres south of Diamantina Lakes we came across a fork in the road, with the main track leading off to Windorah to the east, but our path down the Diamantina took us onto the private road into Davenport Downs homestead.
We'd already phoned ahead for approval to camp on one of the waterholes near the homestead and checked directions down to the next property, Monkira.
The run south-west through Davenport Downs was rougher than the northern track sections and crossed mainly gibber plains and grassland, with the Diamantina showing as a bluish-grey tree line to the left.
The track intersects the Diamantina Developmental Road adjacent to Monkira homestead and the track south leads off the Developmental Road near the Monkira
airstrip. We had approval from Monkira Station to traverse this land.
This track was well defined for several kilometres on the topographic mapping, but we looked in vain for the north-east right turn at S25º5’ that would have taken us on an outside-track excursion towards Bilpa Morea Claypan, avoiding the low-lying ground around the Diamantina at S25º20’, where the river channels are at their widest – around 30 kilometres across. Instead of turning onto the claypan track we found ourselves on a fresh track that ran generally south-west, skirting the sand dunes at the edge of the Diamantina channels, heading for the intersection with the claypan diversion. We passed through a property gate at S25º19’ and met up with a gazetted road.
This track joined the Durrie-Cacoory Road and subsequently the Birdsville Developmental Road. Showers all round were welcome at the Birdsville Camping Area, followed by a feed and a beer at the Birdsville Hotel.
The Diamantina channels narrow to a single stream through the stony country around Birdsville, before spreading out once more into the giant flood plain of Goyder Lagoon. South of the Lagoon the water flow becomes Warburton Creek.
Our Diamantina epic ended with a loop of the Lagoon, heading down the old ‘inside’ Birdsville Track and then returning to Birdsville on the ‘outside’ Birdsville Track.
It’s important that you’re totally self-sufficient in the Diamantina River district, because many of the through-property roads are seldom travelled.
It’s also important to contact property owners along the route, for an update on track conditions and for permission to camp off gazetted roads.
You’ll need paper or digital topographic maps – McKinlay, Mackunda, Brighton Downs, Connemara, Machattie, Betoota, Birdsville, Pandie Pandie and
A GPS is absolutely essential, for checking intersections that aren’t signposted.
Don’t even think about travelling the Diamantina River route after rain, because the clay pans and channel country turn into glue pots very quickly.
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