A family panning in the river at Rubyvale.
Andrew Bain takes the highway running along the Tropic of Capricorn in central Queensland and finds plenty of surprises along the way.
Think of Route 66 and you surely don't think of Rockhampton or Barcaldine. But open even a quite recent map and you find that the road between these two central Queensland towns was once Australia's highway 66.
Known more prosaically now as the A4, or Capricorn Highway, Australia's Route 66 passes through areas often overlooked by travellers, but it is a road trip that does indeed have plenty of kicks.
An old gem miner's shack. Photo: Andrew Bain
Like Steinbeck's "Mother Road", there is a sense of epic journey ahead as I leave Rockhampton, driving away from the coast and pointing towards the outback. Over the next few days, I will travel almost 600 kilometres west on this highway, which runs beside the Tropic of Capricorn its entire length. It is a drive that will take me from the green floodplains around Rockhampton to the yellow Mitchell grass plains of western Queensland.
Out of Rockhampton, the highway rolls through low green hills, where coal trains crawl beside the road like giant centipedes. They are fitting companions, since every town through which I will pass on this highway was originally established as a railway settlement.
Approaching the town of Dingo, a blue shadow rises ahead. It is the Blackdown Tableland, where three mountain ranges converge to create a spectacular plateau and park.
Heartland: the rural landscape along the Capricon Highway. Photo: Getty Images
Blackdown Tableland National Park is a 20-kilometre detour from the highway. Cattle graze the edge of the unfenced approach road, which eventually climbs steeply to the plateau, skirting under red sandstone cliffs as it ascends.
The plateau is a place of Ghungalu Aboriginal art sites and cliff-top lookouts that seem to stare across half of Queensland. Goannas strut through picnic sites, and walking trails fan out through the bush.
Waterways cut courses across the plateau, including the stream I have come to see - the beautifully named Gudda Gumoo, or Rainbow Waters.
Gemstones on display.
Gudda Gumoo is reached along a two-kilometre walking trail, heading gently to the cliff edge, then descending 240 steps to the base of a waterfall. The falls pour over two orange sandstone ledges, giving life to both the ferns that cling to the cliffs and the travellers who seek respite from the heat in the waterhole at its base.
It is a classic outback scene, like a piece of the Top End shifted below the Tropic of Capricorn. It is also the first and last glimpse I will get of a natural pool along this highway, so I am soon also swimming in its waters.
Back on the highway, the town names begin to sparkle like gems, sometimes literally. Sapphire and Rubyvale are named for the rich gemfield on which they sit. Curiously, nearby Emerald, which is the largest town on the Capricorn Highway, is not named after a gem. It took its name from the green pastures that once surrounded the town.
Local character 'Mad Mick' at Boomerang Cafe, Barcaldine.
Emerald's most notable feature is its giant copy of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Standing 25 metres high, it is billed as "the largest painting in the world on an easel" and is a nod to the fact the region was once a prime sunflower producer. Today, with the boom of the coal industry, Emerald is also one of inland Queensland's fastest-growing towns. But I am not here to mine coal. I am after shiny riches - gems.
Driving west from Emerald, small conical hills peep above the horizon. They are the stubs of the ancient volcanoes that formed the gems in what is now the largest sapphire field in the southern hemisphere.
The road between Sapphire and Rubyvale is cratered with old and new mines, while the towns have the ramshackle look common to gemfields. Almost every building seems to advertise itself as a jeweller, although none of them are your classic gleaming, fluorescent-lit jewellery showrooms. Often, they are just sheds or dilapidated fibro structures.
A 25-metre high copy of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. Photo: Andrew Bain
"If you want to go into business here, you find a bit of corrugated iron and write 'open' on it," jokes long-time Rubyvale resident Mick Taylor. It is an ethos that is not limited to businesses.
Sapphire and Rubyvale are part of a 4500-hectare miners' common established in the 1890s, two decades after gems were first found here.
It allows any person to peg out a 30-square-metre mining lease and build whatever they wish on that ground, so long as it is not a permanent structure. The result is a collection of buildings - homes built from bottles, scrap metal or boulders - as eclectic and eccentric as many of the Gemfields' residents.
"They're the best council rules in the world," Taylor says.
"There are none."
Taylor, a Sydney gemologist, arrived in Rubyvale in the mid-1980s, stopping in as part of an around-Australia honeymoon with his gem-cutter bride, Jane. With the price of sapphires booming, the couple stayed on to mine and never left.
Today, they operate the Rubyvale Motel and Holiday Units. Set at the northern end of town, the motel looks out on to an enormous outback sky and, at night, it doubles as the Rubyvale Observatory.
Inside what might be the world's only observatory established 20 metres from a swimming pool, Taylor runs a "Gems by Day, Jewels by Night" tour.
"It started because we had a guest who brought a telescope and all the other guests came out for a look," he says. "It's not a serious thing, but I give a bit of a talk and we look at a few star clusters and planets."
This night, we gaze out through the telescope to the mountains of Mars and the moons of Jupiter, and the next morning I am ready for the stars beneath the ground.
A few hundred metres from the motel, Miner's Heritage is a former underground mine that was worked intermittently for almost 80 years before opening to tourists 30 years ago. Sixteen metres below the ground, mineshafts meander for 450 metres, following the lines of the long-gone waterways that carried the sapphires.
"If the mine ever opened again, I think it'd be very viable," guide Alan says, as he points out two pockets of sapphires embedded in the walls, left when the mine closed in the 1980s.
The Gemfields' heyday is behind it - in the 1970s and '80s, Australia produced about 70 per cent of the world's sapphires - and few fortunes are now unearthed, but there remains the occasional dazzling find. Last February, after the year's first decent rain, Alicia Mackay stumbled across a 753-carat sapphire lying on the surface of the ground.
"I was just taking my dogs for a walk while we were doing some maintenance on our lease," she says, showing me the sapphire. "I just saw the sparkle."
A few weeks earlier, her partner, who has been mining in the Gemfields for 40 years, found a 425-carat sapphire, but hid it so well he can no longer find it.
I meet Mackay at Pat's Gems, where I have come looking for my own sapphires.
There are two ways for visitors to hunt for gems around Rubyvale and Sapphire. Come for a few days and you can purchase a permit and fossick through the region's seven public prospecting areas, looking for the "billy boulders" - large river stones - that typically betray the presence of sapphires.
The quicker way to conduct a gem search is at a fossicking park, buying a bucket of wash - dirt and gravel dug from an ancient riverbed - and sifting through it for sapphires.
Rubyvale and Sapphire have numerous fossicking parks, but Pat's Gems was the original, starting about 40 years ago, when owner Pat Vine began selling buckets of wash beside the road.
I am learning from a master as Mackay guides me through the fossicking process. I shovel a load of wash into a bucket, sieve it, wash it and begin to pick through it with a pair of tweezers, looking for stones that sparkle in the sunlight.
In effect, it is an every-player-wins-a-prize game. Small sapphires are so prolific in the Gemfields that a bucket of wash invariably contains at least a few gems.
According to Mackay, about four stones a day worthy of being cut are unearthed at Pat's Gems alone.
The five sapphires I find in my wash are not among them. Together, they are worth about $10, curtailing any thoughts I might have had of a career change.
Driving west out of the Gemfields, the highway climbs into the Drummond Range before flattening into outback plains. The small town of Jericho is just beyond the crest of the Great Dividing Range, at one of its furthest points inland, although here, as little more than a small rise in the plains, it seems barely like a range at all.
Touted as the "town with no crime" after recent police statistics revealed just a single traffic offence in a year, Jericho has the second distinction of being home to Australia's smallest drive-in theatre. With space for just 32 cars, the theatre has been operating almost continuously since 1969, when it opened with a screening of The Sound of Music.
"I missed that first night," says Jericho resident and former theatre chairman Al Bonham.
"I remember it, because it was the day I got married, so we came the next day. When it first started, the queue of cars would go around the corner. If you weren't in that line, you'd miss out."
Movies now screen once a month, usually on the third Saturday of the month.
"If it's a good movie, this will all still fill up," says projectionist Judy Howard, waving her hand over the grassy theatre block at the centre of Jericho's main street.
As I leave Jericho, I am also approaching the end of my Route 66. Barcaldine is an hour's drive west and suddenly the desert seems closer. The soil reddens, the bush begins to shrink and flocks of budgies whirr overhead.
Barcaldine has a distinct place in Australia's history. It was here, under the so-called Tree of Knowledge, that shearers gathered during an 1891 strike, leading to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
For more than a century, the tree stood as a living monument along Barcaldine's main street, but in 2006 it was poisoned by an unknown person. The dead tree was pulled out and sent to Brisbane, where it was treated for 18 months to prevent it decaying or being attacked by insects. When it returned to Barcaldine, it was not just replanted, it was glorified.
After initial talk of constructing a cheap, basic shelter over the tree, what arose was an 18-metre wooden cube costing $5 million.
From the glass ceiling, 3600 recycled timber beams hang on suspended rods, recreating the canopy of a tree. The ends of the beams are cut at angles to resemble leaves, and stainless-steel panels direct light into the shelter to mimic the dappled light of a tree.
It has been called, among other things, the "world's largest milk crate" and it dominates Barcaldine's main strip, where it divides opinion. No sooner have I stopped to take a look than a visitor from Brisbane wanders over.
"It's the greatest monstrosity I've ever seen," he tuts.
And that is exactly how long-time mayor Rob Chandler, who led the push for the monument, likes it.
"When the architects came to me in 2007, I said that I wanted a monstrosity in the main street," he says. "The beauty of it is that you can have a husband and wife visit and one will say, 'How good is this', and the other will say, 'It's a monstrosity'. They'll go away and keep talking and arguing about it.
"But when people actually walk under it, they usually say, 'Holy bloody hell, it's not bad'."
The monument is one indicator of Barcaldine's link to the origins of the country's labour movement. The other is the Australian Workers Heritage Centre, known to some in town as the Commie Hall of Shame.
Strung behind the main street, this tribute to the Australian worker is framed around an artesian bore and the Young 'un tree, which is the only direct descendant of the Tree of Knowledge. Displays tell the history of a host of workers - railway, postal, police - with the newest exhibition, The Shearers Hall, recounting the 1891 strike and the birth of the labour movement.
From the heritage centre, I wander back to the main street, where the Tree of Knowledge shelter overshadows all, although there is another striking feature to this street.
Arrayed along the road opposite the tree are the pubs that sit like companion pieces to Barcaldine's working history.
This is a town where you could do a literal pub crawl, with five hotels inside a 200-metre line. It's an impressive beer-to-body ratio for a town of 1600 people, especially when compared with the likes of Mount Isa, which has four pubs and more than 10 times the population.
At one end sits the Union Hotel, known locally as the pub nearest the ocean, although the sea is now more than 600 kilometres away. The Artesian Hotel, immediately opposite the Tree of Knowledge, is the only pub in its original building, with the other four hotels rebuilt after fires - three times, in the case of the Railway Hotel.
When I step out of the Artesian Hotel at night, that is when I see what Barcaldine has really achieved and why this old Route 66 ends in such style.
After dark, green lights shine down through the hanging beams. From anywhere along the main street, the shape of an 18-metre-high tree is clearly evident, glimmering through the slats of the cube. Step inside, and the sense of a shrine imitating art is only enhanced.
Once this was just a tree imbued with historical significance. Now it is one of the outback's most striking monuments.
"As kids, we took our pocket knives and scratched our initials into trees all over the place, but nobody ever defaced this tree until some bastard threw poison over it," Chandler says.
"But, really, it was the best thing that ever happened to the tree," he says.
"They killed an old tree that was nearly rooted and we got a $5 million structure out of it, so thank you very much."
The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism and Events Queensland.
Qantas and Virgin Australia fly daily to Rockhampton from Sydney and Melbourne, transiting in Brisbane. Several car-rental companies have counters at Rockhampton Airport. Qantas also flies between Brisbane and Barcaldine three times a week.
Every town along the Capricorn Highway has at least one accommodation option.
In the Gemfields, Rubyvale Motel and Holiday Units has four-star rooms that start at $110 a night. See rubyvaleholiday.com.au.
In Barcaldine, the Ironbark Inn has comfortable rooms with a great open-air restaurant. Rooms begin at $90. See ironbarkmotel.com.au.
ROAD WARRIORS: OUR NEXT GREAT HIGHWAY
We have no true Route 66, but that might be about to change. Early this year, the Newell Highway Promotions Committee announced a plan to try to rebrand NSW's longest highway as Route 66. The Newell Highway cuts through the heart of NSW, connecting Victoria and Queensland and passing through towns such as West Wyalong, Dubbo and Moree. Under the proposal, towns along the highway would develop Americana themes, bringing snippets of the original Route 66 experience to Australia, while linking attractions such as the Parkes Observatory, Taronga Western Plains Zoo and the Ned Kelly Trail in Jerilderie.