You can almost hear the gravel and dirt crunch under your tyres, almost smell the heat, coming off the road and now, you may even catch the voices of happy travelers, congregating at camp sites. Welcome to the Barcoo Way the nine-day, 453-km journey in western Queensland that has won the Tambo-Blackall Regional Council, the 2019 small grant award.
The success of the Barcoo Way is a piece of good news that comes after years of hardship. In June 2013, parts of Tambo-Blackall Shire were declared in drought. It stayed that way until the deluge in March this year dumped more than 200mm across western Queensland, drenching farms and turning dust to mud. Tambo-Blackall Mayor Andrew Martin said as the rains continued to fall on his property: “Businesses up and down the street here will be rejoicing… It’s a long time coming but it’s as good as you can get.”
Businesses had been doing it hard in the region for a long time, with turnover declining 40 per cent. The local shires had lost money for investment in projects and initiatives because jobs had dried up and people moved on. The population along the Barcoo River, that live in Blackall, Tambo, Yaraka, Isisford and Windorah, numbers only 2,889. So the Blackall-Tambo Regional Council decided to find a local solution and develop the Barcoo Way.
A grant for $45,000 from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, supported by the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation and Qantas, enabled a tourism marketing consultant to get to work on a tourism trail. This is a part of Queensland that only the dedicated traveller would know: Birdsville is further west, Charleville and Roma are to the south-east, and Barcaldine to the north. It is hot, dry and challenging country.
Alison Shaw, Arts and Cultural Officer at Barcoo Way committee, says that Council representatives and community stakeholders had been working for some time on the idea of turning the Barcoo Way into a tourism venture. Former local policeman-turned councillor Ben Holdcroft instigated some of the collaboration between the Council and community stakeholders. And once the consultant - Anita Clark, from Anita Clark Tourism Services - turned up, she was won over. “She said: ‘It’s lovely, so how do we sell this?’,” Alison recalls. The plan involved some dedicated promotion and building of the concept of Barcoo Way as a stand-alone destination.
A website was created to showcase the work of local photographers and to promote engagement. Social media became integral to promoting the destination. And an itinerary of attractions, including local characters, indigenous culture, events, food and the landscape were added in to promotion.
Right in the middle of the Barcoo route is the iconic Yaraka pub, which featured on ABC television’s Australian Story in 2015. Since the Barcoo Way has been promoted, visitors registering to camp at Yaraka have gone from 26 to 446.
The route runs from Tambo, on to Blackall, to Isisford, Emmet, Yaraka and then on to Windorah. There was also appeal in naming the route, the Barcoo Way – it resonates with the Matilda Way, an 1812-km trip that stretches from the NSW border to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Alison says the Barcoo Way has recorded a substantial increase in traffic since the route was named and promoted. One tourism operator has come into the area to offer a special nine-day Barcoo Way trip, that will potentially become a twice-a-year opportunity.
Visitors to Isisford’s camp increased from 218 to 2360 after the Barcoo Way was up and running. Similar visitor increases have occurred elsewhere along the route, since it was launched in May, 2018.
But like so many outback tourism routes, the Barcoo Way is at the mercy of the weather. The deluge that swept across northern Queensland earlier in the year had a consequence for tourists to the Barcoo and numbers only started to recover in June.
“The Barcoo loop is an ideal way to travel through here. We’ve managed to market the route’s natural appeal but we’re looking to develop new products,” Alison explains. “Perhaps a station morning tea with local graziers. Or creating a bike path along the old railway line.”
The options are there now, because out Barcoo way, the sky is so big, it seems to have no limit.