Travelling Australia - Journal 2011
13-18 August 2011 - Barcaldine
Barcaldine is a small town (population 1337 in the 2006 census, and now estimated as 1700-1900) in Central Queensland at the junction of the Landsborough Highway and the Capricornia Highway. The town lies between two bioregions; to the east and south is the Desert Uplands region with variable, sandy soil and areas of red rocky mesas while to the north and west lie the Mitchell Grass Downs with apparently endless stretches of black and grey cracking clay well suited for grazing sheep and cattle.

The Barcaldine area was crossed by Sir Thomas Mitchell (in 1846) and Augustus Gregory (in 1858). The first pastoral run was taken up by Donald Cameron in 1863 who applied the name Barcaldine Downs to his run on the Alice River. This run was one of those resumed for closer settlement in the 1880s.

Barcaldine township had been surveyed by 1886 when the railway line from Rockhampton reached the growing town. In the following year an artesian bore produced clear water beginning a long association between Barcaldine and the Artesian Basin. Several buildings were moved from Jericho to Barcaldine (bank, Masonic hall, Methodist and Catholic churches). The railway line going through Barcaldine, instead of the major centre of Aramac, ensured business was redirected to Barcaldine and Aramac entered a long decline.

The surrounding pastoral region concentrated on growing wool and Barcaldine was involved in the shearers' strike of 1891. Many strikers' meetings were held under a ghost gum in the town. After the strike the tree was named the Tree of Knowledge and was commemorated as the birthplace of organised labour in Australia and of the Australian Labor Party.

Barcaldine resumed rural activities including a meat processing factory, a wool scouring works and a piggery in the industrial section of the town. Reliable, and apparently unlimited, fresh water prompted residents to plant shade trees and gardens and the town developed a reputation as a garden city. That reputation has been maintained and there are certainly many shade trees in the town but any description as a garden city must be in relation to western Queensland standards.

Barcaldine relies entirely on artesian water delivered to taps from the bores without treatment; it has very little "bore-water" taste. We were told that a recent State Government directive that bore water is to be treated has raised concerns that nearby coal seam gas exploration may not be as harmless as claimed if the government is now requiring water treatment after more than a hundred years. Barcaldine residents are well aware of the importance of artesian water to the town and have erected a working windmill beside the Information Centre to remind visitors where the water comes from.

In the last twenty years the number of sheep grazed around Barcaldine has been heavily reduced. While a few properties still graze sheep most have changed over to cattle and it is no longer strictly correct to describe Barcaldine as a sheep and cattle grazing region. There are several reasons for this change but the two main ones are wild dogs and labour costs. Stock losses caused by wild dogs killing hundreds of sheep a year on properties imposes an intolerable drain on a business. As well, sheep grazing is labour-intensive and rural labour is increasingly hard to find and retain as the mining industry offers far higher wages. Barcaldine, in common with other former sheep grazing towns, suffered a population loss when former sheep industry workers, mainly shearers, moved away as cattle replaced sheep.

To some extent, tourism has replaced the sheep industry as a source of income for Barcaldine. We were given one figure of 30,000 caravans passing through Barcaldine on the Landsborough Highway in an average year. Judging by the caravans and motorhomes parked along the main street during the day, many of those thousands of vans stop in Barcaldine for a cup of coffee, a newspaper or some grocery shopping. The IGA supermarket beside the Bakery/coffee shop is a particular focus for vans while the well-stocked Information Centre opposite the newsagent also attracts several vans parked along the road. Most caravans do not seem to stay for a night although the three caravan parks in town have good occupancy rates in the dry season/winter/travelling season.

In an attempt to encourage passing tourists to stay for at least one night, the Shire council has attempted to exploit Barcaldine's connections with the shearers' strike in the Australian Workers' Heritage Centre. This centre, in the middle of the township, contains several historical displays dealing with the Shearer's Strike and subsequent trial and imprisonment of the ringleaders; other displays deal with outback police stations and with outback railway services. These displays are interesting but disconnected.

The Tree of Knowledge, under which the strikers reportedly made their plans, is another tourist attraction. The tree was not growing well, but survived with care, until it was poisoned in 2006. The dead stump is now accorded a level of veneration similar to that of a religious site or war memorial. A very large cubic canopy has been built over the dead stump immediately beside the main road and outside the railway station. The 18 metre high and wide canopy of vertical timber logs has been 'charcoaled' and looks black from outside; it towers over nearby buildings and dominates the surroundings. Once under the cube, a visitor looks up at thousands (3,449 according to the promotional literature) of hanging timber beams swaying in the wind like a gigantic wind chime. The whole effect is pretty weird with the hanging beams swaying overhead apparently threatening to fall and crush visitors while parts of a dead tree are displayed under a glass floor as an object of veneration.

Barcaldine has an excellent and informative visitor guide introducing a range of other tourist attractions including an historical museum, heritage walk, several natural attractions. The town has been more successful than many others in making itself into a worthwhile stopping place for the thousands of caravans.