Charleville Holds Secrets Of The Queensland Outback

23 January 2015

"Tourism out here is all about the stories," Jane Morgan is telling me, "and have I got a story for you!"

Morgan, a tourism industry dynamo and a legend in Queensland’s south-western Outback, knows how to bait a hook for a travel writer looking for an angle.

And she doesn’t waste time. I’m all of 60 seconds off the train at Charleville after an overnight trip from Brisbane and she’s into it.

"Did you know there were 3,500 Americans based here in the War? They had a top secret air base, operating Flying Fortresses that were used in the Battle of the Coral Sea. And the locals never knew what was going on… the place was locked down. Do you want to see it?"

 A town steeped in Outback history

I do, I tell her, and she drives me from the station out to the nearby airport and starts pointing out WWII era installations – a beacon tower by the edge of the modern runway, a 1942 wood and tin Fortress hangar still being used today, the foundations of numberless buildings spread out across the 28 hectare wartime site.

And, in the middle of a patch of parched mulga, a concrete bunker-style building she tells me is "absolute gold".

She unlocks the door. On a table in the middle of the small, cluttered room there’s a piece of equipment that was the cause of all the wartime cloak and dagger stuff in Charleville ... a revolutionary Norden Bomb Sight, developed in secrecy and used late in the war against Japanese targets including Hiroshima.

Tourism promoters in the Queensland Outback have a hard barrow to push at times, especially those whose products are overshadowed, perhaps, by iconic attractions like Longreach’s Stockman’s Hall of Fame and the Qantas Founders’ Outback Museum.

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Live With History At A Bush Hotel

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But Charleville has a lot going for it tourism-wise, and it’s not just the potential of its fascinating WWII connection, which is attracting a lot of attention from tour groups.

 The Hotel Corones ... a bush legend

It has real history, this place: the first commercial flight by newly-formed Qantas took off from here in 1922 and the town’s connections with famous aviators like Lores Bonney, Nancy Bird and Amy Johnson run deep.

Cobb & Co. even built its coaches here for 30 years from the late 1800s.

You can see some of this history if you visit and stay at the legendary Hotel Corones, which has hosted royalty and serves one of the best steaks in the Outback. The hotel is on a list, Jane Morgan says with a touch of bush humour, of  "more than 20 things to see" when you visit her town.

The list includes bilbies, fishing, wildlife and station tours, the Royal Flying Doctor Service base at the airport, native vegetation parklands and walks, and a regional natural sciences circular drive through Cunnamulla, Thargomindah and opal mining centre Quilpie.


Check out Longreach while you're out there. Longreach – In Search Of The Spirit

The railway will still get you there. The Westlander Still Has It


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Centre Of The Universe

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But the standout attraction – one that you should not miss because it is the best in Charleville and up there with the best anywhere in inland Australia – is the Cosmos Centre and Observatory. Local tourism literature tells you that you will be amazed by this experience and it is not wrong.

The observatory, from which you can explore the beauty of the skies with powerful Meade telescopes, is staffed by professionals and guides whose enthusiasm for astronomy is infectious. And it’s not just a night-time activity.

In withering afternoon heat on my unseasonal November visit, Jane Morgan, who is a guide at the centre, rolls back the cover protecting a recently acquired Lunt Solar Systems LS80T telescope, adjusts the alignment and asks me to look into the eyepiece.

"It takes a bit of getting used to," she says. "But you can see an orange disk, right? Now look at the top of the disc to the right. What do you see?"

What I see is a large red disc – the sun –  and, on its upper edge, a red, wispy thing about a couple of millimetres long. I find it hard to believe that I’m seeing this through a telescope without being blinded. It’s a solar flare doing its thing, moving and breaking away from the edge of the disc as I watch.

 Up close at the Observatory

"How cool is that?" Jane asks with a touch of pride and excitement. "Remember, it’s one of the smaller stars in the galaxy, and the closest to earth."

"It’s hot," I reply, my eye moving down the disc to a couple of prominent sunspots. "I never thought I’d see this."

No wonder locals call this bit of Queensland bush the 'centre of the universe'.

If you’re in Charleville with kids and want to get them interested in science, this will do it. As soon as they get a sight of a globular cluster through one of the observatory’s 12-inch reflectors, or check out the sun in a way they never thought possible, they’ll be hooked.

John Wright

Charming, witty, handsome, rich: journalist John Wright would like to be all these things. While he’s waiting, he’s drinking craft beer, reading Murakami and criss-crossing the globe as a dedicated travel writer. He rates Outback Australia as one of his favourite travel destinations.