In many ways, Eromanga is the sort of town you'd expect to find in Queensland's outback. Its streets are wide, every house is coated in red dust, a pub called the Royal is located at the road junction and swarms of overly friendly flies buzz around us.
But in other ways, it's very different. Two pet kangaroos share a front yard on a corner block, for instance. Then there's a road sign proclaiming Eromanga to be Australia's furthest town from the sea. And though its last census lists a population of just 45 people, its most famous resident is a dinosaur that pre-dates the town by some 95 million years.
Cooper, a mighty titanosaur measuring 25 to 30 metres from nose to tail, is the largest dinosaur ever to have been found in Australia. A 14-year-old boy discovered the previously unknown species in 2004 while mustering cattle on the family property west of Eromanga. Further dinosaur bones were subsequently unearthed, as well as numerous mega fauna species, and all remains are now housed in the Eromanga Natural History Museum on the town fringe.
For my wife Michelle, son Finn and father-in-law Bryan, Eromanga marks the true starting point of our Outback road trip. With few exceptions before now, we've driven almost exclusively along blacktop roads and passed through sizeable towns like Roma or Charleville. From this point forward, however, we won't see another town with more than a few hundred people or enjoy the luxury of driving on sealed roads until we reach Marree, 1200 kilometres distant at the bottom end of the Birdsville Track in South Australia.
So we start by driving west out Eromanga towards Innamincka, crossing the big sky gibber plains of the Strzelecki Desert. Rarely does the landscape vary beyond flat and featureless and there's very little by way of vegetation. Strangely, however, that monotony also makes for some fascinating driving. We're treated to views that extend forever, particularly whenever we summit the barest of rises.
This area, where the northeast corner of South Australia cuts into Queensland's southwest, is synonymous with Burke and Wills, the 19th-century explorers who perished here during their attempt to traverse the continent in 1861. The first historical site we visit is when we stop at the Dig Tree, 13 kilometres east of Queensland's border with South Australia.
Every Aussie kid in primary school has been told the tragic tale of how the two explorers returned to their campsite along the banks of the Cooper Creek only to discover that their crew had abandoned them. What they didn't know is that the crew had up and left that very morning, and only after they'd buried a cache of supplies in a hole they'd dug at the foot of this tree.
Though Finn admits to hearing of the explorers' flawed expedition, the sight of a knotted old Coolabah tree carved with instructions on where to dig is hardly exciting to a 10-year-old. Far better, he thinks, is scouring the earth for sticks to swat flies with and for rocks that he can throw. It's a pattern that emerges wherever we stop.
Even when we continue on to Innamincka, we're horrified to learn that the flies have followed us there. Tinned foods and long-life milk cartons line the shelves inside the Innamincka Trading Post, and water bladders are piled high on packing crates just inside the door. But it's not them we're after.
"Found them," says Michelle, holding up fly nets and veiled sunhats that become our most valued purchases for the entire trip. While the flies still annoy the hell out of us from thereon in, stepping outside becomes infinitely more bearable.
After setting up camp beside the Cooper Creek, we spend the next two days touring the sights around Innamincka. Burke and Wills' graves are first on our list, followed by climbing up Noel's Hill to watch the sunset over the ranges. Finn is happiest when we swim in the creek out front of our campsite, and again in Minkie Waterhole, further west along the 15 Mile Track. And before we leave, he insists on challenging us in a round of mini-golf outside the Innamincka Hotel, where we order drinks inside while tallying our scores.
Michelle is behind the wheel when we drive across the Cooper Creek weir and head north through the Innamincka Regional Reserve and Cordillo Downs Station, where we pause to investigate Australia's largest woolshed. That evening, corellas nesting in the eucalypts close to our campsite create an awful din as we settle in beside the crumbling sandstone mess of the Cadelga Ruins. When we wake next morning, the bugs are worse than ever.
"I can't tell whether my toast is coated in Vegemite or flies," remarks Bryan, over breakfast.
"That's disgusting," says Finn, screwing up his nose. "You're not going to eat that, are you?"
For the next leg to Birdsville, we keep his mind occupied by playing name games and listening to his music while we drive. When that doesn't work we find that bribery works best, promising sweets if he's the first to spot kangaroos or wedge-tailed eagles, which we frequently see scavenging bloodied carcasses by the road. Road trains four carriages long rumble past, leaving dust clouds billowing in their wake. A bearded dragon basks in the sun beneath circling black kites. Emus tiptoe over the baking hot earth.
It's Anzac Day when we drive into Birdsville and a rowdy game of Two-Up is in progress at the pub. For 150 years or so this remote town has doubled as Australia's equivalent of Timbuktu – an almost mythical place that anyone with half an interest in off-roading has set their sights on visiting at some stage in their life. For us, the reward for travelling this far is a cold beer at the pub then a camel curry pie from the bakery. We drive to the racetrack, home of the most famous bush racing carnival in the country. And Finn runs, jumps and somersaults down the Big Red – Australia's highest sand dune, on the edge of the Simpson Desert.
After two nights in Birdsville, we link onto the Birdsville Track before it crosses into South Australia and ends 540 kilometres further south. Drovers herding their cattle to the southern markets once took weeks to complete this route and it gained legendary status as one of our toughest tracks to navigate. But over the years, as traffic increased, road works transformed the track into a graded road that a taxi could service. Some campers at the Birdsville Caravan Park even insisted we'd be able to complete it in a day.
"It's 100 kilometres per hour all the way," boasted one.
Speeding down it was never our intention, however, which is just as well with my father-in-law behind the wheel. With the speed dial barely touching 60, we have plenty of time to stop and look at anything worth seeing – cattle, ruins, wildlife… whatever.
After camping halfway along the track in Mungerannie, we pass through the Dog Fence then spot our first red kangaroo soon after. Emus race away and blue flyer kangaroos bound off. From hardly seeing any wildlife, it's like we've entered a zoo.
The dirt track comes to an end when we enter Marree.
"Is that it?" Finn asks. "Do you reckon the flies will have gone away?"
"I hope so, Finn," I reply. Boy, do I hope so.
Mark Daffey travelled at his own expense.
Eromanga is 1000 kilometres west of Brisbane. Marree is 650 kilometres north of Adelaide.
Nightly camping rates at the Eromanga Caravan Park, Innamincka Town Common, Birdsville Caravan Park (birdsvillecaravanpark.com) and Mungerannie Hotel (mungeranniehotel.com.au) range from $5 per vehicle to $60 per site.
The Eromanga Natural History Museum (enhm.com.au) is open five to seven days a week, depending on seasons. One-hour guided tours cost $30 ($15 child).
Desert Passes for the Innamincka Regional Reserve cost $10 per vehicle and can be purchased at the Innamincka Trading Post.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACKS: FIVE OTHER OUTBACK TRACKS WORTH DRIVING:
From Lyndhurst in South Australia, the Strzelecki Track passes the Moomba oil and gas fields and ends at the oasis town of Innamincka.
GIBB RIVER ROAD
The bone-jarring 660-kilometre track connecting Derby with Kununurra in Western Australia intersects three separate mountain ranges cradling forgotten gorges and spring-fed waterfalls.
CAPE YORK PENINSULA DEVELOPMENT ROAD
Expect plenty of difficult river crossings on the track from Cairns to the Australian mainland's northernmost point.
Pass by the William Creek pub and follow the Ghan railway line to Oodnadatta – home of the Pink House Hotel.
CANNING STOCK ROUTE
An old cattle droving route through sand dunes and saltpans from Wiluna to Halls Creek in Western Australia.