On a recent trip to Chinchilla, Qld, for its biennial Melon Festival, I was amazed by the number of visitors and rigs that swamped every available inch of accommodation in town.
In search of quiet bush camping alternatives to this managed mayhem, I was pleased to find a couple within short driving range from town, along the Condamine River.
The Condamine is one of the longest and most important rivers in Queensland.
The river rises on the slopes of Mount Superbus (1375m) in the Main Range, east of Warwick, and flows 657km northwest across the Darling Downs, past Dalby and Chinchilla, to become the Balonne River near Surat.
The river was named by explorer Allan Cunningham in 1827 for Thomas de la Condamine, a former aide-de-camp to Governor Ralph Darling who became the colony’s first Collector of Internal Revenue.
One of the Condamine’s tributaries is Charley’s Creek, which flows through Chinchilla to join the river nearby.
The creek was named by Ludwig Leichhardt after Charley Fisher, the Aboriginal guide with his exploration party when it passed through the district in September 1844 on the way to Port Essington.
The Condamine-Balonne catchment covers 27,500 sq km, about two-thirds of which comprises broad alluvial plains where many waterways terminate in lakes, and more than 1800 wetlands.
These expansive floodplains provide habitats for diverse plant communities and vital reserves for waterbirds, native fish and vulnerable fauna.
The catchment lands have also been important to Aboriginal people for more than 25,000 years, and the culture and livelihood of many clans are closely intertwined with its river systems.
The region was also a corridor for indigenous tribes travelling to the Bunya Mountains for triennial bunya nut festivals.
The town of Chinchilla takes its name from the Aboriginal word ‘jinchilla’ for the plentiful stands of cypress pine growing on the Western Downs.
The name was adopted for the original pastoral station that entirely enclosed the present town, and the spelling probably altered in 1848 when the pastoral lease was recorded in the New South Wales Lands Office.
In the Archers Crossing camping reserve, south of Chinchilla, there are a number of sites that signify use and occupation of the land by the Barunggam Aboriginal people. Most noticeable are several trees that bear scars where bark has been removed for various purposes: to make boomerangs, shields, canoes and vessels to carry babies or water; to construct shelters or to wrap the dead; for medicinal purposes; and for toe-holds to climb after possum or gather honey.
European settlement of the catchment began in the 1830s when large tracts of the Darling Downs were leased for cattle and sheep grazing on dryland pastures and, in later times, for grain and cotton cropping in areas with access to good quality water for irrigation.
These remain the main agricultural pursuits in the region.
But all this bounty comes at a price, and the flooding Condamine has periodically taken its toll.
During the floods in 2010-11, the river reached a record peak at Condamine (60km southwest of Chinchilla) of 15.25m and another peak, two weeks later, of 14.67m, earning the town the unenviable reputation of having been evacuated twice in one month.
At Chinchilla, the worst flood occurred in 1942 when the river rose to a mere 8.33m but inundated two-thirds of the business sector of the town, caused the evacuation of many homes and claimed the life of a 30-year old farmer, who drowned while attempting to swim across a swollen stream.
Standing beside the Chinchilla Weir on a hot, dry February day, I could scarcely imagine this magnitude of devastation.
But it was easy to see why the reserve here was popular with campers and day-trippers.
The weir was built on the river in 1974 as a town water supply and an irrigation reservoir for surrounding farmlands.
The well marked entrance to the reserve is 9km south of Chinchilla along the Chinchilla-Tara Road.
A bitumen access road winds past a parking area and lookout point at the weir and continues to the day-use area and a grassy, lightly forested camping area upstream beside the river.
The generously-sized sites are suitable for caravans, camper trailers and motorhomes, and there are plenty of shady, level sites for tents and vehicle-based campers.
A boat ramp provides ready access to the river for waterskiing, canoeing, swimming and fishing (not permitted within 200m above or below the weir wall) and you’re (almost) guaranteed to land golden perch, catfish or Murray cod.
Twitchers will also catch sight of many birds of different kinds.
Power is available for 12 sites on a first in-first served basis, for which a voluntary donation can be made at the information centre in town – not a bad deal for free camping (two days maximum).
Facilities include flush toilets, tap water (not for drinking), wood barbecues (BYO firewood) and picnic shelters and tables overlooking the river.
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