Location: Queensland Australia

Gold, coal, rugged natural beauty and a colourful history are all waiting to be ‘discovered’ – on the drive inland from Mackay to Rockhampton, reports Damien Condon.

Whether you start from Mackay or Rockhampton, you can comfortably drive the 914km in four days, but you’ll find plenty to see and do along the way if you’d like to extend your trip.

Follow in the footsteps (or hoof prints) of explorer Leichhardt’s party and head along the Peak Downs Highway from Mackay, stopping at Nebo. The picturesque rural town is a mixture of coal mining and rural pursuits.

Check out the local museum’s impressive collection or the Pioneer Tracks Exhibition at the Marley Accommodation Centre.

Head further into coal-mining territory to Moranbah and take in a tour of the nearby Peak Downs coal mine. Tours are available the last Wednesday of each month and bookings are essential.

Beyond Moranbah is the gold-rush town of Clermont. Nestled at the foothills of the stunning Peak Range, a series of dramatic volcanic plugs, Clermont’s colourful past is evident everywhere you go. From the piano in the tree as a result of the town’s worst flood (and the second-worst in the country’s history in terms of loss of life) to its place in the history books as the first inland settlement north of the Tropic of Capricorn.

For further insight into the region’s history you should stop at the Clermont Museum, housed in the old Masonic Lodge as part of the Heritage Park complex. The building, from the 1800s, is home to snap shots of the town and the families that helped to make it what it is today.

After a refreshing night’s rest in Clermont, buckle up and hit the Gregory Highway bound for Capella, with the conical sentinels of the Peak Range as the backdrop. Take a break from the road and check out the local Pioneer Village which includes the Peak Downs Homestead built in 1869, Gordon Downs Store and Woolshed and vintage farming equipment.

From here, it’s on-to Emerald where you can spend some time visiting places like Rubyvale, Sapphire and Blackwater. If you notice a theme in the town names you would be right! Why not try your hand at gem fossicking, take in an underground mine tour or watch the gem cutters at work?

Stay the night in Emerald and make an early start the next day to take in some of the area’s sights and sounds. Emerald Railway Station’s beautiful cast-iron lace portico takes visitors back to times gone by. Some unexpected must-see attractions include Town Hall’s fossilised tree and the huge reproduction of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Heading south out of town, you can stretch your legs and have a picnic at Lake Maraboon, formed by the Fairburn Dam. The mammoth lake is a whopping three-times the size of Sydney Harbour.

Once you’ve had a bit of a chance to rejuvenate, jump back in the car for Springsure. This is one of the prettiest towns in the Central Highlands with the famous Virgin Rock (named for its resemblance to the Virgin Mary) part of the mountain-range backdrop. A visit to the Old Rainworth Fort is a must giving people a rare insight into the Aboriginal resistance to European settlement.

A further 71-km south lies Rolleston gateway to Carnarvon National Park and the junction of the Dawson Highway and Great Inland Way. It’s highly recommended you spend a few days exploring Carnarvon, one of inland Queensland’s jewels and renowned for its dramatic gorges and Aboriginal rock art.

Next stop – the famous mining town of Moura, where you can visit the Moura Mine by prior arrangement with the manager. The local taxi company takes the tours from Eat Retreat Caf.

After spending the night in Moura, it’s eastward-bound towards Biloela passing through Banana – the town named after the bullock. This is cattle, cotton and grain country where you will travel through rusty-red fields of sorghum and row after row of white-flecked cotton.

There are several farmstays in the local area, including Kroombit Park, which also offers guided tours into Kroombit Tops National Park.

When you arrive in Biloela, check out the beautifully preserved slab hut of Greycliffe Station from the 1870s. The site is now a museum and The SILO a primary industry exhibition where kids can visit farm animals ranging from donkeys to ostriches. You can also take in a guided tour of the Callide Coal Mine & Power Station and there is a museum at Callide B Power Station and lookout with views over the complex, dam, town and countryside.

From Biloela head north along the Burnett Highway via Dululu (once a thriving railway town, the local population now numbers just 21 people) to the historic mining town of Mount Morgan. Once a large mountain, 100 years of strip mining has extracted 225,000 kg of gold, 50,000 kg of silver and 360,000 tonnes of copper, leaving behind one of the largest artificial holes on earth. The historic Mount Morgan railway station is now the local information centre. From here you can book a rail tour and guided tours of the old mine site. There are two unusual suspension bridges which were built in the 1890s to provide access from the town to the mine (on the Dee River downstream from the road).

From here it’s about 40km to Rockhampton – the Beef Capital of Australia.

This trip can be started from either Rockhampton or Mackay, with both cities having their own unique flavour. Stroll along Quay Street on the banks of the Fitzroy River in Rockhampton with one of the highest densities of heritage-listed buildings in Australia. If you want to explore Mackay town centre you will find beautiful, confectionary-like art-deco buildings galore. Both cities boast good coffee, good food, easy access to the Great Barrier Reef, islands, beautiful hinterlands and a variety of attractions all within a short travelling distance.

Jetstar offers direct flights from Sydney (four times a week) and Brisbane to Mackay direct and connecting flights are available from Melbourne. Virgin Blue and Qantas can connect from any major Australian city and all three airlines offer direct flights from Brisbane to Mackay daily. Qantas Link also operates dash flights from regional centres like CairnsTownsvilleRockhampton and Gladstone.

– By Damien Condon