Let locals guide you through their outback heaven
The wooden chair creaked a little as I leaned back as far as I could to take in the shimmering night sky.
Bright stars peppered the black abyss above and, when we looked long enough, a shooting star could be seen rocketing across the darkness.
We had just watched the sun set on our first day in Longreach and, as it crept below the horizon, the sky turned a shade of blue with a soft streak of pink that made it look like a canvas had been painted before our eyes.
We took in the sight as we sat down at the wooden picnic table on Two Tree Hill, a stunning spot in the middle of Camden Park Station.
Fairy lights were wound through the trees and we noshed on a hearty homecooked meal of zesty beetroot salad, barbecued steak and greens.
When we had finished dining we took in the incredible starry sky that can only be seen when you're far enough away from the city.
Camden Park Station is run by Outback Dan, otherwise known as Dan Walker, and the Walker family.
The property has hosted impressive guests, including Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who paid a visit in 1970.
But everyone who steps foot on their soil is treated like royalty.
"The last five years I've committed fully to tourism. I dipped my toes in in the past, my grandfather was always taking buses out to the property and hosting visitors for as long as I can remember," Dan said.
"We always thought there's a house that leads to the end of the road and people would drive past and wonder what's in there.
"We wouldn't do it justice if we didn't open the house up ... and really connect on a human basis."
That house includes a full-sized ballroom that's now been converted into a loungeroom with photographs of the royal visit.
Once we'd been given the grand tour and a sky-high piece of pavlova, we jumped back on the mini-bus and drove under the shimmering night sky to the Wellshot Hotel at Ilfracombe, about 20 minutes east of Longreach.
The mini-bus was driven by Outback Aussie Tours frontman Smithy, otherwise known as Alan Smith (everyone in the outback has a nickname).
He picked us up from the airport earlier that day and explained that joining one of his tours was like being shown around the sweeping plains by a mate.
That's what it felt like when Smithy walked us into the Wellshot Hotel that night.
We were taught how to fashion a five dollar note, two dollar coin and drawing pin into a missile that would stick to the roof of the pub if flung hard enough.
All proceeds in the roof kitty were donated to Angel Flight.
As we were laughing and had our eyes pointed high, mouths agape, a bushman named Lindsay sitting at the bar pulled out a tatty piece of A4 paper from his pocket.
In a rhythmic voice that made it feel as though Banjo Patterson was sitting on that bar stool, he started reciting poems he had written about his own experiences.
He wove words together about soldiers returning from war feeling guilty they had lived and the feeling of being the only one left in the room when everyone else is engrossed in their phone screen.
He wasn't the best at discussing things, he said, but poems were his way of sharing the thoughts swirling around his mind.
With those beautiful words we headed back to the Saltbush Retreat for some sleep, amazed we had crammed so much into just half a day in Longreach.
The next morning Smithy picked us up once again to take us to the Historic Railway Cafe, which is owned and operated by Outback Aussie Tours.
The coffee machine buzzes from inside the 102-year-old building that still welcomes visitors making the trip to the town by train.
But with carriages now filling fast with tourists, a Qantas flight into Longreach that takes just an hour-and-a-half from Brisbane has become an attractive option for visitors.
The coffee at the cafe was so good some had seconds, while the smashed avocado on rye had a sprinkling of dukkah that added delicious pops of flavour.
"It's the traditional combining with the modern, that's what we're about," Smithy said.
A modern tour company they are, with no marked buses or branded shirts. You feel as though you belong when walking down the street.
The cafe isn't the only side venture Smithy runs alongside his wife Sue. We were also treated to a cruise on the Longreach Explorer along the Thomson River followed by dinner and a show at outdoor venue Smithy's that evening.
After filling our bellies with camp-oven cuisine, including roast potatoes and damper, it was time to call it a night.
Smithy and Sue welcomed us into their home at Rosebank Station the next morning for the final supper on the trip.
With fresh coffee served in mismatched vintage tea sets and homecooked quinoa salad with lamb for breakfast, it was the last taste of true country hospitality.
While the drought may have turned the ground to dust in some areas out west, it's done nothing to dry up the spirit of our outback characters.
The writer was a guest of Outback Aussie Tours.
IF YOU GO:
Outback Aussie Tours has various packages available in 2019. Tours depart from Brisbane, Longreach and Cairns. All can be packaged with rail or air connections. Itineraries that either start or end in Longreach include the award-winning Drover's Sunset Cruise on the majestic Thomson River and Smithy's Outback Dinner and Show. Book before December 31 for "early emu" savings.
See outbackaussietours.com.au or phone 1300 78 78 90