The highway west of Dingo crosses the lower reaches of the Bowen Basin coalfields into cotton country, signalled by fluffy white tailings along the roadside. Despite its proximity to the Gemfield towns of Sapphire and Rubyvale, EMERALD, 125km along, was named by a surveyor who passed through after heavy rains had greened the landscape. A dormitory town for nearby coal mines, at the junction of routes north to Mackay and south to Carnarvon Gorge, Emerald's rich soil supports sunflowers, citrus trees, grapevines, lychees and rock melons.
Most essential services are on the Capricorn Highway, here called Clermont Street. Its main feature is the pristine train station, built at the turn of the twentieth century and restored in the late 1980s, where buses also pull up. At the west end of Clermont Street, the visitor centre (Mon– Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 10am–2pm; Tel:07/4982 4142, Web:www.centralhighlandstourism.org.au) sits in a shady park in front of the world's largest Van Gogh sunflower print, mounted on a giant easel.
Due to a steady influx of fruit-pickers, accommodation is tight all year round (particularly midweek) and especially during the April harvest or November cotton-chipping season – book ahead. The Central Inn (Tel:07/4982 0800; $61-75), near the station on Clermont Street, has a big kitchen and simply furnished rooms; the friendly, family-run Motel 707 (Tel:07/4982 1707; $76-100) on the corner of the Capricorn and Gregory highways, just around the corner from the visitor centre, has clean, comfortable rooms and a good steak restaurant; and the Explorers Inn Motel (Tel:07/4987 6222, Web:www.emeraldexplorersinn.com.au; $131-160) is in a quiet spot at the edge of town.