Happy New Year …

2015 rolls to a close. A memorable year for many good and all too many bad reasons.

Thank you to all of you that take the time to read my posts. Visits came from 69 countries, outside of Australia the US then Belgium figured large. I hope many of you will visit our country in person. If I can help just ask.

A special thanks to those who wrote comments, in particular Mukul Chand who always says nice things about my photography.

I wish you all a happy and prosperous new year.


Sturt …

At Cameron Corner it would be possible, if you can bend it like Beckham, to stand in South Australia and kick a ball slightly east of north that traveled into New South Wales, crossed into Queensland and then curved west back into South Australia. Or you could just have a beer at the Corner Store, a pub standing all alone in the desert.

When you cross the border into New South Wales you enter the Sturt National Park.

Charles Sturt left Adelaide in August 1844, travelled north to the Murray River, followed it to the junction with the Darling and then followed that north east. When he left the river it was to head north to Lake Cawndilla, close to modern day Menindee subsequently made famous by Burke and Wills. Sturt thought the river banks would suit graziers well and was proven right quite soon after his return.

From there the going became a lot tougher. His party made progress by scouting ahead until a suitable body of water was found and then taking up the main party with its livestock. Eventually they reached “a romantic rocky glen of basalt” on which Sturt bestowed the unromantic name of Depot Glen. The country was drying out quickly in the heat of an unusually dry summer. The water behind them was gone and there was none to be found ahead. They were obliged to stay put for six months. Exploratory trips were made and, knowing that the devil finds work for idle hands, Sturt had the men build a cairn on a nearby hill. Mr Poole died of scurvy at the Glen. The cairn became his memorial and the hill is now Mt Poole.

When the rains came Sturt took some of the stronger men and continued north west. He established a second depot in a spot that he called the Park. He left men here with instruction to build a stockade and a stock yard. Sturt made three sorties from here discovering and naming Cooper’s Creek on one, and penetrating into the heart of the Simpson desert on another. He had given instruction to David Morgan “to prepare and paint the boat in the event of her being required.” She was never required.

The stockade became known as Fort Grey, it stands by Lake Pinaroo which fills about once a decade and holds water for a few years. It provided Sturt with good feed for his livestock. It was our campsite for a night. These days it is grazed by Red Kangaroos …

Lake Pinaroo

But for some years graziers eked a living out of the land here. This steam engine brought water up from a bore out on the lake bed …

Bore head

A Central Netted Dragon visited us in the camp site …

Central Netted Dragon

Sturt was one of Australia’s finest explorers. As well as a national park he has a university named after him (from which I have a graduate diploma in ornithology) and Sturt’s Desert Pea.

Desert Pea

and this fine example made quite a splash …

Desert pee

Pub to Pub …

As beautiful as the waterhole on the Diamantina was, we could think of a far nicer place to get a drink.

Noccundra Hotel

When we strode into the Noccundra Hotel we were greeted by a huge dog with its forepaws on the bar. Its head was held on a quizzical slant as if to say, “What’ll it be?” It seemed a little early for a beer so I asked it for a ginger beer. The licensee emerged stage left and supplied the bottle. The dog evidently needed a bit more training.

The pub licensed since 1882 is the entire town. Fortunately it also sells diesel and unleaded petrol. If you were short of food it would be worth while asking what they could sell you from their stock.

It stands close to the Wilson River. The first time I went there it was very close, the river having overflowed its banks. This time it was in its normal place a couple of hundred metres away. Given the choice of a beer or any amount of water from the creek, spare a thought for Andrew Hume. He found himself in jail for horsestealing, his get out of jail card was the claim that he had met a survivor of the missing Leichhardt expedition living with aboriginals way out in the west of Queensland. In 1874 he was given the chance to substantiate his claim. Two of his party of three perished of thirst just to the west of Noccundra. Maybe he should have served his sentence.

The road south from here leads to the dingo fence where you can pass through the Warri Warri Gate into New South Wales. About half way to the border and less than 50 km off to the east is  Bulloo Lake. This is where the Burke and Wills resupply party led by William Wight lost three men. They were three months out from Menindee and had covered just 450 km. Stone, Purcell and Becker died, the remainder of the personnel were in bad shape. This was the furthest point for the party although Wright rode on with Brahe to have one last look for Burke and Wills at the Cooper.

We continued the pub crawl by taking a right turn north of the border and heading out to Cameron Corner. It’s the point where Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales meet. John Brewer Cameron banged a wooden post in here on the 30th September 1880. Given his middle name it is entirely apposite that someone decided to build a pub here. By tradition one drinks three beers, one from each state. Start with a Coopers, get that chore out of the way whilst your thirst is at its greatest.

If it were not for the accidental intersection of lines on a map it would be just a lonely place in the dunes left to the wildlife like this Brown Falcon …

Brown Falcon

Cordillo Downs …

We tore ourselves away from the Birdsville pub and headed south east. The Cordillo Downs Road leads into the heart of explorer country, the dig tree of Burke and Wills, Fort Grey of Sturt. Hallowed ground. Our route was a little indirect since we were aiming to inspect as many black soil crevasses as we could but our first objective was to get beyond the creek crossings between the Cadelga Out-station and Cordillo Downs station. There were thunder storms all around us, showers had preceded us and more were coming.

Although the creeks running into the desert are usually dry the occasional rains are enough to bring life giving water into what seems a sterile landscape. The creek lines are marked by trees, in between there is mostly no vegetation.  Once we had crossed the last of the channels we camped on the gibber (pronounced with a hard G as in get not like a J) and woke to a glorious blue sky.


This is Sturt’s Stony Desert …

The stones, with which the ground was so thickly covered as to exclude vegetation, were of different lengths, from one inch to six, they had been rounded by attrition, were coated with oxide of iron, and evenly distributed. In going over this dreary waste the horses left no track, and that of the cart was only visible here and there. From the spot on which we stopped no object of any kind broke the line of the horizon; we were as lonely as a ship at sea, and as a navigator seeking for land, only that we had the disadvantage of an unsteady compass, without any fixed point on which to steer.

The creek line intrudes into the top right of the photograph and here we found Bourke’s Parrots and these little guys …


… before we pressed on to pass the largest woolshed in the southern hemisphere. It was built of local stone in 1883. It’s not a case of how many sheep to the acre more a case of how many acres to the sheep. These days the sheep have given way to cattle. The last time a bale of wool was pressed here was about 1942.

Our objective that day was the Diamantina River which we crossed at a point where it fans out into a multitude of channels, mostly dry, with a maze of lignum swamps in between. We camped close to one of the billabongs …


After crossing the Simpson Desert by camel, Cecil Madigan also camped by the Diamantina, not at this spot but one rather like it …

It was cloudless and calm. I lay in my bed on the bare ground above the steep bank, just beyond the thin line of trees that edged the waterhole. The moon was high, but its light was already paling and the shadows were gone. Orion still rode the skies, but the glorious morning star in the east was heralding the approach of the bold sun. The sky still held the dark blue of the night, but towards the east it changed to dove grey, then light grey and finally to a strip of tangerine that lay low on the horizon.They were not the brilliant colours of sunset clouds, but the most delicate hues of the sky itself. The black trees were silhouetted against these lovely tints. Gradually the stars faded and the mystic moonlight withdrew as night crept silently away, and objects took their true shape and distance in the hard light of day. A squawk was heard here and there in the trees, and soon the clouds of cockatoos came to life and filled the morning with their harsh screeching, tearing away the last soft veils of night as the sun came up.

The desert has a truly awful beauty but it’s water that brings it life.

Of Camels and Cars …


The Victorian Exploring Expedition known to posterity as the Burke and Wills Expedition was the first in Australia to make significant use of camels. They proved to be very suitable for use in the arid zone and went on to play a fascinating role in the early days of settlement. But the camels imported for that adventure were not the first in Australia or the first used for exploration. That honour goes to Harry.

Four camels were purchased at Tenerife in the Canary Islands and shipped to Adelaide. Three died en route, Harry was the sole survivor. On the 12th October 1840 Harry became the first camel in Australia.

In 1846 John Ainsworth Horrocks set off astride Harry to find new agricultural land near Lake Torrens in South Australia. Harry was not a well behaved camel and had soon inflicted injuries on one of the goats taken along for food as well as on the man who was supposed to cook the goat, but that was just the beginning. On 1 September Horrocks was preparing to shoot a bird on the shores of Lake Dutton. The kneeling camel moved while Horrocks was reloading his gun, the gun discharged.

Horrocks wrote two letters after the accident. The first was to his family and the subscribers to the expedition apologizing for its early termination. The second relates the chain of events that led up to the accident. The letters can be seen on this South Australian Website, and to think that people criticise doctors’ hand writing. Although, in defence of Horrocks it should be said that the discharge had blown off the middle finger of his right hand before entering his left cheek and knocking out some of his upper teeth. He died from his injuries. Harry was executed for his crimes.

Saddles came with the camels. They were traditionally stuffed with vegetation. Many of the exotic weeds of Australia’s arid zones were introduced that way, including the Paddy Melons.

Since there were few people in Oz that were experienced in the handling of camels cameleers were also imported, many from Afghanistan. They, too, played a fine role in developing the arid zones. The train that links Adelaide with Darwin was named the Ghan in their honour. That is a trip that should be on my bucket list, yours too, you can book online.

Cadelga Outstation

Cars are more reliable than camels and these days have largely replaced them. Although they are not without their problems.

The biggest problem in the arid zone is rain. Heavy rain can render your 4WD immobile. There is little you can do if you are caught out but wait. Therefore make sure you have plenty of food and water for any outback trip and some means of communication that is not dependent on a mobile phone tower. Satellite phone is first choice although HF radio will still answer the purpose.

Here comes the rain

I have found country pubs to be valuable sources of beer and also to be very accommodating with weather forecasts. At Innaminka one time the bar staff advised me to either leave immediately or camp near the pub. If I didn’t make the bitumen that day I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a week. They hoped I would stay. Information centres in outback towns will also print you off a weather forecast although they’re not so good with the beer.

The best defence against mechanical failure is proper maintenance before leaving home and your radiator needs to be protected from animal strike by a robust bullbar. Leave word of your intended route with a friend. Drive according to the condition of the road. Should you become stuck despite all this then stay with your vehicle.


Birdsville …

Hot on the heels of the explorers came the settlers. The rangelands will carry sheep and cattle. The stocking rate is extremely low but there’s plenty of country. Rainfall is fickle, the good years can give rise to optimism that fries all too quickly in the dry years that follow.

Birdsville came into being as Diamantina Crossing in 1881. Its reason for existence was simple, before the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia the individual colonies thought it necessary to protect their economies with tariffs. Birdsville is on a droving route used to take northern cattle to southern markets and located just north of the South Australia – Queensland border. It was there to collect taxes.

Tax collecting is thirsty work. It had three hotels and a cordial factory. The population in 1900 was over 300. Its role as a tax collector ceased at Federation in 1901. It was downhill after that, at least for a while.

Not far to the west in the Simpson Desert is Sturt’s furthest north, reached in September 1845 …

We had penetrated to a point at which water and feed had both failed … The spinifex was close and matted, and the horses were obliged to lift their feet straight up to avoid its sharp points. From the summit of a sandy undulation close upon our right, we saw that the ridges extended northwards in parallel lines beyond the range of vision, and appeared as if interminable. To the eastward and westward they succeeded each other like the waves of the sea. The sand was of a deep red colour, and a bright narrow line of it marked the top of each ridge, amidst the sickly pink and glaucous coloured vegetation around.

After Sturt it was the turn of the surveyors.  Augustus Poeppel marked the point where Queensland, South Australia and New South Wales meet. He was in error by 300 metres. The error was corrected four years later by Larry Wells. Then in 1886 David Lindsay penetrated deep into the desert from the west.

To that point no european had gone in one side and come out the other. Ted Colson put that right in May 1936. He set out from his cattle station on the west of the desert with an aboriginal companion, Peter Ains, and five camels, followed the 26th parallel to Birdsville, had a beer in the pub and four days later turned around and crossed the desert again.

Cecil Madigan came next leading a scientific expedition, again on camels but by a more northerly route.

Nowadays the explorers come by 4WD. The first to cross the Simpson by car was Reg Sprigg with the wife and kids. It was September 1962. Since then Birdsville’s fortunes have improved. Thousands come for the races, the bold drive up via the Birdsville Track, the intrepid come across the Simpson. We all make a point of stopping here …

Birdsville Hotel




Burke and Wills …

Victoria gained independence from New South Wales in 1851. Gold was discovered very soon after. The rush filled Melbourne with new arrivals and as quickly emptied it of able bodied workers. In the 1850’s the place was a disaster, but the money rolled in and by 1860 it was Marvelous Melbourne. The gentlemen of the Philosophical Institute were sure the colony was capable of doing great things.

Off to the west, another colony was on less secure ground. South Australia, far more than the eastern states, is hemmed in by the desert. If, as they suspected, they were confined to a fertile island their prospects for expansion were very limited. Exploration to the north of Adelaide was mainly driven by the hope that new pastures would be discovered. There was also the prospect that Adelaide could become the destination of the newly proposed overland telegraph system that might connect the settled parts of Australia with Asia and the world.

South Australia had an established explorer of the highest reputation, one John McDouall Stuart. Stuart had been with Sturt on his last expedition and then made his name leading small, fast-travelling sorties to the west of Sturt’s track.

The Philosophical gentlemen of Melbourne were honoured with a Royal Charter in 1859 and their Institute became the Royal Society of Victoria. They became even more certain that great things could be done, among them perhaps the first overland crossing of the continent. Committees went to work, money was raised, the Victorian Exploring Expedition came into being, advertisements were placed for a leader and one was appointed.

The expedition was by turns a farce and a tragedy.

On August 20th 1860 26 camels, 23 horses, 19 men and 6 wagons departed Royal Park, Melbourne and managed to cover 11 km. The leader was Robert O’Hara Burke. He had no prior experience of exploration, had no prior experience with camels and could not determine longitude or latitude from astronomical sightings. George Landells was second in command and the camel expert. William John Wills, a young surveyor, was sent along to tell Burke where he was. Tempers were a little frayed in the chaos of departure, some men were dismissed, others appointed right there in Royal Park.

The expedition was the best equipped ever, or so it was claimed. There was, in fact, a mountain of equipment to be transported. At that time the edge of the settled districts was at Menindie (now spelt Menindee) on the Darling River, about 800 km to the north of Melbourne.  Cooper’s Creek had been put on the map by Charles Sturt and later visited by Augustus Charles Gregory. That’s another 800 km. Beyond that was unknown territory.

B&W Map

Plan A seems to have been to transport the supplies to form a base camp at Cooper’s Creek. The nature of some of the equipment and the qualifications of some of the personnel implies that Plan A also included a scientific survey of the ground covered, on the other hand Burke was sent on his way with summer coming and exhorted to make all haste, Stuart was in the field and this was to be a race. Plan A was very vague.

The first problem was to shift the mountain of equipment with the means of transport provided. This need not have been a problem at all. Burke had turned down an offer to carry his supplies to Menindie by paddle steamer via the Murray and Darling Rivers for patriotic reasons. This was a Victorian Expedition, it would not be traveling via South Australia!

Instead it traveled very slowly overland, running up considerable over budget expenditure and accompanied by unrest among the troops. It took 56 days to get to Menindie where Landells, second in command and camel expert was fired. In the ensuing argument Burke challenged him to a duel which Landells had the sense to decline. Of the 19 men that left Royal Park 11 had resigned or been dismissed. Eight men had been hired along the way and five of these had also departed. Mr Burke was not a gifted commander.

Burke decided that carrying the mountain of equipment any further was simply beyond the transport at his disposal. Menindie became the base camp. On October 19th 1860 16 camels, 19 horses and 10 men set out for the Cooper. The question regarding race and science was neatly resolved. The scientists and their equipment were left behind. Wills had been promoted to second in command and had to go on because no one else could work out where they were. Also in the forward group was William Wright. Until recently he had managed the nearby Kinchega sheep station. Burke met him in Menindie’s most prominent establishment, Thomas Paine’s Hotel, just days earlier.

Progress was good, recent rain meant there was no shortage of water. They had covered 250 km in 10 days. Burke was impressed with Mr Wright and promoted him to third in command and sent him back to Menindie to bring up further supplies to the Cooper. Thirteen days later Burke established his advanced base camp on the Cooper.

William Wright arrived back in Menindie with a number of problems. He had no written orders, the leader of the party in Menindie would not accept his authority, the local traders would not extend him credit, Burke had for some time been writing rubber cheques. Burke had the best of the horses and camels. There was simply no way to transport tons of goods up to the Cooper. The meat that had come with the expedition had spoiled and would need to be replaced. It would be more than two months before the resupply party would set off.

After about a month at the Cooper Burke divided his party again. On December 16th Burke, Wills, John King and Charley Gray set off with six camels, one horse and 90 days worth of provisions. William Brahe was left in charge of the depot with orders from Burke to remain three months and a suggestion from Wills that he might stay a little longer. Burke expected that Wright would arrive in the interim with further supplies.

After Burke’s death he was hailed a hero. Close scrutiny has led to the verdict that he was more the bumbling buffoon. He was born in Ireland in 1820. He had an imposing physique and an easy going charm. His first career was in the Austrian military and initially successful. It came to an inglorious end when skipping town to evade his gambling debts caused him to be absent without leave. Subsequently he had been a well-liked policeman in the Victorian goldfields. At the time he set off  from Royal Park he was pursuing an actress half his age, he left behind a rubber cheque for £96 and a debt at the Melbourne Club of £18 5s 3d. The first 45 days after departing the Cooper were probably the most successful period of his entire life.

Forty five days into 90 days supplies Burke reached Augustus Charles Gregory’s 1856 track across the Gulf of Carpentaria. He had joined the dots. He had supplies to take him home. The coast however was still 200 km away.

He pressed on. This time he was gambling with lives.

The party reached the Flinders River and made camp 119 on its banks. The water was salty and rose and fell just enough to show that they were in the upper reaches of a tidal estuary. The scrub was too dense for the camels to be of use. The next day Burke and Wills pressed on, Gray and King stayed with the camels. The duo were able to get to a point about 20 km from the sea before mangrove swamps became too much even for them and they turned back.

On February 13th 1861 the gulf party left camp 119 and headed south. The Cooper was 1500 km away, 60 days had elapsed of the 90 for which they were provisioned.

At Cooper’s Creek Brahe and three companions were sitting in the shade of a coolibah tree, supplies for them were dwindling, relations with the local aborigines were difficult. The expeditioners had taken possession of a significant resource and had worn out their welcome. The aborigines had taken possession of any item small enough to be carried and they, too, had worn out their welcome. William Wright would have been very welcome but had not turned up.

Wright was at Torowoto between Mutawinjee and the Cooper and making very slow progress. The wet season of the previous year had made reaching the Cooper relatively easy. This year was dry and it was by now mid-summer. A few days later they reached the limit of the available surface water and were trapped for twenty days. Dysentry and malnutrition were becoming a problem.

Charley Gray was the largest of the men with Burke. On equal rations he was the first to die. Prior to his death he had been caught taking food and had been chastised by Burke. Exactly how physically and whether that contributed to his death is unknown. The other three made it back to the depot on Cooper’s Creek after noon on April 21st. The ashes of the campfire were still warm, Brahe and the depot party had left that very morning having stayed there for four months. They had every reason to suppose that the northern party had either perished or having reached the gulf gone east rather than return south. They had buried a cache of food under the coolibah and carved the instruction “Dig” in its trunk. The tree still stands …

The Dig Tree

At the same time Wright was 150 km further south, his party had left Menindie three months earlier and was in desperate straits.  Before long five of his men would be dead from malnutrition. Along the way they had been attacked by a party of aborigines and found it necessary to open fire. One aborigine was presumed killed. Once again the conflict was over access to water equally vital to residents and interlopers. The interlopers were better armed.

Burke, Wills and King dug and replenished their supplies. They had two exhausted camels left. Chasing the depot party seemed beyond them. Burke decided to try to follow Gregory’s route down the Cooper and Strzelecki Creeks to Mount Hopeless and thence to Adelaide. It was indeed a hopeless proposition. They placed their notes in the trunk that Brahe had left for them and reburied it. They made no marks on the coolibah that would inform of their presence and set off south west.

Brahe going south met Wright coming north. The pair returned to the Cooper. Found no evidence of Burke’s return, saw no reason to dig, and headed south again.

The trio on the Cooper eventually realised that they were not going to walk out. Assistance from the local aborigines was their only hope and to some extent it was forthcoming.

Wills returned alone to the dig tree and deposited his diary there. He was unaware that Wright and Brahe had been there whilst he was further west. He returned to his companions only to find that Burke had spoiled relations with the aborigines by firing his revolver over the head of a young man who had helped himself to a piece of oil cloth. He repeated the trick soon after when the locals offered him some fish and nets. The aborigines then kept away. Burke had also had an accident whilst cooking. The subsequent fire had destroyed most of their remaining possessions.

The trio was left to subsist on nardoo, a plant that was readily available but which needed to be prepared properly prior to eating.  They had been introduced to nardoo by the aborigines but were ignorant of the correct process for its preparation. It was Wills that weakened and died first, then Burke. King had done nothing to make himself unpopular with the aborigines and one man was not so great a burden. He was taken care of by the local people.

Back in Melbourne people began to wonder where the expedition had got to, no one more vocally than Dr W J Wills father of William Wills. The august gentlemen of the Royal Society were eventually stirred into action and in June formed committees to see what could be done. The result was no fewer than five relief expeditions setting out from all quarters of the compass. King was rescued. The bodies of Burke and Wills were brought back to Melbourne and were the stars of Victoria’s first state funeral. More than 11,000 km of difficult terrain were covered by the relief expeditions and not one further life was lost. This exploring business was not so dangerous if you knew what you were doing.

In 1862 John McDouall Stuart became the second person to lead a party from the south coast to the north. He made it back again. The overland telegraph was built along the route he established, Adelaide, Alice Springs, Darwin. The latter remains the only substantial town on Australia’s north coast. If Google maps is consulted on the route to take from Melbourne to Darwin it will take you to Adelaide and then follow Mr Stuart’s route north. The gentlemen of the Royal Society would be horrified.