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 …