It’s a little warmer, it’s light a little earlier. Spring has been creeping up on us antipodeans. And then suddenly it’s a full on assault on the senses. For me it starts with the Rufous Songlark. It doesn’t stick around for Victoria’s frosty winter. I saw plenty recently up in the centre of the continent presumably making their way back south. The first one in my neighbourhood arrived a few days ago and announced its presence with its scratchy, far from euphonious song. You will never be commemorated for singing in Barclay Square but welcome back.
Other arrivals have followed quickly. A solitary Australian Reedwarbler was along the creek looking for some habitat. Yes you are in the right place, there were reeds here last year, they’ve been washed away in last week’s flood. The Dusky Woodswallows are also back and looking for somewhere to raise a family and the woodland was ringing to the sound of the Olive-backed Oriole.
Not far from where I live is Paddy’s Ranges State Park, just on Maryborough’s doorstep. There is a resident there that is very hard to find, the Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. It has a cousin, the Shy Heathwren, which is a positive exhibitionist by comparison. In spring the male makes a small concession to the birdwatcher by singing to attract a mate. For a short time you are in with a chance. So there I was and there it wasn’t.
But the flowers were gorgeous …
… tiny but perfect. The Riceflowers are bigger …
Prefer red? There were two quite different Grevilleas to choose from …
The Goldfields Grevillea is a threatened species, Paddy’s Ranges is very significant for its survival.
And what would spring be without an orchid or two? Australia has about 100 genera and more than 1200 species of orchid, mostly in the tropics where they tend to be somewhat showy. Here in Victoria we have to be content with rather discrete examples, mostly terrestrial and mostly just in spring.
As the water receded the debris lodged in the fences became apparent …
With one exception the fences at right angles to the direction of flow were no longer standing. I’ve spent a couple of days removing most of them. This morning I got around to pulling the rubbish off those that are still standing …
Curled up in the debris was this little guy who wasn’t too happy to be pulled out …
After we’d burned the rubbish Gayle headed for the shops to restock the pantry while the dog and I revisited a few of the places I’d photographed the other day …
The road crew are hard at work repairing the guard rail.
The weather forecast for tomorrow is most interesting.
The road from Birdsville south to Marree is the famous Birdsville Track.
When the railway reached what was then Herrgott Springs (now Marree) in 1883 the graziers of the channel country of western Queensland and the south-eastern corner of the Northern Territory had the option of a shorter route to market. The biggest obstacle facing them was about 500 km of desert from the Diamantina River to the rail head. This is seriously dry country, average rainfall is less than 100 mm a year (4 inches). But the Great Artesian Basin lies beneath and by 1916 bores had been sunk every 40 km.
Tom Kruse was the legendary mailman who took the mail and other supplies up the track to the good citizens of Birdsville. A classic film was made about his work in 1954 called “The Back of Beyond“. This played a large part in giving the track a certain reputation which wasn’t improved by a disaster that befell the Page family. They set out from Marree just days before Christmas in 1963 with the object of finding work in Queensland. Their car ran out of petrol, the result of a navigational error combined with gearbox problems that kept them stuck in 2nd gear. At that stage they were fairly close to a windmill and turkey dam. They were able to fill a four gallon drum with water and carry it back to the car.
Two days later they set off on foot and were found dead on January 1st 1964. Their abandoned car, with a radiator full of water, not far from the turkey dam, had been found on the 28th of December. There was a tarpaulin on the trailer that could have been used for shade. Mum, Dad and three kids were buried beneath the Coolibah where they were found.
The track, although still unsealed, has largely been tamed for routine tourist use but it’s still just as bloody hot out there. Take plenty of water, a satellite phone (or HF Radio) and if your vehicle lets you down stay with it.
Ironically, the thing that is most likely to immobilise you on the track is rain.
We were among the first to escape from Birdsville when the track reopened. It was still in very muddy condition, deeply rutted and in places quite slippery. We passed a number of stranded caravans and a truck that had been taking consumables to the impending race meeting. It was an interesting morning.
In places it was much muddier than this but it would have been unwise to stop for a photo …
It was our intention to camp at Mungerannie (if you want to sound cool remember that despite the following E, the G is hard like the G in manGo, and it’s got double n unlike the spelling in the map that I filched from Wikipedia ) but the place was very busy as traffic coming up from the south and been unable to get any further. It certainly seemed unlikely that caravans would be travelling on for a few days yet. After a welcome beer we pressed on to Cooper Creek and had a pleasant night under the coolibahs where conversation turned to the fate of previous travellers who had camped on the Cooper. Anyone for some more of this delicious nardoo?
The following morning saw us meeting the locals …
… checking out more of the ruins of Goyder deniers …
… and soon we reached Marree closing the loop.
The rest of the journey was essentially a repeat of the ride up, only quicker because we were now a little behind schedule.
There I was trapped in Birdsville, less than a month later and 2000 km away here I am trapped in Victoria.
I live on the banks of an inoffensive little creek, I woke up this morning to find it lapping at my back door. I have the choice of a ford and two bridges if I want to go anywhere. The ford would be certain death, the photo of the nearer bridge doesn’t tell the story all that well – you can’t see the bridge! Here’s the other bridge …
The floorboards are still dry, there’s food in the pantry and beer in the fridge. I’m better off than many another …
I have compared crossing the desert to scuba diving. I can’t breathe underwater or find water in the desert but I can strap some tanks on my back and dive or fill a vehicle with the essentials and drive. Birdsville is like a little boat, you can surface and relax, resupply with food, refuel the vehicle, rejoin the life of modern Australia. During the time that this little boat has been anchored here the divers surfacing have changed from drovers to drivers.
Birdsville sits between the channel country and the Simpson. The nearest dune is currently invading the cemetery just the other side of the airstrip, the Diamantina River is 4km from town when it’s behaving itself. It comes to visit occasionally. The main road runs north south.
Way over to the west is Mr Stuart’s road, the main road from Adelaide to Darwin, it towed the telegraph and the railway behind it. Birdsville lies on the Burke and Wills road. What came after them were more explorers trying to find where they’d gone. This is the losers’ side of the desert. For the graziers of the channel country there was a major market off to the south. The principal reason for a road was as a stock route. And at the time the stock route came into being Queensland and South Australia were colonies. Starting in about 1878, Birdsville grew up at the intersection of the road, a river and the colony boundary. It is adjacent to the best spot to cross the Diamantina, often a place occasioning some delay. Where better for a store to resupply the drovers and a border post where import duties could be collected. When the railhead reached Marree in 1883 things really kicked along. In 1900 it had three pubs (droving is thirsty work) and a population of about 300 people. Australian Federation happened in 1901, this brought free trade between what were now states. So the tolls were abolished and the population steadily declined.
In the 1950s the population was down to about fifty.
Birdsville, it seemed was consigned to history. In the cemetery you can find the graves of Wankangaru aborigines born in the desert, white settlers, drovers and Afghan cameleers, whilst the legend of Tom Kruse the man who brought mail and supplies up the 500 km Birdsville Track lives on. The history is rich.
The races are an enduring tradition in Birdsville. They were first run in 1881. The crowds are far bigger now than there were then. The rise of the 4WD vehicle has put Birdsville back on the map. People come from all over to visit Australia’s most isolated town, the population now might be about 100 souls, but on race day expect to see at least 7 000 other people.
The little boat is now anchored here to supply the tourist. There is only one pub these days but you can buy a beer at the bakery! Driving is thirsty work.
Birdsville can be very hard to leave …
… we had to wait three days before we could. It gave us time to take in the sights …
the Bakery … sleepy hollow until the races then unimaginable bedlam. Not only can you get a beer here, Curried Camel Pie figures on the menu. We all found an excuse not to try one, mine was vegetarianism. After breakfast a quick walk to the Royal Hotel, built in 1883 last drinks were served in 1923 when it was converted to a hospital which it remained until 1937.
Other essential stops include the Roadhouse and the Visitor Centre.The bird watching around Birdsville is excellent. Between the town and the Diamantina there is the famous billabong, sadly the track to Pelican Point was underwater, not that that bothered the Pelicans. Nor did it bother the Caspian Terns, Kites, Red-backed Kingfishers, Woodswallows in several flavours or Spoonbills …
The race track is out this way as well. Heavy just about summed it up …
That’s not the river on the other side of the fence, that’s the track.
Birdsville’s drinking water comes straight out of the ground. The bore is 1280 meters deep and delivers water at 98ºC. The heat isn’t wasted, it’s used to drive Australia’s only Utility Company owned geothermal power station with an output of 80kW meeting about a third of the town’s electricity needs. Surplus water runs off to the billabong to keep the ducks happy, whilst the rest is stored aloft in reservoirs that look stunningly beautiful for several minutes every day …
And by the time you’ve finished the Cook’s tour you’re ready for a drink at one of my favourite Aussie Pubs … the Birdsville Hotel …
If you plan well then the trip is likely to go well. If you have considered what might go wrong and you have a strategy ready it may not seem so bad if it happens.
How much fuel will you need to cross the Simpson?
Oodnadatta to Birdsville via the French Line measured on the odometer was 640 km. We had reckoned on 750 km for the trip to Mungerannie via the Warburton Track. You need to factor in the effect of low speeds, low gear and slipping tyres. You also need to allow for side trips and diversions.
We had a petrol and a diesel vehicle in our little convoy. This meant we couldn’t share our reserve fuel but it also meant that we could compare the two. We set off from the Pink Roadhouse with full tanks plus 40 litres each in jerry cans. There was no need for anxiety regarding fuel. Both vehicles arrived in Birdsville more than half full.
Toyota FJ Cruiser petrol 108 litres = 17 litres/100km
Toyota Landcruiser series 70 diesel 82 litres = 13 litres/100km
The difference in economy is nowhere near as great on the open road. Diesel is clearly better in the desert. (But I still love my Cruiser.)
We transferred the reserve as soon as we reasonably could. Corrugated roads are hard on containers, the last thing you need is your reserve fuel leaking into the sand.
We had crossed the Simpson Desert. I would do it again at the drop of a hat. It was right up there with any place I have ever been.
Is it for you?
Yes it is … provided you can tick these boxes :-
You have a reliable high clearance 4WD vehicle and some experience using it
A companion vehicle
Satellite phone (or HF Radio)
A sense of humour
I hope to see you out there but I have a favour to ask. UTFR.
This stands for Use The Radio.
I have a pilots licence and a Marine Radio Operators Licence, I have absolutely no fear of public speaking. Give me the radio and I will give you a lecture. It’s easy for me. If you find it daunting remember they can’t see you … that’s the whole point.
On the track you will hear chatter between vehicles. Some of it is so inane you will wonder what on earth the speakers have between their ears. But you will know they are there. They are on the same one lane track as you and they may be coming toward you on the other side of the very next dune. Say hi, say where you are and which way you’re going, express an interest in where they are and which way they’re going. Don’t be shy. And if they ask, please reply.
Some people do it really well. I use this photo again because you see a little convoy on the right of the picture. From the top of the dune they had broadcast this …
Convoy of three vehicles departing Big Red, west bound, now.
Thank you party of three, safe journey.
Channel 10 is the channel to use in the Simpson.
The technology is not perfect. UHF is essentially line of sight and dunes do interfere with reception. If the aerial set up is different between stations it is possible that you may hear them but for them to be unable to hear you. So a dune flag and a sharp lookout are also essential. Motor bikes are not required to fly a flag and are unlikely to be using radio.