Down the track …

The road from Birdsville south to Marree is the famous Birdsville Track.

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 …

mud bash

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?

photo - TLG

photo – TLG

The following morning saw us meeting the locals …

Western Brown (photo TLG)

Western Brown (photo TLG)

Brolga with chicks

Brolga with chicks

… checking out more of the ruins of Goyder deniers …

Lake Harry

Lake Harry

… 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.

 

 

 

Birdsville …

We reached Birdsville on August 22nd

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 …

CLOSED

… we had to wait three days before we could. It gave us time to take in the sights …

Bakery

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.

Royal Ruins

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 …

Black-faced Woodswallow (photo - TLG)

Black-faced Woodswallow (photo – TLG)

 

Royal Spoonbill

Royal Spoonbill

The race track is out this way as well. Heavy just about summed it up  …

photo - TLG

photo – TLG

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 …

Bore Birdsville sunset

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 …

Birdsville Hotel

 

UTFR …

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
  • Maps
  • Satellite phone (or HF Radio)
  • Dune Flag
  • Shovel
  • Winch
  • Radio
  • Snatch strap
  • Fuel
  • Water
  • Food and
  • 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.

Big Red

Big Red

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.

Love to hear from you.

Big Red …

Big Red is 40 km west of Birdsville, about 30 metres high and famed in legend and song. It is the focus of an annual concert and a car rally. Many a 4WD wannabe takes the run out there from Birdsville  to try out their truck. Coming from the west it is, by some counts, dune number 1113.  You first see the top of it over this ridge …

One dune away ...

One dune away …

and when you get closer it looks like this …

Big Red

Big Red

On that particular day the tracks on the left ended with steep churned up sections, the tracks further right were easier. The place to celebrate is on top …

McGee on the Real McCoy

McGee on the Real McCoy

and then 40 klicks further on …

p1100577

It was just another dune.

Eyre Creek …

There was a bit of a breeze and the next rain band wasn’t expected until the evening. There was nothing to gain by rushing off, better to let things dry out a little. We took the time to enjoy the locals enjoying their new lake …

photo- TLG

Crimson Chat (photo- TLG )

And we took our opportunity to smell the Gidgee Trees. I found them not as bad as their reputation. Their leaves though are poisonous to stock (and presumably people, don’t eat the Gidgee).

When we got to Eyre Creek there was practically no water in it. When it floods it’s because of heavy rain over a much wider area and the result can be a river up to 30 km wide that can take months to subside. That’s not to say there was no challenge, the flood plain was a quagmire especially on the western side. So we slipped and slid with many a sideways moment for several kilometres. We were thrilled to be on the eastern bank …

TLG

Big Red here we come …

 

A change in the weather …

There was a magnificent sunrise and no ice on the cars. Cloud had kept some warmth in.

We packed up and drove up the west side of Lake Poeppel, crossing the salt encrusted surface near the northern end. Light rain settled the dust.

Having made our northing we headed east along the QAA line towards the Queensland border. One desert but three states and three different regulatory authorities. In South Australia we’d travelled through the Witjira National Park and then a Regional Reserve, in the Northern Territory we appeared to be on vacant Crown Land. At the Queensland Border we entered the Munga-Thirri National Park.

The QAA line is initially similar to the French Line, rolling dunes. The dunes are quite high and the swales quite broad often with a clay surface. The amount of vegetation seemed to be slowly declining.

We had a decision to make regarding our camp site. Beyond Munga-Thirri lies Adria Station. After leaving the National Park there would be nowhere to camp until Eyre Creek. Off to our north-east lie the three major rivers of the channel country, the Georgina, Diamantina and Cooper. Georgina joins with Burke and Hamilton to become the Eyre Creek, this is the driest of the three. Some years water flows down these channels into Lake Eyre, some years there is no flow at all. When we set off we knew that the Warburton was flooded and that Eyre Creek was dry.

lake_eyre_basin_map

We could smell the impending rain. The big question was would it be enough to bring us to a halt? There were three options

  • a mad dash for Birdsville
  • a longish day to the far side of Eyre Creek
  • short drive, camp in the park

One of the highlights of the trip was still ahead of us, the most famous dune in the universe – Big Red. We had no wish to rush this. The mad dash was rejected.

A camp in the park would be on sand. Wet sand is absolute luxury compared to mud. The black soil along the creek would only be fit for hippos after just a couple of millimeters of rain. And surely there would only be a couple of millimeters, big rain events are usually summer phenomena …

We camped just inside the park.

One of the locals was also happy to smell the roses ..

bobmcgee.live

By evening it was cold and raining heavily. Overnight there was a very impressive thunderstorm. My guesstimate is we had 25 mm of rain. We piled out of our tents in the morning to a landscape full of little lakes.

bobmcgee.live

photo -TLG

photo -TLG

We got the weather forecast by satellite phone. They’re was much more to come and the Eyre Creek flood plain ahead of us. This was going to be interesting.

 

Turning the corner …

Towards the eastern end of the French Line the dunes get higher and further apart. The swales are more likely to be clay and salt lakes make their appearance. This is Lake Tamblyn, named by Colson after his school teacher.

L Tamblyn

Before long we reached the intersection with the Knolls Track where there is even more obvious evidence of change … trees.

Gidgee

These are Gidgee trees, Acacia cambagei, said to emit an offensive odour when wet, variously described as like boiled cabbage or town gas. The weather this day was fine but we would have our chance to savour the smell before the trip was over.

At the intersection there is a rough and ready plaque celebrating the efforts of the surveyor David Lindsay who passed this way in January 1886. These days he would be fined up to $1000, the nanny state closes the desert for the summer.

Our next landmark was Poeppel Corner. Once just like any other spot in the desert but now a magnet because it is the entirely artificial place where South Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory collide. Mal and Kelly and sundry others had preceded us and left an indication of their IQ …

Poeppel woz ereJust imagine, you could chip a golf ball from South Australia, through the Territory to a hole in Queensland and someone has been kind enough to provide the opportunity … but you need to be a left-hander.

photo TLG

photo TLG

Whilst there are three main routes across the desert they are by this stage reunited for the last push to Birdsville. To avoid a crowded campsite we took ourselves to the western side of Lake Poeppel for the night. Sunrises are so much better in the Northern Territory …

LP Sunrise