ACROSS the CONTINENT
Dateline: August - September 2017
Top Pic: Camped at the Noccundra Waterhole, Wilson River, Queensland.
There are a lots of ways to head north and cross the Australian continent from the bottom to the top, but we opted to follow the dirt as much as possible from Melbourne in Victoria to the Gulf of Carpentaria in far north Queensland. In fact, we followed much of the route of the 1860-61 Burke & Wills Expedition - but unlike them, we got back to Melbourne!
Our route lay up through Central Victoria, dodging around Bendigo and heading up the dirt road to Terrick Terrick National Park. Have you heard of that small park before? No? Well it doesn't have a bad camping area, so check it out here:
Just to the north of here is Mt Hope, which young Wills and the artist Becker (both in the Burke & Wills party) climbed for a view of the surrounding country. We set up a pleasant camp at the base of the mount via an access track that leads off the dirt road on the west side of the peak.
We battled wet slippery roads for much of our time through this way and across the border into NSW. West of Moulamein we tried to get to a delightful camp spot on the Edward River but quickly aborted that idea and only just managed to get back on the main road.
While nearly every Victorian town has a monument to Burke & Wills, supposedly only one town in NSW has bothered and that town is small ... very small - Kyalite, which sits beside the Edward River. The local pub is the centre of activity and there's a good boat ramp to access the river; the plaque here commemorates Burke & Wills crossing of the river here on a small ferry.
From Balranald we took the old Prungle Mail Road, which took us north across rolling grazing land interspersed with light scrub country and the occasional paddock of cropping land. Later, on the Top Hut Road, the route wound through some pleasant low dunes clothed in green and dotted with pine. It's a pleasant drive and keeps you off the bitumen.
There are a couple of nice spots to camp along the edge of the Darling River just a few hundred metres south of the small hamlet of Pooncarie, while the town itself has a small general store, a great pub and camping, with a few facilities in the sports ground beside the river. North of Pooncarie the route is again dirt but pretty good for most of the way to Menindee, which was the first town on the Darling and the oldest European settlement in western New South Wales.
There are a lot of choices around Menindee for camping. The town has a couple of camp grounds/caravan parks, and a few kilometres west on the road to Broken Hill is Copi Hollow, a favoured spot for many. The nearby Kinchega National Park has a variety of camps spots along the river and there is a lot of history here as well, from Burke & Wills time to the pastoralists where the shearing shed is the greatest reminder of those days, 'when Australia rode on the sheep's back.' Of course, the town has a couple of pubs, the most famous of which is the Maiden's Hotel, where ol' Burke ensconced himself for a few days while splitting his expedition. The rest of Burke's party were camped at Pamamaroo Creek, near the lake of the same name, well away from the attractions and vice of the hotel.
We camped out at the lake as well where there are dozens of spots along the water's edge to enjoy, but with today's speed of transport we slipped back into the Maiden's for a beer and a meal one night. Sadly, for some, there is no sign of vice at the pub today; in fact when we were there the local cop was having a few beers with friends, so everyone was on their very best behaviour!
We left ol' Burke & Wills tracks at Menindee and headed for Broken Hill to see some of our family before heading to the Dog Fence at Smithville to catch up with some friends.
On one drive along the fence with the manager of the NSW section of the Dog Fence I saw more kangroos than I've seen in a long time. Each valley between the low dunes had a hundred or more skippys and in the course of our drive south to Turley House we saw well over 2000 animals. We even saw a few dingos, but they took off as soon as they saw us.
After cutting through Tibooburra and enjoying a cold beer and a meal at the refurbished 'Two Storey' pub (officially known as the Tibooburra Hotel, and across the road from the Family Hotel, aka the, 'Single Storey'), we headed up through Wompah Gate where we crossed the border into Queensland. We then turned east along the Thargomindah Road.
After swinging through Thargomindah and turning west we stopped at the Noccundra Pub, camping down on the waterhole of the Wilson River. It's a popular spot but there are plenty of places to choose from along the waterhole. Old Burke & Wills had crossed the river a little further downstream and had followed it west a short distance before cutting across to the Cooper Creek. We did much the same but today's roads pass through gas and oil fields that dot the near barren landscape.
We had received permission from Bulloo Downs station to visit the grave of Dr Ludwig Becker, one of the scientist and the artist of the Burke & Wills expedition. In fact, two other members of that fateful expedition are buried here as well - Charles Stone and William Purcell - and all had died from the effects of scurvy. We visited the homestead and after receiving a briefing on 'biosecurity measures' that we needed to follow, we were given a map and directions to the grave. Don't believe any map of the area, while even Google Earth fails to show the tracks, which are faint at best and cross the crab-hole black soil flatlands of the Bulloo River floodplain.
On the banks of the Cooper we stopped at the famous Dig Tree where much of the drama of the Burke & Wills expedition was played out. Nappa Merrie station and the homestead is not far away and today a small reserve surrounds the Dig Tree and you need to pay a few dollars to enter the area.
Now there also seems to be a bit of confusion with which tree is actually the 'Dig Tree'! Helping solve this dilemma is an informative shelter shed and display, along with a reasonable camping area down along the creek, not far from where Burke & Wills set up their major depot for their expedition.
You probably know the story of what happened here - if you don't, have a read of the book by the late Sarah Murgatroyd, The Dig Tree. In amongst the plethora of books by numerous people over the 150 odd years since the expedition, this is one of the best and the most readable.
For the next few nights we camped on the Cooper in the town common of Innamincka. If you are into the Burke & Wills saga then there is no more an important spot to stop and to spend a few days wandering the creek, and not only visiting the Dig Tree but also checking on the places where Burke and Wills both died and King was discovered.
Charlie Grey, who was the fourth member of the small party that crossed the continent to the Gulf, lies buried somewhere near or at Lake Massacre, west of Innamincka and south of the track that leads to Coongie Lakes. There's quite a bit of conjecture about Charlie's final resting spot but there is a plaque on a steel post at Lake Massacre, near where a tree blazed by the explorer John McKinlay was discovered. McKinlay was searching for the Burke & Wills party in late October 1861 and found the grave of a European here; hence the Lake Massacre name. You need special permission of the local station to get to here and while there are no obvious tracks a fence line will get you close.
From Innamincka we headed for Haddon Corner - certainly not on the Burke & Wills route but a place we had visited a couple of times; the last 20 odd years ago! Once we had been there, done that and got the photo to prove it, we headed to Birdsville and again got back onto the Burke & Wills track. With the famous races just a couple of days away we didn't hang around for long, just got some fuel, caught up with a few friends, had a pie at the bakery and headed north.
The main road (dirt for much of the way) follows Eyre Creek then crosses the stream at Marion Downs homestead. There are a couple of good camps along the creek, which we tend to stop for overnight along the way. Once we had fuelled up at Boulia we took to the dirt again following the Burke River, which the Burke & Wills crew of four followed.
Further north and west of Chatsworth homestead we tried to get to 'The Monument', but a mining company has closed the area off to passing travellers so we pushed on to the small hamlet of Duchess, which is not much more than a pub and a railway siding. Not too sure, but there was a bit of activity going on here with the railway station getting a new platform.
With a few days spent in and around Cloncurry we explored the rugged Selwyn Ranges and we were back on Burke & Wills tracks much of the time. They had a hard time through this country, but today, with old mining tracks running this way and that and mining ruins to discover, there are lots of places to challenge and entertain you. You could easily spend a week or two around here, while the town itself has a small but excellent museum with one of the best displays on the Burke & Wills expedition.
We headed for Julia Creek, for no other reason than we had never been there - we had always somehow bypassed this small outback town. And from Julia we headed north to the Burke & Wills Roadhouse, not surprisingly crossing ol' Burke & Wills tracks a few times along the way. We camped that night not far north of the roadhouse, but should have opted for the wayside stop further on where the road drops down from the escarpment to the flat, very flat, Gulf Plains.
Next day we rolled into Normanton and then onto Karumba, backtracking to Normanton a couple of days later and camping on the north bank of the Norman River. We had a few beers at the three pubs and cruised out to Burke & Wills Camp 119 - their most northerly camp and the one where leader Burke and his young 2IC, Wills, walked to and reach the Gulf - although because of the mangroves they couldn't see the sea. Bugger!!!
From here we headed to Burketown and then west and south .... but that's a story for another time.
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon