And that's the fascinating thing about history. When it has no relevance there is nothing quite so boring. But when you manage to get directly involved in it and see the sights and go to the places in which this history actually took place, it suddenly takes on a whole new meaning and interest.
Like most people, I knew the names Burke and Wills. They were those explorer dudes who went off across Australia looking for goodness only knows what and I can't even remember if they found it or not. I'm sure I must have been away the day they taught that in school. I remember something about a "Dig Tree", whatever that was, but never knew anything about what it was or what relevance it had.
So by the time the trip came around on Friday the 4th of October, it was with some enthusiasm and excitement that we set off to meet the troops and head to Cobar in central NSW. Arriving at Lithgow McDonalds in good time, we met Dave and Jen Shappcott in their 'Cruiser and Tim and Leah Steele in their V6 Vitara. It wasn't long before we were all on our way, with the two V6 Zooks and the Landcruiser eating up the kilometres between Lithgow and Cobar. We took the last hundred kays or so quite easy, very aware of the number of dead roos scattering the sides of the highway and not wishing to add to the tally.
We met up with Monica at the motel in Cobar and everyone got together that evening for a very enjoyable dinner at the local club/pub.
We eventually swung north through Wilcannia and headed up the dirt to White Cliffs. White Cliffs is an interesting place. An opal mining town with a population of between 100 and 200 depending on
the time of year, most of the town lives underground and thanks to Donna, we were lucky enough to get invited in to visit one of the gentlemen that live there. We drove up onto the hill at the edge of the town where many of the dugouts are located, and Donna went for a wander to see what she could see. Next thing we know, she's managed to meet a fellow by the name of Jim, and he's invited us in for a look around his house. He told us he works in Broken Hill for part of the year and comes up to White Cliffs the rest of the time. We got to see his "extensions"… every time he wants a new room in the house, he just gets a jackhammer and makes one. Sometimes the rooms even pay for themselves, as he showed us where his "hallway" revealed quite a profitable opal vein. After that we went for a drive around the town, popped in to see the Underground Motel, the old Solar Power station, and of course, no visit to White Cliffs would be complete without a visit to Joe's Opal Shop. Made entirely of beer bottles embedded in concrete, the walls of the house form an effective insulation against the outside heat. Many years ago, Joe used to encourage visitors to engrave a message into the glass circles of the bottle bases in the walls, but he no longer does this. However, we still managed to find a bottle engraved with "Suzuki 4WD Club of NSW - Jimny Club of Japan, Outback Trip 1988" - a leftover from the Club's outback trip with our Japanese counterparts back in the Australian Bicentennial Year.
Tib is your typical quiet Outback town, but when we arrived there we had to fight for petrol bowser space with about 50 other cars that were part of a fundraising "bash" organised by the Cobar Rotary Club. We got a few raised eyebrows and comments about our "little buses"; some of these fellas seemed surprised to see Suzukis being used as serious outback touring vehicles.
We then made a quick stop at the local National Parks and Wildlife Office where we had a bit of a chat to Ingrid the Ranger. She gave us her advice on road conditions and the best ways to go. It's always worth checking in with the local rangers when you head Outback, as she suggested we take a completely different route to the one I'd originally planned, and it turned out to be a much better choice. She told us some of the horrors of the drought situation, including some awful things that were happening to the local kangaroos. She was also pretty concerned about the state of the roads, saying that they had not been graded properly for ages because it was just too dry to do it, and warned us that by the time we got back to Bourke the endless corrugations would make us "feel like killing somebody!"
Next morning we headed towards the Corner. I was actually a little disappointed with the drive out there - when I was last in the area about 14 years ago with the Bicentennial Trip, the road to the corner was little more than a couple of sandy wheel ruts that travelled over countless red dunes. It was quite an adventure, cresting the soft red sand dunes, making your way to the Corner of NSW. Nowadays, with all the tourism in the area, the track to the Corner is a wide graded "highway", often laid with white gravel to make the ground firmer. Although still quite corrugated in places, it was a far better road than I expected and in some ways made the trip less of an adventure. It was still good fun being out there, just not what I expected. I suppose that's the price of progress.
From here we headed out into the enormous expanse of parallel sand ridges that form the edge of the Strzelecki Desert. Again the road was quite good, wide and graded, as it headed west. We were able to drive at a reasonable pace, and found that if we approached the dunes at around 90 kilometres an hour we got a wonderful weightless sensation as we went over the top. We could feel the suspension unload as we crested each ridge, and then absorb the trough as we came down the leeward side, much like a giant rollercoaster ride. It was good fun, and had the kids giggling their heads off in the back seat.
From here, the road progressed through Bollards Lagoon Station property, and then gradually turned north until it met the Strzelecki Track at Merty Merty Station. We had the option of travelling along the Strez itself, or using the Old Strzelecki Track, so we opted for the latter. It was actually a pretty good road, very dusty and fairly corrugated in places, but we found that by choosing your speed it could be driven on at a good pace so the corrugations were not too severe. There is really no good speed for driving on outback corrugations - too slow and you feel every jolt in the road and too fast finds you hitting unexpected potholes and bulldust. One the whole we found it better to go a bit faster and just keep our wits about us.
Our destination that night was Coongie Lake, about 100 kilometres North-West of Innamincka. Coongie is a permanent body of water, fed by the Cooper Creek. Cooper Creek is poorly named - not actually a Creek at all, it forms one of the largest river systems in Australia, with a watershed stretching across most of northern Queensland, and along with the Diamantina River forms the enormous expanse of land known as Channel Country. Dry for most of the year, the Cooper is capable of filling quickly when it rains in the catchment area, which can be thousands of kilometres away from Innamincka. There are however, a number of permanent or semi-permanent waterholes along the Creek such as Burke's Waterhole, Cullyamurra Waterhole and the beautiful Coongie Lake system.
We set up camp right on the shore of the lake, but only after we had a chance to cool off in the milky waters. Monica especially found the water a treat after having so much dust pouring through the open soft top of her little Suzy for the last few days.
We really enjoyed our time at Coongie. It was nice just "sitting on our dots" with very little to do except read, play games or swim. We managed to entertain ourselves quite nicely. We had a chat with the folk camped down the beach from us in a couple of new Nissan Patrols, and they have turned me off ever owning a Nissan (like THAT was ever going to happen!) They blew an injector pump near Dubbo and were stuck there for a few days while they had to wait for parts to be flown up from Melbourne. What a great way to spend your holidays.
After two nights at Coongie, it was time to head back to Innamincka to then head west along the Cooper itself. We pulled into Innamincka to refuel and restock, and also to ring Hammo to offer or apologies for being unable to attend the club meeting that evening. He actually sounded like he would have quite liked to have been travelling with us on our adventure through the outback rather than sitting in his office counting beans, but it's hard to be sure about these things over the telephone. I'm sure he was quite happy to be at work really. We also bumped into our friends in the Nissans again… this time, it seems one of the cars had blown a turbo and was facing a 750 km "nurse" drive into Broken Hill, where another long delay waiting for parts seemed inevitable. Seems the Nissan advertising phrase "just wait till you drive it" was proving very accurate for these folk …
While in the Innamincka store, I also decided to buy that book about Burke and Wills I had been considering on my previous visit a few days earlier.
Burke's place of demise is under a big old Coolabah tree on the banks of the river. Marked by a stone cairn with a simple plaque stating "Robert O'Hara Burke, died here, 28 June 1861", it was an amazingly understated tribute to one of Australia's most significant explorers. I suppose if you've got to die, there are worse places it could happen. There was a certain eeriness though; walking along the bank of the creek, knowing you were walking in the footsteps of the famous expedition which took place 141 years earlier.
This campsite was the only one we were able to have a campfire, so we made the most of it that night, and the Steele's cooked up a delicious roast. I became enthralled in the Burke & Wills book, sitting reading it and feeling the need to glance up every so often just to take in the surroundings which were being described so vividly within the pages of the book. It was bizarre reading about the history behind the expedition, and then getting to the part where they were camped along the Cooper, and here I was, sitting on the same land they traversed all those years ago. The story described the gibber plains to the south of the creek - and I could glance to my left and see the reddish orange of the gibbers through the trees. There's nothing like being there to bring the story to life. It really was the best kind of history lesson.
The trip home from there was long, but straightforward. A change of plans saw us heading west through Queensland out to Noccundra and Thargomindah, instead of the route originally planned through Warri gate and back to Tib. Leaving Thargomindah the next morning had us heading south through Hamilton Gate back into NSW for the long drive home. Our original plan to stop at Nyngan for the night was shelved and we eventually drove all the way back to Sydney that day, with stops in Bourke, Dubbo and Orange - a total day's drive of over 1250 kms.
It was a great trip, with great company and some stunning scenery. If you've never been out that way, all I can say is do it. You may never really appreciate the true spirit of the Australian landscape until you do.