October 26, 2002

The Best Kind of History Lesson

I was never a big fan of history at school. Oh sure, there were some fun bits, like hearing how the ancient Egyptians used to pull dead peoples' brains out through their noses, or how Henry VIII used to lop the heads off any wives he got fed up with, but by-and-large, history seemed pretty dull to me. Of course, Australian history was even worse… it was full of people like Leichhardt, Sturt, and Burke and Wills, who went off exploring inland Australia… big deal.

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.

Then a while ago, while researching the trip to Cameron Corner, Innamincka and Coongie Lake on the web I started to see lots of references to Burke and Wills, the Dig Tree, and the exploration of inland Australia during the second half of the 1800s, but still really had no idea what it was all about. However, when my son came home from school one day saying he had been learning about the Burke & Wills expedition of 1861, and explaining to me what the Dig Tree was all about, I began to take a renewed interest in it. It's funny how seeing things through your kids' eyes changes it for you.

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.

I had a discussion with some friends recently where we were debating exactly where the ''outback" starts. My contention was originally Dubbo. After you drive through Dubbo the land gets very flat and the roads start to straighten out. I think I've changed my mind though. There is a much more pronounced change to the landscape once you pass Cobar - the road passes through low scrubby land filled with saltbush and the distance between towns increases dramatically. It was this sudden expansion of distance and the reality of the vastness of the Australian continent that would later make the achievements of these early Australian explorers so evident.

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.

After a pleasant round of drinks and pool at the pub that night, (where due to an apparent time zone difference, Alex was suddenly 12 years old), we retired back to the campground for the night. We set off bright and early the next morning heading for Tibooburra via Milparinka and the Silver City Highway.

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!"

Sturt National Park is rather unique and not at all what you might imagine when you think of National Parks. Very dry, very flat, very dusty and very rocky, the road took us out through stony gibber plains, across the famous Jump Up territory, and eventually headed north until we were running parallel along the Vermin Proof Fence. The fence, sometimes known as the Dog Fence or the Dingo Fence, is the longest fence (and in fact the longest man-made structure) in the world. Starting in South-East Queensland and finishing near the coast along the Great Australian Bight in South Australia, this section of the fence almost forms the boundary between NSW and QLD. (It's actually a few metres north of the real boundary we later discovered.) We stopped for photos, and then headed off towards our evening camping spot at Fort Grey.

Fort Grey, so named because it was originally the site of a supply stockade by the early explorers, is situated on the edge of Lake Pinnaroo, one of the Outback's many ephemeral lakes. It was completely dry of course; in fact many of the gum trees in the region had started to drop leaves in an attempt to survive the incredibly dry conditions. The region has not seen rain since June 2001 - over 16 months.

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.

After doing our border crossing and taking photos of our cars going through the gate, we stopped in at the Corner Store for fuel and supplies and visited the actual Corner marker. The state boundaries were originally surveyed by John Cameron, hence the name. The kids, including the big kids, all had turns at being in three states at once.

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.

The Old Strez eventually rejoined the New Strez, and took us towards Innamincka along possibly the worst road I've ever travelled across. It was made entirely of gibber stones, and was one of those roads that was uncomfortable at any speed. One of the things you become aware of very quickly when driving through the Outback in a Suzuki is the narrower track of the vehicle compared to the Toyotas and Nissans which form the bulk of the traffic out here. Driving in the wheel ruts of these bigger vehicles is an interesting exercise, as the Zooks tended to sit on top of the raised trail of stones which form between the wheel ruts. This gives you an often awkward feeling of falling either left or right into the ruts of the bigger vehicles. It's a driving technique that eventually comes together with practise, but it does take a little getting used to, especially at speed. We found that every so often one of the ruts would "grab" a bit more that the other, and it was easy to get into a pretty interesting tramlining situation if you weren't careful. There were a few occasions when I found us pointing in a slightly different direction to the one I expected.

Innamincka at last and we refuelled again, bought supplies and had a great lunch at the pub. It was here I kept seeing lots of references to the famous Burke and Wills expedition, but still didn't really understand what it was all about. I saw a book about Burke and Wills in the General Store, and although tempted to buy it, decided not to for some reason.

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.

The trip to Coongie started out OK on some fast and smooth desert roads, but soon deteriorated into a pretty rough and bumpy track. The last 10 kays into the lake area were atrocious and I think we were all pretty pleased to get there. But get there we did, and it was well worth it… quite literally an oasis in the desert, Coongie is a large shallow lake right in the middle of nowhere. Because it is the only permanent source of water for miles around, it attracts a great number of birds, and the drought only increased its popularity with the local birdlife.

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.

Heading out of the town on "the worst road in Australia" (apparently), we then headed east towards Cullyamurra Waterhole, the largest waterhole on the Cooper Creek. On the way there we took a slight detour to see the very spot where Burke died back during his fateful expedition of discovery.

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.

The next two days camped along the Cooper were wonderful. We happened to find a canoe by the river belonging to the Innamincka Hotel, so decided we should probably mind it for a few days. It was a good way to explore the river, and we all had a go of paddling our way around the creek. Like Coongie, Cullyamurra Waterhole was also a haven for birdlife and we managed to spot lots of locals in the trees surrounding our campsite… pelicans, eagles, crows, sparrows and a very majestic kite who kept us enthralled with his soaring directly overhead for hours on end.

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.

Our trip home took us out to the actual Dig Tree - Burke's infamous Camp 65, where he took Wills and 2 others on a desperate sprint to the Gulf to claim his position in history as the first white man to cross the continent from south to north. The debacle of that story, of how they returned to camp on the same day the support team at camp 65 left for Menindee, and how they covered their tracks so it looked like no one had been to the camp, and the ensuing comedy of errors that followed… it gave me goose bumps to actually BE there where all of this Australian history took place. To stand at the tree and see "B LXV" (Burke's camp 65) engraved into the tree and look around the see the spot by the river where he and Wills must have been digging up the camel chest to get the supplies… it was quite eerie, and very humbling to have spent the last few days travelling through this amazing country in an air-conditioned 4WD, but being able to more fully understand the incredible hardships that the heat and dust and vastness must have put these people through.

Had I simply read about all this in a book it would have meant very little. To actually be there, standing in the shade of the Dig Tree, staring out into the vastness of the great Australian continent, was a truly awe inspiring feeling. I don't think there is any way someone could truly appreciate just how enormous an achievement it was for these pioneer explorers unless they had actually been out there and seen it and experienced it for themselves.

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.

Chris Betcher
October 2002