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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

We have been travelling through Australia looking for fresh experiences now for five years, and when I opened the Hema road atlas to look at an Australia map I realised it is becoming a challenge to find fresh tracks to the centre. Looked at superficially there is much similarity where ever you are if you are away from the seaboards, and you either love it or you don’t, it seems. There have been people who have screwed up their faces and said “but it is so boring…”, Then “How can you spend so long in the car?” or “How can you spend all that time just with your wife/husband, I’d go stir crazy?” There are many others whose expression changes when you mention red sand, spinifex or the sound of dead mulga keying your car’s bodywork. Their focus changes as they mentally leave the room, eyes glaze, pupils pinpoint. And with a knowing smile, Mona Lisa-like, they bridge time and distance; they understand. 

So I am going to write another blog for the purpose of conversion, or affirmation, take your pick. Either way I hope someone reads it. And if you do, let me know. The absence of any response is like the hum you get when you stand under high tension power lines on a misty day; “there’s a lot going on out there but it ain’t happening here!" (And Helen adds - it took her blood, sweat and tears relearning the software to get this essay up! If you click on photos in the text they enlarge to fill the screen; the side bar ones don't.)

The main reason for travel this year, after the Canning Stock Route last year (as yet un-blogged), was to cross the Simpson Desert.

The challenge of another 1000 sand ridges was clear, and while we thought it would be a taller challenge than last year it proved not to be. If you take care and drive sensibly which means your brain is always in gear, you should have no trouble; be prepared and think ahead of course is the motto.  That said we did have a near miss at the head of one sand ridge in the desert. You always call ahead on the CB radio, give your approximate position and direction and ask for anyone in the vicinity to let you know if they are there. Common sense. But the days of disciplined army radio training are long, long past, and some people out there just don’t care. Fortunately and unusually we had parked between a pair of sand ridges. A 4x4 crested the ridge ahead of us doing about 50kph with a cloud burst of exploding sand and the car airborne, landing with a crash and another cloud of dust. As they flew past us - our jaws dropped in amazement, we had a gleeful wave and grin from the 25 something young woman driving – she was having a ball! We would have had them on top of our bonnet and us done for if circumstances had been different. The good thing about CB radio is that you can also tell people what you think of their driving!

Time was limited with the imminent arrival of our first grandchild due before August, so a week up, a week across and a week back made it your easily achievable annual holiday.  Here is the whole journey. I have also placed larger maps in the text to guide us on the way. 


With winter on us and swags as our chosen accommodation, we booked in to The Grand in Renmark, getting the last room and some secure parking over the road, for our first night. The last available room, last perhaps because it was so bad or then again perhaps because it was the room used by the Prince of Wales and the Princess Diana on their tour in 1983.  We can’t believe that this was so, apart from the Windsor shag pile on the floor that was clearly laid for their benefit, now of heritage significance I suppose.  I suppose management must have thought that Timbertop would have toughened him up a bit, but Diana must have been gobsmacked!  However, The Grand is a fine hotel for a quite small but lovely country town, and is owned and run by the community, but if you’re going to Renmark book ahead! Renmark is shown by the first pin on the map below.
The following morning we made the usual stops to purchase car essentials like spare fuses and Merritt plugs, and after buying our fruit and veg for the trip at a Vietnamese lady’s roadside stall outside Renmark  (you mustn’t stock up in Victoria – you will lose it all at the SA border) we crossed over the Murray and hooked back north east of Renmark. Here we left the bitumen on a good dirt road that runs up through Chowilla Station and the Danggali Conservation Park (a listed world biosphere area) and takes you north westwards, across the Barrier Highway and all the way up the eastern flank of the Flinders Ranges towards Lake Frome. 
Just north of the Barrier Highway the stone remains of a gold town called Waukaringa are assembled on a rise surrounded by open scrub and distant ranges. The buildings, the hotel in particular, were constructed to the finest standards in the 1870’s and probably by Cornish tin miners. Many tin miners came to SA towards the end of the 19th Century and they are responsible for an amazing heritage of stone work. It is so disappointing then to see graffiti on the walls. To be stripped of all its wood and metalwork by termites and the elements is one thing, but the arrival of graffiti is like the worst of the city in the best of the country.  We pressed on skirting the south west edge of Lake Frome towards Arkaroola.  We spent our third night out at Weetootla Gorge near Arkaroola at the top end of the North Flinders Ranges. 
This was our third visit to the area, it is always rewarding. Weetootla is shown as the second pin on the map. With a light cloud cover we drove through from there to Leigh Creek the next day, cutting westwards through the ranges to the west side at Copley. We had the required Quandong pie with cream there before getting on to the black top again heading briefly south to the coal mining town of Leigh Creek, which has reasonably priced fuel and a supermarket where we did our top up of meats, before heading north again.

From Leigh Creek (at the end of that little spur between points 2 and 3 on the map above) our track followed the Old Ghan rail route to Marree, past ochre pits at Lyndhurst (the ochre was traded by Aboriginal people all over Australia), and the fine stone ruins of Farina where people once thought they could make a living from agriculture. 

Marree was an important town from where the legendary camel trains distributed goods and mail throughout the remote country of the Strzelecki, Tirari and Sturt Stony Deserts to the north.  Marree is shown by the third pin on the map. This is extraordinary country where outback stations were marginal at very best, and where Australian Myth was born. At Marree you choose either the Birdsville Track to the north north east, or the Oodnadatta Track to the north west. Both of these tracks are now graded roads with only the occasional nasty surprise after rain, for the air conditioned traveller.  We took the time to have a beer at the Marree pub, and pick up a DVD about Tom Kruse, before heading for Coward Springs 130kms westward to camp before dusk, passing the now well-known sculpture “Planehenge” on the way. Tom Kruse was the mail delivery man who took over from the cameleers after the Second World War and kept the Centre connected for many years. Much has been written and four films made about him. YouTube has an excerpt from his film “Back of Beyond”.
From Coward Springs – a marvellous campground near artesian mound  springs, William Creek is a short 75kms, and we passed the scene of a 2010 drama at William Creek itself, which is crossed just short of the tiny hamlet (well, the pub).
We were towing the Vista van then, on our way south after bad rains that had closed much of the Oodnadatta Track for a fortnight. Many travellers were marooned at the pub unable to leave, reports were that many friendships were made but supplies were worryingly short by the time the road was officially opened again! We had been warned about the depth of the creek by a fellow who had drowned his Land Cruiser there the day before.  For those who may not want to retrace steps to our 2010 blog, briefly it went like this:
We approached the deep pool that lay across the road with much trepidation. We walked the banks to see if a better way could be found. We were towing a tonne and home was beckoning. No other way, so with a worried look at each other it was plenty of revs, 2nd gear, go for it. There was much drama and wheel turning to find grip. Mud flying everywhere and Helen shouting “come on car, come on car” as we gradually clawed our way through and came to rest clear of trouble on the far side. I still had a thankful smile as I reached down to put the handbrake on, only to realise I didn’t need to! Presence of mind is a wonderful thing when things are going the other way!
This year the scene of our humiliation was little more than a dip in the road with that faint memory “that looks familiar” as we cruised by at our standard 70kph.

The thought of a fresh coffee at the William Creek pub (the pub is shown by the fourth pin on the map) was keeping us focused but as can happen out there, the French and German backpackers running the place told us that the machine had broken down and coffee would be off the menu for some days. The idea that you could find a coffee bean at William Creek let alone a power supply that was even half reliable, would have been unbelievable thirty years ago. Put it down to Lake Eyre flooding and the invasion of us suburbanites!

This was our fifth day on the road, and we had time to visit the Painted Desert that lies west of Oodnadatta and can best be reached by staying at Arckaringa Homestead 86kms west and south of the township. Oodnadatta, and The Pink Roadhouse, (shown at the fifth pin on the map) are synonymous through the efforts of LInnie and Adam Plate over 25 years.
They took over the roadhouse and set about telling everyone travelling about the desert and its charms and challenges. They did this through systematically signing everything within a 500km radius with their unmistakable pink signs made from 44 gallon drum ends, still doing good service decades later. The information they provide is detailed, informative and interesting. Adam’s pink printed sheet advising best tyre pressures has been invaluable to us over the years. Linnie’s efforts with the area and its aboriginal people are well recorded and well appreciated by that community. Sadly last August Adam was killed in a motor racing accident in Adelaide. Linnie has found a buyer after being on the market for three years, and will be moving on in September. She is one of just a few women of the outback whose stories are special. We wish the new owners all the best, and understand they are people who know the Track well, being “local”.
The Painted Desert (shown at the sixth pin on the map) has evaded our gaze for years now, as it too was closed due to wet weather when we went past. The thing about the wet there is that after only an hour or so of good rain, rare as it is, the road surface turns to a deep soft, clingy clay that fills your wheel arches completely. When it dries it sets like concrete creating serious road hazards out of the trenches and ridges that snake from side to side, left by vehicles trying to keep moving. So the roads are closed quickly and kept closed until most of the moisture has evaporated; can be two weeks or two months or more. The fine for travelling on a closed road is enormous so don’t be tempted. You will get caught and will need to be towed out under instructions from the police – not a good look!

Yes, the Painted Desert. An area about forty thousand square kilometres, west of Oodnadatta, between the Track and the Stuart Highway 200 kms west. It is an area of abrupt steep sided hills capped with silcrete that once lay at the bottom of a sea. The silcrete is hard and resists erosion relative to the great variety of softer strata below it. These softer layers have washed away onto the plains below, exposing a range of colours that is most unusual. We stayed at the homestead at Arckaringa and rose early the following morning to be out at the hills before sunrise. The effect of the early orange rays on these hills was very special. Go there if you can. Helen found 3 species of Eremophila flowering so was ecstatic.


We were back in Oodnadatta early, after a breakfast from the back of the Prado, fuelled up again and on the road for day six aiming for Old Andado homestead, about 200kms further north. We took some fascinating tracks past the ruins of Eringa homestead and the old Ghan siding of Abminga.


Old Andado (shown at the seventh pin on the map) is an iconic place situated in the west Simpson Desert about 120kms east of Finke. It was an outstation originally, the homestead being constructed in 1920 when the property owner married and needed somewhere to call home. Molly Clark spent her life there after marrying, and kept the place going as an outback retreat until last year for a regular group of friends and holiday makers. She died only last August, leaving the place in the care of a Friends Group who have made sure every single thing is still there as it should be. While you cannot stay in the place now, floors and benches are kept swept clean and loo roll in the toilets. The telephone is still connected with a jar for the money. How this place will continue remains to be seen but we understand there are grandchildren who will decide what should be done in the long term. It is nestled between two sand ridges that run for many kilometres in both directions. Molly is apparently lying beyond one of them under a Coolabah tree “somewhere over the way there”. The friends are not telling.  

For any friends who have visited Currango with us in the Snowy Mountains, Old Andado is the desert equivalent. They have annual fly-ins and drive-ins much as we used to do at Currango. It is a sad place too, all about things now past and gone, so full of another family’s life. Hats on the hat stand, bills to pay on the roll top desk, the calendar marked up with endless interesting events to be attended. Now long past of course.  How they kept the dust out of the place I don’t know, and the heat during the summer months must have been intolerable. Molly lost her husband in an air crash at the property, and her son was killed in a level crossing accident.
Undaunted she carried on out back, one of the now famous “women of the outback”, a legend like Linnie Plate.  Her husband Mac Clark was one of the first landholders to draw attention, back in the fifties I think, to a stand of Acacia Peuce on the property, about fifty kilometres north of the homestead. These endangered acacias are found at only three places, the Mac Clark Reserve on Andado Station (shown at the eighth pin on the map),  outside Boulia, and near Birdsville in Queensland, over the other side of the Simpson Desert. They are renowned as the hardest wood anywhere. The aborigines, having burnt the points on, made spears with them and used larger pieces as Waddys, so it is known as “Waddy wood”. Unfortunately they made excellent fence posts as well and many trees were removed before the rarity of the species was recognised. So Mac Clark set aside his land where the trees are, creating a reserve that has the support of the Northern Territory government. We were very pleased to see that after years of slowly dying back the trees are now beginning to multiply, contrary to remarks in our literature.  It is thought that these are the last remnant stands of vegetation that would have been widespread before the last glacial period 20,000 or so years ago.

At Old Andado you are in the mid-west Simpson; Cecil Madigan stopped there on his journey by camel across the northern section of the desert to Birdsville in 1939. While it was Madigan who named the desert in 1930 after his industrialist sponsor and member of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, Alfred Allan Simpson, who funded Madigan’s aerial surveys of the northern half of the desert in 1929, his desert crossing was preceded by local land holder Ted Colson in 1936. Colson’s journey crossed the entire desert from NNW to SSE, following the line of the sand ridges. He journeyed in company with an indigenous comrade Peter Aines and five camels . I think theirs was the more daring effort. Madigan had the benefit of his aerial survey work, and he and his party were backed by the resources of the establishment.  Colson just “had a go”! The first European to see the desert was Charles Sturt who approached from the east in 1844-6, having walked through the equally challenging stony deserts that stretch into the Diamantina in SW Queensland. He got as far west as Eyre Creek (about 70kms west of Birdsville) before turning back. However, equally heroic was the surveyor Augustus Poeppel in 1880. He surveyed the junction of the boundaries of Queensland, Northern Territory and South Australia, marking it with a pole that now resides in a S.A. Museum. The mark was famously replaced, being moved some tens of metres in the process, because Poeppel’s chain links had expanded due to the summer heat, making his survey not quite good enough.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cecil_Madigan


So after detouring north to see the Acacias we felt we were at last beginning our own Simpson  crossing, as we headed south again, back past Old Andado, new Andado and down the Binns track to Mt Dare, where fuel and a beer can be had. Run by the SA government now as part of the Witjira National Park, this once iconic station carries the unmistakable air of bureaucracy.

The buildings were modern steel barns; the dying days of a prime minister on TV with the usual media priests poring endlessly over the entrails. Let’s get out of here! Where there would once have been genuine hospitality and a willingness to help people, we found an indifferent mentality. We couldn’t purchase fuel because the staff were having smoko. It was 17:30hrs, with the sun going down and a way to go, so we passed on the fuel as we did have enough spare on board. It is always good to set off into the unknown knowing you have as much of everything as you can fit in! So the contrast between Old Andado and Mt Dare was stark; the old ways and the new. Taking the shorter route to Dalhousie, we found ourselves on the only really badly corrugated road of the whole trip, holding our progress down to about 10kph for much of that 25km stretch. With the last of the light we stepped off the track and made camp under the light of the moon and a broken windmill at Christmas Well. 


Another forty kilometres heading east the next morning took us to the fine limestone remains of Dalhousie Homestead, constructed in the 1870’s by Ted Bagot, who is buried here.
Here we have a group of beautifully crafted buildings set amongst date palms that were the common plantings wherever the cameleers travelled. The Witjira National Park people have now removed the female date palms because the palms have choked the artesian mound springs that nourish this part of the desert.  With only the male trees left of course they will eventually die out. Personally I think continued management would be a better result, rather than the palms being just a memory. This is classic oasis stuff though.  In the 1870’s the land holders fondly believed they could make a success of growing grain; witness the seed header that stands forlorn beside the large warm ponds at Dalhousie Springs, some ten kilometres further on.  Dalhousie Springs (shown at the ninth pin on the map) is the jumping off point, last stop Birdsville. There are a series of route options eastwards for the traveller, and much discussion takes place at the campsite beside the ponds. Families come together here to float for hours in the pools that are roughly at body temperature. Children giggling and splashing from brightly coloured inflatable rings, and the largest group of larger grey headed nomads you will see for a thousand kilometres around, immersed up to the neck! You can enjoy the stimulating sensation of dozens of small fish feeding on the nether regions, rather like being tickled and seeing how long you can stay still before laughing.

On returning from a visit to the pool I noticed that the car’s rear stop lights were on. This is where you don’t want to have a car problem, although that said much better at Dalhousie than in the middle of the desert in two days time. The rising sense of panic sends so many conflicting signals through your mind and it’s important to stay calm and think the problem through. Obviously an electrical problem equals flat batteries in no time. How long had they been on? The plastic covers were quite hot, so perhaps since we had started off that morning. Pull the fuse to turn them off. Pulled the fuse, but no change. What’s going on??

At this point Helen takes off around the campsite calling for any auto-electricians to gather at WIR476 for a seminar! I am cranking my way through the issue, thinking “there must be a short – could be anywhere”, when up comes Michael “thinking about what your wife told me the problem is almost sure to be in the trailer brake cabling – not likely to part of the Toyota cabling?” Fantastic! I blow into the plug fitting which is not being used for any towing these days, a spurt of dust, the lights go out! Further investigation revealed that the inside of the fitting was clogged with dust, which is really rust, being mostly iron oxides, and a good conductor. Also the rear plastic bumper had lost two clips and had dropped down across the cabling wearing away the insulation. This was a classic learning experience and an example of the importance of doing proper preventative maintenance. Nota Bene!

One night downwind of the Dalhousie dunnies was enough, and we were excited to be setting off on the real business, having agreed we would take the southern WAA line via the Rig Road. Not the French Line all the way which would involve more on-coming traffic and higher sand ridges. There are basically two ways to do this, either the long way that cuts south east along the Rig Road, taking the traveller across Goyder lagoon and some potential wet spots, then north up the Birdsville Track, or the 200km shorter tracks that run eastwards all the way. All of these routes were first navigated by the French oil explorers in 1963, who effectively opened up the Simpson along seismic lines for tourism thirty years on. Surprising to consider the cooperation that was going on with the French at that time, I imagine thanks to the closer government ties with Britain in those days. 

And so began the one thousand dunes, or more correctly sand ridges, that punctuate your driving day every few minutes. None present a serious problem except, as mentioned above, the possibility of meeting a maniac. That can happen anywhere, you just have to keep in mind that it happens out there too. The problem today is that moreand more people are taking trailers across. The ridges are steep topped and deeply sandy at their crests, so you have to have steady momentum, not too fast nor too slow when you would be near to losing grip, otherwise you just bog down and have to back off and start again. With a trailer on the back you have to take a run at it. This starts the trailer swaying from side to side, each time digging deep holes alternating side to side. The same thing happens when the trailer is over the crest and you put the brakes on, digging more staggered holes. For those coming afterwards your car will be up on one side but down on the other and you start swaying from side to side in a most uncomfortable manner. The authorities (the aboriginal elders and state governments) have resisted prohibiting trailers, I imagine because they all represent business at the bar in the Birdsville Hotel or as camping fees at Dalhousie. It all adds to the challenge.

The first stop is Purnie Bore on the French Line track. The French drilled down, through the artesian water to get to the gas they thought was below. No gas, so they sleeved the bore and capped it. The artesian water is hot of course and corrosion was fast. It was only a few years before the water started flooding into the desert and a few more before there was a permanent pool stretching a kilometre down the valley, with reed beds, water birds and a whole new ecosystem. The Bore has now been re-capped and is kept under close watch by the Park people. One great benefit is the hot shower that can be had, provided you open the shower tap and wait ten minutes for the hot stuff to come through. The strange thing is that you don’t have to worry about wasting water – it’s coming out anyway! We both had a thorough clean up and whilst a little public, very satisfying. We spotted the ideal rig - a Landcruiser with all gear on board and the bed always made up compared to pitching and rolling up swags.


Each valley between these sand ridges varies a little, and for camping you can take off a couple of kilometres between and find completely isolated places where there is always enough firewood and shelter from the wind. Waking before sun rise and getting up on top of a ridge as the sun picks up one ridge after another is wonderful. Fresh snake and mouse tracks, scorpion and beetle tracks, and sadly cat tracks as well, tell the story of the desert night. We were a little early (or late) for many shrubs to be in flower, except for Acacias, Hakeas and just an occasional Eremophila or Grevillea.  The Simpson is apparently the driest of the Australian deserts – as the Lone Tree ( a Coolabah) bears witness to. 

Four nights out and we had completed the crossing.


So the main event warrants the shortest paragraph! The Canning Stock Route was in many ways a similar experience, although two weeks long. There is not much I can say except that it is worth doing. What each traveller takes from it is of course something very personal.  I can imagine that for many it is just an experience to be ticked off, and that’s fair enough. Others immerse themselves in it for many days at a time, walking across or exploring by quad bike from a base camp, quartering the desert looking for signs of where explorers have camped – a metal fitting here or a bit of saddle leather there; we met a pair looking for the camp of a man called Barkly who disappeared in 1906. Ludwig Leichhardt famously disappeared in 1848 along with his whole team, some say in the Simpson. That has a lot of quad bikes circling. Opinion is beginning to narrow to a likely meeting with the natives that turned out badly in Queensland. 

 
Helen here – I think we should add some detail about our camping and cooking arrangements.

Having sold the van, we have slept for the past 2 trips in swags, thankfully without much rain. An awning can be pulled out from the car roof for shelter from rain or sun; a separate wind awning for attaching to it has never been used. We each have a swag, like mini tents with zippable insect proof mesh under the canvas outer layer, which can be left open if a starlit sleep is the go. We set them up on a mat and make up beds inside with sleeping bag and/or sheet underneath and doona and pillows on top. With an extra layer of foam under the mattress they are perfectly warm and comfortable, if a tad tricky to scramble out of in the middle of the night if nature calls. Our leather boots have to be zipped inside in case of prowling dingoes, like this very cheeky one at Coongie Lakes. 
Muesli and fruit or porridge gets us going for breakfast. A back pack between the front seats is loaded with snacks which feel pretty important during long driving days. Our car fridge seems to hold a bottomless supply of cryovaced meat so we are never short of steak or chops or bacon and eggs cooked on our Bidgie barbecue plate, or a stew or curry cooked in the Dreampot. This is a marvellous stainless steel thermal cooking pot – boil your corned beef and veg or stew for 15 minutes on the gas bottle in the morning, clamp the lid shut and when you pull up in the evening the meal is ready! Red wine to accompany it seems to be essential so space has to be found for a box of bottles – standards are lowered to cask wine only for much longer trips between grog outlets. Ian has immaculately fitted out the Prado with a drawer and shelves accessed from the back door, where lots of fresh, tinned and dried food is packed in plastic containers, and cooking gear, crockery and cutlery stored – no plastic eating utensils thank you. Jerry cans for water and diesel are strapped in the body of the car. Chairs and table, minimal clothing in bags and sleeping gear are fitted in here too. Swags hang off the back door in a specially made frame with zip bag, and two spare wheels go up on the roof rack with tools, ropes, gas bottles and a spare eski.  Gas bottles are essential as most national parks now prohibit open fires.

The sand ridges in the west of the Desert are short and choppy, but moving eastwards they are further apart and a lot taller. After Poeppel’s Corner (shown at pin ten on the map) you turn northwards into the Northern Territory and run alongside Lake Poeppel, before turning east again, into Queensland.  After Eyre Creek and half a dozen ridges more, you find yourself looking across a couple of kilometres of open claypan to Napannerica, or “Big Red” as it is known to four wheel drivers, to whom the challenge is irresistible.
Some forty metres tall, it is the final barrier to a successful crossing and is formidable. Fortunately now alternative tracks have been cut and more humble climbs can be made. We were up for it however, and knowing our chances were slim, being fully laden, we took the right hand track. Surprisingly we got to within two or three metres of the summit before we bogged down and had to back down again. Coming down proved more difficult than we expected because the Prado began to slip sideways, wedging us up against the steep side of a soft sand bank. Enough was enough and honour satisfied, so we backed down, and departed the scene accompanied over the CB radio with the excited cries of Chinese who, undaunted, had become stuck on their tenth or eleventh attempt.  Or so I suppose. They could have been remarking on the rather half-hearted attempt they had just witnessed! Mandarin at Big Red - just another insight into the fast changing desert environment.

We were very pleased to find a clean bedroom with en-suite bathroom available at the Birdsville Hotel (shown at the eleventh pin on the map). Sunday night is roast night at both the Birdsville and the Innamincka Hotels (further down the road), both under the same enlightened ownership, and what they could do to improve the Mount Dare experience! Birdsville in September is the epicentre of outback horseracing and attracts up to ten thousand city-folk each year. This is fortunate for the road traveller because without this visitation the roads from the south and east would not be given their annual grooming and would be almost impassable with the corrugations.  So the famous Birdsville Track of myth and legend does not exist anymore; it is a well-travelled dirt highway that presents no drama for the modern air conditioned motor car. Summer time is another matter however and some sensible precautions should still be taken because in such extreme temperatures break downs are always a possibility.


It was only fifty years ago when the track really was a track, with criss-crossing equally worn tracks laid down by the oil exploration teams, and no place to be moving after dark. It was Christmas 1963 when Ernie Page took his family in his hire purchase car with a jury rigged gear selector, on the journey north from Marree heading for work in Queensland. They all met their end about one hundred kilometres south of Birdsville, in circumstances that could so easily have been avoided if Page’s ears had been pinned back and he had been open to the advice of others. But that’s how plans go astray, when one bad step is put unknowingly on another. When the Page family got lost there was no broad highway and the only tracks were a confusing series of ones left by the first mining exploration company in that area. Sadly the explorers had all gone south for the holiday. Their story is well told in the attached link, with a lot of other stories of that time, for those interested:
http://www.simpsondesert.fl.net.au/perish/


Mining is very much in the news these days and a striking fact is how mining has made these outback areas trafficable. Certainly throughout the Simpson region mining is everywhere, with old capped bores, unused airstrips, survey lines and marker pegs dotted across the landscape. Thanks to recent mining activity virtually unusable deeply corrugated roads of five years ago are now carefully graded, wherever we went. The Strzelecki Desert in SA particularly is dotted with mine roads and huge drilling camps – we were not happy to see US firm Haliburton out there fracking. 

We moved south and east now across fine deep red plains with ridges and pans now reduced to vestiges of the Desert proper. Heading for Innamincka as last year, we looked for a night on the Cooper Creek. We had lost our photographs taken in 2009 and so we wanted to re-visit the Innamincka Choke and re-visit the graves of hapless explorers Burke and Wills (actually memorials as their bodies were dug up and taken to Melbourne in 1862). The Choke is a narrowing of the creek between rocky outcrops, reducing the width from the usual hundred metres to perhaps ten.

This is where there are ancient petroglyphs covering the rocks, with cup shaped pitted rocks that had been used for thousands of years for the grinding of grain. The Choke is where the native men, who made large nets out of lignum, would span the choke with their nets, weighed down with rocks and kept floating with bundles of reed. This must have been one of the most reliable and productive sources of fresh water and abundant food throughout the centre. Cooper Creek is one of the most lovely places to visit; a week on the banks there would pass by unnoticed. Another real oasis in the desert is Coongie Lakes, often closed because of wet weather, a hundred kilometres north west of Innamincka. You run south east parallel with the Coongie Lakes road coming down from Birdsville, but to get to the Lakes you must make the return trip. 

The Ramsar Convention is a treaty, signed in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971, that is all about international action on the preservation of wetlands, or The Convention on Wetlands of International  Importance. 

Coongie Lakes is one of those special wetlands, and is home to over two hundred species of birds, many of which migrate from Siberia and China. For much of the time since the recent wet started in 2009 Coongie Lakes has been inaccessible, so we were not going to miss this opportunity and we arrived at the lake edge with enough time to find the perfect camp and get the dinner on before sunset (pictured here). The two nights and days we had there were the highlight of this trip. After travelling through so many hundreds of kilometres of desert, to come across this series of enormous permanent bodies of water is amazing. The deserts’ sand ridges run to the lake edge, deep red in the lowering sun. Swans, Spoonbills, Pink-eared ducks (pictured), Freckled duck (endangered), Pelicans and birds of prey all going about their business in front of us.
The lakes are fresh, sediment laden and turbid, presumably because of wind action on fairly shallow water, and are full of life. Shell middens can be found at various places around the shores; this, as with the choke near Innamincka, would have been a place where aboriginal culture must have bloomed over tens of thousands of years. It is awe-inspiring and very beautiful.


For two weeks past I had been putting up with a sore shoulder – too much breast stroke in the pool at Dalhousie Springs! Sleeping in a tented swag is comfortable, but a dodgy shoulder meant sleeping upright in the car on one occasion and I had had enough. So we pulled the pegs at Coongie and sadly departed, with that feeling of “let’s get home now” accompanying each kilometre south. From Innamincka we drove south along the beautiful Bore Track, past enormous pastoral stations such as Epsilon and Omicrom, across the border into New South Wales at Toona Gate and into the Sturt National Park, and on down to Tibooburra, just in the north west corner of the state.
Tibooburra is notable historically as the place where Charles Sturt abandoned his long boat when on his search for the inland sea in 1885. He was only a few million years too late! More recently and perhaps more sensationally it is where Clifton Pugh purchased The Family Hotel in the 1970’s. He set about scandalising the whole community with fellow artists Drysdale, Amor and their lady friends. Their epic experiences are faithfully recorded on the walls of the public bar where they now charge a dollar a photograph, unless you are staying the night! He was a naughty man! 

Moving southwards, to another old stone town, Milparinka just forty kilometres further south. Gold was found there and as elsewhere the place grew fast and furious before expiring overnight. However just ten kilometres north west is Depot Glen, where, long before the gold, Sturt had to set up camp for six months waiting for the drought to break in 1845. Lieutenant Poole was left in charge of the depot while Sturt made his lunge northwards, reaching Eyre Creek as noted above.  Poole perished of scurvy and is buried under a Beefwood tree (Grevillea striata) beside the banks of Evelyn Creek at Depot Glen.

Our next brief stop was White Cliffs, an opal town, and the sort of wild place that draws Helen like a bee to honey and sends me scurrying in the opposite direction!  We agreed (H under duress as it meant missing Friday night shindig at the pub) to push on aiming for Wilcannia on the Darling, a sepia postcard of a place where fame and fortune were brief, as the railways captured the trade in wool and wheat that used to reach Adelaide by river.
Two of Charles Dickens’ sons finished up in Wilcannia. After a splendid Chinese feast - at the Golf club subsidised by pokies, with new friends from the camp site, we woke with frost on the swag. This had us heading south smartly. We worked our way, always off the bitumen if possible, down along the river to the Menindee Lakes then to Mildura as the clouds gathered on the horizon ahead of us and the first shower of rain in three weeks spattered across the windscreen. We had one more night, and feeling a sudden ache in the shoulder the appeal of a motel bedroom in Mildura, with a take away pizza, a bottle of red, and an evening watching Midsomer Murders and Father Brown, propped un on a king sized bed proved irresistible.
It was a very suitable end to a lovely three week vacation. What is clear is that there are marvellous places to visit very close to home. All you need is some camping basics and the right weather. 


I have struggled to successfully complete the mapping from Birdsville to home using scribble maps, but have to admit failure. Anyone who tells you it is a simple matter to create maps like this is pulling your leg! But I will keep trying. I started with my own creation here - that only took half a day!


video
Here is a short video driving over the sand ridges