"Destination Unknown" Day 12 - Boulia, Bedourie, Birdsville and a bit of family history (circa 1975)

Tuesday, Jul 12, 2011 at 00:00


12th July, 2011
Moonda Lake, Cordillo Down Road, Queensland

The local rat population caused no issues during the night and I must confess that after a long day on the road, I was asleep the minute my head hit the pillow so I wouldn’t have heard anything even if they did. Tuesday the 12th bought forth a bright sunny morning with only a few wisps of cloud about. A hearty jaffle and a fortifying cup of tea for brekkie and then our little convoy was packed and heading the 60 odd kilometres to the bitumen of the Diamantina Developmental road. A right turn onto the thin ribbon of bitumen and then a short hop of 15 km south to Boulia.

Boulia lies on the Bourke River, named after Robert O'Hara Bourke whose exploits we are all no doubt familiar with and who passed this way in 1860 with the ill fated Bourke and Wills Expedition. The name Boulia is derived from the name of the waterhole, which was so called by the Pitta Pitta tribe. The area is chiefly known for the unexplained phenomena of the Min Min light. Travellers in the area have often reported being followed for some distance by a ball of light, which eventually disappears. No scientific explanation has yet been discovered for the lights. I’d reckon there are a few places along the Hay plains in NSW that might give Boulia a run for it’s money as the home of the Min Min. Today the town predominantly supports the local pastoral (beef) and allied industries. It’s a neat little town of 200 or so. We fuelled and aired up, had a quick look around and then continued south towards Bedourie and Birdsville.

The Diamantina Developmental Road heads south following the wide grassy plains of the Georgina, crossing various tributaries and skirting the border of the broad alluvial flood plains and the higher, harsher western country. Eventually it gives way to the characteristic parallel dunes of the Simpson Desert and parallels the Eyre Creek. There was still plenty of water about standing in dams, puddles and clay pans between the dunes. Emu’s were destined to be the bird of the day and there were plenty of them about that’s for sure.

Bedourie, the administrative centre for the Diamantina shire sits astride a sand dune overlooking the broad flood plain where the Georgina ends and the headwaters of the Eyre creek begin. It’s an historic Outback town, startling life in the 1880s as a major watering and rest stop for drovers and cattle and serviced by Cobb and Co. coaches. These days it’s a neat modern town with excellent facilities and a place for us to stop and have a bite to eat before completing the last 200 km south down the Eyre Developmental Road to Birdsville.

Birdsville’s history goes back to 1878 the year of the towns started as a depot and customs port under the name of Diamantina Crossing and a store was opened for drovers on the Diamantina. The name was later changed to Birdsville by one of the station owners in homage to the birdlife of the area. Three years later, in 1881, it had its very first race meeting. Two years later the town was officially surveyed and had its first policeman, Mounted Constable Arthur McDonald appointed. In 1887 the town had a population of 300, three hotels, two stores, billiard room, police station, customs house, blacksmith, baker, butcher, saddler, shoemaker, cordial maker, Jockey Club, and a bank. However following Federation in 1901, the customs depot was closed and the population slowly dwindled to approximately 50 throughout the 1950s. Livestock trade has kept the region alive and in recent times tourism has joined cattle as the major industry in the area.

Many of Australia's pioneering European explorers travelled through the Birdsville district well before the town was gazetted. Monuments to acknowledge the feats of Captain Charles Sturt, Burke & Wills, Cecil Madigan and others are located around the town.

The Diamantina in the vicinity of Birdsville is one of the few areas along its entire length where the river is confined to a few banks rather than wide flood plains and many streams. Aside from being an iconic and remote outback location, I always enjoy arriving at Birdsville and have since my first solo journeys up this way in the early 80’s. I’d been here back in the mid 70’s as a teenager and we had a bit of a tenuous family connection to one of the iconic features held in the area in that my father played at the ball and dances during the cup celebrations in 1975 & 76.. His local Mildura 4 piece band was known as “Pendulum” and consisted of Ron Price (drums), Ian “Macca” McDonald (Bass), Kerry Strachan guitar. My old man Neville played guitar, clarinet, banjo and sax.

I’m indebted to my mother here, Keeper of the family chronicles;

“September 1975 Birdsville Races Meeting”

“During our previous Birdsville trip (May ‘ 75), Neville had become friendly with the policeman at Birdsville – he had a Yamaha organ. It was arranged that Neville and his band would play for the dance and the Ball held that weekend. The boys loaded up the Range Rover with all the musical gear and drove up. (They left on the Thursday and arrived in time to play for the Friday night dance) Some of the Mildura Aero Club decided to fly up, so I was very lucky and flew up with Alan Matthews...it was certainly far easier and more comfortable flying when I knew what the track was like down below. Jill took her large tent which we erected on arrival ...on the airfield. There were about 50 planes parked on the airstrip with a number of tents erected nearby. We girls managed to have a shower in the police cells...fortunately there were no inmates! The race track was a few miles from the town so we went out in the Range Rover...it was a very colourful sight with people everywhere and the public booths doing a roaring trade.”

“The Ball at night was held in the Birdsville Hall which was a masterpiece of corrugated iron. We all enjoyed the music, dancing etc and got to bed in the early hours of the morning...all 15 of us who shared the tent! It was a freezing night and my side of the double lilo had a puncture and went down so I didn’t get much sleep. We left Birdsville about 11:00 a.m. and had a picnic lunch at Broken Hill arriving home about 3:00 p.m. Neville and the boys left at 8:00 a.m. and drove continuously arriving home at 5 a.m. on Monday morning...needless to say they were all exhausted and slept most of Monday”.

An article and picture from the local Mildura paper of the day, The Sunraysia Daily. read : “The annual Birdsville Races attracted more than 700 people to a town with a population of only 100. The racegoers arrived by cars and private planes. The publican had a fair idea that it was going to be a boom weekend in grog sales – he ordered 15 tons of beer and sold the lot. The Band for the Friday and Saturday night dances after the two day races made the 1600 mile round trip from Mildura. The Band, Pendulum comprised Neville Olsen, Ian McDonald, Kerry Strachan and Ron Price took the two days to travel to Birdsville. The famous Birdsville Track was boggy after 1 ½ inches of rain and the band had to pull many cars out of the mud with their four wheel drive. The boys were kept busy – the dances went to five o’clock in the morning each time. They are pictured, above, back in Mildura with their equipment.

I think that they the ball and dance again in 1976. A little less rushed this time with Pricey setting off a good few days before hand in the 3 tonne Toyota Dyna “Pie-cart” loaded with instruments, amps and camping equipment. The rest of the crew flew in a few days before the celebrations got under-way.. Accommodation was found under the wings of the twin engine Navajo they flew in on. Probably not much different to the way things are now.

36 years later, it was to be a brief visit for us. The service Station for fuel, the bakery, the pub and a quick look about town before heading east out on the Birdsville Developmental Road towards Windorah. The gibber plains and sand dunes looked all too familiar as we headed east. The road was in very good condition but one had to be mindful of sharp bends, the rough surface and poorly cambered corners with poor camber and oncoming traffic due to stones. Around the Cordillo/Arrabury turn-off, it was apparent that there was being a bit of work done on the roads. The Cordillo appeared freshly graded and sure enough, only a few kilometres south we found a large road camp complete with heavy equipment and a few quarry sites.

Both Shallow Lake and Moonda Lake, normally broad clay pans, were brimming to capacity. Exactly 10 km south of the Birdsville Road, we could see down through the low breakaways to the east, the vast expanse of water that was Moonda Lake. There appeared to be a good camping spot down closer to the waters edge, sheltered by the rocky bluffs and a few trees. It required 800 metres of careful driving down the breakaways but in the end we secured a very good, and sheltered camp area. By chance, we were able to locate the “sweet spot”, a narrow corridor bout 50 metres wide where, for some unknown reason, the wind did not blow. Walk 25 meters in either direction and it began to swirl around you again. Considering that there was nothing of significance to block the wind from the front (east) to any greater extent than any other nearby area, it was quite freaky.

We secured plenty of dead timber from the ground around the nearby trees and once camp was set, we left the lads in charge of the fire while Johnno and I climbed the low ridge top the west for a bit of solitude and sunset time. It was a great location to spend the last light of day. Overhead numerous fork tailed kites wheeled about silently. This rocky promontory was obviously an eerie for another bird of prey who was a bit peeved to have his evening perch invaded and flew noisily about us. We put together a small rock cairn on the tip of the bluff. Despite being some 300 metres away, the Crown Prince almost managed top knock us off our perch with his spud cannon dropping one in no more than 10 meters away from us. Unbelievable.

Returning to camp, our upset hawk followed us settling into the tree top nearby and screeching continuously. Eventually, he was joined by a mate and they returned to the perch on the bluff and eventually, deciding the new cairn was even better, were last seen surveying their domain for the last prey of the day in the fading light.

Dinner was a BBQ and then the CP unleashed his famous pancakes which were soon devoured with maple syrup and cream. You bloody ripper.

''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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