"Destination Unknown" Day 13 - Cordillo and The Cooper. A damp intro to Bourke and Wills Country

Wednesday, Jul 13, 2011 at 00:00


July 13th, 2011
Bourke's Grave Site,
Cooper Creek SA

A most magnificent sunrise was visited upon those of us up early enough to witness it (read “Adult” here). Teenagers appear capable of sleeping through anything and must be coaxed from the swag with burning brands and pitchforks! The sky above Moonda Lake was a mixture of brilliant oranges, reds and yellows melting together in layers over ruffles of cloud, all heralding the immanent arrival of the sun. When that golden orb split the fine gap between horizon and cloud, the rocky red bluffs behind us were bathed in brilliant light, highlighted further by the dark and ominous skies behind. A truly amazing site.

After getting the fire going, a breakfast of tea and jaffles soon followed and what a perfect example of the art they were let me tell you. While we sat around the fire contemplating our place in the universe, up to 40 fork tailed kites wheeled silently above us contemplating and no doubt plotting, how to make our breakfast theirs! A visit by our noisy and indignant friend of the previous evening soon had the kites moving away to the west for a while. Eventually our screeching raptor headed over to his cliff top eerie nearby. Funnily though, within 5 minutes, he’d moved to the top of the new cairn, where he stayed, obviously happy with this elevated position to survey his kingdom.

The skies looked ominous, the brilliance of the sunrise soon giving way to the reality of a dark and gloomy morning. Retracing our steps back up the breakaways, we crossed the gibber back onto the main track and headed south towards Cordillo. The road, although stony was in excellent condition and much work has been done on it since my last trip this way in 2005. It cuts through the gibber country punctuated by numerous creek crossings, and the occasional low, rocky range. Wildlife was ever present and we startled a dingo on the track at one point. Looking nonplussed, the lean animal lopped to the spinifex by the road side and watched us pass.

Just north of the Cadelga ruins, we spied several large stock transports (road trains) turning off then road in front of us. Several hundred head of well fed cattle had been mustered into the yards and these road trains were no doubt about to transport them to sale yards. There was a good crowd of campers at the Cadelga Ruins. They looked like a 4x4 group from the numbers, all camped all about the ruins. We didn’t bother to stop for a look as we’d have had to walk right through their camp sites to examine the ruins.

Travelling from the north, the stark stony tablelands are quite often only broken by the mulga clad ribbons of the creeks winding across the yellow sea of grass and spinifex. Certainly, Cordillo Downs Homestead stands conspicuously in the barren landscape, the buttressed stone woolshed recognisable to anyone familiar with this remote corner of South Australia and Queensland. While still a working station covering several thousand square kilometres, the woolshed and relics around it remain open for the inspection of passing visitors.

A short history of Cordillo Downs

This Station was first taken up in 1875 when it was known as Cardilla, by John Frazer from Victoria. Unable to keep the property, a ballot was held in 1878 and Edgar Chapman obtained the lease over it. In 1883, when the lease was taken over by Peter Waite of the Beltana Pastoral Company, and Arthur Witherby appointed manager, it was stocked with 10,312 sheep, 580 cattle, 28 horses and one camel. When amalgamated in 1903 with Cadelga and Haddon Downs in 1905 it was running more than 85,000 sheep. The Beltana Pastoral Company owned it until 1981 when it was sold at auction for $1.2 million to Brookman Holdings Pty. Ltd.

After the takeover in 1883, work was started on stock yards, fencing, station buildings and the large woolshed, with stands for 120 shearers. Later a meat house, manager's house, kitchen and blacksmith shop were added. The Afghans with their camel teams hauled the stores up the Strzelecki Track from Farina to Cordillo Downs and returned with wool. This 1,200 kilometre round trip often took two months to complete.

Fencing the run, with wire brought up by Afghan cameleer Gool Mahomet, was important as dingoes were a menace. That same year camels carried a complete wool scour plant and several large steam engines up the track. These were reassembled on Cordillo to reduce the high transport costs of dirty wool which still contained a large amount of dust and sand. Use of the scour reduced the weight of uncleaned wool by 40%! The drying room of the wool scour was destroyed by fire on 5 September 1895. In September 1898 it was reported that Cordillo Downs exceeded, both in the number of buildings and population, the township of Innamincka.

These days the station is purely a beef cattle concern running upwards of 8000 head of poll Hereford cattle.The woolshed remains largely unchanged, a testament to its solid construction. Several old traction engines and parts of steam driven machinery sit in the yards surrounding the woolshed and the boys had a good time examining everything with the eyes of youthful engineers.

Leaving Cordillo for the Cooper, it is only a few kilometres along the track before we passed the first of the giant red dunes that signal the fringe of the desert. At this time, the dunes were ringed by water, their bases forming the shore line of a large lake. A strange site, the harsh desert sands being softened by expanses of water.

The rain held off as we reached the Arrabury Road intersection and headed north west to Nappa Merrie and then down to the Dig Tree on a road that was in excellent condition. Lots of road works were still going on in the area to repair the flood damage that saw the Bourke & Wills bridge standing forlorn, the earth run-ups on either side having been totally swept away by the flood waters.

From the bird life alone, the Cooper appeared to be a place of plenty. Reading the plaques on the monument, I explained the irony of the Bourke & Wills saga to the boys and then had them check out the Dig-tree and camp markers. While it was no mean feat to convey to the lads what a complex set of circumstances surrounded the expedition, I think they realised what cruel blows the B & W expedition had rained upon them by the fickle hand of fate. I find it amazing that very little Australian history appears to be taught in schools these days. To have reached the age of 16 years and know very little of our rich history seems a real shame to me.

Later that afternoon, as the rain was beginning to fall steadily, we reached the area of Bourke’s grave to find that you could no longer camp on the creeks edge. A new barren and dusty camp area had been formed and ringed by a cable fence. You could imagine what this meant when the rain commenced…..yep, slick, sticky mud. On alighting from the vehicles, you only had to walk a short distance to realise that you were gaining a centimetre in height every step you took as the sticky mud clung to the bottoms of your boots. It was to late to move on so while the boys set up their swags and tents, I harvested as much dry grass as I could from the surrounding area and spread it around the ute, the gull wing door of the camper providing some shelter from the falling rain. JB and The CP headed down to the creek to test their luck setting up under the shelter of a large redgum. I have always been impressed with the amount of wildlife about this waterhole but after a year of massive rainfall and the Cooper in full flow, I was just astounded by the amount of birdlife this year. Tens of thousands of birds to be seen everywhere. Great flocks of cormorants swam and dove. Flights of pelicans, herons, egrets, night herons, gulls, eagles, whistling kites and the ubiquitous corellas coming back to roost noisily by the creek-side. It was simply incredible.

With it being cold and wet, something hearty was needed for dinner so I got the gas burner out and prepared a huge pot of Beef and red wine stew with mashed spud. The rain held off long enough during the early evening for us to enjoy this hearty fare around the fire before the lads retreated to their rods and personal fire underneath the gums by the creek. It was quite funny to see them cooking yabbies two at a time in a soup tin on the fire and it bought back many memories of days and nights as a kid by the Murray around Mildura. Great adventures for them. A pity they grow up too fast. The rain was drumming fairly solidly on the canvas when I retreated to the warmth of the Roof Top Taj.

''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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