29 Sep 1998 - Coopers Creek SA

Tuesday, Sep 29, 1998 at 00:00

Mick O

It was a magnificent night and when the moon set in the early hours of the morning, the sky above us was ablaze with a million stars. It made you reluctant to go to sleep. It was a lovely morning that greeted us with the only thing rising earlier than us being the flies. You have to be up early to beat these little bludgers. It didn’t take long to coax the fire back into action and whilst Cam prepared a bed of coals for the jaffles, we enjoyed cereal and coffee. There is a strange ceremony that takes place on an Olsen camping trip. It’s looked forward to with eager enthusiasm and takes place with the campfire of the first morning. It was with almost religious reverence that we opened the tin of Kraft Braised Steak and Onion. Boy didn’t we, and the flies, love it!. There’s nothing quite like it. That subtle blend of herbs spices onions and minced offal lovingly blended and tinned especially for the Olsen brothers to prepare the sacred breakfast jaffle. Life doesn’t get better than this, unless of course someone could get rid of all the flies.

It took no time to pack away the camp, clean up and bury the fire then it was back on the track to Parachilna. The countryside was again picturesque and a delight to drive through. As we reached the Main Parachilna Road and traveled back through the Parachilna Gorge, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for all those people who had camped so close to their neighbours and couldn’t enjoy a peaceful spot such as our site of the previous night.

Once clear of the ranges and traversing the plains west, we gained an excellent view of the Ranges and Wilpena in the early morning light. Today brought only a slight breeze so the air was clear and the view, sensational. At Parachilna it was back on the bitumen and north to Leigh Creek some 65 kilometres away.Leigh Creek is a modern town and so it should be having been built in 1978. The original town was built beside the open cut coalfield whose end product is used to generate the majority of South Australia’s electricity. The original town, which grew to support the mine in 1944, was destroyed to get to the coal deposits beneath. The town nowdays supports a population of 2000 and has a small compact shopping centre. In preparation for our assault on the Strzelecki, we invested in a 25-litre jerry can, a new map and a funnel. We also topped off our water supply at the rainwater tanks provided in the shopping centre. We decided to approach the local police with the hope of gaining valuable information concerning the condition of the Strzelecki and Oodnadatta Tracks but the amusing sign on the door of the Police Station said “ON PATROL – BACK THURSDAY”. What a job.

“The Strzelecki Track begins at Lyndhurst, a harsh dusty road 494 kilometres to the almost deserted outpost of Innamincka with no stops for petrol or supplies. Only experienced outback motorists should consider driving along the Strzelecki Track.” So began our maps description of the road which we were about to follow. Fear? Unknown to intrepid explorers the likes of us! We’d make it or perish! (Or embarrassingly have to set up camp and wait for some ‘schoolie’ in a 4 x 4 to come along & pull us out.)

34 kilometres north of Leigh Creek, the bitumen abruptly stops at Lydhurst. A pub, a shop and a ‘T’ intersection is all Lyndhurst consists of. Northwards is the Oodnadatta Track to Marree, where you choices double.Birdsville or Oodnadatta! Equally depressing options really. Our journey of discovery was to take us more north east along the Strzelecki Track to Innaminka and the Cooper Creek. Hoping to gain some information about the impending road conditions, I went to the local (only) shop and asked the lady owner. News was good, or not so good depending on which way you looked at it. She informed me that the road had been closed for the past two weeks due to rain and had not really seen much traffic in the past two moths due to the inclemency of the weather. Really, who ever heard of a desert suffering too heavier rains? This very day was the first day in which the track had been open to vehicles other than four wheel drives. They had been able to use the track for the past two days only. Hence the good or bad theory. Good :- No one has used the track therefore it’ll be in top condition. Bad:- It’ll still be wet, muddy, cut up by heavy traffic and we’ll be stranded. The reality was a devilish mixture of both.

Named after Polish Count Paul Edmund de Strzelecki, the 'highway' from Lyndhurst in the south to Innamincka and beyond in the north used to be one of the driest and loneliest tracks to transport mobs of fat cattle to the Adelaide market. More than hundred years ago it was Captain Starlight, of Robbery under Arms fame, who gave the track notoriety. In 1870 Henry Arthur Readford, better known as Harry Redford, or Starlight, drove a thousand head of stolen cattle from Queensland, down the Barcoo and Cooper past Mount Hopeless, to Blanchwater where he sold them for $10,000. When finally apprehended in 1872, the now folk hero and his two accomplices were found not guilty. One of the first mobs of cattle to be walked down was in 1877, taking about ten weeks. The Strzelecki Track was last used by drovers during the 1930s. Today the track is used mainly by large trucks who carry supplies for the small population of the inland stations or cattle back the south. Most of the other traffic is destined for Moomba, South Australia's main gas producer which supplies Adelaide and Sydney. It now also attracts tourists who like to see some of the wonders of outback South Australia such as the Cooper Creek or the Bourke and Wills “ Dig” Tree in Queensland.

The first 80 kilometres were a pleasant surprise. The road surface was in excellent condition as it arrowed north across the flat arid plain. Vegetation was sparse and little wonder after the rocky ground had been sun and wind blasted for a million years. The only breaks in the otherwise endless plain were the occasional fence and cattle ramp and the even rarer creek crossings. One of these shallow sandy beds became the site for our lunch break. The creeks are often the only places that support trees in the area so they are well frequented by both the native wildlife and livestock alike. Bores often dot their side, the windmills creaking and rattling as they turn in the gentle breeze. The water they pump from the artesian basin below is the only thing that permits life in these areas. One such windmill near our place of rest pumped water to a large tank nearby. As a result, the trees were alive with local birds such as finches who cannot fly to far from water as their daily need of same is so high. Lunch itself consisted of dried biscuits with Ham, cheese and tomato. The thermos provided coffee and Rebecca’s chocolate chip muffins, a suitable accompaniment. While quietly enjoying the ambience of lunch and the flies, a convoy of five 4 x 4’s tore through the creek heading hell for leather north . It had been the only traffic we’d seen since Leigh Creek and was likely to remain that way.

Continuing onwards, it wasn’t long before the country side changed from arid plain to dunes and wind blown hummocks. You got the feeling that the road was somewhat “Lower”. An effect probably caused by the gentle decline from the height of the previous plain. The change in landscape also heralded a noticeable deterioration in the road condition also. The road surface changed from a gravel to clay and sand and as a result had been severely affected by the passing rains and traffic. The track was cut up terribly by the wheels of trucks and four wheel drives who had tried to negotiate the conditions during the wet. The result were ruts often 30 centimetres high or more. At times it appeared as if a convoy of tanks had been through the place. Our poor Magna, loaded to the hilt as she was, soon had the floor pan scrapping the tops of the hard dry mud. It wasn’t a pleasing sound to the ear as she dragged herself groaning across the largest of them. As a consequence, our speed dropped significantly, sometimes to walking pace or slower. This continued for some hours, each of us wishing we had either a four-wheel drive or at the very least, an extra five centimeters of clearance beneath the car. Thankfully the conditions improved for the last 80 kilometres from Moomba through to Innamincka.

It’s amazing just how the countryside changes over a distance of several hundred kilometres. Your average person might think it’s all the same desert but we’d moved from the endless horizon of sweeping arid plains, to a moonscape of wind blasted hummocks and finally high rolling dunes that seem to roll on for ever north westerly. The dunes have been formed over millennia as the deep red sand has been blown into ridges by the prevailing winds. The dunes are then stabilized by the invading shrub and plant life that settle on them. They are often between 15 and 20 metres high and run continuously parallel lines separated by shallow swales (inter-dune valleys) of 100 metres width or more. Over the last 200 klicks the road followed the course of the swales between the dunes, crossing the sandy ridges when the opportunity arose. The amount of rain that had fallen in the preceding weeks became obvious as large roadside clay pans were often inundated with water. It was an unreal sensation to see so much water lying about in an area that is easily one of the worlds most arid and dry places.

The Moomba gas fields are passed some 80 kilometres short of Innamincka. Rising out of the surrounding dunes, the stainless steel of the refinery plant looks alien and out of place. A stark contrast to the pristine desolation of the desert. The road is crossed by numerous tracks that provide access to strangely named and numbered gas wells. To the unwary, a sign with “Moomba 167” can cause a bit of a fright. How in the hell did we get that far off track? Thankfully it only denotes one of the hundreds of wells that tap the vast reserves of natural gas beneath the desert. The gas drawn from beneath the sands is then piped to Moomba for processing before being sent the several thousand kilometres to Sydney and Adelaide via the buried gas main (gas from the area accounts for 80 per cent of South Australia's electricity requirements).

As one would expect, the road between the Moomba works and the only hotel within a thousand-kilometre radius, is extremely well maintained. A veritable gravel ‘super highway’ compared to the previous 300 kilos. About 40 klicks north of Moomba the one major unmarked intersection had a whole swag of Schoolies bamboozled. We were amused to see about five vehicles and their occupants having a roadside meeting. There were maps spread on vehicle bonnets, consultation with Vehicular Mounted Global Positioning Systems and much head scratching. They should have done what we true bushies do. Follow the bloody signs!

It was getting late in the afternoon when our journey bought us to yet another vista. From the top of the plain, we were presented with a view across an ancient shallow valley. In the distance could be seen several small pyramid like hills. In the bottom of the narrow depression a line of trees snaked their way from east to west marking the course of the Cooper. A reflection of the setting sunlight upon a tin roof became a shimmering beacon guiding us to civilization.Innamincka. It was time to wash the dust from our throats.

Innamincka shares with Birdsville, the reputation as one of the countries most remote and isolated outposts. Innamincka had its origin in the failed attempt by Burke and Wills to return to Melbourne after having crossed the continent from south to north. In 1862 the government set an area aside near present day Innamincka for an Aboriginal mission station. However due to a lack of finance this was never established. Although still going, the town never had a population exceeding thirty people. It is a tiny outback settlement with literally nothing more than a general store, a pub, some fuel pumps, the ruins of the old Royal Flying Doctor Base (which was closed down in 1951and later re built in 1995 courtesy of the generosity of the Australian Geographic Society) and an airstrip in the dry, flat wasteland that is the Strzelecki Desert. To the north lies the vast Innamincka Station which was established in1872, once owned by the cattle baron Sidney Kidman, and covers 13 817sq km while to the south is Gidgealpa Station covering 4 900 sq km. The Innamincka area was first explored by Europeans when Charles Sturt came through the area in 1845. Sturt was followed by the hapless Burke and Wills who reached the area in 1861.

Robert O'Hara Burke, a police officer, led an expedition from Melbourne in 1860 with the object of crossing the continent from south to north. W.J.Wills became second in command. These courageous explorers, accompanied by two members of the expedition, King and Gray, made a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria from a depot they had established at Cooper's Creek in South Australia. Burke and Wills proceeded ahead of the others and succeeded in reaching the estuary of the Flinders River on the Gulf of Carpentaria. Tragedy marked the return journey. Gray died of exhaustion. The other three, weakened by severe privations, struggled back to Cooper's Creek only to find that in the cruelest irony of the whole ill-fated expedition, the depot party had left only seven hours before their arrival. The party under William Brahe had remained there six weeks longer than they had been ordered to stay and with many of his men now so sick as to be incapable or walking, Brahe buried a cache of supplies beneath a large tree and departed. Burke and Wills died of starvation after three months by the Cooper and King who was cared for by friendly natives was rescued by a relief party some five months later.

There are a number of important Burke and Wills sites in the area to which we had hoped to make pilgrimage. About 25km west of the town is Wills grave, and some 54 km east is the famous 'Dig' tree where supplies were left for the explorers. All of these were to be denied to us because of the flooding of the many creeks and annabranches feeding into the Cooper.

The town, if it could ever be called a town, came into existence in 1882 with the establishment of a police camp. This was enough to start a small settlement and by 1886 there was a general store and a hotel. The movement of cattle and sheep along the Cooper Creek ensured that the settlement prospered. In 1890 the town was gazetted as Hopetoun. It was named after the Governor of Victoria, the Earl of Hopetoun. The official name was so disliked by the locals that it lasted only a month before they insisted upon a change. The original name of Innamincka, after which the nearby station had been named, persisted.

An interesting story about the place involved the pub. Because customers to the local hotel were infrequent, the hotel could only supply bottled beer. Kegs of beer would have been tapped and then stood around for weeks. The result of this bottle culture was that by the early 1950s the town had a huge, and somewhat famous bottle dump which was over a metre high and some hundreds of metres wide. Before 1901, Innamincka was an important customs depot where state taxes were collected from drovers moving cattle across the border from Queensland into South Australia. The decline of the town was slow. The Royal Flying Doctor Base was established in 1928 and continued to serve the surrounding area until 1951. Modern transportation made Innamincka largely irrelevant to the needs of the area. By 1952 the town was completely uninhabited. The job of converting Innamincka into a ghost town (indeed little more than a memory) was completed by a huge flood in1956 which washed the remains of the hotel, the police station, half of the Flying Doctor Base and all of the bottles downstream. Considering that the site of the town is at least 10 to 15 metres above the creek, it must have been a hell of a flood. (In the words of Cecil Madigan, the geologist who first explored the Simpson Desert in 1939, “this is ten inch or nothing country”)

The 1970s saw renewed interest in the ghost town. Vast underground gas fields were discovered in the area and saw the construction of the Moomba gas refinery and the arrival of the ubiquitous 4WD and associated large numbers of people wanting to explore the outback, saw the construction of a series of new buildings to cater for people moving through the area.

The town as it stands today can be summed up in about 15 seconds. It isn’t hard to get a grasp of the pub, store and old hospital. I can’t help but describe a certain feeling of achievement as our dusty wagon cruised past the 10 or so mud encrusted four by fours lined up outside the hotel. Yes folks, this was school holiday time all right. We were informed at the general store that we wouldn’t be going east or west from Innamincka as the channel country was well and truly flooded. Four wheelers only. At least a cold beer was possible and relieved the parched throat. Petrol was an incredible 98 cents per litre ($4.40 a gallon for those older non-metric persons). Well you don’t have a lot of choice in supplier really. Our next task was to find a decent campsite along the creek. It was a little crowded for our liking but beggars can’t be choosers. We set up on the banks of the Cooper in the shade of a times wizened gum. There was a good flow of murky water in the creek and the evening air was riven by the screeching of many cockatoos returning to the creek to drink and nest in the surrounding trees.

Dinner was prepared on the trusty stove once again. I had decided that it was time to cook the sausages as another day in the esky and I felt they would be walking off of their own accord. They were however, very enjoyable. It was a muggy evening and the mozzies had us liberally applying the insect repellant. After the meal, we enjoyed a stroll up to the hotel for a quiet drink before retiring. I was once again copping a bit of flak for a display of “Unmanly” behaviour in setting up my tent. Bloody clever I thought.

It was a warm night with a gentle breeze, a clear sky, a full moon and stars galore. It was only punctuated by the nocturnal stirrings of desert animals and the cries of “THESE %#@*#*% MOSQUITOS!”.
''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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