Desert Trek thru the Corner Country
For a number of years Maria's cousin Doug Grant had been encouraging us to visit him at his Opal mine in White Cliffs - a small community in the far NW of New South Wales - the problem had always been to find a suitable time which would not be too hot for him nor too cold for us. Our compromise was over Easter in March-April 2015.
Our next challenge was to plan a route which would offer us new adventures along the way and so a trip was planned to incorporate visiting the Sturt Stony and Strzelecki Deserts along with Haddon and Cameron Corners as well as the iconic massive stone shearing shed at Cordillo Downs. My brother Christopher had also long urged me to visit the beautiful Cooper Creek flood plains around the township of Innamincka and this was also now to be possible via this trip.
Route of our Desert Trek
Preparations for the trip included a new clutch for the 4x4 wagon, new Cranking as well as a new Deep Cycle batteries, maintenance on the WAECO fridge/freezer plus new tyres on the Jayco Campervan - I had scrubbed out the inside of the existing tyres which the local tyre expert attributed to a mixture of over loading and under inflation.
The trip kicked off with a rather tiring first leg of 600kms to Barcaldine with lots of coal mining traffic together with cattle road trains. Everything was very green up until about Alpha when the first sights of the long-standing Qld drought became evident everywhere and just got worse the further West we went. We opted for the amenities of a caravan park that night - getting both a Seniors discounted tariff plus 3 cents off at his fuel bowsers. Barcaldine recently boasted 6 pubs but is now down to 5 with the old Globe hotel currently being converted to a museum and art gallery. During the off season (prior to the Easter rush of tourists) the pubs take it turns to be 'flavour of the week' - during our stay it was the Shakespeare's turn. As we would find throughout this and previous trips, a lot of the bush hotels are staffed with European backpackers all trying to earn points for an additional 12 month visa extension.
The threatened Q Rail Service to Longreach
Road kill was in plentiful supply out in the drought stricken West
Home landscaping in Ilfracombe
Donated hats at Ilfracombe's Wellshot Hotel
Next day we had a short (230km) run south down to Isisford via Ilfracombe where we renewed some acquaintanceships down at the local watching Australia down India in the cricket world final before retiring to our lovely bush camp on the banks of the Barcoo River.
Bush Camp on the Barcoo at Isisford viv-a-vis the shady campsite at Windorah's council run park
We then decided upon a bit of dirt driving to see how the camper's tyres were fairing and they handled the 100km of good gravel very well......a relief. We pulled up into the delightful local council run caravan park at Windorah - only two others in the park - again we were told that we were too early and that tourist like us are not seen until after Easter when the weather had cooled off.
The week before, Windorah had been experiencing temps in the mid 40sC. Windorah was our last fuel stop for the next 570kms and so we well and truly filled up at $1.50/lt (cf $1.30 in Rockhampton) - we had already filled up 2 x Jerry cans of diesel, one of petrol for the generator and 20lts of water- we were now ready for the desert or so I hoped.
During our stopover in Windorah the publicans of the local pub Ian and Marilyn Simpson, kindly rang the owners of Cordillo Downs station to let them know of our impending arrival. They advised that they had had few visitors to the woolshed so far this year and that no camping was permitted within 15kms (home paddocks) of their homestead.
A provocative map hanging on the wall of the Windorah's Western Star Hotel
Our day began with 100kms of sealed beef road towards Birdsville where we only encountered two road trains and then it was off down south on the unsealed Cordillo Downs Road.
En route to Haddon Corner
First to a turn off to Haddon Corner where we unexpectedly encountered a couple of rather steep red sand hills; so rather than get bogged half way up, we disconnected the camper and proceeded the last 5kms to the Corner without it and in four wheel drive.
This Corner turned out to be a mecca for four wheel drive enthusiasts and there was even a book there to register one's visit.....sadly no mention of who "Haddon" was............will have to await access to the internet some days away. Now I know. The site was first surveyed by the South Australian surveyor Augustus Poeppel (who went on to survey Poeppel Corner) in 1879-80 and was named after a nearby pastoral lease. More info can be found athttps://heritage-register.ehp.qld.gov.au/placeDetail.html?siteId=33359.. Interestingly, Poeppel was assisted in this venture by a well known South Australian surveyor and explorer Lawrence Allen Wells.
Signing the visitor book at Haddon Corner
The gravel and dirt road surface all the way down to Cordillo Downs was good powdery white granite and quite soft to drive at between 70-85kph. Every now and then we had to crawl over the odd cattle grid or a dry creek bed which could be either strewn with large river stones or quite deep sand. We took it turns to drive for a couple of hours each and were entertained by the local ABC Radio for most of the way - particularly enjoying the Country Hour at lunchtimes.
Powdery surface which then degenerated into gibber
The road conditions briefly took a turn for the worse just as we crossed into South Australia but it only lasted for about 15kms. These roads are superb compared to the stones and corrugations we experienced going down the Birdsville Track back in 2010.
Cordillo Downs was once (1880s) one of the biggest sheep runs in Australia - once carrying up to 66 000 sheep. In 1940s it converted to a cattle station which it remains to this day running mainly Poll Herefords. The large woolshed (constructed in 1883 from local sandstone rubble with a curved corrugated steel roof) once had over 100 shearing stands and in 1888 sheared 82 000 head all with hand shears.. Mechanical shearing (steam driven) commenced in 1907 and a team of 30 shearers completed the shearing in 3 weeks. The property built its own wool scour in the 1880s and at one time processed more than 1400 bales of wool. It is presumed the materials used for the shed were chosen because of the lack of readily available wood, white ant protection and for the coolness it afforded in the summer months. There is no reference in the interpretative signage available as to who designed the shed but judging from the heavy buttressing some engineering expertise would have had to have been present.
The present owners the Brook family also own a number of other stations as well as the Birdsville and Innamincka Hotels. The present owner's grandfather Bill worked as a ringer on the station during the 1930s and bought the station at auction in the 1950s
We arrived at the Cordillo homestead at about 1500 hrs after a drive of nearly 400kms of dirt. We spent some time at the Woolshed which is currently used for general storage - the substantial and tidy homestead and outbuildings lie a couple of hundred metres away. Unfortunately, a lot of the interpretive signage and photos had been allowed to blow off the noticeboard to the floor where I had to retrieve them in order to read their interesting snippets of history.
As no camping is permitted within 15km of the homestead, we had to retrace our steps some 20kms to a channel of the Cooper Creek which contained plenty of water and an ideal shady camp site, where we propped for night and experienced this wonderful bush sunset.
The next day we had a delightful drive of about 180kms down south to Innamincka. This is very scenic as it weaves its way for the most part through a series of red sand hills - once again a very 'soft' dirt road
While we were carrying two jerry cans of diesel (plus one of petrol for the generator) we only had to use one to manage the 550 odd kms between Windorah and Innamincka; including our side trips
Arriving in Innamincka at about 1100hrs, we found a very small dusty town consisting of hotel/motel, general store and service station, a farm stay/backpacker operation, a very classy SA Parks & Wildlife Regional HQ and a large workers compound for the hundred or so seismic surveyors, geologists etc exploring the area for oil, gas and anything else. It was quite surreal to come across such a body of fresh water here in the middle of this arid and currently draught stricken country. Once again we had to remind ourselves of the integral role the Cooper plays in the Lake Eyre Basin; viz:
At the foot of the town stretches the Cooper which at present is about 60kms long by 100-50m wide and teaming with birdlife.
In front of the river lies the Town Common 'the jewel in the crown' of the town which is covered with giant river gums and Coolibah trees. A number of pit type toilets have been strategically located along the Common and some of the most beautiful campsites one could wish for ($5/night). There are community hot showers located up opposite the hotel for which you pay $2/3mins. We had originally intended to camp out at the National Park's camping area at Cullyamurra Waterhole (16kms out of town) but were advised that as there were only a handful of tourists in town there was equally serene camping to be had down on the Town Common - this would not have been the case a couple of weeks later when the place swarms with outback visitors. Despite warnings about the dangers of camping under large riverbank trees we found a beautifully shady spot on the riverbank right under a giant Coolibah.
Oh yes, I should mention that fires are permitted on the Common but we chose not to light one which, on reflection, was a pity given the cheery crackling glows we noticed further down along the river - um - sorry Creek.
This camp spot also afforded us a wonderful vantage point from which to catch the spectacular sunsets each evening/
Out here on the Cooper 1000s of screeching white Corellas herald in the day - a far cry from the noisy Kookaburras at home which perform the same function. I noticed one morning that a camp site a little further along the Common had brought along canoes to paddle along the mighty Cooper - during the tourist season apparently organised canoeing safaris operate from the pub.
A young Victorian couple were responsible for bringing along this bit of sporting initiative
The flies here on the Cooper are horrendous and manage to find their way into every orifice and it was only on our second day that I remembered that we had bought fly nets some years back to repel a similar intrusions at Bourke on the Darling River....with a little frantic hunting in the van's deepest crevices we thankfully found em......they saved our sanity...........but did not look all that fetching and made having a drink all that much more difficult!
After setting up the camp and firing up the generator to get the campervan's fridge down to a useful temperature we set off to inspect a couple of the nearer historical sights; viz Burke's Grave and then Wills Grave(45kms and 20kms respectively from town).
The commemorated gravesites and Burke & Wills route
across the continent.
Rather than overcome with emotion at Burke's grave, Maria was just brushing flies away
Next morning Maria fuelled the car at a very handy $1.80/lt which complements the cost of a beer at the pub ($7.50/schooner).
We had hoped to wash some clothes here but unfortunately the public laundrette had closed - now there's an opening for someone wanting to turn a dollar. Instead we drove out nearly 70kms to the famous "dig Tree" which Burke and Wills so tragically found too late. Much of the interpretative signage about the Burke and Wills expedition is very critical of their offensive relations with the local Aboriginals and these aspects will come as an uncomfortable surprise to some of the outback tourists visiting these sites. It costs a 'management fee' of $10/car to visit the Dig Tree which helps protect the area and maintain the road access.
The DIG Tree
Recently carved portrait of Burke on another Coolibah close to the DIG tree and the new bridge across the Cooper on the Arrabury-Innamincka road which provides for much easier access to the DIG Tree
We dined at the pub on our last night and the menu was pretty sparse, steak, mixed grill, schnitzels, pizza and fish and chips. Not a memorable experience but perhaps things improve once the tourist season kicks in. However, the pub does have an extraordinary wine cellar complete with bottles of Grange Hermitage for $500 all kept in a proper wine humidifier.
The local pub plus its Sth Australian Beer glass "Nomenclature"
Trying to get any meaningful information about road conditions for our next leg proved futile at both the pub and service station (not enough tourist traffic to give them feedback - they did not offer to ring the store down at Cameron Corner for us) and so we had to find a traveller who had come up the road on which we wished to travel. We eventually found a couple of Victorians towing a camper trailer (same ones with the canoe) and they reckoned we should have no problems despite the view expressed by the service station manager that the sand hills would block our way.
This incident, in fact, reminds me that we had no access to the internet/mobile phones since leaving Barcaldine and will not get access again until we reach White Cliffs on or about 3 April....makes it a little hard to keep in contact with other family members or to keep up with weather and or news.
We left early on Tuesday 31 March to tackle what we hoped would be our last great desert challenge down the Old and New Strzelecki Track to the NSW border at Cameron Corner. Temps have luckily stayed between 15-30C on most days. This proved to be a very interesting and picturesque drive along a mainly soft sandy track through the SANTOS Moonie oil and gas fields dotted with those ungainly well pumps and then through some beautiful red sand hill country which were easily navigated over albeit with some in trepidation as we neared the steep crests of each of them. At times it felt as though we were riding a roller coaster as the hills seems to be grouped in series. The vegetation is quite sparse with mainly mulga and desert Sheoaks dotting the arid Strzelecki Desert - we sighted no stock until we neared the NSW Border
This marker made of various animal bones marks the end/beginning of the southern end of the old Strzelecki Track
Fortunately, we only came across 2-3 vehicles the whole day and none of these coincided with the sand hills. I do believe a good a conventional vehicle with added clearance and maybe stiffened suspension (ie a any one tonner ute) could handle this Track ....I did not even engage the front hubs.
We eventually rolled into Cameron Corner (named after the NSW surveyor who surveyed the NSW/Qld border in 1879-80) to find the local store and pub populated with 3-4 carloads of well shod tourists mainly from NSW all heading north but not one of them prepared to go via the Strzelecki which they had heard would be too tough on their brand new Landcruisers and Patrols. This bit of info had been endorsed by the local host of the store then charging an even $2.00/lt for diesel and $7.50 for a XXXX Gold can.............we used his ablutes and left quick smart after inspecting the rather plain corner marker which had been erected by the 3 (SA, QLD & NSW) Surveyor-Generals in the 1990s. Perhaps, more impressive was the Rabbit Proof/Dog Fence which converges at the corner to keep wild dogs (dingoes) out of the predominantly sheep grazing areas of Qld, SA and NSW. I had not realised before that nearly 100cm of the fence is buried to prevent burrowing. The fence runs for about 5600 kms from Ceduna to Dalby.
Cameron Corner Store/Pub and the Survey Marker
The fence was originally erected in the 1880s to try and control rabbits. However, it failed and fell into disrepair until 1914 when it was repaired this time to prevent wild dogs from entering the sheep grazing areas of SA, NSW & Qld
The Dog Fence
After leaving the Corner, the road within NSW deteriated badly - largely due to the stony ground it had to traverse. As we neared our next stop at the NSW town of Tibooburra the road base reverted to one made of crushed white quartz gibber which covers the landscape as far as the eye can see. looking as though it had experienced a massive hailstone event.
Tibooburra was selected as part of our route in order that we might view the paintings undertaken by the "Bush Artists" during the late 1960s all over the walls of the "Family Hotel" - it would appear that Clifton Pugh, his fellow artists and girlfriends all had a jolly good time during their stay. Pugh's mural depicts his ex-wife's boyfriend as the devil as well two of the publican's daughters in various states of undress. Since the original art work was completed, other artists have periodically added their own unique contributions to the walls of this charming local hotel. Visitors to the pub who wish to photograph the art works are required to make a gold coin donation to the RFDS (Royal Flying Doctor Service) we cheerfully donated.
Clifton Pugh's main works in the front bar
Both the Family and Tibooburra hotels were constructed in the late 1890s utilising the local outcrops of sandstone and attest to the town's previous prosperity as a gold mining centre.
Our final leg to White Cliffs took us down the patchy sealed Silver City Highway and then off onto a secondary gravel road a journey of 240kms but which took nearly 4 hours on account of the number of rough sections and an over zealous road engineer's fixation with "Dip" signs of which there are hundreds - 70% of which were probably not warranted.
En route we stopped at the historic gold mining ghost town of Milparinka and took time out to chat to the local voluntary curators of the fine refurbished stone buildings situated there.
We eventually pulled into White Cliffs at about 1400 hours and on finding the council run Granites Caravan park discovered that Doug and Bev Grant had not yet arrived from Broken Hill where they had spent the previous night.
We had only just begun setting up the camp (which only had two other sites occupied -still waiting for the tourist season to open here as well) when Doug drove in - they had left late for their all bitumen drive of similar distance to our own bone shaken trip down from Tibooburra....drinks all round!
Camping at White Cliffs
White Cliffs has, since the 1890s, been home to an array of fossicking tragics from all parts of Australia and overseas and remains a small tight knit community of mainly part-time opal miners who descend on the town around Easter each year and stay until the onset of the hot weather around September/October. While here we witnessed the arrival of a couple who travel across each year from Perth (taking just 4 days for the trip towing a van similar to our own).
The town, which was Australia's first commercial opal field, once boasted a population in excess of 5000 but today would be lucky to have more than 100 permanent residents. Despite the strong community spirit in the town, the individual miners (permanents and seasonal) all appear reluctant to divulge too much, if anything, about the output of their small 50m x 50m mining tenements.
There appears to be no requirement for the miners to actively mine their claims which remain valid so long as they continue to pay their annual mine's licence fee. The town's mining field is divided up into various sections according to when they were started - the oldest area restricts mining to manual means while other areas permit limited mechanical assistance eg Kanga hammers while others permit full open cut operations using mechanised diggers and front end loaders. There is a great photograph in the town's only pub taken from a plane flying above which shows the town and its surrounding mining field as something resembling someone with chicken pox......with masses of tiny infected pustules.
The miners rarely bother to fill in old worked out shafts and so their tenements can appear to be just a confusion of holes each surrounded by hillocks of discarded rock which have been laboriously hacked from below. In addition to the holes and hillocks you see the usual detritus of mining activity eg rusting machinery, the odd car body and various building materials strewn about 'for Ron'.
Accommodation on the field ranges from dilapidated caravans and sheds to quite lavish dugouts with full air-conditioned comforts. In addition to the council run caravan park there is hotel/motel units and a rather flash underground motel. One house in the town which really caught my attention was one in which the owner has displayed an array of very old vehicles and farm machinery plus an assortment of sculptures made from steel railway line bolts.
The annual Easter Saturday yabby races down at the pub proved to be a bit of fun, especially for the kids who showed up from god knows where, as did about 100-200 adults. It is used by the locals as a rare opportunity to get together and swap stories.......
During our week's stay at White Cliffs, the weather was quite mild until later in the week when things turned decidedly chilly and windy. I spent much of the time assisting Doug renovate his shed which he intended to use in conjunction with his caravan as living quarters.....it required some sealing of his concrete rubble floor, insulating and lining the corrugated iron walls, blocking any holes that snakes might like to investigate, installation of a wood heater, erection of solar panels and general electrical cabling throughout. While the work was not hard, the real challenge is to ensure that you bring all your required hardware and materials with you - its a long - 600km round trip back to Broken Hill for anything overlooked and which cannot be scrounged from the local tip or off other local miners.
Doug's shed - The Taj Mahal
Very much a Work in Progress
I did enjoy the company of the local electrician (ex Melbournite) who turned up to Doug's with a 'Block of VB' to keep up his spirits while doing all the wiring - "it was only 12 Volt stuff and therefore posed no real safety issues".
I did manage a tour underground of a highly mechanised mine (Red Opal Tours) during which the owner advised that demand for opal is especially good in the United States where he visits once a year. His mine he tells visitors was featured in the commercial television soapie "Home and Away". He mines with a mechanical air driven digger. He also gave me a peak into his 10 room underground home which was simply superb.
With our primary travel objective achieved it remained a fairly simple task to plot a relatively straight route home. We decided we should try and do it in three days by sticking to the bitumen and resist all temptations to pursue any dirt 'shortcuts'. Our route would initially take us south to Wilcannia, then north east along the Darling up to Bourke, into Qld and Cunnamulla, then east again to St George, then north east again through the towns of Surat, Roma, Taroom, Theodore, Banana, Mount Morgan, Rockhampton and home.
It was interesting to notice the country slowly change from the drought conditions prevailing out west to the lush pastures of the Darling Downs. the sparse highlights of the trip home included the dilapidated war zone that is all that remains of the town of Wilcannia - so many buildings, burnt and trashed - we just fuelled up and left.
We had intended to stay the night at Bourke but because we arrived early in the afternoon we pressed on to the border stop of Barrigun which is home to the 150year old historic Tattersalls Hotel. It should be noted here that the town of Bourke and Bourke Street in Melbourne were both named after the NSW Governor Richard Bourke and not our explorer friend.
The hotel has been run since the mid 1970s by Mary Crawley who herself was well over 90 years of age. Mary loved a yarn and a was a keen punter. Having set up camp across the road from the pub, leaving Maria to put the finishing touches to some spaghetti bolognaise, I strolled over to Mary's pub, only to find her asleep in an adjacent room with a rug around her. I was her first customer for the day. She insisted on showing us some prized racing memorabilia such as jockeys caps from Melb cup winners (Might & Power I think).....we probably stayed too long with Mary that night - but we had pushed over 600kms that day.
Next day we toured the town of Cunnamulla, including the statue of the 'Cunnamulla Fella' immortalised in Slim Dusty's song; which included the lines:
"Well I'm the scrubber runner and a breaker too,
I live on damper and wallaby stew,
I've got a big cattle dog with a staghound's cross,
I never saw the scrubber he couldn't toss,
Cause I'm the fella from Cunnamulla -
Yes I'm the Cunnamulla Fella"
and their very interesting local museum which told the story behind the discovery, uses and abuses of the Great Artesian Basin plus a good display of old sheep station memorabilia.
On the way to St George there was a lot of water lying alongside the road and when we finally caught site of the Balonne River it was almost overflowing its banks - last time we came through (after the Burchett Ballarat Bash) it had been almost dry. We camped again in a caravan park (we can now erect a 'short camp' in less than 20mins. I then went exploring the sights along the river bank and found 'another' excellent watering hole.
The next morning just as we were about to leave , I noticed that we not only had a flat tyre on the camper but that it had blown during the night. Ominous, as it was again on the driver's side and was one of the original tyres we had had on since travelling down to Melbourne a year before. Again it showed signs of having scrubbed out on the inside. Now I only had two very ordinary spares and so put the better of the two on and hoped for the best for the remaining 700kms home. However, our luck ran out about 70kms out of Roma when it blew right apart resulting in the remaining rubber and its sharp stainless steel wires winding themselves all around the the wheel and brake drum. l began valiantly to try and cut it off with a hacksaw but was having little success when an Ergon maintenance truck pulled up and with the driver's assistance we managed to extract all the debris from under the van.
Disconsolate traveller holding the result of very dubious long-distance planning
We then had no option but to head straight for Roma at a snails pace using the other very dodgy spare. We then bought another couple of tyres and tried to regroup for the rest of the day's drive which was scheduled to end at Theodore or Banana - we thought Theodore's offering a little poor and so foolishly pressed on to Banana which proved even worse. Banana is very close to the large coal mining area surrounding Moura and as such sees a lot of movement of heavy mining machinery along the roads - fortunately it all stops at night. We celebrated our arrival by eating out at the local pub having a chat with a couple of wide load truckies from Dubbo - nice simple blokes to chat with and forget the earlier traumas of the day.
We travelled home the next day arriving about midday after a short stop in Rockhampton to pick up my new replacement laptop (they had emailed me while in White cliffs). The house appeared as we had left it with only minimal weed growth and all plants thriving. Yeppoon's cyclone cleanup is still progressing and there appear to be still a lot of tarpaulins on roofs. We stay put now until we head north to Lorella Springs in the Gulf of Carpentaria to meet up with son Ben and grandsons Tom and Darcy - in July.
We had travelled in excess of 4500kms and consumed about 550 ltrs of Diesel- alot of it on dirt with the car towing the van averaging approximately 7kms/lt or 21mpg.......good enough!
In the meantime the van's axle alignment and dust proofing will need some attention.
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