Tag Archives: Birdsville

2 – Things never go exactly to plan, do they?


The Moonie river – an unexpected sight

We left St George after breakfast and headed for the opal fields in Lightning Ridge in NSW. The plan was to take a quick look, then head on down to Bourke for the night. But things never go exactly to plan, do they?

Our first hiccough was an unscheduled stop at the Nindigully pub. Remember the issue with the GPS? Well, we figured this was all plain sailing, turned it off, and ended up on the wrong highway. About then the driver required a pit stop (if you catch my meaning). Fortunately, this pub was on the way, a short distance to the right. And it turned out to be right beside the Moonie river, which was full! As you will have gathered, seeing more than a few puddles in these inland rivers at this time of year is a rare and wonderful thing. While Pete attended to his business, I went out with the camera. Which goes to show taking the wrong road can sometimes be a Good Thing.


The Nindigully pub. Note the mud and puddles and the sign on the roof for the Flying Doctor


The (closed) bridge across the Moonie at Nindigully

But having taken the wrong road, we had to get back on track. That meant a narrow secondary road over to the other highway. There were substantial puddles on both sides of the road and a sign warning that water was across it, but we thought we’d give it a go. If we did come across a water obstacle, we’d think again – they do say “If it’s flooded, forget it”. But on the other hand, I can’t count the number of times we came across signs saying road works where there weren’t any.

We didn’t encounter any water across the road – but we did encounter drovers moving a mob of cattle along the Long Paddock. The beasts all looked fat and glossy, pigging out on the fresh green grass. It must have been a huge change for them after the years of drought. And good luck to the farmers. I hope they make a squillion in what promises to be a good year (up here in the Maranoah, anyway).

A drover moving cattle

A drover moving cattle

We had lunch at Lightning Ridge. This is another tiny town that’s made a name for itself. Opal miners work the dirt here, looking for colour and that icon of jewellery, the black opal. About a million caravans were parked on the streets, proving the town’s propaganda had done the job of persuading the growing numbers of Gray Nomads to come and visit. You can do a tour of a working mine, see an opal cutting demonstration, and get a glimpse of the town’s history. The people who live here are tough and need every bit of their ingenuity. It would have been worth a half day, but we had places to go.


Mullock heaps at Lightning Ridge. These days they have little buckets on rails to get the spoil to the surface. A bit better than ropes and buckets.


An original corrugated iron miner’s cottage. Bit hot in the summer.

The weather was changing by the minute, the brilliant blue sky streaked with plumes of high cirrus cloud. They were just the outriders: by the time we reached Bourke, cloud covered most of the sky.

Gathering clouds seen through a bug-splattered windscreen

Gathering clouds seen through a bug-splattered windscreen

It turned out that Bourke was full. There wasn’t a bed to be had. The reason was the Birdsville Races. I spoke a little about this event when we visited Birdsville earlier this year. The races are run in early September (just a few days from when we reached Bourke) and many travellers were on the move to get to the iconic Queensland town. But the rain that had filled the inland rivers had also caused floods. The roads to Birdsville were impassable, so people had diverted to Bourke. (The rain became so bad up there, the races had to be delayed. That’s a once in a lifetime event.)

We had to move on. Close to sundown in country Australia is not a great time to be on the road. Kangaroos and emus are both thick as two short planks when it comes to road sense, and both will make a nasty mess of a fast-moving car, as well as themselves. Not to mention a wandering bull or two. We headed for Cobar, 160km away. As it happened the band of cloud obscuring the sun hadn’t reached the horizon, so I could catch a snap of typical bush, white-trunked trees and red earth, lit up by the westering sun.

Late sunlight on the scrub

Late sunlight on the scrub

Cobar receives the gold star for worst motel on the trip. We came into town just after dark and decided the place on the corner opposite the RSL and a few metres from the main street would do. The room was tiny, wide enough for the bed and not much else. The bathroom was a narrow lane at the end of the room, just wide enough for a toilet, sink, and shower, for skinny people only. The sliding door was opposite the sink and it snuggled up to your butt while you brushed your teeth.

The RSL (Returned Services League) clubs in country towns are always a good place to get a cheap meal, which was one reason we chose that motel. But the RSL was closed on Monday, so we had to choose from the two pubs in the main street. We thought the food was expensive, but the meals were huge. I think Pete’s parmigiana must have come from a pterodactyl. We could easily have shared one meal between us. But one always discovers things like that too late. On the bright side, we won some money on the Pokies.

Tomorrow we’re heading for Hay, which frankly, sounds as boring as batshit.


Birdsville and more Lake Eyre

It’s day 4 of our Lake Eyre adventure. If you’ve missed the previous episodes, here’s day 1, day 2 and day 3.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

The Birdsville pub

The Birdsville pub

We landed in Birdsville and I get to cross another entry off my bucket list. Birdsville is probably THE hottest place in Australia. The official highest recorded temperature is apparently 49.5 – but that’s in the shade.

It was Good Friday, one of the few days of the year when everybody shuts up shop. The pub’s front bar was closed, but since we were guests we got to use the Lizard Bar. This is another tiny outback town which has made a name for itself. People come here from everywhere on the 1st September for the Birdsville Cup, a gazetted thoroughbred race. The population swells from about 160 to eight to ten thousand. Then they all go home and it’s over for another year.

I was a little bit bemused at learning we were going to be taken for a half-hour bus tour of the town. But it actually turned out to be a heap of fun. We were shown the race course, and the permanent lagoon (part of the Diamantina river), and the nearby camping ground. Our guide explained that the influx of visitors for the Cup puts a strain on the town resources, especially the rubbish tip. The burning of rubbish is forbidden (OH&S) but as it happens the Birdsville tip seems to be struck by lightning every Wednesday at 2pm. Act of God, know what I mean? We saw the standpipe where the town’s water supply comes up steaming from the artesian basin. The water goes through a cooling tower and filters before it’s pumped to houses, but it’s never really cold. We were taken to admire the new street lights in a housing area at the edge of town. No houses, but nice lights. Our guide explained that there are about 4 rateable properties in Birdsville, so most of the town’s money comes from grants from drought or flood. The lights were from one grant, the streets were added later from another grant. They’d like a flood, please. They’ve had enough drought for now. Then we popped into the Birdsville Bakery for a chance to buy a curried camel pie and other tasty goodies.


The racetrack


The Birdsville Track, made famous by Tom Kruse on the longest mail run in Australia


Birdsville’s town water supply comes up from the Great Artesian Basin

    The Birdsville Bakery. And that gentleman with his hands on his hips is Trevor Wright, dictator of William Creek

The Birdsville Bakery.

Our guide epitomised the kind of people you get in the outback – tough, resilient, with a wicked sense of humour. They have a cultivated disdain for bureaucracy, which is understandable. Rules and regulations dreamed up by clerks sitting at desks in air conditioned comfort in Canberra or Brisbane just don’t make sense out here. Practicality is the name of the game.

And then it was back into the planes for another look at Lake Eyre before we met out trusty guide at Marree. This time we also flew over the part of the lake where Sir Donald Campbell broke the land speed record in Bluebird in 1964. This flight I was even more impressed with the scenery as aboriginal art.


This is a cattle station with a serious airstrip



There’s algae in the salt, hence the pink colour




The water won’t last long


Reminds me of the Nazca plain


Chaos theory in action










Lake Eyre to Birdsville by air

lake EyreIt’s day three of our journey to see Lake Eyre in flood. If you missed day 1 you’ll find it here, and day 2 is here. Today we leave Marree and travel along the Oodnadatta track to William Creek, where we’ll catch a plane.

We’re really in the outback now, surrounded by barren plains with maybe a range of low hills on the horizon. It’s dry out here. Marree’s average annual rainfall is 160mm (6.3″). The vegetation is tough. There’s a lot of salt bush, and plants with leathery, greyish leaves. But there’s water, if you know where to look. Australia is host to the largest artesian basin in the world, and the road we’re following is there because it follows the water. Many towns up here have ‘wet’ words like creek or well in their names, places where water can be found. We stop in a particularly desolate area to look at the mound springs – places where the mineral-filled water bubbles up to the surface. Over thousands of years the minerals were deposited and the mounds built up. You can see from the pictures that around such springs the ground is lush with plant life. These springs have had to be protected from cattle, which trample the edges and muddy the flow.

Maybe they need to be protected from people, too. The settlers didn’t understand this country. Read the story on the information board and you’ll see what I mean. The aboriginal people called these places home, and they looked after them. Water, after all, is life.

This barren country is where you find mound springs

This barren country is where you find mound springs

That's a mound spring. It's a long way to the top

That’s a mound spring. It’s a long way to the top


This spring is known as the bubbler. You can see why.

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

But it’s not just humans who need water. We crossed a creek full with recent rain. It teemed with little fingerlings all fighting for a chance to get to lake Eyre. And surrounding this crossing were hundreds of silver gulls. The nearest coast is at Port Augusta, around 450km away. How the gulls knew the water and the fish were here is a mystery.

Silver gulls in the desert. There's a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

Silver gulls in the desert. There’s a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

We arrived at William Creek (population 12) just before lunch, served (of course) in the pub. The owner, Trevor Wright, basically owns the town but he doesn’t like to be called king. He reckons he’s more of a benevolent dictator. He’s a big man with a shock of white hair and he operates the planes we’ll use over Lake Eyre. He likes to talk, too. One of his pilots came in to give him a hurry up call. The planes and the pilots were waiting.


William Creek


All you need to know about William Creek

Six of us 5V3A4771(including the pilot) crammed into a Cessna 210. I was in the last of 3 rows of seats and I won’t pretend it was comfy. The outside temperature was in the late 30’s and the cabin wasn’t air conditioned. We took along bottled water and frozen wet towels to keep us cool. I found the best way to avoid dwelling on discomfort was to watch what was going on below. It’s 450km as the crow flies from William Creek to Birdsville – and a bit more when you’re sight seeing. The journey took about two and a half hours and I don’t mind admitting I was pleased to stagger out of the plane at the other end.

The following day we did it all again, flying from Birdsville back to Marree, where our driver picked us up. There’s a lot to say about Birdsville, but I’ll do that in another post. For now, let’s take a look at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.


Heading towards Lake Eyre

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water


More reflections

More reflections

Flocks of pelicans. That's why we're up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we'd end up being permanent residents

Flocks of pelicans. That’s why we’re up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we’d end up being permanent residents

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

The Diamantina flows into the lake

The Diamantina flows into the lake

Trevor said he'd never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

Trevor said he’d never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

The desert. It doesn't look like the Sahara - but there are sand dunes

The desert. It doesn’t look like the Sahara – but there are sand dunes

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

Red sand of the Simpson desert

Red sand of the Simpson desert

This is 'Big Red' a sand dune 30m high.

This is ‘Big Red’ a sand dune 30m high.

Coming in to land. That's the plane's shadow on the ground

Coming in to land. That’s the plane’s shadow on the ground in the middle of the picture