Outback 2: Birdsville to Innamincka
The Birdsville Track: at last we were on one of Australia's great desert tracks, even if it was only for the first 123 kilometres.
That hadn't always been our intention, however. The initial plan was to drive east along the Birdsville Developmental Road, for 117 km towards Betoota, and then turn down the Cordillo Downs Track to Innamincka. I had read about how rough and stony this route was, especially through the Downs themselves, which is why we carried two spare tyres. The ladies at the Wirrarri Visitor Information Centre in Birdsville had convinced us otherwise, however. They claimed the Walkers Crossing Track would be quicker and pass through more varied landscapes. We were fairly easily convinced; but with hindsight, I'm not sure we did the right thing. I think I was receptive to being presented with a less challenging alternative. We later heard the Cordillo Downs Track has been much improved. The route we took was certainly interesting to start with, but it became more tedious as time went on, in terms of both its condition and surroundings.
Our new route took us down the Birdsville 'Outside' Track. The 'Inside' Track, across the Goyder Lagoon, was closed, and in any case would have taken us too far south to turn off to Walkers Crossing. It wasn't long before we crossed the South Australian border. We made good progress through stunningly empty country – with the usual liberal sprinkling of signs.
This was a sign was for those heading in the opposite direction, north to Birdsville.
What lived in here, we wondered.
By now we were in the Sturt Stony Desert. Charles Sturt was a British explorer who led expeditions into Australia's interior. On his third trip, in 1844, he was searching for an elusive vast saltwater lake, or inland sea. He passed close to where we were in August 1845, and, as he stood on a sand dune to get his bearings, he described a 'gloomy stone-clad plain' that was unlike any 'similar geographical feature [he had seen] in any other part of the world'. Much of the desert here is gibber: the small stones are the harder fragmented remains left after the breakdown of sandstone sheets that once covered the region. We travelled a stony road in a stony desert.
Suddenly, from nothing, there were flowering plants and succulents by the roadside. They may have been weeds, but they certainly added a dash of colour.
Being able to maintain a speed of around 80 kph on the mainly straight Birdsville Track was relatively easy going, apart from the odd obstacle.
It was a different story once we turned off – by less conventional signage, I might add. In fact, the quality of the signage had deteriorated considerably.
The Walkers Crossing Track was narrow and uneven in places, and then rutted. There were more interesting plants, however.
And then we were paralleling dunes.
At one point I spotted some cattle walking in a line towards a raised constructed watering hole. I can't remember exactly how I heard them; I was driving, so I must have stopped and put the window down. There was the loud squawky chattering of many Little Corellas, so I pulled off the track and we carefully walked up the slope of the retaining wall. There were hundreds of birds.
Galahs were interspersed with the Corellas. Eventually they took to the air. It's one of the things I love best about the Outback: birds in these numbers; just wonderful.
Walkers Crossing Track was getting rougher and more uncomfortable. We kept stopping for breaks from the bone-shaking: to photograph beautiful wattles in flower, cows, pleasing trees, dead trees, anything.
Eventually we came to the crossing itself. By now we had dropped down from the Sturt Stony Desert to the flood plain of the northern overflow of Cooper Creek, and we'd entered the Innamincka Regional Reserve. I have learned from offroaders' chat rooms that Walkers Crossing Track was closed for an extensive period following flooding in 2011. There is a suggestion that an old bridge was dismantled when the Track became a Public Access Route (PAR) to avoid repeated maintenance after frequent inundation. A PAR is not part of the South Australian main road network but allows public access over pastoral land without having to obtain permission. Such tracks are unimproved and not surfaced and are intended for 4WD vehicles in dry conditions only. Walkers Crossing Track provides access from the Strzelecki Track to the Birdsville Track without leaving South Australia.
Now, however, there is a new bridge over the Creek. The Track continues through Santos gas and oil fields as well as a private cattle property, and the crossing has been improved for access to wells.
It seems fair that if oil and gas companies are going to litter the landscape with their operations – in this instance making bleak-looking country even bleaker – then they should be made to improve roads for local as well as their own needs, and this should be a condition upon their approval. We were allowed to use a couple of straight well-access stretches on which we were able to glide a lot more comfortably at 80 kph, making better progress. Then we were made to go round a loop on a bad surface before returning to the improved road. This was near Fly Lake: so beware, and don't turn left, keep going on the 'good' stuff.
By the time we reached Fifteen Mile Track and the last 50 kilometres or so to Innamincka, we wanted to stop bumping along and reach our destination. We couldn't be tempted by any of the below, even the most intriguing. (A few apostrophes might have helped.) And there was the added danger of bull dust holes. These look like slight depressions filled with soft folds of sand and wonky tyre tracks. You need to approach all such areas with caution in case the hole is deceptively deep and has rock-hard edges, or is even filled with debris.
The picture above is the last photograph I took that day: no welcome sign to Innamincki; iconic buildings; roosting birds. As we drove into town, I was reminded of John Steinbeck's descriptions of the dust bowl in Thirties America. As I got out of the car, my dust tolerance level wasn't high: I was slightly uneasy.
We were booked into Innamincka Trading Post for two nights. I had tried to get a room at the Innamincka Hotel, run by the same company as the Birdsville Hotel, but they were booked out to people about to make the Big Burke & Wills Trek. We were checked in by a fairly humourless man, who didn't speed up when a queue formed behind me in the shop. I paid for both nights and form-filled. I wasn't expecting luxury, but for less than $140 a night we'd stayed in much nicer places. There were two rooms in the 'cabin', each with twin beds that almost filled the space. There was a television in each (which we didn't need) but there was no bedside table or light, no fridge, no kettle or cups. It was grimly basic and the light was appalling. The only side light over one bed in each area had been removed, leaving holes, and the overhead light was utilitarian and dim. We couldn't have read after dark. It was not a place to relax in after a hard day's drive. A shipping container might at least have been cosy.
I returned to the shop and asked a pleasant-enough young woman behind the counter if it was possible to borrow a bedside light of some kind. Immediately an old crone appeared out of the back and took over. 'No', she said. And that was that.
We went and sat in the Hotel, where the staff were welcoming and helpful. Innamincka was the first town we'd been in with no mobile coverage, but they let us use a phone in reception to call our next destination, in Cunnamulla, to see if our room was available a day earlier. It was. Over delicious food and a bottle of wine we calculated whether or not we could make it to the first available diesel back in Queensland. The only supply in Innamincka was at The Trading Post, and we weren't going to give them another cent. It would be tight, but with our spare can of fuel, we should be able to make it to Thargomindah.
No Coongie Lakes National Park; no Hot Rocks Power Station. We were out of Innamincka.
Should you ever find yourself in this town, and the Hotel is fully booked or the campsite packed out, sleep in your car. I guarantee you will not be as cold or uncomfortable as I was that night. Do not consider The Trading Post for an instant. I snapped some pictures at first light, just for the record, before we crept out of town. We had difficulty finding the 'Adventure Way': there were no signs to anywhere in Queensland, just 29 kilometres up the road. A truckie gave us directions in the end. I couldn't get out of Innamincka quick enough.
This post was last edited on 5 November 2016