Outback 2: to Hungerford via Currawinya
From Cunnamulla, we had to backtrack 66 kilometres west to Eulo, where I'd tried to book accommodation in the only place in a very small town, but car rally enthusiasts had beaten me to it and booked the place out. Had we not stayed in Cunnamulla, however, we would never have discovered Bowra Sanctuary.
We made a fairly early start, although not before croissants and coffee sitting on the levee overlooking the Warrego. As we left town, a fishermen's friend was hanging hopefully at a discreet distance from the 'action'.
Four kilometres west of Eulo we turned down the Hungerford Road, with its red, red dirt. The names of pastoral properties along the way are interesting. The one below reminded me of a song, but often I imagine they reflect the aspirations and experiences of early settlers.
There was plenty of evidence of the recent rain, including bright green shoots by the track. Fifty or so kilometres down the Hungerford Road is the boundary of Currawinya National Park.
Currawinya National Park consists of large areas of sand plain and mulga scrubland – beautifully shaped mulgas, mind. There are granite outcrops, dunes, creeks, waterholes and many lakes dotted about, but the most impressive features of the Park are two large lakes in the furthest northwest corner. Although they are less than five kilometres apart, Numalla is a freshwater lake, fed by floodwaters from the Paroo River and usually permanent. Lake Wyara to the west is slightly larger but is saltwater, and often dries out, creating a white claypan.
The Park's lakes constitute a wetland of international significance. They provide breeding and refuge sites for more than 200 species of birds. Wyara attracts more waterbirds, especially small waders and plant-eaters; Numalla supports a greater variety of species, including large waders and fish-eating birds that prefer its muddy waters. Some species such as the Australian Pelican gather here in their thousands: the wetlands regularly support more than 100,000 waterbirds, and on occasion more than twice that number.
Currawinya has many significant Aboriginal sites, a woolshed and building remains and machinery on the site of the old Caiwarro homestead.
For weeks between the planning of the trip and our departure I was concerned that there might be no water in Currawinya's lakes following an extensive drought in Southwest Queensland. It never occurred to me that the opposite would be the case. The standing water by the roadside should have been a clue. The ranger confirmed that the track to the Lakes was closed following the previous week's rain, and conditions wouldn't be reassessed until days after we'd left the area. It was a bitter disappointment. I had devised the latter part of our route especially to include the Park. When I planned last year's Outback trip I didn't realise we'd be passing by a bird paradise: this time, we knew all too well, and were tantalisingly close, but thwarted, once again, by unseasonal rain in a region that badly needs it, so no complaints. The ranger reported there'd been about 50 ml of steady rain rather than a heavy downpour, so I suspected the road closure was a protective measure rather than because of flooding or erosion. But what do I know?
We lingered, reading information in the office, hoping he's change his mind and open the road. He tried to make us feel better by suggesting we walk in The Granites (along a different track) where we would see birds, he said. We didn't. There were great views, and I like a granite landscape, but it was no substitute for big lakes overflowing with birds.
There was a Granites circuit to follow, but it was too short, so we went off piste and climbed to get a better view. There were goat scats everywhere, but the only ones we spotted were a long way off. How many ferals are there in the National Park?
On the way back to the Hungerford Road we espied some water through trees. This small waterhole had more wildlife than we'd seen at The Granites. Birds were flitting (female and male White-browed Woodswallows, below) and frogs were croaking but hiding as usual.
On the way out, I was reminded of the Lakes we hadn't seen, and there was faintly annoying evidence of a vehicle having recently been down the track.
I'd asked the ranger how the bilbies were doing in their 25-square-kilometre predator-proof enclosure within Currawinya. We learned about this in Charleville last year. I knew its location is kept secret, and was not expecting to go there, but I was hoping for a slightly less vague report about their welfare. In the pub later that day I received disquieting news from the locals, that feral cats can easily scale the fence, and that the bilbies are not thriving at all. Since I've been back in Brisbane I called the Save the Bilby Fund and chatted to CEO Kevin Bradley to get the lowdown.
The bilbies' enclosure was opened in 2001 and supplied with animals from Charleville's breeding programme. Within ten years the fence had been compromised by corrosion following floods, which coincided with a feral cat explosion. Bilby numbers plummeted. Kevin is confident there are still some there, and he will hopefully know for sure within weeks, when a survey is carried out in late October. The efforts of protectors of this endangered desert-dweller exemplify serious problems faced by conservationists across Australia. There is a wide-ranging debate to be had.
Hungerford has few inhabitants these days and most of them are not young. The town grew from a customs post on the Queensland-New South Wales border: it was also on a stock route by the Paroo River. Unbelievably, the first hotel survives from 1874: unsurprisingly, the Royal Mail Hotel is also the post office. The accommodation was primitive – don't expect an ensuite – but the photo ops more than compensated for my reluctance to shower. We ate in the bar, where three locals gather at around about five o'clock most days, for an hour or so before turning in. We continued chatting to Graham, our host, for a while longer.
And then we walked through the border gate and into New South Wales to get away from lights in order to view a magnificent sky. I learned only yesterday that the Australian Outback sky presents the most stars you will see anywhere in the world. This is a combination of more stars being visible from the southern hemisphere and a relative lack of light or pollution. I guess I take for granted now the fact that, on a clear night and away from coastal civilisation, the Milky Way is so dense you can't make out individual components. It's as if a thick band of white cloud lay across the sky. I also learned (from Dr Karl on the ABC) that this is the place to see clearly the sun rise above and set below the horizon line without interference from atmospheric haze, smog or cloud.
We turned in early so as to make a prompt start the next day. The toilet was some way off our room, and I had no intention of having a wander in the middle of the night. Mind over matter. Contrary to all our expectations, I slept like a log until first light.