Retracing the Burke and Wills expedition: Part 2

By: Scott and Kath Heiman, Photography by: Scott and Kath Heiman


Scott and Kath Heiman's overland trek tracing the route taken by Robert O’Hara Burke and William Wills comes to an impressive conclusion.

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Last time, the route took Kath and Scott through some pretty interesting country from Melbourne to Menindee. In this concluding installment, they break free from sealed roads and get into the sort of country where you rarely pass a vehicle stopped by the roadside and not pull-up to make sure the occupants are tracking along okay.  

By the time they reach the Gulf, they’ll have covered over 3,500-kilometres from Melbourne - not including side trips and route recons.

But at least they’re kitted-out with a well-functioning tow-tug and a hybrid camper—which is a lot more than the ill-fated explorers enjoyed, 170 years ago.  

THE ROUTE

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We travelled from Menindee to Cooper Creek, near Innamincka, where the Victorian Exploring Expedition (VEE) established its supply Depot Camp 65. Along the way, our path occasionally diverged from the original Burke and Wills track for a few hundred kilometres. This was because the public roads north from Menindee, which were opened after Burke and Wills’ time, don’t really follow their expedition route. The Burke and Wills route largely followed indigenous traditional trade routes. By contrast, present-day tracks owe their origins to the routes blazed by land speculators and miners who began prospecting during the late 19th Century, and who haven't stopped since.

For us modern-day travellers, however, the route we chose keeps the Burke and Wills track within cooey, and provides some real gems of scenery and cultural significance. It also reveals some fascinating historical insights into white settlement at the frontiers of civilisation.

While the extensive gas fields and the resulting clay-topped ‘new’ Strzelecki Track takes some of the romance out of a remote desert experience, there’s still plenty to capture the imagination. And, of course, the ‘old’ Strzelecki is still there for those with permits and who are suitably equipped.

MENINDEE TO MUTAWINTJI NATIONAL PARK

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From Menindee, it was a quick drive to Broken Hill for a freshen-up and a pub meal in the big smoke. From there, we travelled north-east along the Barrier Highway heading towards Waterbag Road. Along the way, we stopped for 'mornos' at the Topar Roadhouse. This place had its heyday back in the 70s when it probably hosted miners, roustabouts, and its fair share of safari-suited, long-socked patrons. Today it’s still worth a stop to fuel-up and chat with Deika at the bar. We had a good yarn about her visits to ‘Burke’s Cave’ on the Scropes Range nearby, from when she lived on the Broughton Vale property. This cave, which was used by local indigenous women for birthing rites, is marked on Hema maps, but is not generally accessible to the public.  

But Mutawintji National Park is—and it's a gem for sightseers, naturalists, and walkers alike. For the indigenous people, the area has been used for thousands of years and their legacy is all over the place in the form of rock paintings and engravings which can be seen on numerous cave walls.  Some of these can only be visited with an indigenous guide, but others are readily accessible to the public.

Burke and Wills passed through this place on their journey north.  The legacy of party member, William Wright, can still be seen in a rocky overhang (near the current-day carpark) where, prior to joining the expedition, he’d previously visited the area and overlaid a significant Aboriginal painting with a boundary mark bearing his initials and the year LIX for 1859. He did it again while on a rescue mission for Burke and Wills in 1862. With this sort of cultural insensitivity, it’s little wonder the expedition had mixed relationships with the locals!

MUTAWINTJI TO INNAMINCKA

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To get from Mutawintji National Park to Innamincka, we continued along Waterbag Road, Mutawintji Road and Henry Roberts Road to join the Silver City Highway near Cobham Lake.  With an ARB Frontier extended range fuel-tank, we had enough juice to get us from Broken Hill over 450-kilometres to Tibooburra (not including side tracks).  

TIBOOBURRA - INNAMINCKA

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There are a couple of routes to take, but we trekked across to Camerons Corner before joining the Strzelecki and Birdsville Tracks. The first part of this route takes you through Sturt National Park and we chose to camp just short of Camerons Corner at Fort Grey, which was one of the explorer Charles Sturt’s camps in 1845. This place offered-up some great cultural heritage on a well-marked bushwalk, and some of the best, cleanest and free BBQs on our trip. From here it was onwards for a cleansing ale and lunch at Camerons Corner. Topping-up on fuel makes sense before heading off into the Strzelecki Desert.  

From Camerons Corner, we headed into some nice-looking dunes that run perpendicular to the track. Nice, that is, if you don’t mind the sensations of rolling up and down like you’re on a Luna Park roller coaster ride. So, while the rig’s driver helpfully informed the other occupant that, "the dominant paleo-dunes in this part of the world are a natural compass, being oriented almost due-north," the co-pilot, more interested in keeping her lunch down, more often than not, replied, "whatevs".

After the dunes, we soon found ourselves back in Burke and Wills territory—Innamincka.

ONWARDS TO THE GULF

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The stretch from Cooper Creek to the Gulf had the biggest variation in road qualities for the whole trip—which is hardly surprising given it covers more than 1,650 kilometres.  

Travel sixteen-fifty clicks in Europe and you'd go from Rome to Berlin via Prague with a stop-off in Munich for beers, passing through towns comprising more than 20 million people on the way.

Here in our own backyard, you go through just a handful of towns, many with more passing travellers than permanent residents.

It’s astounding to think that a group of four men (Burke, Wills, Gray and King) covered this country over 170 years ago with just a horse, six camels and twelve weeks of supplies. But if there’s one thing we learned during our trip, it’s that these blokes sure made things hard for themselves.

 

Despite (or maybe because) of the expedition’s ultimate failure, the story of Burke and Wills still captures the imagination. And it wasn’t entirely a lost cause. If the expedition set off with hopes of opening up the interior and revealing its ecological, geological and economic potential—well, in a strange way it succeeded.  

The four rescue missions that set out to find Burke and Wills, actually achieved more than anyone could have expected. More rivers, plants and animals were discovered than ever before and the myth of the inland sea was finally debunked. The maps of Central and North Queensland were filled in, opening the way for agriculture, mining and associated settlements. While Burke never achieved the glory he wanted during his lifetime, in death he certainly left an enduring legacy.

COOPER CREEK DEPOT CAMP AND SURROUNDS

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Camp 65 on Cooper Creek, known as the Depot Camp, has become a ‘must see’ destination for anyone with a passing interest in the Burke and Wills story. It’s located 115 kilometres east of Innamincka along the Adventure Way and is easily reached from the Queensland side of the border from a sealed road. It's where Burke, Wills and King returned after their 5,000-kilometre trudge across the continent (and halfway back again) to find the supply depot empty, the party having left just a few hours earlier. Apparently, the fireplace was still warm.

Today it’s serviced by an airstrip and there’s a privately run multi-user site where campers and day visitors alike spread-out all over the place. And they’re all free to kick-up the dust within spitting distance of the 250-year-old Dig Tree. The wooden boardwalk around the tree is trying its best to keep thousands of visitors from compounding the soil around the roots, but it looks like an uphill battle.  

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Back near Innamincka, the Innamincka Regional Reserve has done a solid job of presenting Burke’s grave site, the location where Wills is thought to have taken his last gasp, and where King was eventually found.  With interpretative signage and paths that have visitors approach on foot through a motza of bush-tucker, these sites evoke the loneliness of the places where the explorers ended their expedition. There’s camping available at both Burke’s grave and at King’s rescue site. It’s basic, but both places have drop toilets and we reckon they’re a good option.

COOPER CREEK TO BIRDSVILLE

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When you leave Cooper Creek to trek north, there are heaps of ways to work out what lies ahead.  If you’ve been planning properly, you’ve already got some good maps, you’ve talked with friends, and you’re travelling at a sensible time of year. But be aware that many of the roads are slap-bang in the middle of mining areas. So routes can turn from goat tracks to gravel super-highways—and back again—within just a few kilometres. Then there’s the issue of seasonal variations and the question of whether the track has seen a grader within the last three months.  

Today, the best quality road between Innamincka and Birdsville is the Cordillo Downs Road, and it’s used by travellers towing big rigs. Keeping as true as possible to the Burke and Wills route, we instead took the minor road that skirts the western edge of Coongie Lakes National Park and joins the Birdsville Track, just a hundred kilometres south of Birdsville itself.  

BIRDSVILLE TO MOUNT ISA

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When you’re heading out of Birdsville, you may wonder whether to stop at Bedourie (190kms north), or push through to Boulia a further 200 kilometres up the road. Both have merits. The popular stop seems to be Boulia, with a decent caravan park on the aptly named Burke River and the Min Min Lights exhibit. Roll up at the local pub over lunch and you might be lucky to find them serving camel burgers, like they were the day we went through.  

But Bedourie, is a decent option too—particularly if you don’t mind your camping a little more basic. There’s a commercial site near the roadhouse in the middle of town, but we opted for the council grounds on the way into town just over the Eyre Creek. Why?  Because it’s got a historic pub across the road and because it’s a short walk to the local pool with a newly refurbished Artesian Spa. The campground itself is basic but has seen recent work with clean amenities including showers, a coin laundry and BBQs.

From Boulia the decision is whether to hug the Selwyn Range for the views, or to make up some distance on the higher quality sealed road to Mt Isa. Ironically, if Burke and Wills had done some decent recon, they could have easily skirted the Selwyn Range by heading 50 kilometres east from Boulia and saved themselves a lot of pain and wasted effort. But Burke’s attitude when faced with this mountainous obstacle was pretty typical. According to King’s diary Burke’s words were, "straight at it lads". By Wills’ report, the camels found the crossing so arduous they were sweating with fear.

MOUNT ISA TO THE GULF

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After Mount Isa, it’s smooth sailing to the Gulf.  The roads are sealed and the drive is pretty cruisy all the way to Camp 119, 40 minutes south-west of Normanton. This was the last Depot established by Burke.  Here he left King and Gray, and set out with Wills and Billy the horse for the last push to the Gulf.  But with flooded tidal salt-flats in their way, they were soon struggling knee-deep in water. After venturing 24 kilometres from Camp 119 they were just ten kilometres short of the Gulf of Carpentaria, and they were knackered. So was Billy the horse. So they turned back.  

Check out the full feature in issue #117 of Camper Trailer Australia magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest camper trailer news, reviews and travel inspiration.