It was an early and dark start on Saturday for the trip to the lake. With Birdsville as far west as you can go in Queensland, it wasn’t until 6.45am that the first rays of light sneaked over the horizon. We were already on the road wandering across to the airport to check out the six-seater Cessna 210 we would be taking to Lake Eyre. Josh, our young pilot from Central Eagle Aviation was waiting for us and told us we had enough time to sneak across to the bakery for an early morning coffee. Then at 7.30am we were up and away. I was banished to the back seat this time as Greg sat up front for pilot talk with Josh. But with no one in the seat next to me, I had great uninterrupted views to the left and right as we flew down the Diamantina floodplain down into South Australia.
Like Roma, the Diamantina River is named for the wife of Queensland’s first Governor, Lady Diamantina Bowen (née Roma). Like the Cooper Creek, the Diamantina meanders in many channels. Also like the Cooper it feeds into Lake Eyre after joining up with the Warburton River to the west. 80km south of Birdsville lies the Goyder Lagoon, a 1300 km2 swamp on the junction with Eyre Creek.
The Lagoon is named for George Goyder, South Australian Surveyor-General from 1861-1893. Goyder became famous for his SA “Line of Rainfall” which set the limits for drought-free land considered safe for agriculture. The Lagoon that bears his name is a large ephemeral swamp but is still teeming with water after summer floods in the channel country.
The Birdsville Track is close by on the eastern side of the Diamantina floodplain. The track is 520km long from Birdsville in the north to Maree, SA in the south. Legendary outback postman Tom Kruse (who died recently aged 96) used to have corrugated iron sheets stored along the track to help him get his truck through the very soft sand dunes. At times it would take a day or more to travel 10kms. These days the track is easier and a constant stream of 4WD wind their way up and down during the winter months. The older Birdsville Inside Track in the middle of the floodplain is the original track that was used by the drovers but is now disused as it becomes impassable after rains.
More lakes appear the closer we got to Lake Eyre in the gap between the Simpson and Strzelecki Desert. Eventually the river plain becomes wider as we arrive at the mouth of Lake Eyre almost two and a half hours into the flight. The browns and greens give way to the blue but not without a fight. The watery channels take a long time to coalesce and evaporation and the shallow depth mean the lake is getting smaller by the day. There is still plenty of room for someone to emulate Donald Campbell and his Bluebird world land speed record attempt.
Eventually there is clear blue water and lots of it. We fly over the west and the south of Lake Eyre North (by far the bigger of the two Lakes Eyre) and then head east to the mouth of the Cooper Creek. That mouth remains closed for now though not for much longer. The water from the north is almost at the door of Lake Eyre but is still taking its time to fill in the smaller lakes near the entrance. It should spill over into Lake Eyre in the next few weeks giving it a fresh top-up of water.
We follow the Cooper eastwards to where it cuts the Birdsville Track in two. It has forced a diversion 10km east where a free ferry takes vehicles north and south over the creek. Then we crossed the barren Strzelecki Desert looking out to the massive Moomba gas fields to the south east. We flew over Innamincka but would return in a minute. Our first stop was back across the dingo fence in Queensland at the Burke and Wills Dig Tree.
The 1860-1861 Burke and Wills expedition to traverse Australia south to north was a fiasco. Arrogant Europeans knowing nothing about the tough country they were about to cross, they sent off with camels and a piano taking two months to get to Menindee, NSW when a stagecoach could do it in a week. At Bulloo Bulloo Waterhole on the present day cattle station of Nappa Merrie, just inside the Queensland border, they established a depot at Camp 65. Burke, Wills and King made a dash to the Gulf from here telling the others to wait three or four months if they could.
The men waited at Camp 65 for 4 months and 5 days from 16 December 1860 to 21 April. They left provisions under a tree marked “Dig” (now worn away by age) which were found by Burke, Wills and King when remarkably they arrived back later that day. Too weak to chase them, they set out for a SA property but failed and returned to the dig tree. The original party sent a scout back but found no sign Burke was there and they left again without leaving a sign of their own. Burke and Wills died horrible deaths but King was nursed back to health by local Aborigines to tell the story which has been etched in Australian folklore.
Certainly it was not hard to feel the magic of this beautiful spot and the tragedy that befell the men here – even if it was entirely their own making. After an hour or so we hopped back in the plane for the short 10 minute flight back to Innamincka for lunch. Burke died just to the east of here and a plaque marks the site. Innamincka township did not exist until 1890 and remained a tiny settlement until oil and gas was found by the South Australia Northern Territory Oil Search (Santos) in the 1960s. The welcoming pub does a roaring trade in tourist traffic and we enjoyed a great lunch there before flying back to Birdsville.
I wasn’t expecting much from the final leg of the journey but it was perhaps the most spectacular. We went through the magnificent Coongie Lakes which are a world heritage region. The Lakes system is recognised for its unique environment for desert plants and animals. Wading birds are plentiful, and the surrounding bush is full of desert bird species and is a bird watchers' dream. The smaller lakes scar the landscape as far as the eye can see and all were teeming with floodwaters. The last hour back to Birdsville passed by in the blink of an eye.
Getting back at 3pm we had to immediately get back into Greg’s plane and do the final one hour leg east to Windorah. This small town was unremarkable though the 150kw Solar Farm near the airport was impressive and the rodeo grounds were packed out for the annual campdraft and rodeo. We preferred to stay in the pub which had the delightful name (for me anyway) of the Western Star. It was back to Roma on Sunday to my own Western Star with plenty of memories and photographs of a great hidden part of Australia.
See Part 1.