Crossings such as this one are strong arguments for running a snorkel. Unless you are in a
Australia’s Humble Beginnings
Tucked in between the Coral and Tasman Seas to the east, and the Southern and Indian Oceans to the west, Australia sat alone, “on it’s Pat,” as an ocean island for centuries after the Americas were discovered. It wasn’t until Englishman Captain James Cook sailed his crippled ship, The Endeavour, into a safe harbor at Cooktown in 1770 that Australia was claimed by a European entity. In May of 1787, England dispatched the First Fleet in an attempt to colonize their new acquisition. Early the following spring, the flotilla of eleven ships loaded with livestock, seed, soldiers and 736 convicts landed near Sydney Harbor on the continent’s southeast coast. With an overburdened prison system, England had deemed this remote southern island to be the perfect depository for the unwanted dregs of society. The result was a two-fold win for Britain; alleviate the prison issue and colonize their newest acquisition.
Australia was a prison with no walls—10,000 miles of shark and crocodile infested coastline separated Australia’s newest residents from freedom. They could flee inland, away from the life-supporting bounty of the ocean, but the continent’s interior was a harsh and unforgiving place. Upon completion of their sentence of hard labor, if they survived, convicts were granted the same rights as soldiers or free men, and deemed respectable colonists in the Crown’s eye. They were also granted twenty hectares of land. As sentences were fulfilled, freed ex-cons took advantage of the opportunities of this new and wild land—freedom lay on the western horizon, beyond the black swamp. These were tough people, and it was from these arduous and humble beginnings that Australia’s citizenry developed its rough-and-ready, no-nonsense disposition.
By the 1850s settlers had moved west towards the current port city of Melbourne, and then north into the continent’s arid red center, the Outback. With the interior of the continent uncharted, these same hearty individuals homesteaded vast tracks of land and laid the foundation for that would become Australia’s leading exports, textile-quality wool and beef. The overland routes, or stock routes, became the economic arteries for the fledgling country, transporting supplies in, and cattle and wool out.
John Cameron surveyed the region between 1879 and 1881 and erected a wooden boundary marke
“Those pinchers will draw blood mate,” said a fisherman near Cooper Creek. Known as Yabbie
After a number of lengthy detours, we decided to take our chances with a full-on assault t
On the Trail of Burke and Wills
In a country which has not experienced a major conflict on its native shores, save WWII, Australian heroes are borne from their full-on engagement with the motherland; the Outback. Two of these pioneering iconic figures were Robert O’Hara Burke and William John Wills. Their charge was to explore the continent’s unknown interior and confirm a route to the Bay of Carpentaria 2,500 kilometers to the north. Though they received full support from the Philosophical Institute and funding via the newly formed Exploration Committee, neither Burke nor Wills were qualified bushmen, and the expedition appeared doomed from the start.
With 19 men, 30 camels, 6 wagons and 20 tonnes of equipment and provisions, they departed Melbourne on August 26, 1860 to a cheering crowd of 15,000. After taking two months to reach Menindee, an eight-day trek for the regular mail coach, two of the expedition’s five officers resigned, 13 had been fired, and much of their opulent and cumbersome gear (cedar-topped oak camp tables for example) were sold off to local stockmen and aborigines. We picked up the trail of Burke and Wills in Menindee and would follow it to Cooper Creek near the current outpost of Innamincka; an 800km trek. This had been the northern limit of previous European exploration.
Soiled Akubra hats from long-dead drovers and faded photos of early stationers canvassed t
Cameron Corner and the World’s Longest Fence
The Australian Outback is one of the flattest and most expansive regions of the planet. En route north we passed through a number of Australia’s salt-of-the-earth homesteads and roadhouses: Packsaddle Station, Milparinka and Tibooburra, which are no more than a bar, café, fuel pump, and maybe a few rooms, are the central hubs for the local sheep and cattle stations. Local being a relative term, I talked with a young jackaroo at the monthly Tibooburra Rodeo who said, “We’re all locals here, I just live 200 k [kilometers] away.”
At the intersection of three states, Southern Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, lies the Cameron Corner Road House. In a world where distances are measure by the number of extra jerry cans you need to carry, Cameron Corner is a necessary fuel stop and a great place to toss back a stubbie (beer) and grab evening tucker (food). Cutting the continent nearly in half is Australia’s 5,600-kilometer Dingo Fence, the longest fence in the world. Built in 1884, the fence was designed to keep dingoes from preying on cattle and sheep in the southern stations. We sneaked through a gate at the Toona crossing, passing an “Authorized Vehicles Only” sign, and followed the fence line along the 29th parallel to the Cameron Corner Roadhouse.
Trekking north into the Strzelecki Desert, the parched and desolate landscape revealed the secrets of its geology. This is one of the driest regions on the continent. In another time, waterless rivers, which defy their namesakes and lay void of water during most years, were somehow crafted by floodwaters from the north. Camp this night would be several hundred kilometers to the north on the edge of a dry creek bed near Cordillo Downs Station. Originally homesteaded in 1875, the 7,500 square-kilometer station ran up to 85,000 sheep and produced some of the country’s best wool for export. Today, the massive stone shearing shed and a few old farm implements are all that remain.
Threatening clouds loomed on the horizion and it appeared that the 10-year drought was coming to a waterlogged end. Many of the roads to the north were said to be closed, and the outpost of Birdsville, home of the world famous Birdsville Cup horse race, had been flooded, requiring food and supplies to be air-dropped in. From radio reports at the scattered roadhouses, our quest for a Simpson crossing was appearing rather dim.