“There isn’t a journey that does not change part of you”.
This is a quote that swirls in my mind as we pack up camp with the knowledge that this journey will be shortly coming to an end. Soon I will be returning to normality. Work. Traffic.
This is to be the last leg of our journey ‘To Darwin by Dirt’ and back, this time heading from Innamincka through to Currawinya National Park, Narromine and finally Sydney. What started out as an idea, a line on a map, and lots of convincing of my wife, has ended up being a three month odyssey exploring many of the best parts of this great country.
Leaving the banks of the Cooper River it is easy to see why they call this the Channel Country. Driving along the Bulloo Developmental Road to Thargomindah the road passes across the braided river channels that weave between ancient sand dunes. Looking out the window the dry cracked riverbeds hide the natural wonder that occurs when the flood pulses through becoming an ocean of water.
This interwoven water was also the lifeblood that allowed the pastoral dynasty S. Kidman & Co to be formed. Born in 1857, Kidman went on to amass 11 million hectares across the centre of Australia. To survive on this unpredictable land stock was moved around according to the seasons, largely following the same network of aboriginal trade routes connected to the river channels. Recently this immense rural property, Australia's biggest private landholding comprising almost 2 per cent of the continent, has been placed up for sale. It is sad to think that a foreign owner may ultimately own a great chunk of our country.
But I should not be surprised, as the changing reality of this land is made clear as we pass the gleaming silver pipes that make up the Jackson Oil Field. This stark metal factory is Australia's largest on-shore oilfield. We are no longer ‘riding on the sheep’s back,’ or relying on the river channels for pastoral land, as our thirst for oil and gas takes over.
This connection between energy and the outback goes back to 1893 when it is said that Thargomindah produced Australia's first electric street lights. Thargomindah is an Aboriginal word meaning "Cloud of Dust", but as we drive down the main street there is little movement in the sleepy town to stir any. While a drink in the Bulloo River Hotel is calling, the setting sun reminds us we need to find camp before playing dodgems with the many wildlife that appear to be attracted to the bull bar during dusk.
Looking for somewhere to pull over for the night we take a small track, then another, arriving at a rundown bore with the remnants of an old water trough providing a watering hole to the local wildlife. As the sounds Galahs skylarking in the trees fills the air, the reality that this will be the third last camp sets in.
Waking to another great outback sunrise we re-join the Dowling Track heading south towards Hungerford. Approximately 90km from Thargomindah we come across a sign welcoming people to Kilcowera Station. It turns out this large organically run cattle property opens its doors to travellers with bush campsites or shearers quarters for those looking for a real bed. It is a shame we missed this opportunity to meet and stay with those that truly know this land. Next time.
Continuing along the Dowling Track we eventually meet the NSW/Queensland Border where the road runs parallel to a large wire fence that was initially installed in an attempt to keep the Queenslanders from trying to enter NSW (or so I have been told). However it was later put to better use keeping the dingoes out to protect the sheep country of the north.
The fence also has the unintended consequence of being a barrier to other animals such as emus, kangaroos and cattle. As we make our way along the dirt track kamikaze emus who are caught between the road and fence throw themselves in front of the vehicle legs going in all directions.
Suddenly, a dark object appears from out of the mulga. The emu in mid stride sees the 4WD and in a moment of indecision it will regret elects to try to stop and turn. As I hit the breaks the next thing I see is a cloud of feathers, and the unmistakeable thud on the front bulbar, followed by that speed hump feeling. I knew this was not going to turn out good for one of us. Looking in the rear mirror a motionless lump sits in the middle of the road.
Luckily there is no damage to the 4WD or trailer despite the signs of impact on numerous parts. It is times like this when a good quality steel bull bar pays for itself. My only consoling thought is the circle of life will continue, where the numerous eagles and hawks just got another feed.
Having given our ‘last rites’, we continue on, arriving at the border town of Hungerford. With little more than the Royal Mail Hotel, it has not changed much since the Cobb and Co Coaches passed through here in 1873. Hungerford is best summed up by the famous Henry Lawson who penned a short story in 1896 about the town. “The country looks as though a great ash-heap had been spread out there, and mulga scrub and firewood planted--and neglected. The country looks just as bad for a hundred miles round Hungerford, and beyond that it gets worse--a blasted, barren wilderness that doesn't even howl. If it howled it would be a relief.”
Passing through the gate, and double-checking that we closed it behind us, it is not long before we leave the ‘barren wilderness’ and find a refuge in Currawinya National Park. Currawinya is home to an enclosure that is attempting to protect the reintroduced endangered bilby. Unfortunately a few years ago flooding damaged the fence resulting in wild cats decimating the bilby population. There is news of a new program soon to be reinstalled to protect these unique Australian icons.
But Currawinya is most significant as a Ramsar Wetland site due to its importance for migratory birds. Heading along a narrow winding 4WD track through flat mulga and saltpans, we reach Lake Numalla. This freshwater lake is an immense brown soup that extends as far as they eye can see. Not far from here is Lake Wyara which is saline. While this is renowned for wading birds with a diversity rivalled only by the Kakadu wetlands, the drought conditions mean we see very little bird life.
Currawinya was once a sheep grazing property until 1991, when along with the adjacent Caiwarro, it was gazetted as a National Park. Sheep were very common in the Channel Country but soon after the turn of the twentieth century the ravages of the 1890s drought and attacks by dingoes saw cattle take over. What remains is the old Currawinya woolshed. Standing inside, the dust flecks shimmer in the light and the sound of corrugated iron echo through the empty building. This is in marked contrast to the noise that must have been here as hundreds of sheep would have only just been audible over the humming of the motors running the old shearing wheels.
A few hundred meters from the woolshed we set up camp on the bank of the Paroo River. It is amazing to think that this river flows south-west before joining the Darling at Wilcannia, where we were almost three months ago. As the last embers of the fire light up the night I have even more appreciation of Henry Lawson’s evaluation of this part of the bush - “if I ever stand by the graves of the men who first travelled through this country, when there were neither roads nor stations, nor tanks, nor bores, nor pubs, - I'll take my hat off.”
But much like the birds that stop here temporarily as they migrate through inland Australia, we also had to continue on our migration homeward. Leaving Currawinya the dirt road is in reasonable condition allowing us to pass quickly through small towns such as Yantabulla and Fords Bridge. Reaching Bourke there is the tell tale signs our trip is coming to an end. Most noticeable we are finally back on to the black-top for good. With more people on the road I try the one finger wave to a passing traveller but I have obviously reached the threshold were this is no longer done.
The weather has also changed with large clouds forming in the sky and a strong cool wind blowing. We move in to low rolling hills with the surrounding vegetation turning green and crops of yellow canola lining the road. We push on to Narromine and search for our last bush camp and campfire by side of Macquarie River.
Waking to a brisk morning, I am already missing the warm weather of the north. The outside temperature reading in the car struggles to rise over 4 deg C. Eventually reaching Bathurst we are brutally reminded of winter again as we drive through the fine covering of snow over the hills. I have an extremely strong desire to turn the car around and head north. I wonder what Cape York is like at this time of year? But the pull of family who are waiting at home is stronger.
Weaving our way up through the Blue Mountains, the white powdery snow blankets the rolling hills. Snowflakes hang to the pine needles their crystals glistening in the sunlight. Sheep huddle together protecting themselves from the icy breeze cutting through the air. Eventually the lights of Sydney come in to view blurred by a stream of car head lights snaking their way home after a days work. There is the occasional stare from a driver, looking longingly at the 4WD with tell tale signs that it has had an adventure. It won’t be long before I am following in their congested path wishing I was some place else.
As the stream of traffic rushes by a similar stream of thoughts of the last three months come flooding back. From the remoteness of the Oodnadatta, to the awe inspiring Uluru. The wildlife of Kakadu to the people of Arnhem Land. The 4WD tracks of Lorella Springs to the fun of Big Red. There are far too many memories to grasp. But it is comforting to know that the journey will never really end while these memories remain. This is the power of Touring Australia.
Pulling in to the driveway one last quote comes to mind - “The end of a journey is only a beginning to another”.
I wonder what my next journey will be?