We had left Melbourne a few weeks previously, our plan was to head north to the Gulf with two thoughts in mind: one was to stay away from the bitumen as much as possible; and two was to follow the route of the 1860-61 Burke and Wills (B&W) party – originally and officially called the Victorian Exploring Expedition – on their doomed crossing of Australia.
Our route lay up through Central Victoria, dodging around Bendigo, and heading up the dirt to Terrick Terrick National Park. The Park doesn't have a bad campground at the base of the mount of the same name but just to the north of here is Mt Hope which a young Wills and the expedition artist and scientist, Dr Ludwig Becker, had climbed for a better view of the surrounding country. We set up a pleasant camp at the base of the mount accessed via a track that leads south off the dirt road, on the west side of the peak, our view being more of manicured fields and crops of canola than what ol' Wills and Becker spied.
We had battled wet and slippery roads while we were on the dirt for much of our time through north-central Victoria and across the border into NSW. On our way to Balranald we had tried to get to a delightful camp spot on the Edward River but quickly aborted that idea and only just managed to get back to the main road. Further along the river is the very small town of Kyalite – really not much more than a pub and campground – and here a plaque commemorates B&W crossing the Wakool River on a small ferry and having a meal at the pub.
From Balranald we took the old Prungle Mail Road which took us north across rolling grazing land interspersed with light scrub country and the occasional paddock of cropping land.
Later, on the Top Hut Road, the route wound through low dunes clothed in green and dotted with pine. It's a pleasant drive and keeps you well off the bitumen.
Getting closer to Pooncarie there are a couple of nice spots to camp along the edge of the Darling River just a few hundred metres south of the small hamlet, while the town itself has a small general store, a great pub and good camping with a few facilities in the sports ground beside the river. North of Pooncarie the route is again dirt but pretty good for most of the way to Menindee, which was the first town on the Darling and the oldest European settlement in western NSW.
There are a lot of choices around Menindee for camping. The town has a couple of campgrounds and caravan parks and a few kilometres west on the road to Broken Hill is Copi Hollow, a favoured spot for many. The nearby Kinchega National Park has a variety of camps along the river and there is a lot of history here as well, from B&W campsites along the river to the pastoralists where the shearing shed is the greatest reminder of those days ‘when Australia rode on the sheep's back’. Of course, the town has a couple of pubs. The most famous of which is the Maidens Hotel, where ol' Burke ensconced himself for a few days while splitting his expedition. The rest of Burke's party were camped at Pamamaroo Creek, near the lake of the same name, well away from the attractions and vices of the hotel.
We camped out at the lake as well where there are dozens of spots along the water's edge to enjoy, but with today's speed of transport we slipped back into the Maidens for a beer and a meal one night.
Then from Menindee we left the tracks of B&W and headed for Broken Hill; travellers keen to stay on B&W track can easily follow them north through present day Mutawintji National Park, which offers some pleasant camping, great walks and drives, as well as Aboriginal rock art and even signs of the B&W party.
We had only been to the Park a few months previously so we opted for a change of scenery north of the 'Hill and closer to the famed 'Dog Fence', where a short section of public road skirts beside this long stretch of netting. Once at Tibooburra we again took a lesser used route and headed up a little used track to Wompah Gate, passing through the Dog Fence where we crossed the border into Queensland.
We had received permission after a lot of effort from the local station owner to visit the grave of Dr Ludwig Becker who, along with Charles Stone and William Purcell, are buried in a very isolated and lonely spot on the edge of the ephemeral Bulloo River. All had been part of the B&W supply party that had been told to follow Burke's main party up to Cooper Creek from Menindee. But this band of men and animals had struck difficult times and slow travel – and had been relegated to a forgotten sideline in Australian history. They had never reached the Cooper after being trapped on the Bulloo for around a month in March-April 1861.
For our visit we had first phoned the manager and had then visited the homestead and after receiving a briefing on 'biosecurity measures' that we needed to follow (as well as nearly being attacked and eaten by a bloody big pig dog), we were given a rough mud map and directions to the grave. After a dusty bumpy drive over tracks that were often lost amongst the lignum and dust of the Bullo River floodplain we got to the site where a small fenced grave lies a short distance from the waterhole beside the trees that line the riverbank. Sadly, there is no sign for the spot where the explorers built a barricade for their protection from Aboriginal attack.
After swinging through Thargomindah and turning west we stopped at the Noccundra Pub, camping down on the waterhole of the Wilson River. It's a popular spot but there are plenty of places to choose from along the waterhole. Old B&W had crossed the river a little further downstream and had followed it west a short distance before cutting across to the Cooper Creek. We did much the same but today's roads pass through gas and oil fields that dot the near barren landscape.
On the northern bank of the Cooper we stopped at the famous Dig Tree where much of the drama of the B&W expedition was played out.
For the next few nights we camped on the Cooper about 50km downstream at the town common of Innamincka.
From Innamincka we headed for Haddon Corner – certainly not on the B&W route but a place I had visited a couple of times; the last time, 25 odd years ago! Once we had been there, done that and got the photo to prove it, we headed to Birdsville and again got back onto the B&W track. With the famous races just a couple of days away we didn't hang around for long, just got some fuel, caught up with a few friends for an hour or so, had a pie at the bakery and got out of town.
The main road north (dirt for much of the way) follows Eyre Creek and there are a couple of good camps along the way, which we tend to stop at overnight when we pass this way. Once at Boulia we fuelled up and took to the dirt again, as previously mentioned.
West of Phosphate Hill we tried to get to 'The Monument', a solitary rock pillar amongst a series of distinctive hills that B&W commented on but never named; today a mining company has closed the area off to passing travellers so we pushed on to the small hamlet of Duchess. The old town, just a shadow of its former self, is not much more than a pub and a railway siding which was getting a brand new platform while we were there; maybe they’re expecting another economic boom and influx of passing travellers?
With a few days spent in and around Cloncurry we explored the rugged Selwyn Ranges and were on B&W tracks much of the time. The explorers had a hard time through here but eventually found their way onto the Corella River, which they followed downstream to its junction with the bigger Cloncurry. Today, with old mining tracks running this way and that and mining ruins to discover, there are lots of places to challenge and entertain you and we found ourselves wandering along a dry Corella River while the Corella Dam, just a little north, was three quarters full of water and crowded with caravans and campers. You could easily spend a week or two around this rugged range country, while Cloncurry itself has a small excellent museum with one of the best displays on the B&W expedition.
We headed for Julia Creek and then turned north, crossing the Cloncurry River and B&W tracks to the Burke & Wills Roadhouse and setting up camp for the night a short distance north where the escarpment drops down onto the flat Gulf Plains.
The next day we took the short diversion to B&W Camp 119 on the edge of the Bynoe River. This was B&W most northerly camp and the one where leader Burke and his young 2IC, Wills, walked to and reached the Gulf - although because of the mangroves they couldn't see the sea. While that was a bit if a bugger for them, today it is easy and we headed to Normanton and then Karumba to enjoy a view of ocean and setting sun – a magical moment in our crossing of the continent.
From there the explorers turned south and headed back to their depot at Cooper Creek and walked into history. We turned south too, our tracks taking us well off the B&W route but still sticking as much as possible to dirt roads and back tracks. And unlike poor old B&W, we survived and got back home!
The full feature appeared in Caravan World #573. Subscribe today for the latest caravan reviews and news every month!