Boulia to Birdsville

We refuelled the car before leaving Boulia, happily paying $1.51 per litre in the knowledge that diesel was $1.86 a couple of hundred kms south at Bedourie, & $1.60 approx 400kms south at Birdsville. We have a ‘crowd-sourced’ app on our ipad (Fuelmap) which gives us the prices, not always up to date, but even the comparative prices give a good idea of where to fill up. Away from the cities & east coast prices seem to generally be far more stable too. We had sufficient fuel to get to Bedourie, but were uncertain if we’d have enough to reach Birdsville, especially if we took the Lake McHattie detour to see the pelican rookery, besides it’s foolish not to always have a bit more in your tanks than you need out here. With two tanks holding 180 litres between them a saving $0.35 per litre is significant.

Finding our way out of Boulia should have been straightforward, but we just couldn’t find a sign pointing to Bedourie & Birdsville, quite frustrating given that Boulia is comprised of just 3 major streets & there were signs pointing north to Mt Isa. I guess the driving around & around the town looking was meant to be. Upon our arrival in town we had seen a pair of Brolgas walking together in the street. In the past we’ve seen emus & kangaroos in towns, but brolgas were a first, & I’d missed the opportunity to capture them on my camera. Well on our 3rd ‘leaving circuit of the town there they were again, wandering totally unperturbed up the main street.

Brolgas amble across Boulia’s main street

Whilst photographing them it occurred to me that the Bedourie/Birdsville road was probably a turn off the road we had come in on, & sure enough, over the river & a short distance out of town, there was the road, complete with a sign. Doh!

The road to Bedourie was sealed all the way. Once away from the impact the Burke river has on the country surrounding it we were travelling though flat plains with little vegetation stretching out to the horizon. An occasional jump up added interest to the view. About 110 kms south of Boulia we crossed back into the Diamantina shire, & shortly after that reached the Vaughan Johnson Lookout. Named after a politician who secured funding for it! As we gazed across to the 180 degree horizon from the top of a Mesa we had driven up it was the view which monopolised our thoughts, not a politician. Some information sources refer to the lookout as the ‘Loo with a View’ & we had expected either an open sided dunny or at least one with a window, but I guess it was at least in a spot with an incredible view. Some info signs gave some interesting facts about the Diamantina shire we had been unaware of. The area of the shire is just under 100,000 sq. kms which is roughly twice the size of Tasmania or much the same as Scotland & Wales combined. This area has a population of just 320 in two towns Bedourie & Birdsville plus all the stations. It has a road network of 1636kms of which 265kms are sealed. It promotes itself as “Where the Desert meets the Channel Country” .

Looking out over the plains
Only in Australia!

Continuing south the country followed that description. Less soil, more sand. Occaional red sand dunes said “desert”. It was a surprise to us, we hadn’t expected sand dunes until much closer to Birdsville, but it made our travel far more visually interesting. Bedourie was pleasant enough for an overnighter in the truck stop opposite the ’Simpson Desert Oasis’ servo/fast food/tyres & repairs/motel/general store & greengrocer. We didn’t visit the old pub, instead paying $50 (refundable) for the key to the artesian spa where we soaked in 40 degree water all alone whilst waiting for sunset. A huge refrigerated truck pulled into town having come up from Birdsville & set up on the side of the road for a few hours, with steps & handrail into the back, & a double screened entrance to help keep it cold. We’ve purchased fruit & veg from walk in fridges in a couple of places, but hadn’t seen a mobile one before. Apparently Col, the mobile grocer does regular outback runs.

Entering Bedourie
Leaving Bedourie. Sand dune on edge of town.
Oh for a wide angle lens. Standing on a roadside dune looking across to the next one
Sometimes the road runs parallel to dunes
And sometimes it crosses them.

A late start for us, as we had to return the key to the almost manic but delightfully bubbly & enthusiatic lady at the tourist info centre, & they didn’t open until 10am. Having discovered that Lake McHattie is currently dry & thus there would be no ‘wall to wall’ pelicans there our drive was to be a short one, just 70kms to Cuttaburra Crossing. A camp spot alongside a permanent waterhole on the Eyre Creek renowned for it’s birdlife. It turned out to be a pleasant spot on water rather different to the muddy brown rivers we have become accustomed to. This was a less muddy & clearer body of water with a greenish tinge, but importantly banks lined with green bushes & grasses which gave it instant appeal. Bird numbers were not huge, but there was a large variety, a number of which we were able to identify & to ’tick off’ in our bird book as ’spotted’. Catching a yellowbelly for dinner, baked in foil in the ashes of our camp fire helped too, to make a 2nd night’s stay an easy decision.

Pied Cormorant
Cuttaburra Crossing camp
The bushes slowly reclaim an old truck

We had read & heard of the dreadful problem that feral cats are to native wildlife throughout Australia, but they are a problem that are largely hidden, or at least that’s the way it has seemed to us. They are not prone to making their presence known, & to date we had never seen one. Sitting on the side of the creek, surrounded by the floodplains & the wider desert in what could fairly be described as a remote area a cat emerged briefly from bushes across the river until it realised we were there. It was no scrawny ill fed little puss, this was a very large & healthy looking hunter, pale grey, short coat – like that of a Burmese, but 4 times the size! That night a couple of spotlighters in a pair of utes pulled into our camp briefly, with their hunting dogs. They were out after feral pigs. Sometime later we heard 2 shots & were glad they knew we were there. Next day we were walking & saw a carcase laying on the dry mudflats several hundred metres from the road. We investigated & sure enough it was a large pig surrounded by crows who flew off as we approached. We approached from up wind to avoid having to smell it, but what took us aback was another feral cat, this one smaller & tabby, seemingly standing guard at the carcase, or perhaps waiting for the crows to expose a feed for it. It looked defiantly at us, only taking off (at full pelt) when we within just a few metres of it. Next day as we drove away on the road, we could see it was back sitting next to the carcass.

The road between Bedourie & Birdsville is part sealed & part unsealed, the bitumen & quartz gravel alternates every 10 or 20kms. It wont be long before it is possible to access Birdsville by all sealed road, which of course will change the town forever just as the sealed road to Cooktown has done. Of course there are many travellers for whom this will be very welcome, but in my view towns like Birdsville & Cooktown (& many more before them) became iconic Australian destinations because of their relative inaccessibilty, their ‘on the edge’ pioneering ambience & the strength of character required to be resident. They were Australian, but largely made their own rules. Bringing in the bitumen ‘tames’ them & it’s sad to see hard earned reputation traded as a commodity whilst the character is slowly lost. ‘Progress’ means different things to different folks I guess.

Before reaching Birdsville, the Carcoory ruins & bore diverted our attention from the ever increasing sense of ‘desert’ . The 4 room sandstone block homestead built in 1877 is remakably solid despite it’s iron roof having been & commandeered by the federal government during World War 2, & since innumerable  travellers have seen fit to carve their grafitti into the walls. It was fun getting MrsTea to pose using the ruins as a ‘prop’. A short distance away the Carcoory bore still operates, it’s pipes supplying a tanker filling arrangement fed by a large diameter poly pipe, whilst an arrangement of shut odd valves & metal pipes feed a permanent & steaming stream. This water comes out of the ground at a temperature capable of giving serious burns, & the stream runs away across the sand via a cooling pond, where it felt a similar temperature to Bedourie’s artesian spa. Evidence around the pond suggested that cattle don’t mind a hot drink.

Carcoory bore – scalding hot stream
The old Carcoory Homestead

Not a bad view out of the window.

On to Birdsville through extensive Gibber plains, increasingly higher sand dunes, distant monoliths, difficult to judge their size, (close & small or distant & large?) & occasional humour that the outback encompasses. The best being a concrete garden setting, two chairs & a table, situated on a bare treeless gibber plain. One of those photographic opportunities that by the time I think “I should stop to photograph that” we are well past it & didn’t bother.

I had read that the bakery in Birdsville, renowned as it is for their pies, particularly the curried camel variety, had in recent years been making gluten free pies, & as a result of my dietary requirements had been dreaming of one of these for the past 5000kms since we left home. We made a beeline to the bakery upon our arrival in town. Imagine my disppointment to learn that my info had been incorrect, especially as MrsTea tucked into a non gluten free one.

Not much to photograph in Birdsville so everyone takes a pic outside the pub.
Our Birdsville camp

After setting up camp out of town on the river (Diamantina River again) we left the Tvan for an excursion to one of Birdsvilles’s biggest attractions – Big Red. A sand dune around 35kms out of town which signifies the offcial beginning of the Simpson Desert which extends westward for around 400kms, a trek favoured by adventurous 4wd’ers because of it’s remoteness & the challenge of crossing something like 1100 dunes during the crossing. Me …. I’’d never driven up a dune in my life, but I was keen to see how I & our car would manage it. Actually the first dune is known as ‘Little Red’ & has to be crossed before reaching Big Red a couple of kms further on. Big Red has a ‘chicken track’ for those who cannot make it over, which apparently are not just a few. Little Red has no such chicken track so once crossed, the only way back is to cross it again. The dunes run parallel to each other & can be hundreds of kms long, so nipping around the end of the dune is generally not an option.

Drove up the dune heading away from Birdsville in second low with zero problems – easy peasy.

Down the other side equally easy, although noting that the sand was a lot softer, especially near the top.

I should mention that this was around 3.30pm on a hot sunny day. I knew that the loose/soft sand was looser/softer when hot, but reasoned to myself that we’d seen others coming back with their Simpson desert flags waving, & besides which anyone crossing the Simpson simply couldn’t cross all the dunes in the early morning cool of the day.

Well I’m afraid coming back up was such that I was pleased there was no audience other than MrsTea. It took me 7 attempts & I was seriously considering the possibility we would not get back to camp. I had expected to get up in 2nd or 3rd low. But quickly realised that I was going to need more momentum than this allowed. In the end I
got up in 2nd high, foot well down & giving it the berries, & me just a passenger, trying as best I could to stay in the existing wheel tracks. It got me up… just….

One of the failed attempts

Consultation with 4wd online friends that evening revealed that although I had reduced my tyre pressures significantly, I had not reduced them enough. From those experienced in Simpson desert crossings the concensus was that both Big Red & Little Red were different to all the other dunes, with especially softer sand at the top. I’m just glad that I chose to try to get back over Little Red before going off to get us into worse strife on Big Red.

A final note about my photos. I am really quite frustrated about the quality which shows on the blog, it is a much degraded version of the original, but it seems that sorting out the technical issues is not practical with our limited bandwidth & net availability so for now at least I’ll have to continue ‘as is’.