South Australia: Mirage of heat and emptiness

By Fergus Blakiston

To say Australia's Outback is atmospheric is a tame understatement. For Fergus Blakiston it awoke his sense of history.

The wild Australian Outback. Photo / Getty Images
The wild Australian Outback. Photo / Getty Images

Dawn at Cooper Creek. Day begins early out here in the far northeast corner of South Australia. Long before first light seeps into the sky, the birds are awake, screeching, wailing and squabbling in the river red gums along the banks of the Minkie Waterhole.

Sprawled on my camp stretcher, beneath the diaphanous folds of a mosquito net, I watch the stars fade. The Southern Cross, whose four points have shone brightly through the trees all night, lingers longest.

The waterhole lies mirror-calm in its frame of trees, reflecting their gnarled branches and bushy crowns in perfect symmetry.

It is pointless trying to sleep with the avian racket going on so I rise and boil water for tea, black of course. This is the Outback and milk is a luxury. I sit on a spit of white sand down by the creek watching the sunrise. Fish jump and plop out on the water. A pelican cranks itself aloft like a Catalina flying boat. I can already feel the heat seeping inexorably into the air even though the sun has yet to clear the horizon.

Cooper Creek is the third longest river in central Australia. It rises on the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range near Charters Towers, 1000km to the northeast.

But, unlike our steep New Zealand rivers, the Cooper is a sluggish creature. It seeps slowly westwards through thousands of channels and billabongs. Eventually it loses itself in the salty expanse of Lake Eyre, dying without fulfilling the dream of every river: to fall gently into the sea. It leaves no trace of its passing. It is a ghost river in a land full of ghosts.

In 1861, the explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills met their deaths on the banks of Cooper Creek, not far from my campsite.

Burke was the leader of the grandly named Great Inland Exploring Expedition, which set out from Melbourne in 1860 intending to be the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north.

Having established a base camp beside Cooper Creek, near present-day Innamincka, Burke and Wills, plus two others, set off north towards the Gulf of Carpentaria, 2000km away. It took them four months to reach the north coast of the continent and return.

By the time they arrived back at Cooper Creek, one of their number, Charles Grey, was dead. Burke, Wills and John King, the third remaining member of the party, were in advanced stages of malnourishment.

The rest of the expedition had given them up for dead and returned to civilisation. The three men starved to death in a land of plenty.

The local Aboriginal people had lived happily on the banks of the Cooper for millennia. To them, the waterholes, forest and scrublands were a well-stocked larder with everything needed to sustain them. But to the pompous Burke, the local people were not to be trusted and the party made little effort to learn from them. Consequently, first Burke then Wills expired.

Only King, who understood the locals' abilities better, survived. He was rescued after four months.

After my breakfast I break camp and set off in my 4WD. A dingo idles across the track in front of me, emus peer at me with wide, glossy eyes. I reach the road, which is really no more than a slightly wider dirt track than the one I have followed up from the edge of Cooper Creek, and turn east into the sunrise towards Innamincka.

On the radio I hear the forecast temperature for the day: 43C.

Innamincka is a town that died and was reborn. Crouched on the edge of a howling, red-dirt wilderness, its few scattered buildings have been revitalised by tourism and the discovery of natural gas reserves further west. The town originally comprised a pub and a police outpost servicing the lonely cattle stations along the Cooper.

In 1910, the Australian Inland Mission established a hospital at Innamincka and, for 60 years, it provided medical care for the Outback families and stockmen whose lives depended on the "mantle of safety" provided by the AIM hospitals across the Outback.

But eventually, Innamincka fell into disrepair. The pub burned down, the police post - described as "the loneliest posting in Australia" by officers unlucky enough to be sent there - closed and the hospital fell into disrepair. Innamincka became a ghost town.

In the 1950s, a few audacious tourists began passing through the Cooper Creek area. A new pub was built and Innamincka began its long, slow comeback.

In the 1990s, the vandalised ruins of the hospital were rebuilt and now house the headquarters of Innamincka National Park. Best of all, for a road-weary and dusty travel writer, the Outamincka Bar at the Innamincka pub serves the best coffee west of the Blue Mountains.

The Innamincka Hotel is a welcome oasis with great coffee.  Photo / Fergus Blakiston
The Innamincka Hotel is a welcome oasis with great coffee. Photo / Fergus Blakiston

I spend three days camped at various spots beside Cooper Creek. Each day I rise with the birds and explore before the day becomes too hot. I visit the Dig Tree, an ancient coolabah tree where supplies were left for Burke and Wills by the expedition before they retreated back to Melbourne. The tree still bears Burke's carved initials and the Roman numerals LXV denoting it as the expedition's Camp 65.

In 1899, a local man carved a likeness of Burke in the bark of a nearby tree. The solemn-eyed, ghostly carving still gazes sightlessly out across Cooper Creek.

I visit the spots where first Burke, then Wills died. They are lonely, isolated places where the incandescent sun beats down with an almost tactile force.

In this land of vanishing rivers, beneath the vast cobalt dome of the sky, I often feel very small and alone. I can sense the endlessness of time out here. The implacable waters of the Cooper lie motionless between banks of sand, never giving up any secrets. Only the gurgling crows seem to recount the memories of ghosts.

By mid-afternoon each day the temperature reaches the 40s and I retire to the cool sanctuary of the Innamincka pub to drink cold liquids of various kinds and chat with the locals. The shop next door keeps me in supplies and I can update my Facebook page via satellite from there for a dollar a minute.

On the third morning, however, the weather is different. I awake to the low grumble of thunder off to the west. An ominous bank of cloud, as black as charcoal, hangs over the landscape and bolts of silver lightning jump across the sky. I break camp and drive into Innamincka. The dirt compound in front of the pub is full of 4WDs. Campers from all over the area have sought the safety of "town" before the roads become impassable.

The air is heavy with the sweet smell of rain, an aroma only the desert can produce. I sit on the veranda of the old hospital and listen to the first heavy spots as they hit the corrugated iron roof. Thunder splits the sky and shafts of lightning crackle and fizz in the air.

The rain increases in ferocity until it sounds like ball bearings hitting the roof. It seems as though all the energy amassed by the heat of the previous few days is suddenly being unleashed.

Then, just as suddenly as it arrived, the storm passes. The sun sparkles on beads of rain hanging from the fences, wreaths of steam rise from the road. The wet red dirt sticks to my boots as I walk across to the store where the assembled 4WD enthusiasts are discussing the weather. The forecast is for more rain.

The last thing I want is to be trapped out here by a flood, so I decide to leave while I can. I refuel my vehicle, send an email home saying, "I'm okay ... see you soon," then watch Innamincka fade in the rearview mirror.

Outback travel isn't for everyone. The mind-bending distances, the punishing heat and the vast, silent, red-dirt spaces make visiting the Outback a very different prospect to the Australian coastal holiday experience. The digital display on the dashboard tells me it is 42C outside. I turn up the air conditioning and the stereo. Off to my left, Cooper Creek shimmers in a quicksilver mirage, then vanishes into the sunlight like a ghost.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: You have to drive from Broken Hill, NSW (about 7.5 hours) or Adelaide (about 12 hours).

Accommodation: Theoutback.com.au. Very friendly and helpful.

Fly direct to Adelaide with Air New Zealand. Explore more at myaustraliapassion.co.nz.

Five great views in South Australia

Get up, up and away

• Take a scenic flight over Wilpena Pound, an enormous natural amphitheatre in the Flinders Ranges.

• View the transformation of Lake Eyre in flood as this vast shimmering saltpan becomes a virtual inland sea attracting a "world" of birds.

• Marvel at the richly coloured natural sculptures of the Painted Hills. Formed over millions of years, this can only be viewed from the air.

Bike or 4WD

Cycle from the Adelaide Hills into the Flinders Ranges on the 900km Mawson Trail, taking in historic towns and the Barossa Valley. On four wheels tackle steep trails near Wilmington or Arkaroola, or follow the Strzelecki Track into the desert. Trace a traditional Aboriginal route on the Oodnadatta Track or follow the old Ghan railway.

Go underground in Coober Pedy

"Noodle" - fossick - for opals and meet the locals in Australia's opal capital. Visit an underground art gallery, abandoned mine, church, hotels and a golf course without a blade of grass. Above ground Coober Pedy has apocalyptic landscapes - the Painted Desert, Moon Plain and the Breakaways. Tag along with the famous Outback Mail Run to Oodnadatta and William Creek, or join the nightly Star Gazing Tour on the Moon Plain.

Go bush in the real Outback

• Trek the 4WD Birdsville track from Maree to the Simpson Desert. Soak up the colours and smells of the Outback with a stay on a station.

• Join an extended walking or hiking tour through the Flinders Ranges. Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary and Rawnsley Park Station have regular departures throughout the year. Hike from the southern coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula to the mountains of Parachilna on the Heysen Trail.

Aboriginal history and geology

Learn about the Adnyamathanha people on a cultural tour of Lake Eyre and the Oodnadatta Track. Sample bush tucker, learn about bush medicines and camp under the stars, or understand the Flinders Ranges' creation story on a two-day self-drive Aboriginal Dreaming Trail. See Aboriginal art and carvings or witness fascinating geological history - fossils, ancient seabeds and mountains - in Brachina Gorge.

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