One of the problems with an ambition to drive the Birdsville Track is getting there, even from within Australia. The Track runs from the edge of nowhere, to the middle of nowhere, and reaching it is a story in itself. By the time my wife, Myra, and I drove into Maree in South Australia, we had already covered several thousand kilometres through the centre of Australia in a hired Landcruiser 4WD campervan. But this, the 514km Birdsville Track from Maree to Birdsville, was the focal point of our eight thousand seven hundred kilometre journey from Darwin to Sydney. A former stock route we approached the Track south from Maree, a town of around one hundred people.
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“Near Australia's heart where sheep do roam
lies a dusty town one hundred call home.
If amenities lack in this stark outback,
Maree's claim to fame is the Birdsville Track.”
We visit the Oasis, a basic but adequate shop and café, and take lunch to the dusty tables outside. Dust devils blow across the road adding yet more dust to that which coats everything, and would have included our burgers had we permitted.
At 2pm we turn north onto the Birdsville Track. This is a moment long awaited, long anticipated, but short on adjectives now that we are here.
Not far on and we cross the Dog Fence, the world's longest man-made barrier. Originally it was some 9,000 kms long, designed, and still maintained, to keep dingoes out of Australian sheep country.
Late afternoon we leave the Track for the dry bed of Cooper Creek. Alan Moorhead wrote a graphic account of the opening up of central Australia, using as its title the name of this seasonal watercourse. Those pioneers of the mid 1800's had it tough. For us, it had been a wind-blown day of shifting scenes, sun, and sand. And now parked beneath " … a billion stars and the coolabahs .. " There are no facilities here. The water we had with us we had carried for the previous two days, so was used thoughtfully. At certain times of the year stock animals are herded through this area, and their dried droppings make good campfire fuel. We collect firewood and cowpats to build a fire, a magnificent fire, which lasted two hours. We sat by it, stared at it, warmed with it, gazed at the stars above it, then extinguished it at 7.30pm.
Next morning was a cold dawn, made colder washing in a half-bucket of water. But by 8am the sun warms away the chills of the night, and casts long shadows on the sand of the Creek bed. No breath of wind. No cloud in sight. The only sounds are of distant crows, corellas, and the occasional stock animal. One vehicle has this morning driven along the Track heading south, so obviously rush hour is late starting here. We drive along the Creek, and turn the Landcruiser north again on the Track.
Later we pause at the remains of the Mulka Homestead. This was home to the Aniston's, (George was a writer and anthropologist) and I reflect upon the joys, frustrations and bereavement experienced within these now crumbling walls.
A couple of hundred metres away lies a lone grave beneath a gumtree. The leaning headstone bears the inscription -
"Edith Madeleine Scobey
died December 31 1892 aged 15 years 4 months
'Here lies embalmed in careful parent's tears
A virgin branch cropped in its tender years.'
Halfway along the Track stands Mungeranie Hotel, where proprietor John Hammond tends his bar complete with long beard and the broad-brimmed hat favoured by all men in the Outback. Nearby the Derwent River flows, it's water almost too hot to tolerate, it's surface thick with scum, weed, and rising steam.
A track side lunch stop is Mount Gason Creek, where a dingo slinks by in the surrounding bush. We stop to talk with a young couple who have spent two months driving around the Simpson Desert. He is changing the second flat tyre of the day. There are few vehicles in these parts.
That night, as we crawl up into the campervan bunk at Melon Creek, a dingo howls nearby, answered by another further away.
At a calculated 85 kilometres south of Birdsville, we turn off the Track and drive across the bush for a couple of kilometres. Parking the van, and leaving Myra inside, I walk on through the scrub to the top of Deadman's Sandhill to survey the country beyond. Somewhere in that vicinity is the grave of the Page family. This five-member family were traveling from Maree when their vehicle broke down. Their water supply was limited, and they were not found in time. All five died of thirst - three children, and both parents. That was December 1963. The sandhill itself was named after five stockmen who died of thirst in 1912 on their way to Birdsville.
Back on Track, we arrive at the Queensland border, only to be "held up" by amiable highway robbers who "demand" $25 for Royal Flying Doctor Service funds. Unknown to us, we are caught up in the annual Car Trek, and this is our penalty. We enjoy the snacks provided, and the company: better company you could not find.
Reaching Birdsville, population this time of year 100, we head for the Birdsville Hotel bar for a fish and chip lunch, then the working museum where John Menzies shows us around his vast collection of memorabilia of all sorts from all over. His wife Judy teaches at the Birdsville State School of fifteen pupils.
The Birdsville Track's reputation is built on death, but it had been good to us, proving to be a worthy focal point for our Australian saga: we could have lingered longer.