19 December 2011

The Dig Tree

Friday, 16 December 2011

Just before first light the dry desert wind picked up and became quite gusty. It turned folding up the tent into a bit of a task, Ellen and Flip had to give us a hand holding the folds in place before we could throw the cover over and zip the whole thing up.

As the trip to Big Red and back to Birdsville to pick up the trailer would have taken us 3 to 4 hours return we had planned for an even earlier start, packing away as much as we could the night before. We stopped at the roadhouse to get some cardboard, which we taped over the rear window to protect it from stones and rolled out of Birdsville in an easterly direction on the Birdsville Developmental Road, a well defined gravel road and mostly in pretty good condition.

Past Moonda Lake and the Betoota ruins we stopped at 'Deon's Lookout'. The view from up here revealed that the 'Sturt Stony Desert' is exactly that. Deon's Lookout is named in memory of a young Birdsville resident who lost his life not far from this rocky outcrop in a helicopter crash in 1996.

We had taken note of his hat at the Birdsville Hotel the previous night. Birdsville residents their own, the ones that have done “the hard yards” in this harsh environment by nailing their hats under the ceiling of the pub after their passing. Framed portraits and newspaper clippings go with the hats, a display of strong community spirit as well as a record of recent history, quite humbling actually.

A sharp turn to the south, the 'Strzelecki Desert' ahead of us now. The track narrowed. A surprising lack of corrugations (great), bulldust only in a few places (not too bad) and – since this was grazing country – scattered small herds of cattle (visible from a distance) made the journey rather enjoyable. Occasionally the track was lined by fences in varying states of decay and a few times we had to stop abruptly or swerve to avoid getting tangled up in barbed wire (not good at all).

We took a little detour to 'Haddon Corner' and Steve got to drive the rig over a couple of sand dunes after all. Since it was lunchtime and the flies weren't too bad we had a bite to eat right on the border, looking at  the north-eastern corner of South Australia.

A short time later we had an interesting encounter with a few locals of the feathery kind. We had seen Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) here and there over the last few days but here was a small flock wandering through the grassy plain just a short distance away – a great photo opportunity! To our amazement they weren't scared of the vehicle at all but mozied over to where we had pulled up. Only the shutting of the car doors sent them on their way again.

In pretty high spirits after this wildlife encounter we continued our journey south as we still had a fair distance to travel to our final destination for the day.  Tall red sand dunes peppered with clumps of bright green Spinifex grass, deep blue desert sky speckled with cumulus clouds, the white fluffy ones – and a band of red dirt meandering all the way to the horizon. The colours were spectacular!
Every now and then the sand dunes gave way to barren plains, hardly any vegetation, just sharp and inhospitable rocks with colours varying from clay-white to dark brown ochre.
Eventually a band of trees would appear on the horizon, billowing at first, then more and more defined as we were nearing the creek beds these Coolabah trees (Eucalyptus coolabah) were lining. No water flowing here, just stagnant murky puddles bearing witness to rainfall in the not to distant past.

From 'Nappa Merrie' cattle station it took only a few more minutes until we reached our camp site for the night on the Cooper Creek.
We camped at the very same site from where the Burke and Wills expedition, namely Robert O'Hara Burke, William John Wills, John King and Charles Gray, made their dash to the Gulf of Carpentaria, 151 years ago to the day on 16 December 1860, leaving William (Wilhelm) Brahe and a few other men behind.

For more than four months this group stayed at the camp before Brahe decided to return to Menindee as one of the men had injured himself and there was little hope that Burke and Wills would still be alive.

They left the camp on Cooper Creek after burying some supplies, just in case. They blazed one of the Coolabah trees not far from where the supplies were hidden and carved the instruction to “DIG” and the date of their departure, 12 April 1861, into the tree before heading south.
Today the carvings are illegible but the blazes are still visible on the tree.

Burke, Wills and King were still alive (Gray had perished only a few hundred kilometres further north). They arrived back at the Dig Tree the very same day Brahe and the others had left. The camp fires were still warm. Had they not given Gray a proper burial, wasting precious energy by digging a grave deep enough in the hard desert ground, they possibly would have made it in time.

Burke and Wills died on the banks of Cooper Creek, a little further downstream. They possibly would have survived if they'd been less hostile towards the the local Aboriginal clans like the Yandruwandha people, paid some respect, supplemented their diet with bush tucker and paid more attention to the proper preparation of Nardoo, and aquatic fern with edible seeds.

Only John King survived. He was eventually rescued by a search party under the leadership of Alfred William Howitt who found King living with the Yandruwandha on 15 September 1861.

Many valuable lessons to be learnt from this ill-fated expedition!

No Nardoo for us tonight, we enjoyed a nice leg of lamb cooked in the camp oven.

Watching dark clouds forming in the west we decided to throw the tarp over the tent, just in case.
Heavy rainfall was predicted for the next day, we would have to move swiftly in the morning if we didn't want to get stuck on the Cooper for an uncertain amount of time.

For now, we were enjoying the balmy night under the coolabahs, watching a great variety of birds coming down to the creek for a drink and a little Redback spider hastily walking past, paying no attention to the explorers from Kakadu whatsoever.
Given the amount of tragedy this place has seen, Steve remarked that he could sense no eeriness.
Not eerie at all, rather peaceful and calming, the spirits of the Yandruwandha were being good to us.

Over night the wind started howling, a little bit of rain fell as well. But the tarp held up and the members of this expedition stayed dry and comfortable.

Boh boh!

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