At last, we are on our way, Travelling Two are on an outback adventure that will take us over 5,000km around and across the Simpson Desert. But there is a sense of urgency riding in back of our minds…
For the fortnight before leaving Brisbane the outback road network has been closed due to late summer rain, and was slowly being reopened one stretch at a time. When we left Brisbane the was still a couple of sections on the Strzelecki Track that were under caution (coded blue under SA guidance notes) and one that was orange, open to 4WD and heavy vehicles. It was on the brink, one day of rain would easily close them all again.
Our plan was to reach Cunnamulla, 800km on day one and then decide whether to stick to our planned route on dirt roads through SA, or take a safer passage down through NSW via Broken Hill on black top. After an early start we were soon up and over the impressive new Toowoomba Bypass road and then turned to short cut across the flat Cecil Plains area, which was awash with water laying across most paddocks and running across the road at each floodway. The waterlogged landscape continued to St George, our stop for lunch and to second guess whether it was too wet to continue westward.
The country opened up (and dried out) as we continued onward, reaching our destination by mid afternoon and with enough time to look around town and meet the Cunnamulla Fella.
The Cunnamulla Tourist Park proved to be a friendly stopover, with lush green lawns and shady trees adorned with screeching lorikeets and galahs. Here was our turning point, we either continue on the iconic outback roads to Mount Dare or take the chicken track of safe bitumen highways. A three day dry window was forecast before a tropical low would sweep across the outback, threatening to close roads and isolate towns for a week or more. That was time enough to get through provided we continued banking miles each day – so the plan was locked in, we would make a dash on dirt roads…
We crept out of Cunnamulla before dawn and followed the light that our spotlights burnt toward the horizon, on roads that were flat and straight. We hadn’t got far when a fat green frog slid up the windscreen, trying valiantly to cling onto the glass at 100kmh! What the!! We pulled over to put our hitchhiker in a roadside drain, though it wasn’t as lush as the tourist park oasis at which he joined us. Behind us the eastern horizon was starting to come alive with red and orange hues to signal that the sun would soon be chasing us across the outback.
Thargomindah soon emerged from the plain, a town that I’ve wanted to see since childhood when the intriguing name would be noted on the ABC rural weather forecast. I had been given advice that the town’s Truck Stop Café made a good breakfast so we topped up with diesel and grabbed something to eat.
We were now truly in the outback – grass cover on the flat paddocks beside us was getting more sparse and red ironstone pebbles covered any open ground. We elected not to take the short detour to the Noccundra Hotel, our trip’s first compromise to save time in case we needed it to beat the rain.
There was one destination that would not be skipped however, the Burke and Wills Dig Tree. Childhood books and school history lessons had briefed me on the tales of tragedy and irony that underscores Australian colonial times and few are as famous as the Dig Tree.
We wandered through the historic site which had recently been upgraded with new signage and a boardwalk to protect the creek bank from erosion, and thereby preserve the roots of the beautiful old coolibah trees that are entwined in the Burke and Wills story. On a more leisurely trip I’d like to camp the night here to more fully absorb the scene, but not this time, we needed to keep moving…
The road whittled down at each turn of the Adventure Way until it was a single lane strip of patched asphalt through the oil and gas fields of the Cooper Creek basin, taking us to the South Australian border and then the historic town of Innamincka to refuel and have lunch.
Our plan was to camp on side of the renowned Strzelecki Track, the Montecollina Bore seemed like a logical place as it was about halfway along this old cattle droving (and duffing) route. We wouldn’t be seeing bitumen for 500km or more so I aired down the rig to improve comfort and reliability in readiness for the corrugations that lay ahead, then we headed southward.
We had the Strzelecki Track to ourselves for much of the way, other than some local truck and ute movements close to the Moomba gas refinery and township. The track was in great shape and the rig maintained an easy 80kmh, sending a dust plume upward that was immediately stretched and dispersed by the desert breeze.
At around 3 o’clock we noticed a rain cloud on the horizon, dropping its load on western side of the track and seemingly on a collision course with us in the distance ahead. We continued, monitoring our position relative to the rain and subconsciously calculated whether we would meet it. We then noticed a road train stopped on a rise ahead of us and the driver walking along the track, which seemed odd out here in the middle of nowhere. A few hundred metres before meeting him I backed off and let the rig coast, then started to wind down the window to chat to the truckie – when only a hundred metres from the lone walker we realised what had stopped him when the road surface turned into a slick damp veneer that had us skating around looking for traction. I squeezed on more power as mud and slush started to be thrown into the air and quickly wound up the window so we didn’t wear it inside – all I could do was give the truck driver an apologetic smile and wave as we slid sideways past him in a flurry of air borne mud.
We made it to the rise on which the truck was parked only to see the semi’s muddy wheel ruts continue into the distance. With more rain scuds now around us the only real choice was to keep threading our way through the soft spots until eventually the track was dry again. It looked like the rain cloud we had been watching had passed over the track in the area just crossed and turned its surface into a pasty slush like chocolate icing.
We agreed that stopping for the night along the Strzelecki was not worth the risk of being rained in, so we kept driving into the night to reach safety of the black top at southern end of the track. Fuelled by Pepsi Max and potato chips we kept rolling into the night, until eventually reaching roadworks at head end of the new bitumen surface that is laid.
It was hard to make out a decent place to camp in the roadside darkness so we decided to make for Farina campground. Turning up to a farmer’s gate at 10pm in this remote area might not end well so we called ahead as soon as we got phone signal, approaching Lyndhurst – the lady at other end of the call must have gone to bed early and we were curtly told to just enter the campground and pay at the gate… our attempt at courteousness somehow went askew that night.
And so here we are, camped amongst ruins of the Farina ghost town. We rushed down the Strzelecki too fast to really appreciate it’s side tracks and historic sites but the sense of urgency and drama made it a great drive all the same. And tomorrow we have another, up the Oodnadatta Track.