The Birdsville Track was once an Aboriginal trading route for the Dieri people. It led from waterhole to waterhole alongside the Tirari Desert, Strzelecki Desert, Sturt Stony Desert and the Simpson Desert.
A route was surveyed and drovers started moving stock across this incredibly inhospitable terrain, requiring the crossing of 3 of the 4 deserts – the Tirari Desert, east of Lake Eyre, Sturt Stony Desert that runs along the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert, and the Strzelecki Desert, squeezed in between the Simpson and Queensland.
They called the route ‘The Queensland Road’ but with the isolation and the sandy dunes to contend with they struggled to access supplies, hence the first ‘Afghan’ cameleers arrived in Marree in 1866 with their 100-strong camel teams… the perfect solution to replace the struggling bullock teams that sunk into the dunes!
One other difficulty also stood in the way of this venture being a success – water, or rather lack of it! Apart from the relatively rare flooding events that filled the normally dry creeks, there was no permanent water along the whole length of the track and many deaths occurred, both human and animal, due to the harsh conditions and extreme isolation.
Blinding sandstorms were not uncommon, especially in the Natterannie Sandhills area where visibility was non-existent, causing stock to wander aimlessly, many never seen again. Drovers were not spared either, with many perishing in the desert whilst looking for the wandering stock.
The South Australian Government, realising the economic importance of this track to bring stock into the southern markets, sank bores into the Great Artesian Basin every 40-50-kilometres along the way, so drovers could water their cattle with some of these still seen today.
The Afghan cameleers, seeing the importance of camel trains soon set up a significant community in what was then known as Hergott Springs, now Marree, and for a number of years, this was the railhead, with many hundreds of camels loaded up with supplies from the trains to be taken to the homesteads. Also known as ‘Ghan Town’… a name that still exists today, Marree is still populated by many of the descendants of these amazing pioneers.
The narrow gauge Ghan train arrived in 1884 and as cattle and sheep farming took hold and stock started to move down the Birdsville Track to Marree they were loaded onto trains for the trip to the markets in Adelaide.
The original stock route followed what is known as ‘the inside track’, which was slightly shorter. However due to flooding and erosion after rains they developed ‘the outside track’, which is what we use today – but today instead of drovers driving cattle down the Birdsville Track, the cattle are transported in massive trucks.
A mail contract along the Birdsville Track was also established in 1884 with mail and other supplies carried along the track via horse and buggy to start with then in the 1930s trucks were introduced and soon bulldozers flattened the high peaks of the Naterannie and Ooroowillanie Sandhills.
Without a doubt, the most famous of the mailmen was Tom Kruse, immortalised in the 1954 documentary, ‘Back of Beyond‘ and one of Tom’s mail trucks still sits opposite the pub at Marree and outside Mungarannie Roadhouse.
It would have been only a very narrow track back then, but what we encountered along the 513-kilometre unsealed track was a far cry from the stories of old and had it not been for the recent rain that created a few challenging water crossings, a number of detours around the deeper bogs, quite a few corrugations and huge tyre grooves to negotiate from recent road trains it would be a relatively smooth track to drive!
Like the Oodnadatta this track is gravel all the way from Marree to Birdsville and can even be traversed in a 2WD. However, like all outback tracks, conditions can change very quickly as we found out so a 4WD is preferable if you don’t want to find yourself in an unfortunate situation.
30-kilometres up the track we came across the former camel depot and date palm plantation of Lake Harry homestead. The old deserted homestead was once a busy camel trading post until 1851 and was where the state government struck its first bore, which is now capped and no longer runs.
2000 date palms were once planted here but only thrived for a short time as apparently the natural pollinators (bees) for date palms did not exist in the area.
To overcome the problem, canals were dug along the sides of each row of palms and men in boats pollinated the flowers by hand. The plantation was eventually devastated by large flocks of birds and abandoned.
We crossed the Dog Fence again, the longest man made structure in the world that extends more than 5600-kilometres and was built to protect sheep from wild dog attacks. We had crossed it numerous times on our travels, the last on the Oodnadatta Track.
Further up the track we stopped at Clayton Station where there were flushing toilets, hot (artesian) showers and a ‘spa bath’ for weary travellers in the middle of nowhere… all for only a $10 a vehicle if we wanted to camp.
We filled the black water tank for a much needed soak then sat back and enjoyed the most amazing experience in the middle of nowhere with not another sole in sight!The note said to just fill the spa when ready and make sure you empty it when finished so we did, then enjoyed a nice cuppa and a bite to eat!
There were camping sites and toilets near the spa but we opted to keep moving. Luxury accommodation is also available at Clayton Station.
In the midst of so much desert it was surprising when a wetland came into view almost as if a mirage. In this dry part of the country the Dukkaninna Wetland waterholes were brimming with water and birdlife after the recent rains creating a beautiful picture.
The cross was a reminder of the German missionaries who set up the Bethesda missionary station nearby at Lake Killalpaninna to try and convert the local Dieri aborigines to the Lutheran religion. Access to the remains of this settlement can be gained from the station homestead where a key providing access to the track can be hired but we didn’t bother checking it out.
Etadunna is also the access point to the Cooper Creek flood track. At times when the Cooper is in flood, the main Birdsville Track becomes impassable where the Cooper crosses, as water spreads out over the low-lying country either side of the main creek.
This track can be impassable for many months so an alternative track through Etadunna Station provides access to a deep but narrow section of Cooper Creek where a ferry is operated by the South Australian Government.
This detour track takes travellers to a ferry that operates when required during daylight hours. Apparently this is a small vessel that can only take 1-2 vehicles at a time and is powered by a couple of small outboard motors.
Other than on rare occasions, you don’t see very much water at the Cooper, just a broad flood plain and a dip as the track crosses the main channel… so it is a rare occasion that you will get to experience one of these crossings… the last was in 2010.
The Cooper was easy for us to cross but I should imagine a week or so back it might have been a very different story going by the amount of water still in it!
Next along the track we came to a relic of the 1949 flood, the ‘Tom Brennan’ punt that sat on a rise alongside the track. This punt was provided by Dalgety & Co Ltd during the flood in 1949 to carry people, supplies and stock across the creek when it flooded… another stark reminder of the difficulties experienced by early settlers and drovers living in this harsh environment.
We passed a free camp beside the Cooper that had flushing toilets, and lots of shady spots but we didn’t stop long after calling in for a cuppa. The pesky biting flies were so annoying it was far more pleasant to have lunch on the road balancing our food on my lap… fly-less!
We continued north along the slightly slippery track travelling alongside the Naterannie Sandhills of the Tirari Desert and Strzelecki Desert and following kilometre after kilometre of long narrow dunes of incredible colours of pale orange to red with the occasional large open areas in between.
This was an area that caused great difficulties for travellers, drovers and the early mail contractors with constantly moving fine white sand dunes that regularly whipped up into dense sand clouds causing disorientation and the deaths of people and stock. Today the track is wide, well formed and constantly maintained.
Our next stop was the old Mulka store ruins. The Mulka pastoral lease was originally taken up in 1885 by the Cobie family. The lease was then purchased by George and Mabel Aiston in 1923. They stocked the property with 1000 cattle and 300 goats and ran a store for drovers and others using the Birdsville Track.
In the late 1920s a severe drought hit the area and continued for many years. Mulka station suffered stock losses and it became difficult to maintain the station with their adjoining neighbours moving off their properties.
In 1943, George died but Mabel continued to run the store for a further 10-years. She was well into her 70s.
There is not much left of the ruins but a grave with its headstone… a very lonely grave in the middle of the desert. Certainly a reminder of what a hard life these early settlers had to endure.
The Mungerannie pub sits within Mungerannie Station. It provides a bar and food stop, excellent showers and toilets and a large open rest and camping area and was a welcome sight as we drove toward it.
This iconic bush pub certainly had lots of character, both outside and in and was loaded with a rustic collection of memorabilia… some of the strangest and probably the most disturbing being the locks of hair and a beard dangling from the ceiling over the bar.
There were lots of of old cars and machinery on the property and someone with a sense of humour had installed a MacDonalds sign and the odd parking metre. There was even another of Tom Kruse‘s old mail vans.
As mentioned before, Tom Kruse (not to be confused with the actor) was the original outback mail-man and a dead set Aussie hero and icon. Mail was delivered regularly on this long and difficult mail run, in all weather!
After paying for a camp spot at $10 per person per night it wasn’t long before we had the roof tent set up amongst the trees beside some wonderful wetlands. We could camp anywhere along the fence line. Beyond the fence line were the wetlands and although mostly dried up they made for a nice walk before enjoying a wonderful sunset.
We wandered down a track leading through the trees to what was once a man made timber artesian bore swimming spa but was now dry and surrounded with lots of vegetation.
Overflow from the nearby station artesian bore had created these wetlands, also called the Derwent River and supported an abundance of bird life and some great photo opportunities.
The water here flows from the bore at around 86 degrees celsius and was much too hot to touch. There was also a strong sulphur smell that was quite noticeable after our showers.
There was no need for an alarm clock the next morning, the birdlife around the wetlands made sure we were up early and on the track!
Mirra Mitta Bore was sunk in 1901 and at 1076 -metres deep was another bore drilled to provide water for drovers in the early days by the South Australian Government.
These water holes are a string of artesian bores that tap into the Great Artesian Basin far below the earth’s surface. The Great Artesian Basin underlies around 22% of the Australian Continent and is dispersed either as natural springs or through bores with these water points now vital to the pastoral industries along this track and the survival of native fauna.
This one was now controlled with valves but a certain amount of water still flowed freely producing a mini-wetland ecosystem teeming with birdlife.
There were signs warning travellers that the water was hot and we had been told at the hotel the night before that a young traveller had recently been airlifted out because he had slipped and fallen into the almost boiling water.
The first 100-kilometres after leaving Mungarannie took us through gibber plains and more rolling sand dunes. The vegetated sand hills and stony flat areas making it quite clear why the desert to our right was called the Stony Desert.
The track from Marree to Mungerannie was in much better condition than this section, which came with the normal gibber stones (that can play havoc with tyres unless pressures are reduced), pot-holes (that popped up when you least expected them), bulldust, wandering animals, corrugations and a few water crossings along the way.
We passed the turnoff to the ‘Warburton Track‘ on the left side of the road. This track leads over the Warburton Crossing through the Simpson Desert and over the K1 Line towards Poeppel Corner or over the Rig Road towards the French Line and is strictly for 4WD only. It is often closed as even a small amount of rain or any significant flow of water in the Warburton makes the crossing impassable.
Further up on the right ‘Walkers Crossing Public Access Road’ lead towards Innamincka, another 4WD track that can be closed due to sand drifts or flooding.
It was more than 200-Kilometres to Innamincka with a deep crossing over Cooper Creek. Apparently there are a few major oil and gas fields in this area and tracks go in all directions causing a navigational nightmare, many tracks not marked on any map!
The last 100 kilometres of the Birdsville Track was flat, mostly clay pan with deep rutted grooves we had to constantly avoid that had been made by the road trains in the wet.
The drovers and the Afghan cameleers are now all long gone and these big road trains had taken over the job of transporting the cattle. The Birdsville Track is a well travelled track still being a supply route to the stations along the way and still fulfilling its original role as a major stock route, bringing animals from as far away as the Queensland Channel Country to markets in Adelaide.
We had heard so much about Birdsville, the little town in Outback Queensland as far away as you can get from anywhere – from Birdsville to Brisbane it is a 1602-kilometre drive, Adelaide is 1186-kilometres away and to get to Alice Springs is 1094-kilometres. Now that’s what I call the real Outback.
Nestled near the borders of Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory, it was first established as a point to collect tolls for the many cattle being moved out of Queensland to southern markets.
This area was first explored around 1845 by Sturt. In the early 1870’s Matthew Flynn built the first depot, which was named Diamantina Crossing then later in the 1890’s it was renamed to Birdsville.
The population of Birdsville is usually around 115 although this tiny outback town is transformed on the first Saturday in September each year when more than 6,500 people rock in to enjoy the Birdsville Races and in July the famous Big Red Bash.
There is a great service centre for tourists, fuel, tyre repair, pub, bakery (one of the few licensed bakeries in Australia with a selection of beer and wine and if you like, you can try a Camel or Kangaroo pie), a small supermarket, a caravan park and ‘Big Red’ the monster truck that tows you off the Simpson Desert if you happen to get stuck…
– and there were 17 casualties from the recent bad weather still waiting to be recovered when we visited!
It appeared 4WD enthusiasts had taken the place of the drovers in this little town… many attempting a more adventurous journey than us… they were waiting to cross the infamous Simpson Desert.
There were a number of things we wanted to experience before we left Birdsville (Birdsville Attractions), and of course we couldn’t come all this way without a visit to the historic ‘Birdsville Hotel’, famous for its remoteness and its ice cold beer.
The Birdsville Hotel is one of the classical, historic Outback Hotels that was built in 1884.
A stroll around town took us to the ruins of the Royal Hotel that was built in 1883 and used as a hotel, a hospital and a school throughout its lifetime. The town once featured three hotels, a blacksmith, market gardens, customs facilities and even a cordial factory!
Birdsville’s water supply comes from an Artesian bore sunk in 1961 (into the great Artesian Basin) to a depth of 1292 meters. Water comes to the surface under immense pressure, with a surface temperature of 98º Celsius. There are thousands of artesian bores sunk throughout outback Australia that residents rely upon for water and just on the edge of town there was a bore that has been supplying the town’s water for many years.
Gushing from the earth at very high temperatures, it is run through cooling towers and is then piped around the town. The hot water is also used to run a power station that supplies some of the town’s electricity.
There was even a free ‘car-wash’ that visitors are urged to use to remove dust, and sometimes mud, from vehicles rather than depositing this on the roads.
If you are staying in Birdsville there is a great caravan park or if you would prefer there is plenty of free camping just outside of Birdsville along the Diamantina River and the sunset at Pelican Point is meant to be amazing over the billabong packed with birdlife.
‘Big Red Sand Dune‘ was around 35-kilometres west of Birdsville in the Simpson Desert. This famous sand dune is the largest sand dune on the Simpson Desert and is the first of 1140 dunes when crossing the desert from Birdsville.
A Waddi Tree is extremely rare, it is a slow-growing desert tree, found in only 3- locations in Australia. 2 in south-west Queensland and another in a conservation reserve in the Northern Territory. There are only a few existing on the fringe of the Simpson Desert and are now protected. They grow to about 9-10 metres high and can be as old as 1,000 years, having some of the hardest wood of any trees in the world.
The Burke and Wills Tree is located approximately 3-kilometres from Birdsville and is said to mark one of their final campsites before they reached the Innamincka area, where the famous Dig Tree stands.
Burke and Wills set out from Melbourne on the 20th of August 1860, to chart a course to the Gulf of Carpentaria, which was the first south-north crossing of Australia. The team of 13 men and 20 camels carried over 20 tonnes of provisions and although successful in their quest, both Burke and Wills perished on their return journey. Seeds from a Waddi Tree found in the diary of Wills verify their passage through the Birdsville region.
The walk along a winding trail through creeks and rocky crevices while learning about the story of 2-young boys who walked to Birdsville in the dreamtime is well worth a wander also.
Having reached Birdsville we had now ticked off another town on our ‘bucket list’ and after having the mandatory drink at the Birdsville Pub and seeing the sights we now needed an exit plan and although there are a variety of options… we were heading east!
However, in saying that, it is still a remote outback track and it is very important not to underestimate the challenges that may face you… so don’t take this journey too lightly as local conditions can vary greatly from day to day as they did for us.
Chat to other travellers and check local road reports and drive accordingly.
Check out this part of the world. The Birdsville Track was tons of fun… and a stayed tuned for more adventures as we head from the desert to the coast.
To receive our updates… just press ‘FOLLOW’ and ‘LIKE’ on our website… and please ‘SHARE’ with your friends, we would love to have them along for the ride too!
We want the ‘world’ to see our blog… but more importantly what Australia has to offer!
Enjoy your travels!