Exploring the frontier towns of outback Australia

The famous Birdsville Hotel draws a crowd any day or night of the week.
The famous Birdsville Hotel draws a crowd any day or night of the week.

The first European to venture into Australia's arid Corner Country was Charles Sturt, way back in the 1840s. At the time, Sturt was searching in vain for the great inland sea, following seasonal watercourses that would eventually deliver him close to the points where Queensland, South Australia, NSW and the Northern Territory meet.

Other explorers followed Sturt - notably, Robert O'Hara Burke and William Wills, who perished beside the Cooper Creek after racing to be the first to cross the continent. Pastoralists were the next to settle in the region, taking up grazing leases that tested the mettle of even the hardiest souls. Then miners moved in, extracting the oil and gas riches buried beneath the region's barren surface.

Today, it's mostly tourists who come here, arriving in 4WDs or by plane to camp in Innamincka and Birdsville and other places in between. But what do they come for? And what can you see? Well, plenty, as it turns out.

Innamincka, SA

The town of Innamincka is wedged between the Strzelecki and Sturt Stony deserts, inside South Australia's capacious Innamincka Regional Reserve, which includes the Malkumba-Coongie Lakes National Park. The settlement initially prospered as a customs depot where tolls were collected from Queensland's drovers herding their cattle across Channel Country to the closest railhead at Marree in South Australia, following the Strzelecki Track.

When these taxes were abolished following Federation in 1901, Innamincka's relevance slowly declined and residents moved away. The town was abandoned in 1952, then the discovery of oil and gas and an increase in motorists travelling north along the Strzelecki Track during the 1960s and '70s prompted a revival in its fortunes.

These days Innamincka consists of a pub and a general store, the Innamincka Trading Post, which sells cold drinks, ice creams, maps, camping equipment and highly coveted fly nets. Opposite the two is a public ablution block, where $2 hot showers can be a revelation after days of camping wild along dusty 4WD tracks.

The majority of visitors to Innamincka camp beneath gnarly river red gums at the Town Common, on the banks of the Cooper Creek. The Cooper is more river than creek; it's wider than the Darling, with waterholes that are said to be as deep as Sydney Harbour. Other camp areas include Policemans Waterhole, Ski Beach, Kings Marker and Minkie Waterhole. It's possible to swim in the creek and anglers can cast a line, hoping to hook a juicy yellowbelly.

Pelicans regularly glide by and corellas, cockatoos and black kites nest in the branches above. Wedge-tailed eagles soar overhead. Dingoes and red kangaroos may be spotted drinking from the creek, and freshwater turtles are known to wallow in its murky waters. The hotel also runs two-hour boat cruises each afternoon.

History buffs will want to visit the memorials honouring Burke and Wills that have been erected by the Yindnaminkie and Breerily waterholes, where the two explorers perished. And even though it's now more than 150 years later, you can still visit the famous Dig Tree - the knotted coolabah that was carved with instructions indicating where Burke and Wills could find supplies that were necessary for their survival after they had returned in poor health from the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The tragedy was that the expedition party members who were entrusted to stay behind while Burke, Wills and John King continued north abandoned the camp just hours before the explorers returned to base. John King was found months later after being nursed by local Aborigines.

Birdsville, Qld

The most direct route to Birdsville from Innamincka is westwards via the Walkers Crossing Track, tracing the course of the Cooper Creek until the road merges with the Birdsville Track. Alternatively, travel 100 kilometres north-west of Innamincka to the life-giving wetlands of the Coongie Lakes, then continue along the Cordillo Downs Road until it intersects with the Birdsville Developmental Road.

The latter route is arguably more interesting, with the Coongie Lakes doubling as a breeding ground for waterfowl and a native habitat for the Cooper Creek short-neck turtle. But the wetland is also seasonal, so check before your visit that it contains water.

The route passes between parallel lines of red desert dunes and crosses treeless gibber plains. Along the way you'll want to stop and see Australia's largest woolshed on Cordillo Downs Station. And the crumbling ruins of the Cadelga Outstation make a timely distraction just before reaching the border crossing into Queensland.

The rich, red soils grow increasingly deeper in colour closer to Birdsville, on the edge of the Simpson Desert. More often than not, Birdsville forms the finish line for challenging 4WD drives across the Simpson - the largest parallel sand dune system in the world. The highest of those dunes, the Big Red, is located an hour's drive west of Birdsville, and watching the sunset from the top is one of the must-do activities when visiting the town.

For a town of 120 residents (plus or minus 7000, according to the sign at the town entry), a disproportionate number of events are held in Birdsville each year. The Birdsville Cup horse race meeting, to be held 3-4 September 2021, attracts 8000 punters who drive and fly into town, often sleeping in swags under plane wings. Similar crowds attend the three-day Big Red Bash music festival each July, where tents are pitched in orderly rows at the foot of the dunes. Past acts include Midnight Oil and Jimmy Barnes, and Paul Kelly will headline the event in 2021.

A rodeo takes place in May and the Gymkhana is in July, allowing skilled bushmen and women to showcase their horse-riding and motorcycling skills.

The Birdsville Bakery - famous for its camel curry pies - hosts trivia and band nights. There are always charity bashes in which Birdsville is the final destination. And the Birdsville Hotel that was established in 1884 - and is arguably Australia's most iconic Outback pub - draws a crowd any day or night of the week.

Take me there

Fly: Rex Airlines services Birdsville on twice-weekly flights from Brisbane.

Stay: Motel-style accommodation is available at the Innamincka Hotel and Birdsville Hotel.

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