NSW Sea Kayak Club – Paddling with Burke and Wills [76]

by Terence Uren

On 20 August 1860, the Victorian Exploring Expedition’s 19 men, 26 camels, 23 horses and 6 wagons left Melbourne, headed for the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The expedition’s leader, Robert O’Hara Burke, was an Irish police officer with no experience of exploration and no navigation skills.

Within a few months, Burke had abandoned all of his wagons and most of his men, camels and horses, leaving some in Menindee and some at a supply depot set up on Cooper Creek.

In December 1860, those remaining (Burke, William Wills, John King and Charley Grey) reached Coongie Lakes, which Wills described as a “lagoon of great extent and containing a large quantity of water, which swarms with wildfowl of every description. It is shallow, but is surrounded by the most pleasing woodland scenery and everything in the vicinity looks fresh and green”.

In a good year, monsoonal rain falling in central Queensland makes its way along the Barcoo, Thomson and Wilson Rivers into Cooper Creek and then down the creek’s north west arm into Coongie Lakes. Buoyed by reports that 2009 was just such a year, a group of Canberra paddlers forsook its annual FNQ winter pilgrimage and headed instead, via Broken Hill, Tibooburra and Innamincka, to Coongie. From an attractive and secluded base camp, we explored Lakes Coongie, Marroocoolcannie and Maroocutchanie as well as parts of the north west arm of Cooper Creek. To our north, Lake Toontoowaranie was tantalisingly out of reach, with water levels not quite high enough to allow passage through the Browns Creek channel. To our south, Kudriemitchie Waterhole and the navigational challenges of the maze of lignum and cane grass islets that are Tirrawarra Swamp were left for the next trip.

It is a stunningly beautiful area with red sand dunes bounding a vast expanse of lakes, channels, waterholes, internal deltas, shallow floodout plains and swamps. Bird life is prolific with large numbers of pelicans, herons, egrets, cormorants, ducks, grebes, swans, spoonbills, coots, moorhens, kites, harriers and terns spotted on most days.

Evidence of earlier occupation of the area by the Yawarrawarrka people takes the form of numerous large middens and, in the less frequently visited areas, scatters of stone artefacts.

Watching a near-full moon rise over the lakes moved even the most unsentimental members of our group.

On leaving Coongie Lakes, Burke and Wills travelled through stony desert and channel country to reach the Gulf plains. Here, the monsoon was late and the humidity was unbearable. At night, they wrapped themselves in woollen blankets in a vain attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay.

In February 1861, they turned back some twenty kilometres from the Gulf of Carpentaria, defeated by an impassable tangle of mangrove swamps.

On reduced rations, they retraced their steps through the wet season, their bodies wasting and their clothes rotting. As they moved southwards, the monsoon waned and they re-entered the stone country. Charley Grey died.

On 21 April, the remaining three explorers reached their Cooper Creek supply depot to find that the depot party had abandoned the camp only a few hours earlier. Carved on the side of a coolibah tree was the inscription DIG UNDER 3 FT NW. Burke, Wills and King retrieved supplies buried adjacent to the tree and set off for the police post at Mount Hopeless, some 250 kilometres away.

On 8 May, they realised they had no prospect of reaching Mount Hopeless and returned to the supply depot. By the end of June, both Burke and Wills were dead.

The supply depot coolibah tree (the Dig Tree) still stands, although only a small part of its inscription remains visible. Nappa Merrie station employs a ranger to welcome visitors to the site. Whilst most drive there, the Dig Tree can also be reached by kayak — it’s just a few kilometres downstream from Bulla Bulla Crossing on the Innamincka — Tibooburra Road.

From the Dig Tree it is a leisurely three or four day paddle down Cooper Creek to Innamincka Weir, mostly along a fairly wide channel. Sandy beaches alternate with rocky outcrops and vegetated banks.

Portages are needed at Innamincka Choke (a set of large black boulders) and one set of rapids. The ubiquitous coolibah trees provide welcome shade and the morning squawks of massed corellas will wake even the heaviest sleeper.

The site of Burke’s grave can be found a few kilometres before the end of the trip.

A day’s paddle downstream of Innamincka Weir is the site of Wills’ grave. Our kayaking on this stretch of the Cooper included a never-to-be-forgotten encounter with a mob of swimming feral pigs!

Back in Melbourne, the public and the press were becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of news of the Expedition’s progress. The Royal Society eventually succumbed to their pressure and sent a relief party to find Burke and his fellow explorers. The party, headed by Alfred Howitt, left Melbourne on 26 June1861 and arrived at Cooper Creek on 8 September. A relief camp was set up at Cullymurra Waterhole.

Cullymurra Waterhole is the only truly permanent water on the Cooper. It is a popular area but large enough to find a spot to pitch your tent away from other campers. The waterhole is a great place to relax and take those rest days you’ve earned. A short day paddle was sufficient for a full circumnavigation of the waterhole plus a side creek detour and an exploration of some fine Aboriginal petroglyphs at the waterhole’s eastern end.

On 15 September, a member of the relief party came across a gaunt figure wearing the remains of a cabbage-tree hat. The figure identified himself as King ‘the last man of the Exploring Expedition’. Within a few days, the remains of his companions had been recovered and the relief party left Cullymurra to make its way back to Melbourne, where Burke and Wills became heroes.

The continent had been crossed but at great cost and debate about whether or not the expedition had been a success continues to this day. In her recent account of the expedition, Sarah Murgatroyd writes that the venture “was a product of a wealthy and complacent colony. It belonged to a peculiarly British tradition — one that valued breeding and the courage to have a go above ability and experience … Armed with only a commanding gaze and an inflated sense of their own importance, they blundered around and died miserable deaths …”

Trip Planning

This is harsh and remote country where external help in dealing with any problems may not be readily available.

It can be difficult to get accurate current information about conditions in the area. The SA National Parks and Wildlife ranger in Innamincka is a good place to start but most helpful to us were locals and other paddlers we met after we arrived.

Given the enormous annual variations in conditions in the areas we visited, the extent of water bodies shown on published maps should be regarded as a statistical average of what you might find on the ground. The scale of most available maps is too small to be useful for kayak navigation. We used Westprint’s Desert Parks South Australia Eastern map for general orientation and downloads from Google Earth for navigation.

Before leaving home, we used these downloads to set up GPS waypoints for the entrance/exit of each of the channels separating the lakes at Coongie. Without these waypoints, it would have been difficult and time consuming to find some of these channels.

All of the roads giving access to the areas we paddled are unsealed but, for the most part, are in reasonable condition. The last few kilometres of the track to Coongie Lakes are over sand dunes that are best handled with a high clearance 4WD. If you don’t have such a vehicle, it would be best to start/finish any trip in this area at Kudriemitchie Waterhole.

Vehicle entry and camping fees apply in Coongie Lakes National Park and Innamincka Regional Reserve. A South Australian Desert Parks Pass is the most convenient and cost-effective way of paying these fees. Two maps and a 70-page guidebook come with the pass.

The Innamincka General Store has limited supplies of basic food staples.

Our paddles took place in June/July when the weather was comparatively mild. Summer temperatures often exceed 45°C and travel at this time of year is not recommended.

Sand and dust storms can occur at all times of the year and you need to be prepared for these. Based on our experience, a tent with a mesh inner provides little protection from wind blown dust and will guarantee you some quality misery!

Suggested Reading

  • Rex Ellis (2006), Boats in the Desert, Central Queensland University Press
  • Chris McLaughlin and Yvonne McLaughlin (1988), Canoeing the Rivers and Lakes of Queensland and the Northern Territory, Macstyle
  • Sarah Murgatroyd (2002), The Dig Tree — The Story of Burke and Wills, Text Publishing
  • South Australian Department of Environment and Heritage (2009), Desert Parks Pass Handbook, Government of South Australia