Bob and I are flying from the northern most point of the Murray Darling system near Carnarvon NP in Queensland to the southern most point near Goolwa in South Australia where the Murray meets the Southern Ocean.
The northern most point is in an interesting area as it is a three way water shed for the southern flowing Murray Darling System, the north flowing Burdekin as well as the west flowing Barcoo and Cooper system.
Sandy Creek starts to flow after heavy rain on the top of an escarpment in the western section of the Carnarvon NP about 65km north east of Tambo. It joins Sunday Creek, which is marked by an old homestead ruin, a bit later on, it meets the Nive River and this junction is marked by the Nive Homestead. Later it joins the Warrego near Augathella and continues on to meet the Darling near Bourke, this junction is marked by the Tooralee Homestead.
On and on the Darling meanders until it joins with the Murray at Wentworth. The Murray then flows on until it empties into Lake Alexandria and the Southern Ocean near Goolwa in South Australia. As the crow flies this is some 1,500 kms but the meandering rivers travel many times this distance.
Amazingly the land falls only 370 metres between Augathella and Goolwa on the coast, which goes someway to explain the meanderings.
Townsville to Charleville
Day One – Its 8.30 am Saturday 4 October we’re dodging anthills as we taxi across the grass to the gravel runway of the old WWII Montpelier strip near Townsville. Bob guns the engine of the little ‘Jabiru’ and we bounce down the runway. There is a magic instant that occurs at the moment of lift-off. A nano-second before that moment Bob pulls the throttle back applies the brakes and we come to a screeching stop a metre from the paddock fence.
Air speed is measured by a Pitot Valve, it’s a simple little external tube that measures the flow of air over the opening, it seems ours wasn’t working. Queensland wasps are known to indiscriminately build nests in small holes. Back in the hanger Bob uses a bit of wire to hook out most of the wasp’s nest, then blasts the tube with compressed air.
At 9.30 am Saturday 4 October for the second time, we dodge the anthills and taxi across the grass to the gravel strip, gun the engine, speeds down the runway, lift-off bank left and head south over the Houghton and then the Burdekin Rivers, the landscape is patterned with sugar cane fields as we fly towards Ayr.
We hug the coast above the azure waters of the Whitsundays to Proserpine and onto Mackay. We advise the Mackay Tower our approach, moments later a Lear Jet announces it is also on approach. This is a tense moment, technically we called first and have right of way, but the jet is bigger and faster, it’s up to the Tower. The Lear Jet gets to around, Bob wears a broad grin. It’s not like Mackay is a busy strip so the chance of having two planes approaching at the same time is rare, as is telling a Lear Jet to go around, the tower and the jet have further discussions. We nod at the security staff, top up with fuel and sit on the steps to have our sandwiches and a thermos of coffee and discuss the weather.
It starts to clear so we head for a little valley that keeps us above the ground but under the cloud as we head inland towards Emerald. Emerald is in the Bowen Basin and as we approach, coal fields begin to dot the country like a string of black pearls, the stretched coal trains make their way on the long slow trip to the coast. We fly over the Emerald strip; the car park is full, their owners away for the weekend. On over Lake Maraboon, scattered with desiccated trees and sprinkled with pelicans. The countryside is covered with the patterns of vines and market gardens made green from the lake waters.
Pushing on we spot the Springsure Range, and fly over Echo Range with its strange beehive shaped domes casting long afternoon shadows. We spot the dramatic escarpment on the north western face of the Carnarvon Range in the afternoon sun it’s like a white and yellow ribbon cutting the horizon. This is where we hope to find the northern most point of the Murray Darling basin, and the birth of Sandy Creek.
We do a GPS and visual check and locate a small valley that starts on the top of the escarpment and heads south thousands of miles to the Southern Ocean. In a land that is so old and flat we’re delighted to identify such an unambiguous start to our quest.
We circled a few times to confirm our sightings and then followed the little creek down to its junction with Sunday Creek, marked by an old homestead ruin. Further on Sunday Creek meet the Nive River which is marked by the Nive homestead, we follow the Nive down to where it meets the Warrego near Augathella.
The Warrego is a dry river in a dry landscape, we follow a chain of pools and billabongs and the Matilda Highway past remote stations and homesteads with names like ‘Barradeen’ and ‘Gowrie’ to Charleville.
Its late afternoon the tiny Charleville terminal and its café are shut but the speakers continues to play country music. We grab our bags note the code for the security gate and wait for a taxi in the soft afternoon light.
The friendly cab driver takes us on a town tour: ‘this is the local club and a good place to eat, this is the main street, down there is the Warrego River, up there is the railway station, there are a couple of pubs, …on that corner…over here is where…..’ We pass up on the aptly named Warrego Motel near the station and settle for the more central Waltzing Matilda Motel.
Showered and refreshed we stroll the town as the late sun softens the edges and turns even the mundane into a photographic opportunity. A blue heeler with no teeth surprises us, ‘get back’ yells the owner the dog begrudgingly retreats. We stand on the bridge over the Warrego River, the muddy water ebbs around the pylons, there are no raging torrents today.
Saturday night the occasional dusty ute drives by but there are few pedestrians. We sit at the huge bar of the historic Corones Hotel, there are no shearers, the skinny barman pours two cold ones as the only other patron finishes his beer, gives a nod and leaves. Notches in the doorway mark decades of flood heights. We dine at the RSL and listen to the waitress call out meal numbers against a background of the whirring pokies.
Charleville to Wentworth
Day Two – Early Sunday morning the sun is still low and soft, we wander the town looking for breakfast, along with a few others we queue at Heinemann’s Bakery. ‘Fruit toast, muesli and two coffees please’. ‘Well you’ll have to wait a bit love I’m the only one here and there are ‘others’ I have to serve’. We return a patient smile, watch the ‘others’ collect their pies and coke and peruse the local paper.
Out comes half a loaf of fruit toast in two inch thick slabs oozing with butter and side pots of jam, a full bowl of muesli with 500 grams of yogurt and a half litre of milk each, along with two large mugs of coffee, Bob mumbles something about country hospitality and we smile at our waitress.
At the airstrip the country music plays on, we leave Charleville and follow the Warrego River and the Matilda Highway down over Cunnamulla and the Queensland-NSW border near Barringun. The river surrenders the occasional station and homestead with names like ‘Tinnenburra’ and ‘Goolring’, as it winds its way through countless flood-outs and billabongs, the green grey watery pools interrupted by waterless sand beds. At Ennogonia the Warrego wanders off to the south-west and joins the Darling, we fly due south directly to Bourke.
On our approach to Bourke an RAAF jet beats our call to the tower and we have to go around, karma from Mackay. On the ground we notice shiny 4x4s and photographers, I check with Bob to see if he had organised a reception. Then a woman in a hat deplanes, cameras click, we check to see if it’s the Queen, but we settle for her 2IC Ms Quentin Bryce, Australia’s then Governor General. Bob suggests we invite her share our Heinemann’s Bakery sandwiches in the Nancy Bird Terminal, but before we can make the offer she is whisked away. Later airport security gives us the once over and checks our intentions, a little late we thought, satisfied, they move on reminding us to secure the gate before we leave.
From Bourke we follow the Warrego south to its junction with the Darling, it’s a huge flood-out, there is no visible definitive junction, the river fans out and crawls its way through eons of silt deposits. We identify a small flowing tributary and declare that to be the junction for the purposes of our journey.
Onward we fly, the fungal green brown river meanders through the grey silt landscape set against a red sandy desert. We get excited when we spot a homestead or a station on the side of the river.
We fly over Wilcannia, then onto Menindee and the Menindee Lakes. Onto Pooncarie and the Pooncarie wetlands, with the World Heritage Willandra Lakes and Mungo NP on our horizon. More homesteads and stations with names like ‘Kudgee’ and ‘Nindethana’ then Wentworth appears on the horizon. As the Darling approaches Wentworth and the Murray, green irrigated lots begin to pattern the landscape and the river swells as a result of downstream locks.
On the ground we meet Glen, an enthusiastic member of the local flying club. He asks about the plane and the trip and the destination, offers us a ride into town and after clearing a few country things from the seats and moving a few bits around in the boot we jump in and head to town.
It seems we have missed the town’s Country and Western Spectacular by a day. We find accommodation at the local RSL and head to the club’s expansive dining room overlooking the Darling. We order a country size meal of grilled chops and three veg and get an approving smile from the waitress.
Wentworth to Goolwa and onto the Grampians
Day Three – Next morning in the breakfast room we are greeted with white linen, white toast and white sugar. We wander the town looking for a taxi and some inflight morning tea. The bakery manager gives us the taxi number. ‘Sorry, digger, weekday mornings I drive the school bus, don’t finish until about 9.30’. Back at the RSL the manager gives us a lift to the strip, nice country hospitality and a nice morning for a flight.
We circuit the town, take our last look at the junction of the Darling and the Murray and head west along the Murray and over the locks that keep it wet. We cross the border and spot the border cliffs as they laze by the banks of the river catching the sun. We fly on to Renmark, pick up the Sturt Highway and then Berri. The river loops south to Loxton, we follow the highway to Waikerie and then up to Morgan where the river turns and heads south.
Adelaide is just over the hills and holiday houses begin to dot the banks as house boats ply the river, we fly on past Swan Reach, Mannum, Murray Bridge to Goolwa. We land for fuel, lunch and yarn with Geoff who manages the strip and runs Warbird Joy Flights using old military aircraft.
The weather is starting to come in so we duck down to the coast and have a quick look at Victor Harbor and then head east along the coast to the mouth of the Murray. This is the end of the system and as with the start we circle around to celebrate our arrival. We fly onto and over the ‘The Barrages’ which keep the salt water out of the lake system. Then onto Australia’s only inland lighthouse at the ‘Narrung Narrows’ where Lake Alexandria meets Lake Albert. Mission accomplished and as the weather comes in we head home.
Back over the border and the dry wheat plains, past Nhill and the little desert, it’s a bit bumpy and Bob climbs and descends to dodge the weather and find a smooth ride, the little ‘Jabiru’ drones on. We spot the Grampians on the horizon, then Bob’s and Olga’s farm ‘Jallukar’ is in sight, we buzz the runway and startle the sheep, and as we land they are surprised yet again.
The wind bites as we unload and push the little plane into its hanger. I reflect on the trip, the land is so old and flat and the water travels so far, around all the bends and billabongs. I thinking I’m glad we didn’t decide to row.