Cooper Creek, Windorah
Steeped in folklore and Australia's rich explorer's history, Cooper Creek is one of those must-see outback destinations that will not disappoint. Originally known as Cooper's Creek, today it is simply Cooper Creek and references to it by the former name is quickly corrected by those living around the vast area it covers. It is most famous as the river where Australian explorers Burke and Wills died in 1861 while returning from their successful expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Bourke, Wills, Mitchell and Sturt, names etched deeply into the Australian psyche through their explorative efforts into the unknown interior of Australia in the mid-late 1800s.
At the time, very little was known of the outback and the intentions of the various expeditions were to better understand the region and determine its potential for settlement.
By comparison to how we travel through the outback today with our modern vehicles equipped with the comforts from home, not to mention the ability to source provisions along the way, it must have been a daunting prospect for those early explorers that ventured into the Never-Never.
More about the Trip
Following in the footsteps of the early Australian explorers is motivation enough for many travellers as it provides a true sense of the pioneering spirit and connects us both culturally and physically to this land.
Today we can cover hundreds of outback kilometres per day and it is intriguing to gaze off to the horizon and imagine those early explorers traipsing across the barren land with only the support of horses/camels that, on a good day, would cover only 20kms. Add to that, their provisions had to be carried with them as there was little known about bush-craft or how the land could provide essential supplies. Foremost in their minds would have been the sourcing of water from the few known outback waterways.
Through the efforts of Captain Charles Sturt, who over a number of journeys was able to not only identify and locate the Darling River system but also the Cooper Creek, which were considered essential links for successful expeditions.
The expedition of Burke & Wills followed in Sturt's footsteps with the intention of being the first successful traverse of the continent from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria via Outback NSW and Queensland.
The team (nearly) reached the Gulf, but Bourke & Wills died on the return leg at the now famous 'Dig Tree' on the Cooper Creek near the Queensland/South Australian border. Of the fifteen men that started out, only one made it back to Melbourne. Despite this, after many years, the expedition was deemed a success.
For many, the Dig Tree epitomises Bourke & Wills as does the Cooper Creek, and the iconic waterway also symbolises the Channel Country of western Queensland. Their ill-fated journey elevated the name Cooper Creek to legendary status; one that epitomized the efforts to explore this country and how cruel this harsh land can be on those who ventured out to the unknown.
Part of the Lake Eyre Basin, the Cooper and its tributaries is Australia's second-longest waterway after the Murray-Darling and starts its journey as the Thompson River west of the Great Dividing Range south-west of Townsville and is joined by the Barcoo near Barcaldine. Its catchment area spans outback Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia and NSW, and is made up series of ephemeral waterways that flow into Lake Eyre, Australia's largest Lake.
Fed by the monsoonal rains of northern Queensland, the water can take months to reach Lake Eyre provided there is enough rainfall to overcome the many creeks and waterholes along its 1,300km journey. The flow is further diminished through absorption into the very dry outback landscape.
But when conditions are right, the water supply is sufficient to fill the ephemeral waterways of the Channel Country and the Cooper flows into the vast expanse of Lake Eyre; as well as the Diamantina and Georgina rivers.
To stay on its bank is to connect with the essence of the outback and the notion that these waterways are the lifeblood of the outback.
One of the best places to experience the Cooper Creek, and much easier to reach than the 'Dig Tree' is at Windorah, 330km south-west of Longreach.
If coming from the south, a great place to start the journey is Bourke on the Darling River as it is considered to the true start of the outback. Heading north to Thargomindah via Hungerford gives an insight into the adventure that lays ahead. Located on the border between NSW and Queensland, Hungerford is not much more than a historic pub (Est 1873), but a pub steeped in outback history including visits by outback poet Banjo Paterson. It is a great place to stop for a break.
From 'Thargo', the route heads west is along the Adventure Way, which runs from Dalby to Innamincka, before heading north along the Bullo Development Rd. Near the change of direction, north is the town of Noccundra, a tiny hamlet that consists of only a hotel (built 1882) and is an ideal place for a 'driver-reviver' and a bit of exploring. The town is located on the Wilson River, not far from its confluence with Cooper Creek and it is said that not only did Burke & Wills camp near the junctions, but also Sturt in his expedition during the mid-1840s.
Talk about following in the footsteps...
Continuing north, the next destination is one for the trivia buffs. If asked what town is furthest from the Australian coastline many answers that the place would be in Northern Territory or Western Australia when in actuality it is in Queensland and not far from Windorah. The little town of Eromanga is in fact further (790km) from the coast than any other town in Australia. One to add to the list of unique places been and one to include in your next trivia night.
An added bonus for Eromanga becomes apparent if you need to fill up with fuel as it is surprisingly cheap. Surprising when you think how isolated it is, but not so surprising when you see the oil refinery on the outskirts of town. Nice to find a bit of price relief in the outback.
From Eromanga, Windorah is about 330km northwest and an amazing experience awaits about 10km out of town. After the long drive through the outback to get this far, the open country gives way to a tree-lined waterway and crossing the bridge provides an amazing vista of the iconic Cooper Creek and it is easy to imagine how our early explorers must have felt when reaching one of the outback rivers or creeks along their journey.
This section of the Copper Creek is well supplied with water, more so than the lower reaches towards the QLD/SA border and, as such, makes a magnificent place to camp. A word of warning for those who like things 'far from the maddening crowd', the Copper Creek near Windorah is crowded around the weekend of the Birdsville races held the first weekend of September. During this time it is full of people coming to and from the iconic outback race weekend. Other times though, it is a true oasis.
Nearby Windorah is a small service town that caters well for the RV traveller with a service station, fuel, café, hotel/motel, minimart, and a Visitor Information Centre complete with the Whitula Museum. Just outside Windorah is the Solar Farm, with the huge mirrored reflectors creating a surreal sight as you enter the tiny town.
The name Windorah is a translation of an Aboriginal word that means 'place of big fish', and that provides a great insight into one of the main activities available while camping on the Copper. Add to that, the yabbying is also great. While bird-lovers are well catered for with the river providing a rich habit for a vast array of outback bird species.
The river can also throw up some surprise and those lucky enough might also view a uniquely outback experience when one of the local drovers brings his team of horses down to the river for a frolic in the cooling waters of the Cooper. A truly amazing sight.
With the RV set up for the stay, and a camp chair in place, it is truly the thing of dreams. The heady aroma of the gum trees tinged with the unmistakable smell of river-water evaporating in the warm outback air is most prevalent sensation as the sun slowly sets. The end of the day also gives rise to flocks of birds flying low along the river back to their nests. Initially, it is the ducks with only the sound of the wind passing over their wings to alert the riverbank dwellers. But, the more raucous and unmistakable sounds of the galahs that can be heard a few km away as they approach and their sound slowly fads as they head east for the night, quite an exquisite experience!
To travel in the footsteps of our early explorers and experience one of our great waterways might be full of many RVing clichés, but sometimes that is exactly why we do it.